Why therapy works and why it fails

If I really knew how to answer those questions, I would write a book and go on the talk show circuit. I don’t think that any of my colleagues could honestly tell you that they can speak with confidence and explain this to you on the basis of the latest empirical studies. Human beings are simply too complex. Any study involves a myriad of variables including age, gender, family experience, genetics, education, socioeconomic group, ethnic background, religiosity, natural aptitudes and talents, type of community, size of home, sibling birth order, etc. Then there are the factors that bring these individuals to therapy. There are phobias and anxiety and trauma and anger and depression and relationships and identity issues. How will we ever figure out what works and for whom? However, I do have some thoughts based on my experience over the years.

Change in a human being usually results from changes that person chooses to make in his/her thoughts, feelings and/or behaviors. Change does not happen from merely sitting in a therapist’s office and listening to what they have to say. Recently I spoke to someone who told me, “I went to therapy and it didn’t help.” I asked her what her experience was. She told me that she had on several occasions presented herself to a therapist, spent one or maximum two sessions with the therapist, and then decided it wasn’t helping.

Well, of course not! What do you think she was imagining? Was she envisioning something which now is only a fond hope—that someday clients will walk into our offices and just the radiance of our presence will enlighten them on some subconscious level and suddenly their boss will become less critical, their children will begin achieving in school and their spouse will be offered a job that pays enough for them to buy a new house, boat, and a trip around the world? Can you imagine how much I could charge for that hour?

Alas, in the world of today, we are left with people needing to take responsibility for their own lives. They need to be able to make choices that lead them to thoughts, feelings and behaviors that enable them to be the kind of person they feel good about being and the kind that others are glad to know.

But it isn’t easy. People who are wounded need to learn to trust. If therapists are honest and caring, then they can become the first person that is trusted and later, the client can begin to trust some select others. But it also takes work from the client. If he/she says, “that’s the way I am; I simply don’t trust anyone and I don’t want to risk trusting anyone,” then no amount of therapy can help. The client needs to open him/herself to the possibility of change and to consider how that could be accomplished. Sometimes clients will take the plunge and begin to change almost immediately. Others will take weeks and even months before they are ready to give up old ways of functioning. The one thing I know is that if they are not willing to give up the old thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, they will remain stuck where they are. And as much as they may wish to blame their therapist, it is clear why the therapy didn’t help.

Brothers

I have three sons and two daughters. Raising these children involved mostly hard work, some frustration, and a lot of happiness. The most frustrating thing about raising my children was their negative interactions with each other.

When they played together, it was wonderful. They would devise all sorts of games and construct all sorts of structures that were creative and entertaining. They would build “marble machines” that were towers where one could put in a marble and it would roll through the structure turning in different directions and finally appear in a totally unexpected place, making the maximum amount of noise on the way down. The children would put on shows and do singing acts. They would race the pet mice in cars built of legos. They would prepare food treats and once made a whole party complete with a piñata they had worked on without any adult help.

But all was not idyllic. As in every family, there were children with different temperaments and personalities and sometimes they clashed. There were two who clashed more than other combinations. I remember wondering if they would ever be able to be friends. I used to say to them, “How will there ever be peace in the world if you can’t even get along with your brother?” One told me he was going to live in Israel when he grew up. The other responded that he was going to live in Alaska. I asked him, “Why Alaska?” He said, “Because it’s the farthest I can be from him where they still speak English.”

But as they grew, the differences seemed to mean less to them and they became friends. When one, and then the other got married, I had tears in my eyes, watching each of them truly happy for the other.

And this shabbat, both will be in the States in advance of a business conference they will be attending. They have left their wives and combined dozen children here in Israel and they will be spending shabbat at the home of one’s in-laws. And just the thought of it brings tears to my eyes once again. How very sweet and pleasant it is to see brothers dwelling together!

I don’t like to think about it

I have often wondered why it is that although I live in Israel and I follow the news closely, I rarely write about what is going on here. I think I have found a couple answers to the question. The first is that what is happening to us in terms of external threats is not pleasant. It is daunting to think that Iran has decided that it doesn’t want us to exist and that it is making plans and preparations for carrying out their final solution. It seems that only Israel and the US are taking them seriously. It makes me wonder how much good Holocaust education has actually done. All of the memorials in Europe to dead Jews don’t seem to have taught Europeans that when a people is threatened with extinction, that the threatener is deadly serious.

Instead, Europe is tripping over its own feet to apologize again and again and more and better for the cartoons that offended the Muslims. Whether of not they were in bad taste or offensive, to my small mind, seems beside the point. When I am offended I have ways of dealing with it that don’t involve destruction and violence. And were I to become destructive and violent, then I suppose I should be incarcerated rather than apologized to. But that’s only my thinking and what do I know about the world?

Meanwhile, AbbaGav has written a brilliant satirical piece in his blog http://abbagav.blogspot.com “Top 10 Discipline Tips for Unruly Children of the Jihad” that points out exactly what we are dealing with at our doorstep where we have an entity whose raison d’etre is our destruction.

Internally, we face a government that is rife with corruption. Our acting Prime Minister recently sold his Jerusalem home to someone’s offshore corporation for $2.7 million and is living in it for $2250 a month. Let’s see. We can all do the math. If we take off a zero, it becomes a bit clearer…. It is as if he is living in a $270K house for $225 a month. I’d say he got a pretty good deal.

One of his ministers has been advised by the attorney general, appointed by the head of his own party, Ariel Sharon, to resign because of charges of corruption, but he refuses to resign and has been given full support by the acting Prime Minister.

This, of course, is the same acting Prime Minister who sent police and army to bash in heads of Jews a couple of weeks ago in Amona. Bleeding heads of non-violent youth, people, including three Knesset members, who were brutally injured, pummeled in their stomachs with clubs, people who were trampled by horses, don’t seem to move the political establishment from their righteousness. Results of investigations into that documented, televised live on TV brutality are likely to be influenced by political pressure.

Is it any wonder that I would rather write about weddings and birthdays?

It all reminds me of a commercial that appeared on Armed Forces TV in Germany when we were living there in the late 1970s. A little girl is asked what she thinks about racism and she answers, “I don’t like to think about what I don’t like to think about.”

Birthdays

Today we will, among other things, be taking birthday gifts to the 4 year old twins. They account for two of the five February birthdays of our grandchildren, and then in March there are currently three more. This makes for a lot of trips to toy stores as the oldest of our grandchildren are 12.

Many of the trips are just plain fun. Each time we see new items that are more and more sophisticated. Of course, they are also more and more expensive. As our innumerate neighbor in Kentucky once said, “Anything more than three is many” and our corollary when we were traveling with our children became, “anything times five is expensive.” And now, we are buying for 20 grandchildren with more on the way, so these $75+ toys are a bit beyond us. So we look for the cute, clever, innovative toys and sometimes we get lucky and find them and other times, we continue looking.

A few days ago, we gave one 4 year old grandson his very own toy Black and Decker power drill. It was really cute. It was also really short-lived. After he had turned it on for five minutes, it stopped working. He brought it to me. I had no clue as to how to fix it. His father and grandfather got a screwdriver, opened the battery compartment and checked the batteries with a battery checker. They were fine. But the drill was not working at all.

So yesterday, we took it back, explained to the storekeeper exactly what had happened and asked for an exchange or credit. He proceeded to try to work the drill. It didn’t work. He took a screwdriver and opened the battery compartment and took out the batteries. We tried to tell him once again that the batteries were fine. He insisted on taking out his big box of stray batteries and trying a number of combinations of batteries and surprisingly, the drill still didn’t work. Finally he said, reluctantly, “Well, if you want to get a different one, you can.” The expression on his face seemed to say, “Stupid Americans; they want the toy to work too?” We went to the back of the store and found two identical drills. When we got them up to the front counter, each one worked a little. Sometimes when you turned the switch they turned. Sometimes, they didn’t. He assured us that it was fine that a toy could sometimes work and sometimes not, but we stubborn people actually wanted a toy that would work. After all, four year olds have enough trouble figuring out the world. They really don’t need to reason out the whims of an inanimate object. So we asked for a credit and bought two non-mechanical toys for two of the March birthdays.

But when I think of birthdays, I really don’t think of toys. I think about what a wonderful gift life is and how watching people grow from year to year is one of the greatest rewards of growing older myself. It’s a wonderful compensation for the emerging wrinkles as I see babies I held in my arms become parents and their babies emerge as individuals. One of my children once told me that he doesn’t like birthdays. “Why should I receive gifts? I haven’t done anything to deserve them.” I should have told him then that the gifts are an expression of gratefulness to the Creator for having given us life and that our celebrating our birthdays is one way of recognizing the wonders of His creation.

She called the chickens

Like other writers of blogs, I tend to pay attention to what searches people do that lead them to my page. Usually, I can figure out what they meant and how they got there. However, as on a few other occasions, today I am stumped.

Someone got to me with a search of “she called the chickens.” Aside from the fact that I don’t remember ever having talked about chickens in my blog, I am puzzled by what this person wanted to know. The first thought that comes to mind is that the person who was searching wanted to know WHAT she called the chickens. Did she call them Henny Penny and Chicken Little? It made me wonder what I would call a chicken if I had one. Perhaps “Dinner?”

Or was the person looking for a story about a farm with a motherly looking woman dressed in a checked apron, her hair in a neat bun at the nape of her neck, opening up the creaky screen door to call the chickens? What were they doing that required her calling them? I wonder if they were wandering out into the road.

Many years ago I used to drive my daughter to school each morning because her school was a good 40 minutes drive away and it was on my way to school when I was studying for my doctorate. There was a road that we used to drive on that more often than not had chickens walking by the side. Every once in a while, we would see feathers in the road and we would guess that not all of the chickens had successfully negotiated the traffic. But each morning, we enjoyed seeing the chickens and affectionately called the road, “Chicken Road.” Sadly, one day the chickens were gone and never returned, and from then on, we drove on “the road formerly known as Chicken Road.”

But could she have been calling the chickens for some other reason? Perhaps she wanted to paint a chicken painting and wanted them to come together to pose. Perhaps she missed their peeping. Perhaps she realized that the rain or snow was coming and she wanted them to be warm and dry.

We’ll never know. If the searcher finds out, perhaps he/she will tell us.

Shopping

Yesterday I went shopping. Now some women are natural shoppers because they are endowed with the shopping gene. But there are some women who have perfected shopping to an art form. I am not one of them. I have some of the traits: I can find a mall in a city I’ve never visited in less than 10 minutes. I never forget a shop. I know where which types of merchandise are located. I can remember the exact color of the dress I am trying to match. However, I do not have the trait of patience or the gift of endurance.

One amazing day in 1996 my friend (whose name I will not mention both to preserve her privacy and to save her from those who would demand her services) said to me that she was going to take me to buy a dress for my son’s wedding. (Fortunately, this happened just a few weeks before he was scheduled to get married.) Early in the morning we set out. She took me from one shop to the next. As I responded to what we saw, I think she was trying to figure out what I liked. I knew what I didn’t like. I didn’t like many of the colors of the dresses (I am very fussy about colors). When I found a nice color, I didn’t like the style. This dress was too open. This dress made me look like an old woman. This dress was too young. I drove her crazy. Hours later, she was still taking me from store to store. She didn’t give up. I thought I would drop from exhaustion. Then we found the dress. It was perfect. It was also the wrong color. She asked if they had it in another color. The answer was no. I thought it was a very good time to give up. She didn’t. On we went (she had driven; I had no choice.) We must have gone to another four stores when lo and behold, there was the dress. THE dress. It was the right style and in the right color. It was also on special and cost about 20% less than the exact dress in the other store. In my by then semi-comatose state, I thanked my friend, who I have crowned, shopper par excellence, for patience, endurance, and bravery above and beyond the call of duty.

And now here I am, several weeks from another wedding, trying to figure out how to find a dress in a country where people don’t get very dressed up for weddings or other occasions. I am always surprised (or as we said in the South, “tickled”) to see performers and weather people on TV here wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Last summer, we went to a classical concert at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center and one of those who took part in the very formal program was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and sandals—which prompted my sister to ask the question, “What WOULD he get dressed up for?”

So this isn’t an easy place to shop for fancy clothes. But I decided to check out the local stores first. As I went from store to store, I noticed that all of the clothes were for people under the age of 30. I began to formulate in my mind what I would say to a salesperson if I were asked what I was looking for. I decided that I would say that I was looking for something appropriate for someone my age. Of course then I started to grin as I imagined a well-meaning salesperson bringing me a shroud. The concept didn’t work, though. I was still shown ruffled skirts and belly shirts. But this was just the first foray. As John Paul Jones’ wife said, “I have not yet begun to shop!”

Limits

Last night I was talking to my son about childrearing. To my amazement, I think my children all are doing a wonderful job of raising their children, each in their own way, so it was not a discussion where I was giving advice, merely a talk about what seems to work best. He said that he was convinced that the most important reason for a parent to set limits is that limits make children feel secure. Children actually want limits.

I have to agree (after all, he learned that from me!) Children feel secure if they know what they may and may not do. They feel happy and in control of their lives if their parents have told them what actions will have what types of consequences and then enforce them. Of course consequences can also be good. If a child knows that helping to clear the table will earn him a special story or helping to fold the laundry is good for some cookies and milk, then he is able to choose a behavior that will yield him a reward. The key to this type of security is consistency. If parents consistently provide rewards that have been promised for certain actions and punishments that have been defined for others, then children begin to understand that what they do matters. The child learns: “It is not just whether Mom and Dad are happy with me, but I am able to arrange for good things for myself if I put in the effort.” For after all, isn’t that the way the world works? When we do something good that requires a lot of effort, there is usually a reward at the end. Sometimes it is monetary, sometimes it is something tangible, and sometimes it is the satisfaction of a job well done.

For children, knowing what’s permitted and what’s not is a key to their making sense of the world and to understanding that it is not just a random place where things happen for no discernable reason. Having limits that are clear and consistent provides them with opportunities for self-efficacy and with feelings of security.

Although I was fairly consistent as a mother, I remember having that important lesson taught to me once again as one day I was driving with my then 11 year old and he said to me, “the same thing happens to Scott as happens to me.” I asked him what that was and he told me, “Scott does bad things and his parents still give him good things.” He said it in such a way that it was clear to me that he didn’t understand why that would happen. For him, receiving ood things after he had misbehaved was not a gift of love, but something that confused him. I began to appreciate even more that I had before that limits are of vital importance, not just for teaching children how to act, but for enabling them to make sense of the world.

Flexing my muscles

It’s a sunny Sunday morning and I have been doing windows. Actually, before you begin to think that it means I am a good housekeeper, I must tell you that we have had approximately 10 grandchildren born since I last did the outside of a window. But it does, nonetheless, feel good and it’s nice to know that there are real trees and houses and streets outside that I had never actually seen before.

The occasion of the cleaning, for after all, let’s face it, it takes an occasion of major importance, is my daughter’s upcoming marriage. As I began to look at the house through the eyes of my expected visitors, I realized that clean windows might be a nice touch. I most likely will attack the dust on the bookshelves and books not to mention the blades of the ceiling fans. Who knows, even another coat of whitewash (we’ve never gotten around to painting the walls with real paint) is possible. After all, giving birth to her was the easy part, raising her, a bit more of a challenge, but getting ready for the wedding gives me the opportunity to flex my muscles in a new and literal way. After all, this is the last of the children to marry. I have to get it right this time.

So on go the gloves. The bleach is at the ready. Every mirror will sparkle; every dust bunny will be evicted. This is a full-scale operation. All visitors between now and the wedding will be issued cleaning supplies and expected to use them.

Or at least that’s the way I feel today.

Inanimate Objects

I have finally gotten some of the items I needed to do out of the way. I cleared a couple of shelves in the walk-in closet and put in a couple of loads of laundry, washed the breakfast dishes, and watered the plants. I sat down to write, having no idea what it was that I wanted to say when all of a sudden I heard something fall in the kitchen. I could have gotten up to see what it was and perhaps I could have seen without getting up if I strained myself enough to lean forward and look around the corner, but I am convinced it is just another one of my household items that is bound and determined to drive me crazy.

Years ago my husband and I observed “inanimate objects aren’t.” They seem to have a life of their own. Socks, for example, escape during the washing process and frequently take off with the mate of another, not unlike some humans I have heard about. Pencils and pens disappear precisely one minute before you need them. It is useless to search since they are practiced at rolling to the least accessible floor location possible. Leftovers in the refrigerator hide behind other foods and never appear when you need a quick snack, but they miraculously reappear when you are looking for something to serve guests and usually they have by then taken on a blue or green fuzzy appearance. Let’s not even talk about Legos, of which there are never enough for your child to build what he has been working on, but always enough to appear under a bare foot in the middle of the night. How many thousands of dollars of Legos did I throw away for just that reason before I found out that ounce for ounce they are more precious than gold?

So when I heard something fall in the kitchen, I thought: “does it really pay to look?” It didn’t sound as if anything broke, at least not glass, and who knows, when I pick it up, I may find a couple of unmatched socks or perhaps a pen.

Reflections

OK, I really do understand why I am so elated about my daughter’s engagement. After all, I carried her for nine months and 12 days (but who’s counting), I lived through her colic, and heard her first words, and I took her to nursery school the first day. I remember her innocence and her trust in others and her vulnerability. I remember her sweet little smile and her bouncy walk as she went to kindergarten. I saw her grow up overnight, able to understand the concepts of family therapy as she listened in on conversations with my colleagues. This is the little girl who at 7 remarked to one of my colleagues, “Good metaphor, Dell!” I watched her grow through high school, graduate, and pack herself up to make aliya. I was with her as the plane touched down and tears filled her eyes and she looked at me and said, “I’m home.” I watched her dance with joy at her siblings’ weddings and now, she is looking forward to her own.

All this I understand. It is logical. It is sensible. Every mother wants happiness for her children.

But why do I feel such a sense of happiness for her fiancé, someone I hardly know? Of course I think that he will be a very happy man, married to someone who is full of love, who is giving and caring. But it is more than that. When I see him, I smile. His face is kind. His voice is gentle. Maybe my happiness comes from seeing the reflection of her in his eyes.

May they always reflect each other– the sparkle in their eyes, the kindness of their souls, the sweetness of their love.