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News of My Brother’s Death

My brother Brian died today.

Brian 1.jpg

You could tell Brian’s story as one of victimization at the hands of people who were supposed to care for him. It started with cerebral palsy caused by nurses who delayed his delivery, depriving his brain of oxygen for crucial minutes during his birth. It continued with my father. Dad had a noble side. But this was not that. This was Dad, ashamed of having fathered a defective son, hitting Brian when he cried or moaned in his pitiful way, until finally the folks agreed that he would do better in the state mental hospital.

I remember when Mom would take Brian’s younger brother (me) and sister along with her, on her weekend trips to Fort Wayne, to retrieve him for a few days from that old red brick nightmare – the kind of place where forgotten kids stood drooling in the doorways, staring vacantly at the infrequent visitors, who were not coming to see them. She did that for more than 30 years, continuing when the state school moved east of town and thereafter – from the 1960s until the 1990s, when she finally became too old to manage it anymore. Her strategy behind these weekend visits was, I think, not to keep Brian around long enough to irritate Dad or, even better, to time Brian’s visits for weekends when Dad’s job on the railroad would take him out of town.

It is impossible to know what beatings or molestations Brian might have endured, from staff or from monsters among the children placed into that Indiana School for Feeble-Minded Youth. But it seemed that a hint did emerge in Dad’s rather indifferent remark about a staff member, years later, in a less institutional place in Auburn, where Brian had been transferred: “I don’t know what they are doing to him, to make him bite them like that.” Since then, I have worked in a governmental institution whose employees included cruel individuals as well as kind ones. So now it seems I should have been angry, rather than sad and humiliated, when several of us visited Brian in 1995, in that place in Auburn, and saw that the staff had groomed the hairs from his nostrils to form a kind of mustache. Brian, it seemed, had matured into a laughingstock, even within a facility supposedly intended for the care of people like him.

I like to believe that Brian was better cared for when they moved him to a group home in Avilla, where he spent most of his last two decades. I was particularly impressed by the diligence of the young woman, caring for him for some years, who (among other things) took the trouble to bring him to Mom’s funeral. And yet, given his history, I could not help but wonder what was happening behind the scenes, when that young woman moved on and others took her place. There was a visit, within the past five years, when I got a creepy feeling from the male staffer I met there. It may have been just my imagination. The guy seemed to take a strong positive interest in my brother. But Brian’s vulnerability was undeniable, and something did not feel right.

I guess that’s what I would say, too, about where Brian ended up: dead in a hospital bed, at the age of 64. It used to be, in our corner of rural Indiana, that 64 would count as a nearly full life. But times have changed. People live longer now. Our parents were lively and active until just a few years before they died in their late 80s. What happened to my brother?

The vague explanation I received is that he died during a surgery involving “twisted” intestines. This was the latest of several surgeries summarized in comparably vague terms. I have not been able to get specifics because, unfortunately, my parents chose the wrong person to handle their affairs during and after their final years. With surprising indifference, that person put them into the worst (but apparently the cheapest) nursing home in town, instead of the Lutheran home where they had friends.

That administrator of my parents’ affairs named my younger sister, whose cynical streak is all too reminiscent of Dad, as Brian’s legal guardian. I do not know why this sister wanted to occupy that role. She lives thousands of miles away. She has not demonstrated any strong attachment to Brian over the years. Nor has she made much of an effort to communicate with the rest of us. Among Brian’s siblings, she has had the least experience of living with him. And she does not appear to have been very closely engaged in his care. Knowing her, the explanation may be that she has found it gratifying to be in charge and, thus, to control access to his medical records, so that everyone else is able to learn only what she chooses to tell us.

And so today, I am the recipient of a notice that Brian died due to twisted intestines. That’s odd. I have heard many discussions of cancer, diabetes, and heart problems, but I don’t recall hearing that twisted intestines are a major cause of death. Nobody else in this family has had a problem of this nature. I see that certain physical difficulties (involving e.g., seizures and inability to eat) can shorten the lifespans of people with cerebral palsy. But Brian, to his credit, was not significantly affected by such problems.

Somehow, Brian’s intestines managed to tie themselves up. Or perhaps they were aided, once again, by the least among us — by, more precisely, the least among the available surgeons. Because, you see, as a person with cerebral palsy, Brian was a secondary kind of citizen. I am not ungrateful: his life was vastly longer and better than what a person like him would have experienced in prior generations. Yet there does remain the fact of his seemingly premature and poorly explained demise, and more specifically of his inexplicably knotted innards. It seems that a person without cerebral palsy, or one represented by a more attentive guardian, might not have found himself in this predicament.

Let us return, then, to the start of this post, where I suggested that Brian’s life could be told as a story of victimizations. Brian was vulnerable, for 64 years, in ways that lie beyond the experience of most human beings. He – and to some extent those who cared about him, including but not limited to his mother – had to endure a lifetime of indignities and injuries to which others, better positioned, would have responded with lawsuits. In his own helpless way, he died as he was born, with disastrous tangles where there should have been none, metastasizing over the years from his brain, through his awkwardly bent limbs, and finally into his gut.

As a victim, Brian inspires pity. This is not without significance. Pity has triggered many charitable impulses and has contributed, over time, to greatly improved care. As a long-time lump in a wheelchair and now, finally, as a dead person, Brian has been able to become not only a statistic but also an alien, uncomfortable presence, perhaps serving for some as the archetype of a mentally damaged individual. He certainly provided a warning, to those in our rural neighborhood, that a child can be stillborn or worse; and as a corpse, at this far end of life, he reminds us of how badly it can go, in our own surgeries.

But Brian was not just a lump in a chair, and he persists as more than just fodder for the undertaker. He was someone who would wet his pants if you didn’t get him to the toilet and put him onto it — someone who caused my older brother embarrassment, when other boys laughed about his brother the retard. He was an actively disruptive and to some extent disfavored presence. Brian was the child, feeling sad or wanting to eat, who could only make mooing sounds reminiscent of a cow, thereby drawing my father’s wrath and contributing to my mom’s own marriage of victimization. Brian is a canvas upon which, as you see, I scrawl my anger and sadness with my cruel little sister. He was an image of the worst – a living, breathing embodiment of assorted dreads, of things that can and do go wrong in the margins of life.

At some point, an empathic individual might ask what it must have been like inside Brian’s head: to have intelligence and sensitivity; to show that he loved positive attention, laughing (in his way) when I would try to entertain him, as a child, by jumping around and performing antics next to his bed – and then to see how people avoided him; to watch the faces grow long when they viewed him; to sense the ridicule and the rejection. It cannot have been pleasant to live as a cause of sorrow and fear. Brian’s motor skills were damaged, but his sensitivity was intact. He spent years being unwanted, and knowing it.

Hence one might think again about the vague accounts of his recent medical experiences. For some reason Brian apparently kept pulling out the feeding tube that the doctors had put into his stomach. (I was not clear on why a feeding tube was necessary. I had the impression that tangled intestines would lie below the stomach, not above it.)

He may have pulled out the feeding tube merely because it irritated him. Then again, I doubt he was flatly ignorant of its purpose. He understood English. It had surely been explained to him. If nothing else, surely he would notice the difference between being hungry and not being hungry.

Let me put it this way. I don’t know when Brian’s medical difficulties commenced. I do know that Mom died in 2008, nine months after Dad, and that she behaved like a person who wanted her life to end, once he was gone. And although I vilify my sister, the fact is that none of us became close to Brian. We adopted Dad’s perspective, not Mom’s: we learned to see Brian as subhuman. We, too, avoided him. So while Brian may have enjoyed the company of caring professionals and tolerable roommates in his various institutional settings, his life grew a void similar to – no, much bigger than – the one that I experienced when Mom faded and then was gone, as her visits to see him grew rarer and then finally stopped. In other words, there may be a question of whether Brian was yanking out that feeding tube because, without his greatest friend and supporter, life had ceased to be worth living.

For purposes of this essay, I might be appropriately positioned to think about Brian’s self-esteem, and about his desire to live. I have had the experience of working in a center for people with disabilities. It was very educational to see various degrees of disability, in that place, and to have Dad’s teaching pushed aside. It is intellectually obvious, but for me it is now also experientially familiar, that these subhuman types (as even politically correct people sometimes treat them) actually have feelings. Life for them can be grand or awful – and for them, as for us, the difference often depends on the good or bad they receive from others.

So now I can see Brian, in my mind. I did not bother to construct a single video of him, nor do I have many photos. But I do remember how excited he would become while watching baseball on TV, as he did for hours on end during his visits back home. I can hear, in my own recollection, what Mom was hearing when she talked about him “hollering,” upon realizing that she had come to take him home from the state school. I can see him bashfully lowering his head when one of us would say or do something that embarrassed him.

I just can’t remember him with us outside, because he never was. I can’t visualize him riding along in the back seat of the car on a family trip, because that never happened. I certainly can’t imagine him being so much a part of the family that, sitting around the kitchen table, we would know his feelings and to some extent his thoughts, through years of exposure to his behaviors and reactions.

In short, I had a brother who, to me, was always an alien. I did go to visit him a few times, when I returned to Indiana in my fifties; but by then it was much too late. I could not read him. He didn’t seem glad to see me. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe I reminded him of the bad old days. Or maybe he was just being shy. I didn’t even know where to start.

Brian died today, and I am left with what I can pull together in this post. Therefore, I am going to conclude with a few remarks of the kind that I think I would want to read, if this essay were about me as a person who had spent his life in a wheelchair. I can’t know whether I have captured Brian’s thoughts here, but at least this is what I might prefer to say about myself:

I do not want to be remembered as a cause of so much sorrow. First, the father who could not live with me did nonetheless fondly refer to me, especially in my early years, as “Brian Deany, burrheaded briar-hopper,” in a rare re-emergence of the semi-hillbilly roots from which he had mostly distanced himself. Throughout the half-century between my birth and the sale of the house, this father did allow my bed to be placed in the bedroom next to his, on my mother’s side, so that she could care for me – even though he was inordinately sleep-deprived, due to his combination of post-WWII PTSD and being on call for the railroad at all hours of day and night. He did not leave her, and me, to the fates. He faithfully brought home the bacon. Somehow, for years on end, he coped with my nighttime noises, not only during my early years at home, but also on many weekend visits. He was a brute in many ways, but he did not insist that I be abandoned.

Of course, those remarks pale against my tremendous good luck in having such a devoted mother. When I came along, this woman was probably already showing signs of discouragement, if not outright depression, from the trials of coping with Dad during his first half-dozen years after the war – years when she also found herself knee-deep in raising my two older siblings, with two more to come after me. She had to deal with me and my disabilities for years, before she and Dad finally came to their senses and put me in the state school. Yes, the state school was awful. It may be just as well that I was unable to describe what I was experiencing there. Mom was obviously afraid of what might happen, but she was just as obviously at her wits’ end. So I did my duty and marched off to war, as it were – and I survived. I cannot (I mean, I really cannot) tell you how relieved I was to be in a place where I didn’t have to worry about her anymore.

I also feel that I had a relatively stable childhood home, and that this is more than a lot of people can say. I loved to return there, after days and often weeks of uninterrupted time inside those hard, cold institutions. I loved to see the trees and the sunshine through the windows, and I loved to experience the space and the quiet and the carpeting and the old familiar spaces inside the house. We had a dog. We had cats. I know it may not sound like much of a life to many people, but I did sincerely appreciate being able to sit and watch baseball all by myself, without a bunch of others making noise and changing the channel all the time.

And of course I loved my brothers and sisters. I know they felt sorry for me, and were afraid of Dad’s anger, and that they had that childhood fear of adult things that they don’t understand and can’t change – things like my physical condition. But it was nice to see that they cared. They really wished that, somehow, it could all be different. And they were just never mean to me. So while being in that house could feel like emotional (and sometimes physical) torture, it also felt like a place where I had my supporters. I was not completely alone in this thing. Yes, we were never really close, and we grew apart. Yes, in the later years, there were many times when I would clearly see that they had more or less forgotten me. I did think they could have tried to turn things in a different direction. I have known other people, my caregivers and my roommates and their family members, who have gone to that trouble, for me and for each other. But I also know that sometimes families just split up. Ultimately, it was tolerable. I had other people and things to occupy me.

I regret that I never got to go to high school, never got to dance with a girl, never got to ride a bicycle. The number of “ordinary” things that others get to do – well, it is just beyond belief. I have seen those things on TV, and I have thought about them. But I am not a moody person. Sometimes life is just crap; and then, before long, it’s another day, and I’m back at it. I am really grateful for the many kind things that people have done for me over the years, for the reassuring routines and safe places that they have brought into my world. It could have been much worse.

What people fail to understand is that this was my life, and I got used to it. Other people get used to not being able to fly; I got used to not being able to walk. I mean, I never did walk, so it’s not as if I was losing anything.

I have always been terribly shy and ashamed of myself, for always causing so much fuss and being in the way. I have never contributed anything of value to anything. I have always been really sorry about that. But I guess I’ve gotten a little more used to it. It used to bother me to the point that I couldn’t even look at people. But, maybe because of the group home, I’ve come closer to accepting that this is who I am.

On the positive side, I did not have to spend years at a job I hated. Insomnia has rarely been an issue. I’ve been fed, clothed, and sheltered for my entire life. I would certainly want to experience things that other people get to experience. But then, everyone can say that.

That is what I think I might say, if I were Brian’s ghost, looking down on this life from somewhere up above.

Today, I lost a brother. I did not know him well, and in that sense I will never know what I really lost today. I am sorry I didn’t handle all these years better. I am sorry for all his suffering. I wish he could have had a better life. He was not a burden to me, so I do not have a sense of relief, now that he’s gone. I am not sure how much he knew, or what he thought, but I think he got through most of his life without too much suffering or grief. I think he really did find himself in a more enjoyable lifestyle, for the most part, as he got older and moved out of the large institutions and into the group home. I wish it could have been better, but I know his life did have its good parts, and I am glad for that.

It seems odd to think, now, that I miss Brian, when I have spent the overwhelming majority of my days without him. I guess I miss what could have been. Brian was a good guy. Maybe all I can really say, at this point, is that I am sorry.

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Veterans Day

(Originally posted on November 12, 2007 in another blog.)

I have never been too interested in Veterans Day. I think we can blame some of that on the state of affairs in our household when I was a teenager. Dad was among the worst right-wing idiots on the subject of the Vietnam War. He never did quite catch on that the hippies, peaceniks, and protesters were right – that we were wasting tens of thousands of American lives on a struggle that would not have begun if the French had not colonized Southeast Asia, which they had no right to do; if President Johnson had not lied to the American people about the events of Tonkin Gulf; if corporate money in America had not been so terrified of anything resembling socialism. We got a horrendous backlash on all points – in the socialistic steps of LBJ’s Great Society, for instance, and in riots and the growth of factions promoting violent overthrow of our government.

If we were going to fight in Vietnam, we should have fought to win. Otherwise, we should never have started. Same thing in Iraq. I see these generals making a hash of things – not counting Petraeus, who seems to be playing a bad hand very well – and I think Veterans Day is one more occasion when those who send kids (but not their own!) to die can pretend that they really do realize it is a matter of life and death. So when Dad would hold forth on his ideas (e.g., that we should just line up the peace protesters and shoot them), I think it was understandable that I would not merely reject his views, but would to some extent reject the American military too. It seemed to me that he did not understand what America was all about. I wanted no part of him and his Army, and I had some justification for that attitude.

But today, on this Veterans Day 2007, I am willing to make an exception. The immediate reason is that I just watched a tear-jerking Veterans Day commemoration video. A related reason is that Dad died two days ago, and he was a dad for whom few things in life were as important as the years that he spent in the military.

There is no denying that the miliary is what keeps the country safe. The military has been the vehicle of horrible and atrocious behavior, from the war with Mexico to My Lai to Abu Ghraib; but this is what you get – it is what all armies get, at some point or other – when you train people to kill and destroy. It’s awful stuff to learn how to do, and it needs to cease as soon as there is no longer a threat that other people want to do the same to you. The military’s excesses may stoke that desire on their part, and that prospect needs intensive attention; but there are always going to be freeloaders, abusers, and megalomaniacs who will think that subjugating the people of another country is a fine idea.

This morning, I went for a run in the park. I felt wonderful. It’s because I got eight or nine hours of sleep; and I did that, I think, because I was just worn out at the end of the day yesterday. I can’t say that Dad’s death was the sole reason, but it was clearly a weight that I carried with me for the day. Today, some things seemed to have fallen into place.

It was fitting that I went on that run, and that I felt wonderful doing so, because the Army was not Dad’s only preoccupation. His book, which I have been annotating for some time, is a testament to his years in World War II, but also to his years in the Civilian Conservation Corps. As a CCCer, he planted trees and, as I was thinking on my run this morning, he helped to build a state park somewhat like the place I was running in. He loved trees; and while his taste in books did tend toward warfare and historical battles, his behavior over the past 50 years was much rather in the direction of CCCish trees, stonework, and parks.

Dad fought in a war. The Army impressed him because, I think, it told him exactly where he stood. There were (to him, anyway) none of the picayune, Byzantine politics and innuendoes that would so often ensnare him in civilian life; he was free just to be a man, as he understood the term: to destroy things, to run over things that got in the way, to replace them with the things he preferred, and to build on that basis. In that sense, for him the best of civilian life (both in the CCC and after the war) was that which allowed him to just bust in, ram ahead, and get it done.

So he built a park; he cut trees; he grew and trimmed trees; he took the family on vacations, predominantly to national parks; and he built a home, insofar as he was able to construct a sense of what that might mean, that was surrounded on all sides by sawdust, wood blocks, gardens, trees, bees, stonework, raspberry vines, flowers, and grass, laid out in the way he wished. There, he found a refuge from the outside world, for which he shared a passion with his wife for some 55 years, until they finally gave it up as requiring more work than they could manage in their old age.

In those regards, the house and the war against Japan ran together. There were these outside forces that needed to be repelled, mostly by blood and steel, and there was a vision of better things, done in the American way, that could be constructed on a new beginning. For while I fault Dad’s book as focusing overmuch on his wartime years, as though that were the main thing in his life, I also recognize, within that focus, a preference for telling about the positive, helpful things that one can do within the hell of war. One can pour sulpha into the wound on the leg of a prisoner of war; one can have a conversation with a Japanese person, even though one will be unable to stomach dinner in a Japanese restaurant a half-century later.

Those GIs who gave chewing gum to kids in WWII, who are now embarked on armed social work in Afghanistan and elsewhere, were not originally there to be nice. But they discovered, as Dad did, that the larger purpose behind war is peace. You can train your soldiers to kill, but you cannot necessarily prevent them from crossing the lines to join the Germans in singing hymns on Christmas Eve. I saw some research, recently, in which they seemed to have found that an unbelievable number of soldiers will not be able to make themselves shoot straight at the enemy, even when their failure to do so leads to their own death. We may have an image of what war is, but it ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, and it wasn’t with Dad either.

So my dad built a park, fought a war, built a home, and nursed his trees. I resisted against a war, left that home, and, this morning, ran in a park that someone, probably someone like him, built. I can’t quite piece together all the threads that run in and out, among such observations. But I can tell you that I felt great on my run; that I am aware it is Veterans Day; and that I am sorry for what the world’s veterans have had to experience, and am glad for what they have been able to achieve nonetheless. I am sorry they have had to shoot at each other, and I am glad for all the times when their shots have missed. That may not be a suitably morose reaction from someone whose father has died, nor is it a very rah-rah kind of Veterans Day sentiment. But I can’t help that. That’s just the way it seems to me.

Anticipating the Funeral: How Should I Feel?

I have been a bit at a loss, wondering how I am supposed to feel and what I am supposed to do these days, in response to the news that Dad has died. In these days – really, in the months since I first recognized that his demise was imminent – I’ve been considering different possibilities. Some of my thinking has been conscious and directed; and some, as I now realize, has been going on more surreptitiously, without my complete awareness.

There are some social boundaries. I would not be welcomed to whoop and cheer Dad’s death in public, even if I were so inclined; and on the other extreme, it would raise eyebrows (especially among those who are familiar with the facts) if I erupted into uncontrollable weeping. Likewise, in my role as a son of the deceased, it behooves me to be present at the funeral, but it might be unseemly for me to convert it into an event about myself, or about something other than Dad – if, for instance, I were to deliver a Mark Antony-style funeral oration: “Friends, Romans, countrymen …”

I rarely saw Dad mix well in an environment like that of the funeral home, so it’s not easy for me to say what role he would prefer for me if he were alive. Often, in his photos at important events (including joyous ones, such as weddings), his face bears a remarkably serious expression. I think he was always afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing – which, if that’s accurate, was a fear hard-earned, as I can testify in the wake of his ”Sieg Heil!” greeting to the parents of my Jewish ex-wife. He really could be remarkably inept in social settings, and I have to guess that, at some point, he became aware of that and lurched to the opposite extreme; hence the somber mien in those photos.

If it weren’t such a serious occasion – if, say, you took those same people in roughly those same Sunday-best clothes and transported them to someone’s parlor for a little after-church get-together – then maybe he would relax somewhat, though I’m still not sure he would be at his ease in anything other than normal everyday duds. I don’t know for a fact that he would actually prefer me to walk into the funeral home, proceed quietly to the casket, and then take a seat and, at most, exchange a few words sotto voce with someone seated at my elbow; but that is surely what he would do, at least until given clear license to loosen up.

The gist of those observations, I guess, is that Dad considered a funeral to be a place where one would have one’s thoughts about the deceased, whether positive, negative, or mixed, and perhaps would share those thoughts at most with a few people at the time, and perhaps more freely with others later. But I did not personally observe Dad in any instances in which he occupied a special position vis-à-vis the deceased, where he would be more than just one among the many who had come to pay their respects. Thus, as in so many things, Dad’s example here leaves a lot of latitude for me to try to figure it out on my own.

Much of the matter, of course, will be decided by those around me. If people at the funeral home, or afterwards, happen to segue into a festive mood of recollection, banter, and story-telling, then I will likely join in on that to some extent. But I don’t know that I have ever seen such a thing at an Indiana funeral, never mind a Lutheran Indiana funeral. So I think we are probably doomed, at least at the event itself, to recreate the very kind of setting that would have made Dad himself most uncomfortable.

All of this, so far, has had to do merely with the way in which I conduct myself at the funeral. That, I am concluding, seems to be almost set in stone.

There are also some larger and more enduring questions of how I will think and have thought about Dad, and how I will live and have lived my life in response to his. Those are too complex to trace out here. There is, however, the remaining question of what my thoughts should be, at least during the next couple of days; and I now see that, while I began this post with the intent of contemplating that question, I was perhaps necessarily subverted into the relatively tedious question of demeanor on the occasion.

Or maybe that is a reflection of how Dad raised me to think of death; maybe I am drawn to its formalities because I learned, to some extent, to underestimate its immensity. My mentor in this matter was the kind of man who would essentially discard a son – sons, I should say – who were inconvenient to him. He would shoot a bird or wring an animal’s neck without a second thought. It was Dad – speaking of his wartime experience, I assume – who casually commented that it bothers you, the first time you kill someone, but then it’s not as bad after that.

It was not that he liked to kill. He took care to distinguish those who, in his observation from the military, were of that type, and I think the distinction was genuine. It was just that death was a casual fact for him. He was always prepared for it – I am sure he was always among the most life-insured, will-witnessed, power-of-attorney-signed people in his entire neighborhood. There was, I think, a certain depressing awareness of mortality in our household, greater than in most, owing partly to this outlook of his (and Mom’s), and partly to our proximity to the cemetery, which we mowed and maintained in various ways over the years. Life was not cheap for us, as if we had lived in the Wild West; but death was certainly a known companion throughout.

As I ponder it in this light, it seems to me that Dad must be in the top five percent of those who manage a nearly seamless transition from life into death. He lived a remarkably long time, and he phased almost imperceptibly from the sometimes unintelligible bluster of his younger years to the growingly inscrutable babble of his decrepitude. I would have to say that he ceased to be clearly and vitally alive some months or years before his medical caretakers finally wrung the last breath out of him. Notwithstanding the sterile limits of what one can achieve in writing, he will be more alive in the minds of those who knew him, as they read his book in the months and years to come, than he has been, in the flesh, for quite some time.

I, myself, have been talking and thinking of Dad as a sort of zombie for a long while now. I have been proceeding, that is, as though I were referring to someone who had already died, given how completely irrelevant and removed from the world he had become. It has seemed to be a reasonable mindset. When your father no longer recognizes you, nor remembers places that were dearest to his heart, then you have to realize that something has changed forever.

So I have long since shed some tears about it. For Dad, opportunity – of the familial kind, especially, but of other kinds as well – was a light-footed adversary, capable of spitting in his eye and then dancing away before he could grasp it. He just never seemed to see it coming. Not to say that he did not have some important successes; he did. And often enough, he knew a bargain when he saw it. But the big-ticket items, the things that make a great life or family or fortune, these were forever the property of someone else. So, as I say, it has been a while since I cried out and dealt with frustration and surrender, with acknowledgment that the game was pretty much up and that there was not going to be a lot more progress in important things, as far as he was concerned.

What I conclude, at the end of this hour of contemplation, is that Dad’s funeral comes at the most natural and yet unnatural time. Naturally, he was winding down and finally expired. If he could have been embalmed and put on a shelf somewhere, though, I think I would have appreciated six months, maybe, or two or three years, before coming to a reckoning in the company of so many who knew him.

At the moment, it seems to me, our perspectives are distorted by the immediacy of his recent incapacity. We are not thinking clearly of Roger Woodcock as the man that he was for six or seven decades. If we had a year to get over that short-term impression of an old man, falling apart in a wheelchair, and to rediscover our more enduring conception of him, I think we would likely have had a more edifying and instructive funereal experience.

Since that is not an option – since we are obliged to stick him in the ground and begin to forget him almost immediately – I guess my conclusion has to be that there is no clear thing I should be thinking or feeling, and no definitive way in which I should be acting, between now and Friday. It is all too much, too soon. I will show up; I will probably see some people whom I have not seen in some years; I will hear many kind words. Most likely, I will spend some time thereafter juggling thoughts of gratitude and recollection, and also of hypocrisy and irony in some of those kind words, given the ways in which Dad inspired or provoked people and vice versa. Certainly it could be interesting.

What I should seek from this hasty and relatively brief processing of a man’s entire life, I guess, is just to gather information, in a researcher’s sense: to keep my own personality out of it, to the extent possible, and to acquire additional perspectives on the person whose day this funeral day will be. The conclusion, then, may be that it would be somewhat presumptuous for me to think that my own mental and emotional baggage, this Friday, will be important or even particularly relevant. This is Dad’s day. It is one of his biggest, even if he is not experiencing it as a living soul, and it will also be, for most of those present, his last.

And now, as I consider it a bit more, there is one more angle worth articulating. If this were my day, I would hope my friends and family would make it a great one for me. Like a politician at a rally, I would want to be pumped up and energized by the cheers and hopes of those who are looking to me for clues. This is not a day for dealing with all the dirt I have swept under the rug. It will have to be dealt with, I know; and I know, too, that there will be some present at the event who will not be able to resist dragging it out on the spot. As an overarching theme, though, without going to the extremes of exaggeration and outright distortion, I would think that this is a time for my best foot to be forward. I would want people to come away from this event with a feeling of hope, with a sense that something important has been achieved.

Roger Woodcock undeniably achieved important things. I know about some of them. Without waiving my right to revisit the full tally of debits and credits, in detail, at a later time, possibly I had better err, this Friday, on the side of blowing a trumpet on his behalf. He was a terribly flawed yet, in many ways, a terribly good man, and I should say so. Or so it seems to me now.

(I originally posted this piece in another blog on November 13, 2007.)

Things to Do Before Killing Yourself

I’ve seen my share of movies involving life insurance fraud and so forth. In fact, I just saw one the other night: Double Indemnity. So I’m aware that sometimes people arrange the murders of insured people, disguise their own suicides, and otherwise take extreme measures to cash in, on behalf of themselves or their family members. Of course, we have also had our suicide bombers and, before them, our kamikaze pilots, not to mention a world sadly filled with terminal diseases, credible death threats, and other factors advancing a sense that the end is nigh.

I suspect that people who are about to die tend to be preoccupied with their imminent demise. If, however, a person should happen to lift his/her eyes to the horizon, and contemplate the good or bad that s/he could do before the Big Exit, there may be many things worth checking off the list. I thought about starting such a list, but then realized that many others have probably already thought of this. So I ran a Google search. And, you know, I was right.

The first example emerging in my search was a book by an author who calls himself Professor Xavier Cortez. That book, and other materials I encountered, suggested that there was a need for lists of good suggestions on things that one might try to take care of before killing oneself. In other words, before you kill yourself, please consider taking advantage of your special mindset to write a book or otherwise provide some helpful tips. When you’re no longer afraid of the punishments that people may dish out, you may be in a position to achieve things that others fear to try.

In a different vein, people who plan to kill themselves may naturally find their thoughts turning to the classic “bucket list” of things to do before you die — the fun or challenging things, like reading the 100 best books or running a marathon. Some of these, being dangerous, combine both the idea of having fun and the risk or likelihood of eventual death. In Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, for instance, one character — a lover of fine wine — slowly drinks himself to death, in his deceased neighbor’s wine cellar, shortly before the extinction of humanity. It’s been a while since I read it, but I vaguely recall that it seemed like a plan.

My Google search also turned up a Yahoo! Answers post, where someone asked suggestions for things that he should do before taking his life. One suggestion was that he should pray for God’s forgiveness for such a selfish act. This, I thought, was just the sort of reaction that one might expect from a judgmental, uninformed person who treats religion as something to hide behind. She didn’t ask whether, perchance, he was in extreme pain due to some horrific disease. For that matter, she didn’t explain how praying for forgiveness would help, if he hadn’t actually killed himself yet. Suicide isn’t specified in the Ten Commandments; but if it is a sin nonetheless, wouldn’t you have to commit it first in order to qualify for forgiveness? Otherwise, it seems that a good strategy for any sin would be to ask forgiveness first, and then proceed as planned.

Then again, maybe the lady was just afraid of death and/or suicide. In that case, I guess her reaction would be unhelpful but at least understandable.

Another answer to that guy’s question was that he should seek mental health treatment. Not a bad suggestion. Sometimes a bit of wise counsel or a simple little pill can make everything look different. If nothing else, they may buy some time to learn more about the last big decision you’ll ever make. It’s much easier to kill yourself than to unkill yourself. With that in mind, let us continue.

Advice to pray for forgiveness and seek mental health assistance goes into the larger category of precautions. The general point is, before killing yourself, you should get your ducks in a row. It makes sense to make a well-informed decision, based on an accurate understanding of your circumstances. Apparently it’s common for people to change their mind after they’ve jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and such. In this world, timing is everything. I definitely recommend changing your mind before jumping, not after.

There’s another aspect of getting your ducks in a row, going back to the first remarks in this post. If you’re killing yourself so your family can get your life insurance money, or are otherwise indulging a scheme that people will probably investigate very carefully — which they surely will, if any substantial amount of money is involved — bear in mind that the investigators probably have lots of experience at this sort of thing, and you probably don’t. You may not turn out to be worth more dead than alive. As one sage put it, “If you think nobody cares, try missing a few payments.”

On the subject of timing, you might want to work up a rule for yourself, one that gives you some time to review your options. I decided, years ago, to hold myself to a four-month rule. According to this rule, I would wait four months, after making a firm and final decision to kill myself, before actually going through with it. I just never saw the sense of killing myself if it wasn’t absolutely and beyond any doubt the right thing for me. I figure that four-month period will give me ample time, not only to sort out my affairs and review my decisions, but also to explore self-therapy options like those listed at the Whistling by Candlelight blog.

There may be other precautions that are advisable for your particular plans. They may involve lawyers, guns, and money. They may require further thought. For instance, if you leave your body behind, somebody is going to have to clean it up; someone is going to have to pay for its funeral. But if you don’t leave your body — if, say, you tie a rock to your foot and jump out of a boat in the ocean — there may not be a gravesite where people who loved you can come to visit and think. Point is, there are things to arrange.

Along with precautions, there may be any number of destructive things that a person could do before or while killing him/herself. This is the category for everything from the suicide bomber to the self-sacrificing soldier. I can’t claim to set out a simple rule, here, that would cover all of the various reasons for murder and mayhem that might involve the risk or certainty of one’s own death. In war and peace alike, there have been many assassinations and other actual and attempted felonies (e.g., plots to kill Hitler) that have sought to make the world a better place.

Like those items on the bucket list, murder and mayhem tend to involve danger. When you feel that you’ve got nothing to lose, you may be well positioned to do dangerous things of another type: you could volunteer in some place where sensible people don’t go — again, risking your life, but this time doing it for someone other than yourself. Serving in war zones or nuclear power plant meltdowns; becoming a police officer, teacher, or other public servant in the worst part of the city (or, if you like, becoming a recorder and witness of police misconduct) — the list goes on. Just for the record, volunteering need not be long-running or exotic. You can pick up the garbage on your street, make sure the homeless people in your town have food and shelter (or at least a blanket), volunteer to drive drunk people home from bars, and assist in treatment of people with contagious diseases. If you prefer, you can counsel people online from the comfort of your home. And you can pursue these and other kinds of volunteer work while also indulging some hedonism.

If you want to do something really dangerous, try telling the truth. Just go to work or school and be honest with people. That doesn’t mean overdoing the harsh, negative stuff. The truth is rarely black and white. In one of the most frightening things that a person can do, you might have to admit where you made real mistakes, where you were hurt or cared about someone or something. The point is, if you have deep, dark secrets that should be told, tell them. You can’t very well complain about the dishonesty or falseness of life if you keep on facilitating the worst of it to the bitter end. And don’t just write it down. That’s not necessarily admissible in court; it can be misconstrued; and what you write may leave out important things that you didn’t know — things that could come out in a face-to-face conversation. God forbid, you might learn something. Write it out as your background preparation, if you wish, but then talk about it with people. Some of them are likely to surprise you.

One kind of surprise that often does occur: miscalculation as to how others will respond to one’s suicide. While the metaphysical dimensions of the matter remain unknown, in social terms the decent thing to do would usually be to outlive one’s parents. Not always: as acknowledged in a “Survivors of Suicide Fact Sheet” produced by the American Association of Suicidology, suicide can bring relief to some who remain behind, “especially if the loved one had a mental disorder.” Of course, one’s departure can be convenient to others too, as discussed below. But with very limited military and law enforcement exceptions, society is understandably unwilling to let others decide whether a person should stick around. So don’t be buffaloed into a decision either way. For virtually any extremely difficult situation that humans have ever faced, there are some who have decided to kill themselves, and some who have decided not to. This is your decision. Take your time, learn what you need to learn, work through it carefully, and move on as you, in your sole discretion, deem appropriate.

It will probably take some effort to avoid mistaken assumptions, when it comes to how others will feel about someone’s suicide. It can be hard enough to find out how everyone in a group really feels about where to go for lunch; the question of how they will react to suicide is obviously much more complex. Key emotions experienced by suicide survivors, as reported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, include not only shame (which may amount to a feeling of being disgraced) and self-blame but also confusion. I wouldn’t assume that everyone will get the message you may have intended. This seems like something to investigate, so as to reduce the risk of being completely wrong about others’ reactions. Note also that people just may not know how they will feel until it happens. They may surprise themselves. (A note on terminology: “suicide survivors” usually refers to the loved ones of a person who kills him/herself, whereas “suicide attempt survivor” can ambiguously refer to the attempter as well.)

On another level, contemplation of suicide can lead to decompensation. Personal deterioration, in other words. One blogger observes that there may be no reason to brush your teeth or answer the phone if you’re going to kill yourself anyway. This viewpoint may make sense to people who are sick of life’s grand farce or fakery, or who are too depressed to bother. Note: if you’re that depressed, you’re probably going to do a poor job of taking care of things before you kill yourself. In that case, you should probably get yourself some medication and some therapy and get your act together. If you do ultimately take your life, you can at least try to do a decent job of preparing for it.

I’ll close this brief look at the subject with a general observation. A lot of people kill themselves because their financial, legal, political, or other circumstances have become unbearable. My impression is that people who kill themselves tend not to feel deeply loved, important to others, and significant in the world at large.

In other words, there are probably people who would be happy to see you dead. As Mark Twain famously put it, “I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” When you kill yourself, you are giving some of the worst people in your life exactly what they want. Once you’re gone, they will eventually get whatever you had — your money, your spouse, your home. You will no longer be in their way. If they are so inclined, they will probably be able to make you out to be a complete loser. And the things that ruined you — including the economic, social, and political realities of your world — will just proceed merrily on their way.

In that sense, people who quietly kill themselves are removing an important tool for social change. If you can get beyond your own problems, consider that staying alive may be, in itself, a thumb in the eye for the things that have ruined you. Or if you’re determined to die, try to die like that Tunisian fruit seller who burned himself to death in protest against his government and, in so doing, started the Arab Spring revolutions. Self-immolations on courthouse and statehouse steps are likely to get attention.

It may not be necessary to go to that extreme to focus public awareness on the conditions, whatever they were, that led you to this point. You may find that political or other movements, online or out in the public, have already identified some of the reasons why things went wrong for you. You might be able to make a constructive difference, in your specific problems, by participating in that sort of enterprise.

Killing yourself is not the end of the world. It’s just the end of you. Before killing yourself, try to make the most of what you’ve got. When you reach the point of suicide, you’re in a special place, in your mind, and there are positive things that can come of that.

Good luck.

* * * * *

Notes

  1. I have since written a separate post, on the inordinately male nature of suicide.
  2. This post was previously located in my religion blog. There are some reader comments there.

Faith, Love, and Hope

There is an experience of living with pain, or loss, or with the sense that a part of you, or your world, is dying.  Or that it has died, and somehow you must cope.

I first had this experience with faith.  I was raised old-style Lutheran.  I discovered pentecostal fundamentalism.  And then I came to question it all – Lutheran, fundamentalist, everything.  And doing so nearly killed me.  Emotionally, I mean, and it was physically hard too.

It was fall 1975.  I was living in a garage on Cherry Avenue in North Long Beach, walking distance from the bathroom at the Douglas Burger.  And there came a day when I simply could not struggle anymore.  After months of trying to understand how I could be honest and yet have faith, I had to make a decision.  Christmas Day, I was sick and the Douglas Burger was closed.  I’m barfing in the alley out back, and I am thinking, God is honest.  If it’s the God that interests me, then he’s honest.  I have to hold onto that.  So whatever they’re telling me about the Bible, if it doesn’t add up, I can’t take it anymore.  I have come to this dangerous place, trying to devote my time to study and understanding, and this is where it ends.

When I reached that point of decision, things changed swiftly.  I took out a student loan, moved into an apartment, became a full-time college student, and wound up getting a law degree.  I don’t know if that’s actually progress.  I mean, obviously, it was, in a lot of ways.  It didn’t answer the questions that the loss of religion left unanswered, though.  My religion had meant fellowship, of a kind I haven’t had since.  It meant a world rich with meaning.  There was spirit in everything.  For me, all that died.  I don’t really have an answer to that.  But I know it was a loss.

Next, I had a similar experience, this time with love.  Same drill, really:  you put your heart and soul into it; you are convinced that it is exactly what it is supposed to be; and then you find yourself weeping, more each day, to a point where the colors literally fade to grey, out on the greenest day of the year.  It can take an hour to pay the electric bill; it can take all day to arrive at the conclusion that you need to go for a walk to try to clear your head and think, and somehow do something that will help.  And then, after months of pain, the day comes when you say, again, I cannot do this anymore.  This is the end.  There is so much that must die now.  But it must die.  And that decision does not really kill it.  But at least it kills a part of you, and then, soon, the rest of you can go on.

First faith, I say, then love.  And now, of course, hope.  There are so many delusions that move the human foot forward.  At times, though, the masks slip, and you find yourself staring, awkwardly and without defense, into the abyss.  It is the grave; it is the negation of everything.  Next to this, faith and love are trivial.  You can live without those, but you cannot live without hope.  What is the point, one asks.  It is a tough argument to beat.  Meaning starts to look like a shell game:  it’s not here, but perhaps it’s over there.  We all have to invent a point, because without that, there is – well, obviously, there is no point.  We keep ourselves busy, because there are always things to keep busy with.  We dare not stand still for very long, lest we find ourselves compelled to reckon with darkness.

I never did entirely kill faith or love.  I just cut them down and rooted them out as far as I was able.  I know I will not be able to jettison hope either.  When you live this long, you tend to discover that there is always a way, always another possibility, always something that can change everything.  That is hope, and hope really equals life.  And so I find that late middle age, in this place, in this epoch of human existence, entails a sort of perpetual ripping out of one’s heart.  The loss is there; the prospect of permanent impairment is there; and yet the heart is still there, too, and it hurts.

It’s not something to complain about, really.  That won’t help, and anyway no one wants to hear it.  They all seem to be doing OK, in this game that’s got you under the weather.  I know, besides, that the remedy will be the same as before.  The day will come when I will be unable to tolerate this anymore, and then there will be a triage.  Something will be extinguished, and something will survive.  On a good day, fragments of hope, like fragments of faith and love, will restore a recollection of how it all once seemed.  I won’t want to go back to delusion but, on the other hand, I won’t really want to be without it either.  And that appears to be the definition of old age.

(This item was previously posted in my ideas blog.)

I Will Never Visit My Parents Again

I just realized that, with Dad gone, I will never again drive up “to see the folks.” Now there’s just one folk. Now I join those people who speak about their mother, not because they favor Mom over Dad, but because Mom is all that’s left.

This gives me pause. It is as if, after all these years of wishes by my siblings and me, to the effect that Dad should be a better guy or Dad should butt out or Dad doesn’t act like part of this family and therefore shouldn’t be — after all those wishes, we finally get what we wanted.

Or at least part of us get part of what we wanted. His departure was never our first choice. Our first choice was, to the contrary, his arrival. I think, without ever saying it in these terms, what we really wanted was for him to awaken one day and realize that everything was in place. All the prerequisites had been satisfied for him to go ahead and have a good home and a happy family life. He just needed to reach out and grasp that, and it was his.

I don’t think we ever said anything remotely like that to him. I don’t think we conceptualized it in those terms, else we might have said so. I think it was one of those situations where you are pushing the door closed and someone else is trying to push it open, and there’s really no time to stop and debate the fine points. The harder they push, the more frightened you become. You’ve got to get the door shut, bolt it, and put some furniture up against it, so that the bad man won’t get in.

Seeing how hard he pushed, early on, we may have panicked. We may have continued to barricade the door long after the man had stopped pushing — after, indeed, he had walked away. That’s not necessarily our fault. It’s not as though he went through a long phase of just standing back and trying to talk reason, from his position out there on the other side of that door. Talking sweet reason was not his forté. This was a man who lurched from the extremes of war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder to the empty-nest relief of experiencing, at last, some domestic peace. The only question was whether there were still kids in the house, in which case it remained us vs. him.

I don’t think Dad ever envisioned himself as a good father, as we now understand the term. For him, a father was not expected (if he was even able) to empathize with his children, to understand or care about their feelings. His duty, as he construed it, was to be the opposite of his own father: to be a hard worker and a good provider, to do the man’s work of fixing roofs and laying bricks, to do or die for his family and his community. He knew what he had to do. He also knew what he was going to do. There was no going beyond that, with him.

So we explored the options that were available within his austere emotional limits. They weren’t sufficient for family life as it needed to be, as distinct from family life as he visualized it. There was a gap; he could not or would not see that gap; therefore he was destined to fall short. The nation changed, and in this sense he did not.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be exposed, through Dad, to the mindset of the World War I era — of his mother, I think, who seems to have been his prominent formative influence in matters of family obligation. People of that time, marrying a century ago, had a lot to do. Men had to be men, in the sense in which Dad understood the term, and women had to support their men and raise their families. Feelings were not essential, one way or the other, on the level of sheer survival and endurance. Thus Dad would sneer, and would imagine that others agreed with his sneer, when he described himself as not being “Dear Old Dad.” He honestly thought that sensible people of the 1970s generally considered it weak and goofy to prioritize feelings when there remained so many obviously tangible, “real” things to get done.

To tell the truth, I kind of doubt that even the people of the World War I generation were really as indifferent to feelings as Dad liked to let on. I have known people from hard roots, from this country and elsewhere, and in my experience they vary in their emphasis upon material achievement. That’s what I’ve gotten from my reading about the Great Depression too: it made some people worse, but it made others better.

Dad, himself, indulged multiple priorities that were not of a clearly tangible nature. I would say that his sneer, found in few of the other dads of our neighborhood, was in part a mask. When I say he honestly thought people would support his bias against the touchy-feely, perhaps I should also say he hoped as much.

The real nature of the barrier between Dad and us, I suspect, was not a matter of different generations. I would say rather that the barrier derived from something peculiar to Dad — from, perhaps, a childhood jading against emotion, against even the possibility of mutuality. Dad would have his personal emotional needs, and would interpret them as signs that he was a warm and sensitive person. But that stream flowed one way. If his feelings were in jeopardy, then emotional sensitivity was appropriate; otherwise, however, perhaps not.

It’s not that he was selfish. He wasn’t. I think Dad just never believed in himself enough to imagine that a mere word or glance from him could just make or break his child’s day. It’s odd. Surely he had learned otherwise from his own interactions with his father. But as a younger child, perhaps he learned, from his older siblings, what I learned from mine: that the old man is hopeless; that you should not be surprised at any crazy thing he might say or do.

Dad may have grown up with the prejudgment that his kids would be dead-set against him. He may have sneered against the alternatives because he assumed, from the outset, that those alternatives did not practically exist in his world. He may have opted out of the joys and shared struggles of raising children with a woman you love because he did not have any idea of how to make that a reality within his own existence; he may have skipped over all the wonder of family and kids, as he essentially did in the pages of his book, because those were years of pain for him. This may be why he puzzled his kids with his self-directed refrain of “Dad, butt out,” as if to express our views — which I doubt any of us ever actually said to him because he was never that engaged with our lives in the first place. He may have never been able to get past his assumptions and find out for himself whether we would actually want him involved.

For nearly 30 years in the prime of his life, Dad lived in a house with children. And, sad as it is, he may not have considered himself welcome or able to share in their special relationship with their mother. Possibly that is what he had learned from his own feelings about “Great Big Wonderful Mom,” as he described his mother in one of our last conversations. In that case, his failures as a father may have been a foregone conclusion. We, with our wishes against him, may merely have taken his cue; we may have treated him as he implicitly expected us to.

For me, it is odd, at this late date, to think that I may have been unconsciously manipulated into treating my father coolly because he could not imagine me treating him otherwise. Not that I mean to shirk my own responsibility for my decisions; but it is true that people will naturally answer the questions they are asked, even if their truthful answers to a skewed set of questions yields a misleading picture overall.

What we really wished for, from Dad, we did not get. That would have required a kind of socialization that was not available, for him, in our society. To overcome the disruption of his own childhood, he would have had to experience extended periods of exposure to other families, and to have a significant role in them, to the extent that he, himself, would be encouraged to talk to the babies and learn from the fathers. Someone in our family history, someone prior to his mother’s generation, may have had the luxury of living in that kind of interactive society. But by the time it came to him, he was all on his own, to make it up as he went along, as well as he could.

That’s what he did. He did a good job in many ways. For the rest — for much of what makes life most worth living — he had no frame of reference. He was lost without a clue. Thus he passed his many years of fatherhood; thus we rejected him, avoided him, and ultimately became resigned to him and to the wreckage of the home contained within our ever-sturdy house.

And now he is gone. In this, as in so many other dimensions of his death, the tragedy of loss is not so much the loss of his presence. If we prized his presence, we would all have been proving it, in the form of frequent visits to his lonely life in recent years. No, the tragedy of loss in Dad’s case is the final loss of his possibilities. We have been mourning the seemingly endless unfolding of that loss, without quite realizing it, all the days of our lives. There went another holiday that could have been a good one; there went another childhood tale in which he had no interest. Under a shadow of crippled optimism, we have experienced life as always somewhat unkind, always partly grim. We, learning from him to practice the same self-limiting doubt in our abilities, have lived as though getting from failure up to zero were the essence of happiness. Vast, wide-open possibilities of wonder and growth, for ourselves or for Dad, have never been within the scope of expectation.

In a way, I’m not sure I ever did visit my parents, during these many trips back home in my adult life. They were both there physically, to be sure. But Dad had checked out emotionally before I was born, and he never came back. In that ironic sense, he followed metaphorically the path taken physically by his father. And older siblings, it seems, may have echoed the language of a previous generation’s older siblings — language that we never heard directly from them, but instead absorbed through his unwitting instruction. Dad taught us how to treat him, applying what he had learned about child-father relations from his elder brothers and sisters.

What I visited, all these years, was the physical house in which Dad and Mom lived, that being a concretized interpretation of what he thought a family and a home should be. The material trappings were there, to his modest taste; the emotional innards, however, had been eviscerated. It was a structure of posts and beams without a soul, a rib cage without the breath of life.

In that place, I visited two people. There is a question of what, in fact, I was visiting, even on Mom’s side, given the distortions of the relationship they created between themselves. But her side of the question must wait for another day. As far as Dad was concerned, it is clear enough that I was not really visiting him, that I would not have shlepped all the way from New York or Los Angeles to listen to his bitter denunciations of this or that politician.

When I wished for Dad to be gone, or different, or quiet, what I really wished was that, somehow, he would have arrived at the moment of fatherhood with vastly better preparation for the job. Once he went ahead with it, it was apparently too late; it seems he was already pre-wired to recreate the best but also, unfortunately, the worst aspects of fatherhood as he had seen it in his youth, and that his culture would leave him largely free to proceed. Like an ungrateful nation that would later throw its founder in prison, Dad created a home in which he became increasingly unwelcome.

I was a part of that. I wished for it to be otherwise. I actively engaged him, without success, in various attempts to make it otherwise. My sense at this moment, on the eve of his funeral, is that I could have succeeded in those attempts — that I could have counteracted the combined weight of multiple generations of dysfunctionality — only if I had been inspired by my own extensive and intensive exposure to another culture, from which I would have come away with a clear sense of how things had gone wrong and how they could be gotten back on track.

I did not have that sense, during those years of visits. I don’t even have it now. I have had some good positive influences, for which I am thankful. But at present I cannot identify a particular time or way in which I could have given the whole thing a shove, sufficient to get it rolling on the right track.

So we began, and we ended, with unfulfilled wishes, either for Dad’s earnest participation or for his complete removal. He is, indeed, gone at last. But he stayed so long, and exercised such complete sway over the family as a whole, that at this point it seems unlikely that we siblings of the Baby Boom generation will ever undo the damage he did. To my eye, the dysfunctionality remains, though clothed in different garb and obscured by the ever-greater fracturing of links among people in this country. If the members of my family were all to live next door to one another, I think we would rediscover the enduring nature of the matter soon enough — though I would not deny that proximity, used well, could also offer possibilities for resolution.

So I do not know how to describe what I did, during those years when I visited my parents. That, in itself, now sounds like a false phrasing. Did I really visit them, in the plural? It seems undeniable that I visited two distinct individuals, for vastly different reasons and with vastly different results. I will never visit my parents again, not the both of them; but at this moment I am not entirely sure what that means, or what it ever meant.

(I originally posted this piece in another blog on November 15, 2007.)

A False Accusation and the Dysfunctional Thought Record

Introduction

The road to earning my master’s degree in social work (MSW) was long and painful. I had numerous bad experiences in schools of social work along the way. I have posts and/or whole blogs devoted to certain aspects of that experience: the worst part. continuing for years, at Indiana University; a terrible first year at the University of Missouri – Columbia; and a dismaying experience at the University of Michigan.

Those experiences drove me to speak out on some of the things that happened during those years. The blogs that describe some of those experiences — including my blog about social work education generally and about mistreatment of men in schools of social work — demonstrate serious problems in the training of social workers. No doubt I will continue to develop those blogs from time to time.

Meanwhile, though, I want to open another dimension on those sorts of experiences. The fact is that people in situations like mine do not merely endure an educational ordeal: there is emotional damage as well. Nor is the phenomenon limited to educational contexts. I realize that graduate programs differ from traditional workplaces in many ways. But for the person on the receiving end of abuse from someone in a position of power, it feels much the same, regardless of whether that other person is your employer or your professor.

In a course at Missouri taught by Dr. Kim Anderson, I had an opportunity to describe some of what I was experiencing emotionally. Kim assigned us to perform a self-assessment, using something called the Dysfunctional Thought Record (DTR). There does not appear to be a lot of professional research on the DTR, so I cannot say whether it is especially useful in clinical practice; but for whatever reason she wanted us to use it, and so I proceeded with the writeup that she assigned.

This post provides the text of that writeup. It is a long document. For this, I make no apology: emotions are often complex, and describing them can require patience. I expect this post to be of interest primarily to people who want to explore emotions. I could rewrite the document to be much briefer now, but I have decided to just provide what the actual assignment called for, and what I wrote at the time.

There is always the possibility that some person of hostile intent will read this material in search of something that might cast me in a disfavorable light. I guess repeated experiences with persons of that nature, in social work education, have left me less concerned about them than I used to be.

To summarize events leading up to this writeup, Drs. Larry Kreuger and Wilson Watt had pursued a formal effort to get me thrown out of the School of Social Work. There was no basis for their effort. It was pure harassment. At this stage of the matter, I was being called in to meet with the university’s provost about it.

As it turned out, the provost and I had a ten-minute conversation. That was how long it took him to conclude that those professors were completely out of line. He dismissed the charge against me and said he was going to speak with the people at the School of Social Work. But that meeting had not happened yet, when I was preparing the following writeup. At this point, I was facing the threat of an unknown result, along with a lot of emotions.

In case you wonder, Kim did not offer to speak with me about the emotional situation described in my paper, and to my knowledge did not take any other action on it. Readers may differ on the question of whether a professor should speak out when s/he learns that a student is being abused. But in this case, it’s not a matter of opinion. There were many violations of the social work professional code of ethics, and Kim was participating in some of them. For instance, it was a violation to fail to uphold the profession’s values. She functioned as part of the clique, when I, or anyone, would have appreciated having at least one professor on their side. Sadly, in my reading and experience, social work professors very rarely display that kind of courage. They do seem ready to express concern for a student’s complaint (even a complaint that is palpably manipulative), though, if the student is a female, complaining about a male.

After the provost’s decision, none of the social work professors or administrators who had participated directly or indirectly in that harassment apologized, communicated relief or encouragement on my behalf, or otherwise offered any support. I ceased to participate in the Missouri social work program after that semester.

As I review Kim’s assignment and my writeup now, years later, I find it rather remarkable. In the following document, I was providing a clinical self-dissection of an extraordinarily unfair and upsetting experience, and Kim was sitting there reading it. There was something Kafkaesque if not slightly Mengelian about the situation. I was a sort of insect that seemed to be having difficulty — an object of passing interest or perhaps entertainment.

The text of the assignment follows. The bold text presents Kim’s assignment; the regular text contains my response.

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SW7770 Case Assignment #2
Cognitive Assessment

Assignment is to be type-written and double-spaced. Due Date: 3/30. Select an event that led to an unpleasant emotion for you. Select an event that you will be able to do an in-depth dysfunctional thought record on for your assignment. (75 points).

1. Complete the Dysfunctional Thought Record (DTR) form on the selected event. This can be handwritten onto the form. (See supplemental reading on ERES that addresses evaluating automatic thoughts.)

(I have adapted the questions from the DTR form to fit here, so that I can type the answers rather than handwrite them. In writing these paragraphs, I am slipping between present and past tense, in a bid to preserve the original raw material from March 20 along with my subsequent comments on it.)

Choose one situation that impacted your automatic thought(s) and complete the following Dysfunctional Thought Record.

I want to address a situation that has generated thoughts that, at this moment, are quite powerful for me. In exercises in other classes, some students have used made-up situations rather than real-life scenarios of real significance to them personally. I have noticed that such students have not seemed to become very engaged with the exercise. In the interests of learning as much as possible from the current assignment, I am describing a situation of intense personal meaning. Doing so has the unfortunate byproduct of generating a lot of material, and making a lot of extra work for both me and the reader. But it is an interesting situation, and I hope the reader will find it interesting.

The situation that I have chosen for this assignment arises from today’s (March 20) experience of anticipating a meeting, sometime this week, with the Provost regarding Dr. Kreuger’s complaint against me. It goes without saying that, in providing the following information, I am placing considerable trust in the reader’s integrity and sense of confidentiality.

DTR Heading: Situation

What actual event or stream of thoughts, or daydreams or recollection led to the unpleasant emotion?

The Provost indicated by e-mail that he expects me to come into his office and meet with him this week. I have been amenable to that. The upsetting part is that he expects this even though, to my knowledge, there is no charge against me that might warrant calling me on the carpet. From the materials available to me, plainly Dr. Kreuger is upset, but he seems to have withdrawn his earlier rant about academic dishonesty. So I do not understand why this matter lives on.

What (if any) distressing physical sensations did you have?

Tension. Nothing specific, physically; just tension. For a while, I might have experienced some narrowing of my field of vision, as I became focused on the computer keyboard on which I relied to deal with this upsetting situation.

DTR Headings: Automatic Thought and Emotion

What thought(s) and/or image(s) went through your mind, and how much did you believe each one at the time? (0-100%) What emotion(s) did you feel at the time, and how intense was the emotion? (0-100%)

The situation just described generated a flood of thoughts and emotions. Certainly I understand that one word (e.g., illogical) might refer to thoughts, while another word (e.g., fearful) might refer to emotions. But it would be unrealistic to proceed as though the words controlled the reality. In my actual experience, I did not find that thoughts and emotions flowed in easily distinguishable channels.

Therefore, for purposes of understanding how to apply the DTR to actual clients, it seemed advisable to begin where the client is – with, that is, where I myself was. I was in a situation in which thoughts and emotions were mingled and were interacting with and reacting against one another.

According to the distributed pages of Judith Beck’s book, Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond, some patients, “despite the best efforts of their therapist, cannot or will not write down their thoughts and so rarely use” the DTR; also, “a patient may be overwhelmed by the format of the DTR” (p. 125). I am, perhaps, one such patient. As just described, I did not find the DTR very helpful, particularly at the outset, and particularly in regard to its black-and-white distinction of thoughts and emotions. (This comment, and other comments on the process, were added to this text on March 21 and 22.) In my experience in this particular case, emotions triggered thoughts and also arose from thoughts. As the reader will soon see, a precise cataloging of those interactions, in this case, would impose an overwhelming clerical task. (Beck (p. 135) anticipates this.)

To convert my flood of thoughts and emotions into manageable form, I decided to begin by simply summarizing what I was experiencing. This, I think, would be analogous to the introductory conversation with the client, in which we might discuss, to some extent, the nature of the basic problem. I organized this summary of my experience under six major headings, as shown below. Those headings are Suspicion, Fear, Humiliation, Dismay, Disgust, and Distrust. I produced those headings in that order. For example, I wrote Suspicion as one of the first things that came to mind; I described that aspect of my situation in mixed terms of thought and emotion; and then, when I realized that I was experiencing something else in addition to suspicion, I ended that paragraph and started with another heading. Collectively, I am going to thought-emotion clusters first, I am proceeding consistently with Beck’s indication that the columns of the DTR do not need to be filled out in order (p. 130).)

After writing the last of those six headings, I decided to write an e-mail message to the Provost. In the process of deciding what to say, I became aware of a second set of thoughts and emotions. I did not seem to have been immediately in touch with these, unlike the first set. Relatedly, I did not have as clear a grasp of their content. The headings that I came up with, within this second set, were Lack of Control; Flight/Refugee Status; Loneliness/Grief/Despair; and Anger. These comprise the Second Set of Thoughts and Emotions.

To move from that raw description to the concept of Automatic Thoughts, I went through several steps, as follows:

First, I think what happens, in this process, is that I am immediately intellectualizing my emotional reactions, to the extent I am able. That, I think, is what was happening as I generated the First Set. Then I begin to process the implications of those emotions in real-world terms. That is, I am then trying to figure out what will actually be happening, in my life, as a result of the new intellectual-emotional interpretation. That seems to be, roughly, the nature of the Second Set. It is, in essence, a look at the new realities, through the standing filters that I have named: suspicion, fear, distrust, and so forth.

When I saw that those filters were negative, my first reaction was that perhaps I simply use negative filters for negative experiences. But Kuehlwein (in chapter 6 of the Dorfman book, p. 132) describes the cognitive approach as asserting that this orientation toward the negative is part and parcel of the disordered schemas that need to be corrected.

The Second Set is relatively unknown to me, I think, because it represents the deeper fears, or it holds the worst-case scenarios that I was initially unwilling to confront, or that I might have hoped I would not have to awaken, but against which I now feel I must compare the conclusions I reached in the First Set.

(This way of looking at things poses the incidental thought that perhaps a given descriptor (e.g., Suspicion) is useful or applicable, not on some absolute, abiding basis, but rather according to the timeframe: it may have described an emphemeral state of mind or heart that seemed predominant at one point but merely illustrative or historical, or altogether tangential at another. Later, for example, I might have said that the problem I was experiencing was not really Suspicion but was, rather, Grief or something else from the Second Set.)

In light of the foregoing, it is interesting to contemplate Kuehlwein (p. 131), who says that, according to Beck, cognition is primary vis-à-vis emotion. The previous discussion suggests that, in my experience, cognition is primary, but only in the sense of being the tool that I hasten to apply to these enormous cauldrons of molten emotion. The cognitive tool may be relatively flimsy – those cauldrons would bend or melt it, if I expected this tool to carry and control, by itself, their extremes of weight and temperature – but as long as I understand that cognition is merely a tool, and do not confuse it with the weighty, overheated content, I might be able to use it to manipulate those cauldrons pretty well.

With that, I turn to the task of describing the thoughts and emotions in question. The reader may get the picture just by reading the summary headings, but I needed to describe them in more detail in order to remember, for purposes of subsequent review, what they felt like at the time. My writeup of those clusters of thought and emotion, prepared on the evening of March 20, was as follows:

First Set of Thoughts and Emotions

Suspicion. It is not that I know, or even think, that the Provost is out to get me. But he ignored my inquiry about applicable rules a couple of weeks ago, before I even knew that he was the Provost. That is, I had posed some questions to another person back then; that person had thought that this guy would have the answers; I contacted this guy; and he ignored me. Did he know, at that time, that this matter would be coming his way – and, if so, how? Who has he been talking to? Or was he not particularly interested in the question that I posed to him, such that my case is now a mere annoyance?

My suspicion, like the other thoughts discusssed below, fluctuated during the time in question, which was most of this afternoon (March 20). That is, I was preoccupied with this matter for several hours at least. To varying extents, I plainly have strong opinions on each of these points (i.e., suspicion, fear, etc.). On the topic of suspicion, I am pretty trusting and/or am inclined to search for the positive or the rationalization. So while I did tip over the line into genuinely doubting the Provost for a while, I probably believed this one less than 50% most of the time today. (As suggested above, that percentage is a moving target, in that the original concern (e.g., Suspicion) seems less important as I move on to second-level concerns – so that, at this writing, several days later, I would not have written about Suspicion first. and probably would have assigned it a lower percentage.)

Fear. The Provost is a law professor; what abusive concept of fairness might have seized hold of him during his years of practice? He is, essentially, my judge; there are all kinds of judges; and you always have to be afraid of what screwball things they are going to think, say, or do. Power tends to corrupt. Posner (a well-known judge whose book on jurisprudence I paraphrased, some years ago, in an attempt to understand his concept of justice) taught me that even the most highly respective judges have some very destructive ideas. The fact that this guy got irritated with me, just for asking some pretty straightforward questions about the process, makes me worry that he only wants to get me in there so that he can savage me according to some preexisting agenda. [I had had that kind of experience with judges while practicing law.] It goes right back to childhood, with my physically and psycho­logically brutal father holding a huge hand next to my face and threatening to hit me if I refuse to admit that I did something wrong that, in fact, I did not do. The terror was devastating – it was far worse than the actual impact, which rarely came. I did genuinely fear the Provost today, but not at all to the extent that I have feared some persons in positions of judgment. I would give this one around two-thirds, i.e., 67% – which is to say, odds are about two to one that I will have a bad experience in being judged.

Humiliation. A few weeks ago, I was the only male being inducted into the Phi Alpha honor society; now I am a bloody criminal. Dr. Watt wanted to lord it over me, working out his own anger at lawyers and incorrigibly assuming that I deserve to be treated as a target of his wrath; and the system (and my School) is totally standing behind that abusive man. He is the only one who is accusing me of academic dishonesty at this point; he has not even heard my side of it; but on the basis of his insertion of his own views into the matter, the Provost has a pretext on which to threaten me with severe punishment if I do not bow down to arbitrary authority. This is happening when nobody has specified anything, in my actions, that amounts to wrongdoing of any kind. I am nearly 50 years old and I am being treated like a bad little boy, by self-styled grownups who seem to be motivated by their issues, not mine. The childhood experience of being ridiculed in front of others has stayed with me; there is, all too often, some way or other in which this sort of experience winds up going in that direction. But I have gotten so used to this nonsense that it has lost some of its edge. This one was probably in the 60% intensity range today.

Dismay. The subtext is that I offended Dr. Kreuger by upsetting business-as-usual in his classroom, which consists of administering quizzes whose answers are ambiguous and confusing (and sometimes not even intelligible, due to typographical errors) in a way that just begs students to be tempted to cheat. And then he pretends not to understand how changing the quiz questions would reduce cheating! Dr. Kreuger is angry at me, specifically, because I have unwittingly forced him to change the quiz questions for once in God knows how many years; otherwise, students would have continued to be free to pass down the answers from last year to their friends this year, and so on, thereby helping the dishonest students at the expense of the honest. My preliminary research suggests that nobody thinks this is a good teaching practice. Yet Dr. Kreuger has the temerity to wrap himself in the raiment of the holy, looking down on me for being in some sense morally lacking. I was doing his job for him, trying to help students who are attempting to test out of the course, when he could not be bothered to give them any guidelines as to what they should study for the test-out exam; yet somehow I wind up getting the punishment – and at his behest. The injustice of it brings immediately to mind another childhood scenario, of being blamed for every dispute with my younger sister, no matter how egregious her behavior. This is the logical argument, and I don’t think Dr. Kreuger has a leg to stand on, so I guess I am in the vicinity of 90% here.

Disgust. Social workers are not going to stand for their principles when it is dangerous to do so, if they do not even have the courage or initiative to stand for their principles when doing so would be relatively easy. I am finding myself thinking something that, a year ago, I would have considered unthinkable – that lawyers might actually be more principled than social workers. To my knowledge, not a single one of the faculty members responsible for this process has striven to make it a fair process, conducted by the School’s own rules and in accordance with their professional obligations. Then again, since I doubt that most people are as righteous as they like to believe, including myself, I am not entirely confident that I belong in a position of disparaging others for their cowardice, about which I could conceivably be wrong (though I doubt it) and in which I might not be any better (though I think I am, as evidenced by the fact that I am able to stand up against this establishment). I am also generally suspicious of self-praise, and I think I might have a different opinion if I had more information. So I probably believed this one somewhere around 55-65% today.

Distrust. I was Dr. Kreuger’s star student, getting the highest score in his research class last year. He loaned me books on qualitative research. I solicited his friendship. If he can turn against me like this, despite my very sincere and repeated apology, for no reason other than that I unintentionally made him do some extra work; and if all these other platitudinal professors can dump me and their own alleged principles at the drop of a hat; and if, as I have been denying to myself all year (but as now seems to be the case), a substantial number of my classmates would not dream of standing up for one another – if this is the nature of the beast, then one side of me says that I had better learn the rules of the game, close in, and treat it as every man for himself. But that harks back to the topic of disgust; I really don’t want to be like that, and I don’t think that, ultimately, I will need to; so I imagine this one is around 40%.

Second Set of Thoughts and Emotions (prepared an hour or two later)

Lack of Control. I mean this as an emotion in the sense that fear of falling is an emotion. It is a raw, gut instinct. Lack of control means that, because things aren’t going ideally, the foregoing clusters of thought and emotion are getting triggered. It is as if I slipped off the tightrope and am now falling through a whirlwind filled with demands, reactions, rules, and other flying debris that, collectively, is stripping away my preferred sense of balance – my sense that I am proceeding where and how I wish. The realization that I was going to have to go see the Provost, totally exposed, without any clear reason for why I had to do so, and with the humiliation of having been abused again by the father-like Dr. Watt – this brought to mind the awareness that this might be another one of those experiences where someone is going to wreck my world, according to some through-the-looking-glass rationale that makes no sense but that no one will permit to be seriously challenged. While I can show some uncertainty about the foregoing thoughts (e.g., those related to suspicion), there is no denying that I spent several stressful hours of my afternoon writing a letter that will not be sent and otherwise wrestling with this frightening reality, in a bid to somehow get my arms around it or deal with it. I think the intensity of this particular thought or feeling was probably about 90% today.

Flight/Refugee Status. This, too, is a gut instinct underlying some of the foregoing, relatively cognitive reactions. Here, you come face-to-face with the extremes. I think what makes these seem more emotional is that they are not assertions of e.g., overly pessimistic fact; they are, rather, better posed as questions – as unplanned, random explorations of the vast realm known as Worst Case. Like, Why don’t I just give up? What if I drop out of school? What if I am forced out? What if the Provost puts a hold on me, so that I cannot register for classes this autumn? What if he puts some kind of permanent stain on my record? What if these professors really are all plotting against me, or laughing about me behind my back? What if they, or perhaps only a cunning, gossiping minority of them, have set up a scheme to ensnare me, so as to get me thrown out of the school at the end where they somehow failed to prevent me (a lawyer, a Euro male, someone with weird ideas, someone who is full of himself, or whatever their stereo­type might be) from getting into the school in the first place? What if, after all these years, the career that I have finally come back to school to earn is taken away from me? Will I become homeless? Will I die? This general Flight/Refugee item, like the one describing Lack of Control, is a distillation of the worst-case scenarios of several of the thought-emotion clusters identified earlier. Like a predator, higher on the food chain, the poisons tend to accumulate here in more toxic concentrations. Since I did not seriously flirt with immediately packing up and heading for the coast, China, or Mars, I can’t give this one 100%, but it does describe the nagging category of undesirable outcomes that reminds me of a potentially unbearable, essentially hopeless life situation that I have left behind and do not wish to return to. I guess this was probably around 65-75% today.

Loneliness/Grief/Despair. I have worked so hard to become, at last, a success in something. I have wanted to believe in it. It is turning out so awful, and the people are seeming so horrible. I am alone in this thing, and as I get older and, in many eyes, more ugly, scary, and generationally alien, I have to expect that being alone in this sort of thing is going to be the norm, not the exception. Everything that I thought was good about me doesn’t seem to impress anyone. I have used up the time and money that I had to spare toward making a new start in life through this stupid School of Social Work, and it is amounting to nothing. Worse than nothing, if it produces a black mark on my record. It would have been better not even to try. This feeling is particularly bleak at its worst. I experienced that worst state only briefly, and that was several years ago. Today, it was probably only around 30%. But because it is such a terrible dragon, even 30% is pretty uncomfortable.

Anger. I probably would have admitted that I was angry on March 20 but, interestingly, I did not become clearly aware of this one until March 21. At that time, on March 21, I had the sensation of catching myself in a form of denial. I think the situation is that I long ago learned or concluded that anger was unacceptable, and have therefore built up a possibly imperfect cognitive control that reinterprets, channels, denies, or otherwise attempts to convert anger into other thoughts or emotions, or possibly into more intensity within those thoughts or emotions. When I do become aware of my anger, it generally tends to be late in the game, as if I am finally awakening and realizing that I have been wronged. For whatever reason, the belated awareness in this case is typical for me. I guess the reinterpreting/channeling mechanism must be working pretty well, because although anger may be one of the most fundamental of all of the emotional or thought-stimulating engines running in this race, it does not really seem very descriptive of my situation – certainly not as descriptive, anyway, as the other headings mentioned above. In practical terms, then, I guess my anger has probably been somewhere in the vicinity of 30%.

Detecting Automatic Thoughts

With those words, I completed my description of the experience. Now, what were its automatic thoughts? According to Kuehlwein, the “automatic” aspect means that the thoughts do not come “through conscious effort”; instead, they arise out of “deep, personal meaning-making structures” (p. 133). In lieu of extracting every last automatic thought from the foregoing pages, it seems appropriate to offer some examples that may capture much of the content under the various headings. Under the Suspicion heading, the most prominent automatic thought is along the lines of “I fear that the Provost is up to something.” Under Fear, there is an automatic thought that says something like, “The Provost is a lawyer, and lawyers are unfair, so the Provost will be unfair to me.” Under Humiliation, one automatic thought is, “I will feel ashamed as a result of the way in which they want to use their power.” Under Dismay, it is, “There is nothing I can do about their willingness to attack me unfairly.” Under Disgust, it is, “I am better than these social work phonies.” Under Distrust, it is, “I must remain aware of the threats posed by someone like Dr. Kreuger, whose genial veneer vanished pretty quickly on slight provocation.” Under Lack of Control, it is, “I cannot prevent the Provost from judging me without justifi­cation.” Under Flight/Refugee Status, it is, “My life is going to fall apart again.” Under Loneliness/Grief/Despair, it is, “I am always going to be alone in this sort of thing.” I did not identify specific thoughts under Anger, and am not sure there were any to identify, except as manifested or channeled into the foregoing categories. The challenge, with respect to these thoughts and others like them, is to decide whether they were, in Kuehlwein’s terminology, “adaptive” to the situation or, instead, “dysfunctional” (p. 133).

DTR Heading: Adaptive Response

What cognitive distortion(s) did you make? Define the cognitive distortion. The list (taken from class handouts): all-or-nothing thinking; catastrophizing; discounting the positive; emotional reasoning; global label; magnifying/minimizing; mental filter; mind reading; overgeneralization; personalization; “should” and “must” statements; tunnel vision.

(Note: the foregoing paragraphs describing thoughts and emotions were completed on March 20. But the foregoing paragraphs describing the process by which I analyzed these thoughts and emotions were written on March 21 and thereafter, after my meeting with the Provost, as were the following pages. In the following paragraphs, I have attempted to identify some but not necessarily all of the cognitive distortions that could conceivably have figured in the foregoing reactions.)

Suspicion. Mind-reading: I relied on flimsy evidence to interpret the Provost’s likely views. Discounting the positive: he was pretty agreeable and adaptable in his e-mail contacts; he did not seem like the type to be scheming with Drs. Kreuger or Watt; he does not appear to have any idea of what is going on over at the School of Social Work. Personalization: the man probably doesn’t give a hoot about me; he is probably just doing his bloody job.

Fear. Labeling: So what if he’s a lawyer? I’m a lawyer too. Not all lawyers are the same. If I’m not afraid of my own concept of fairness, why should I be afraid of his? Maybe he, too, would think Posner is dangerous. Mental filter: he got mad at me because I irritated him. It could really be my fault, just as he sees it. Emotional reasoning: the fact that I am afraid of him for getting mad at me and being a lawyer does not mean that he becomes an actual threat to me merely by dint of being a lawyer who got mad at me. Overgeneralization: not all judges are the same either. And I’m not actually sure that he got mad at me at all, though evidently some of my questions did tax his patience a tad.

Humiliation. Overgeneralization: Nobody except Drs. Watt and Kreuger has actually treated me like a convicted criminal, except for a few social work professors. Of course, people will not necessarily say things to your face; but you don’t do yourself any favors by making something out to be a bigger problem than it may really be. Classmates actually seem pretty supportive. Catastrophizing: As for “bowing down to arbitrary authority” – well, I suspect the University’s procedure would not stand up in a court of law, but you’ve got to be prepared for abuses of power in this country, and in the grand scheme of things this was a pretty minor one. It was just a conversation that had a few upsetting moments but turned out pretty much in my favor. I wasn’t ridiculed after all. All-or-nothing thinking: Dr. Watt didn’t achieve anything by this charade, other than to waste some of my time and upset me for a while. The behavior of responsible persons in the School of Social Work didn’t amount to much either. It has turned out to be more a matter of “shame on them” than of “shame on me,” and I think that is how others will see it too.

Dismay. The things that I wrote under this heading, coming later in the initial processing of my feelings, are harder to discredit. They are phrased somewhat less vehemently, and they express a point of view that I had already arrived at previously and which I characterized, last night, as having a 90% level of intensity. Probably the closest I could come to this, in the list of cognitive distortions, is mental filter: I was preoccupied with the common element of being placed in line for judgment when I did nothing wrong, and that single commonality triggered the feeling that I was going to be punished, that the punishment would be unfair, that nobody would give me an opportunity to request reconsideration or grant an appeal, and so forth – where, in this case, unlike the family scenario from several decades ago, there was not firm support for any of those other suppositions.

Disgust. Overgeneralization: These social work professors aren’t necessarily representative of social work professors in general, and social work professors aren’t necessarily representative of social workers in general. All-or-nothing thinking: The fact that no professors staunchly defend any of my rights in public opposition to other professors does not mean that no professors would defend my rights quietly, or that none have actually done so in discussions to which I am not privy, though there remains the problem that those defenders, if any, are willing to let met twist slowly in the wind. Labeling: Calling social workers (or even the social work professors in question) unprincipled may be an overstatement; they may firmly defend principles that matter to them. They need not defend every possible principle, in ways that I would prefer, in order to be fairly principled people.

(Having exercised my imagination to find evidence of multiple cognitive errors in the foregoing instances, I will proceed more summarily with the balance of my initial reactions.)

Distrust. Emotional reasoning: Because I feel betrayed or alone does not mean that I actually am.

Lack of Control. Catastrophizing: Plainly, my fears were far ahead of the reality. Nobody wrecked my world, and the Provost certainly did not come across as someone who was interested in doing anything of the sort.

Flight/Refugee Status. Most of the errors in this paragraph were already stated above. One that may be distinct has to do with the glimmer of extreme fears (e.g., being thrown out of the program, becoming homeless, dying), which again seems like catastrophizing.

Loneliness/Grief/Despair. The fears expressed in this paragraph were, again, a summation of how bad things might be if all of my worst fears, above, were true. Perhaps its chief characteristic is black-and-white thinking, in that the statement of worst-case possibilities overlooks the fact that, meanwhile, I am developing strengths, building credentials, accumulating experiences, and otherwise achieving some positive things as well as the negative, feared ones.

Use questions to compose a response to the automatic thought(s): What is the evidence the automatic thought is true? Not true? Is there an alternative explanation? What’s the worse that could happen? The best? What’s the effect of believing it? Of not believing it? What should I do about it? What would I tell _______ (a friend) if he or she were in the same situation? How much do you believe each response?

I think I have already responded to these questions, for the most part, in the foregoing discussion. It seems appropriate, however, to register some additional concerns and to explain what I think will happen next, if I pursue the cognitive approach in the present case.

In searching for signs of cognitive errors as just demonstrated, I became aware that many of the cognitive distortion labels boil down to the general premise that the client is simply inclined to overindulge the negative. The specific distortions are essentially attempts to identify different specific ways in which the negative gains the upper hand. The identifications (e.g., “overgeneralizing,” “catastrophizing”) are pejorative – that is, they seem designed to belittle the negativistic predilection. As such, they contain the possibility of belittling or dismissing the client’s valid concerns along with the invalid ones – and, in the process, of belittling the client him/herself, if I (as therapist) get too far out in front of where the client actually stands. I do the client a disservice if I approach his/her problem with the prejudicial belief that every client is making cognitive errors that I, with my superior intellect or training, can detect (or can help him/her detect) and remedy. Expressed differently, The Power of Positive Thinking [for example] is a worthy book, but it is not capable of saving the world singlehandedly.

My self-challenges, above, do not have the ring of gospel; rather, they are arguably valid points in an internal debate that continues over the years. If I am negatively inclined – or, better phrased, to the extent that I am negatively inclined – I can expect myself to have a retort to a number of the foregoing dismissals. My retorts may or may not be logically valid; further application of the list of cognitive distortions will presumably be needed to learn more about that. But even if logically invalid, they may arise to some extent out of my interpretation of my own experience, possibly flavored by depression or some other malady. To the extent that that is so, I would think that identification of cognitive distortion – the search, that is, for the difference between thoughts that are adaptive and those that are dysfunctional – might eventually have to address, not only the immediate circumstance (i.e., this March 20 experience of being upset about the Provost), but also the interpretation of past experience that inclined me to react as I did to that immediate experience. Otherwise, I may be unrealistically expecting the experience of a few weeks of therapy to override the accumulated (albeit distorted) interpretations of decades of previous experience.

Having expressed those concerns, I would say that, in general, I think I am probably the kind of client who has already incorporated elements of the DTR into my internal dialogue. I do not think such a client would stay with me [as therapist] if I approached the project rigidly, minimizing or overriding his/her existing capabilities (that is, his/her strengths) in the name of performing exactly the specified steps of the DTR in exactly the prescribed order.

The central task, as I understand it, is to train the client to challenge maladaptive thoughts by applying pejorative labels to various manifestations of an overly negative outlook. The facts that my self-questioning has brought The Power of Positive Thinking to mind, and that I have just cited that book in a nearly sarcastic way, suggest that I felt, at that point (i.e., a few moments ago), that the next task, in my case, may be to explore whether a negativistic tendency derives, not from mere cognitive error on the level of the particular incident (whether, for example, I was wrong in being suspicious in merely this one instance), but rather from some fondness for the negative, or some comfort or familiarity with it, on some less ephemeral level.

DTR Heading: Outcome

How much do you now believe each automatic thought? (0-100%) What emotion(s) do you now feel? How intense is the emotion? (0-100%) What will you do (or did do)?

It seemed beneficial, as I was going through this exercise, to juxtapose the stressful situation against the cognitive evaluation by writing the first section (pertaining to the stressful situation) on the day when I was experiencing that stress, and then writing the second section (containing the cognitive evaluation) on a day when I had already gotten past the meeting with the Provost and was no longer much concerned with it. I think that juxtaposition was indeed useful, for purposes of highlighting just how stark the contrast could be – how silly and overblown my fears could seem in retrospect.

I wish, though, that I could also have had the luxury of undertaking a cognitive examina­tion of some such set of fears and putatively dysfunctional thoughts on the same day – critiquing them, that is, while the stress was still active. I think now that doing so might have been more effective in showing me what it is like to confront a maladaptive thought when that thought still holds sway over me – when it does not seem silly in hindsight. Doing so would also have presented a more realistic client situation; after all, clients are not going to be coming to me for help with problems that, to them, seem silly in retrospect.

Because of these factors of timing, I cannot say how much of the change in my viewpoint is due to the cognitive treatment, and how much is due to the mere dawning of a new day. Or, more accurately, I can say that I do not think the cognitive treatment accomplished much beyond giving me a general reminder of the possibility that I was being overly negative, along with a vocabulary of ways in which negativity can occur (e.g., catastrophizing).

But, like most people, I have been negative at times in the past. Also, probably like most people, there may be some regards in which I automatically gravitate toward a negative interpretation in the present. Or at least, one thinks, that would tend to be true of many clients. Why does negativity persist despite the availability of books like The Power of Positive Thinking? Indeed, why do such books become almost a joke among the habitually negative, or during people’s bouts of negativity?

I think part of the answer to that may come from the fact that, according to the [assigned reading], the DTR is designed to be used as part of ongoing homework, not just – as we are using it – as a one-time fix. [The reading] also specifies that the client must believe in the cognitive model, but says that this is important just so that the client will understand the importance of distinguishing thoughts from emotions; but the present case makes me ask whether the event-oriented use of the cognitive model can effectively access the roots of negativism. Finding an answer to that question may require a look at core beliefs, which I will undertake in the next section.

2. Upon completing the DTR form, summarize the information in a type-written narrative that could be presented as an assessment. Apply cognitive therapy concepts (e.g., the cognitive model, Socratic questioning, etc.) that you have learned in class. (Refer to lecture powerpoint slides, handouts, and readings.)

Kuehlwein (pp. 138-139) responds to the concern just mentioned by recommending that the client first have a complete DSM-oriented workup, as well as an assessment of historical background variables, and also that there be ongoing effort at symptom assessment through weekly administrations of e.g., the Beck Anxiety Inventory. In that view of the cognitive approach, the present lack of such information precludes the preparation of a comprehensive assessment here.

Armed with such information, and especially as therapy progresses, Kuehlwein contemplates a transition from event-driven applications of cognitive therapy, of the type undertaken here, to an investigation of “larger patterns and deeper beliefs (conditional assumptions and core beliefs)” (pp. 140-141). That seems to be exactly what the foregoing paragraphs call for in this case as well. It would perhaps not be too surprising if, to some irregular extent, a client with some tendency toward introspection or self-awareness (e.g., myself) may be inclined already to look beyond the single event, as examined in the DTR, toward larger patterns of some sort. Thus, while this document cannot draw upon the resources mentioned in the previous paragraph, at least it can undertake some questioning, in an attempt to grope toward some of the conclusions that such resources might have suggested. The preceding pages have already supplied some such conclusions.

The class handout on Socratic Questioning purports to describe such questioning in terms that are applicable to all disciplines. This opens the handout up to challenge. That is, I do not think it captures the essence of the Socratic method. (A few years ago, I wrote a plain-English restatement of Plato’s Republic (as evinced by a Google search for Woodcock and those terms) and, in the process, had the opportunity to become familiar with the Socratic method – which, of course, my professors had also used extensively, although sometimes in a harsh, non-Socratic fashion, in law school. I also had an opportunity to become somewhat exposed to Socrates as an undergraduate philosophy major and student of classical Greek.)

What is described in that handout is a general description of critical inquiry that is not uniquely Socratic. In a Google search for “Socratic Questioning,” I find that the Delta State webpage represented in that handout comes up second on the list, but I also find that a more accurate summary of the Socratic method arises a bit further down the list, on Piet Hut’s webpage, which quotes Aristotle as saying, “It was the practice of Socrates to ask questions but not to give answers, for he confessed that he did not know.”

Stated thus, an attitude of Socratic questioning could inject valuable humility into the therapist’s search to understand the client. Rather than assume that the DSM, the DTR, or some other tool can accurately pigeonhole the client, a Socratic approach recommends approaching the client in a frame of mind suitable to what Piet Hut calls “a true beginner,” regarding the question of what the client is really all about. While that attitude should underlie a good assessment, it does not provide substantive material at this stage of this assignment. It could, however, help to generate material in explorations (or even self-explorations) based upon the analysis provided here. Certainly I like to think that the analysis throughout this document has displayed traces of the more general approach to critical inquiry suggested in the “Socratic Questioning” handout.

Meanwhile, the “Cognitive Conceptualization Diagram” handout does have some important immediate uses. In line with Kuehlwein’s suggestions, above, it indicates that the inquiry begins with relevant historical data about childhood experiences that contributed to creation and maintenance of a dysfunctional core belief. Data of that sort, emerging from the foregoing description of my thoughts and emotions during the stressful period described in the first pages of this document, support the conclusion that the client here (namely, I, if I may slip into the third person for this part) may associate judgmental situations – that is, situations in which someone is critically examining his prior words or actions – with physically and emotionally brutal childhood experiences.

A relevant core belief appears to be that people who sit in judgment on the client are certain, or are at least uncomfortably likely, to bring personal or global biases to the task, or to have a preexisting agenda against which rationality and fairness will not prevail. On the condi­tional level, the client is able to ameliorate the resulting anxiety by reducing unknowns – that is, by increasing his sense of control over, or adjustment to, the biases or other undesirable realities of the judgment situation. His preoccupation with judicial processes, which is so strong as to inspire him to paraphrase an entire book by Judge Posner, may reflect an attempt to fortify himself with information about the varieties of ways in which that judge in particular, or judges in general, may commit logical errors or may otherwise be called into question.

In the present case, the client was anxious because the Provost – the person who, he anticipated, would be sitting in judgment on him – appeared to have become mildly iritated with him. This, by itself, may have been the catalyst for a nearly overwhelming cascade of what he calls “thought-emotion clusters” that were evidently hanging in the balance, waiting to be trig­gered by some major or minor event like this. Whether those clusters are always hanging out there or were, instead, erected in recent days or weeks, in response to the developing case involving Drs. Kreuger and Watt, is not yet clear. Either way, however, it would seem that this situation could have a deleterious impact upon the client’s life.

These thoughts pose the question of whether the client might find it less stressful to be called into judgment before a profoundly biased judge, than to enter a chamber where the judge’s position is unknown, because the latter might encourage hope that may then be cruelly dashed, in which case the client will be emotionally defenseless. If the bias were known to him in advance, he might be terrified; or he might make mental or experiential adjustments (e.g., obtaining reassurance from a friend that s/he, at least, knows that the judge is biased and that a negative outcome will not change his/her views of the client). This hypothesis does not jibe with his appraisal of Dr. Watt, who he did feel was predisposed against him and whose judgment he nevertheless avoided determinedly; but perhaps the resolution is that he reasonably tries to avoid situations of judgment to the maximum extent possible, and then erects defenses against anticipated judicial biases where escape is not an option.

The client’s efforts to gain control over situations of judgment, or to become adjusted to them, may yield some positive effects. He may, for example, have an above-average inclination to avoid or challenge judgmentalism or hypocrisy, given his apparent doubt that judging other people, or comparing oneself favorably against them, is a reliably valid process. On the negative side, on a practical level (as distinct from what ideal justice might dictate), he may counter­productively irritate the judge, as appears to have happened here, by striving to nail down details that the judge may consider trivial or may not be inclined to discuss in advance. In that sort of situation, the client’s fears may become self-fulfilling prophecies. Another negative conse­quence is that, in this case and probably in others, he spends these huge amounts of time agonizing over outcomes and possibilities, many of which are doubtless based on real experience and expressive of major concerns within his life – but which would perhaps not need to be addressed, at this time, if he were not quite so hung up on the impending situation of judgment.

The apparent fear of judgment sounds much like the example provided on pp. 156-157 of Beck’s book, where a client demonstrated all-or-nothing thinking in which the only options were superiority or failure. Here, the first glimmer of a negative judgment apparently evoked a slippery slope from which, to him, the certain outcome would be eventual and complete disaster. In these regards, the client displays feelings of being powerless, out of control, and otherwise unable to save himself from the inexorably destructive process of judgment. These terms evoke the “helpless” category of core beliefs that Beck (pp. 168-169) identifies.

These observations about judgment are not the only observations that arise from this case, but they seem to strike near, or on, many of his concerns, and might be an appropriate place to begin exploration. In light of the client’s “Second Set” of reactions, though, I am not confident that the identified fear of judgment constitutes the bedrock issue, or at least not the only one arising from the available information. The abusive childhood background, and his mention of “Lack of Control” and of a profound exposure to “Loneliness/Grief/Despair” a few years ago, combine to suggest that negative judgment itself is a concern partly (or maybe entirely) because it strikes upon something deeper, relating perhaps to abandonment or other rejection. Judgment could logically trigger that sort of concern – consisting, as it does, of a direct and potentially far-reaching official statement of exclusion of the person from some aspect of society.

That interpretation certainly meshes with the client’s apparent initial resentment of being treated like a “criminal.” It does not mesh so well, however, with his seeming resistance to “arbitrary authority”; one would think that a person so concerned with rejection would toe the line pretty precisely – would not dream of railing against authority. One possible explanation is that, perhaps linked to his fear of judges, he despairs of being able to satisfy authority. In any event, there is certainly enough material here to raise the question.

The underlying concept that distinguishes Beck’s category of “helpless” core beliefs from her other category of “unloveable” core beliefs seems to be that the former relates to proficiency within the workaday functioning in the world, while the latter evokes warmth, affection, and other positive emotions – or, rather, the lack thereof. Seen that way, Beck’s statement, “I am bound to be rejected,” from this “unloveable” category, sounds like a pretty direct summary of the client’s reactions to the prospect of being judged by the Provost. He does not seem to believe he is genuinely “bad” or “unworthy,” which are other terms from that same category, but it is possible that he would protest so vehemently against such findings precisely because he fears that he actually might be, and that a judge, in particular, is going to say so.

Otherwise, a number of his comments match terms from Beck’s “unloveable” category, including “uncared for” and “abandoned” (in his complaint about social work professors not standing up for principles that would help his cause), and “different” and “unlikeable” (in his concerns about being ridiculed or ganged-up on by some of his professors, and his list of reasons why he thinks some professors did not want to let him into the school in the first place, which include having “weird ideas,” being a lawyer and Euro male, etc.). Because of the intensity with which he describes these factors in his Second Set – and especially the ones pertaining to being “unwanted” and “alone” – I am inclined to think that his functioning within the world (that is, his status within the “helpless” category of core beliefs) is not ultimately as close to his heart as is his status within the “unloveable” category.

In short, the client’s automatic thoughts point to core beliefs of both the helplessness and unloveability varieties, where the latter are apparently preeminent. Again, without exhaustively cataloging all intermediate beliefs that the client’s various automatic thoughts may imply, it may be appropriate to identify one automatic thought and elicit its related intermediate belief by asking what it means to the client. A provocative one arises under the client’s Lack of Control heading, where the automatic thought he identified was, “The Provost wants to judge me without justification.”

There are several beliefs there, pertaining to the Provost and to the concept or experience of unjustified judgment; but the one that may be most directly related to the client’s sense of self-preservation is, “I cannot endure being judged without justification.” I see that this belief shares the grammatical format of items described, in my notes and in the texts, as automatic thoughts. In my way of coming at it here, it seems secondary to a perception about the Provost’s intent: that he does not merely want to judge the client, but that the client believes he is willing to do so without justification. But for purposes of the assignment, perhaps I should say that the automatic thought is the one stated in this paragraph. In that case, the intermediate belief – pointing to a core belief that the client is unworthy or eminently rejectable – is along the lines of, “When someone wants to judge me without justification, they are trying to accomplish a preconceived agenda, hostile to me, against which I have no possibility of defense.”

Socratic questioning could be useful to explore situations in daily life in which that belief is not borne out. Also, given the client’s relative awareness of his cognitive distortions, role-play (including rational-emotive role-play) might be an appropriate tool with which to bring home to him the maladaptive nature of his intermediate beliefs, and also to explore their origins. It could also be quite useful to use others as reference points – asking him, essentially, how it is that other people do not seem to share his reactions to situations of judgment. Perhaps the most useful tool, for dealing with the issue of unloveability, would be to encourage him to engage in “as-if” be­havior, so as to defeat the possibility of a vicious circle in which he haplessly behaves in a more rejectable (or perhaps judgeable) way because of his fears of being rejected or judged. There may also be some possibility for behavioral experiments in which the client exposes himself to judgmental situations of various degrees of manageability, instead of running from them.

3. Complete a coping card that is based on your discussion of the adaptive response.

Automatic thought: “I cannot endure being judged without justification.”

Adaptive response: It’s not the judging I mind. That’s just like taking an exam. It can actually feel pretty good if I come out smelling like a rose – if, say, the judge decides in my favor and says positive things about me. What I mind is not being judged; it is being threatened. But I have been wrong about some such situations – thinking that a person sitting in judgment was out to get me when they really weren’t. My bigger enemy is the self-fulfilling prophecy – being so worried that I act weird or irritate the person. Instead, I need to focus on putting my best foot forward. I can do a pretty good job of that when I try. There will still be unfair judges, but I have survived them all. I have also learned valuable things from being exposed to them – wanting, for example, to be less judgmental myself. Also, if I handle my side of the judging situation honorably, I have a better chance of earning more sympathetic treatment when I appeal to some higher person or seek assistance in reducing the pain that the unfair judge inflicts.