An Unexpected Twist


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By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

I clung to the black steel ladder forty feet off the ground as best I could, repositioning the oversized leather gloves that my wet, sweaty hands were swimming inside of.   I looked up but not down.  Never look down when you are climbing a seven story ladder. Thirty more feet to go. My sons were ahead of me and my friend and her daughter behind.  Individual harnesses attached to a steel cable astride the ladder kept us safe from death if not bruises and fear. We were in the final stretch of an eleven course zip line in Guatemala.

This whole week had been one uncomfortable experience after another.  Our first night found us sleeping in a pantry in a Guatemalan house with no hot water, a barking dog, and two tiny single beds for me and my two children.  We transitioned to another home stay, but still tossed and turned in a boiling hot room on mattresses that would have been garbage north of the border.  The city of Antigua lacks almost all grass and trees, and as a result airborne dust permeates skin, clothes and hair from the moment one steps out of the shower.

All this because years ago I saw my sons were getting an imbalanced picture of the world. One based on comparing their possessions to television actors and other American children rather than humanity at large. It made me mad and worried to be raising youngsters who thought they should each have their own latest model I-phones just because they wanted them.

A trip to a developing country with a home stay and a language immersion program would be just the ticket to resolve this little prince syndrome. A dear friend agreed to go and to bring her daughter along as well.  My boys balked at the idea so I offered the compromise of ending the trip with a fancy hotel and then added the zip line experience to boot.

And so we found ourselves climbing a steel frame high in the air. I was terrified and sweaty but also somehow triumphant.  I used the same skills I teach my clients of positive self talk to get through. “You can do it!” I told myself, “I got your back.” Weirdly telling oneself that you have your own back–as three-dimensionally impossible as this promise may be—is greatly reassuring. I ascended to the wooden platform and sat down while cheering on the others.

The day after our return one of my sons looked around our house and proclaimed, “We are so lucky.”  During our trip we had seen a pre pubescent child singlehandedly running his family bodega late on a school night and a teenage boy sent around to beg for stale bread. We saw babies and toddlers hanging out in the street all day while their mothers sold handicrafts from large baskets balanced on their heads.  We heard the stories of our Spanish teachers who lived with parents in surrounding villages in order to make ends meet.  Even in the relative affluence of our hosts’ home there was not enough food at meal time.  There were positive experiences as well: The people were friendly and kind, the city was beautiful, with ancient churches and Spanish architecture.

We returned gloriously awake to the lifestyle we take for granted. The washing machine was praise worthy. A trip to the grocery store: exquisite. The backyard so lovely I could kiss each tulip.

I am trying to hold on to these lessons about unearned good fortune and gratitude.  So in the end, it turns out the trip was at least as much for me as it was for my children.

Slow Learner


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by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW, MSW

I am not a fast learner.  I make mistakes and suffer consequences and then just to be sure to get that particular lesson through my thick skull I go ahead and make the same or a fractionally different mistake all over again.  It would be nice if this were limited to unimportant areas, say the proper elocution of African bush speak…but no.

When I was in high school I bought my first nice car. It was a dark blue Isuzu Impulse purchased from a used car lot. It had a kicking stereo system and sleek lines and I fell in love the moment I saw it. The Isuzu made me feel like a James Bond girl, dangerous and exotic. In fact the Isuzu was dangerous, but not in a sexy way. More like a trying-to-kill-me way.

Unbeknownst to me, it had been totaled in an accident by the previous owner.  (Things I didn’t know then: always ask “has this car been in an accident?”)  It had rear wheel drive and fat tires which caused it to fishtail wildly in rain or snow, two weather conditions which were steady in Minnesota. The tires were bald. The windshield wipers: nubs. The defogger barely made two ovals to squint through.

Then there were the problems that had nothing to do with the car: I didn’t trust auto mechanics and thought their advice about oil changes and maintenance schedules were a scam. I’d like to say this was just a rookie mistake but the Izuzu was my second car; my first one having been an even more mechanically impaired ‘69 Pontiac Sunbird.  I never got the oil changed, never had the coolant flushed or the battery replaced or the timing belt serviced. I drove my car in complete and utter neglect, getting it towed in to the mechanic for service only when it wouldn’t start.  And I did the same thing to the next car after that…As well as the next three cars.  I went through six cars and was thirty years old before I finally learned to track oil changes and schedule preventative maintenance.

In my work with clients I am struck by how impatient we can be with ourselves, with our learning process, with how easy it is to fall into self judgment and self criticism. It can be achingly painful to see the results of our mistakes, the opportunities lost, the connections broken, the sense of ease within our own lives that we all long for, unrealized.  Our pace of change never matches our impatient demand for it.

But if even I, slow learner that I am, can take care of a car, a mute, inanimate and uninteresting object, consider how much more fascinating and verbal and multifaceted humans are compared to cars, and know this: we can all learn how to take better care of ourselves.  We are all of us worth it.

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All of Us


Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

I’ve been thinking about freedom versus connection and how we are continually trying to live in balance between the two states of being.  Freedom is the ability to experience personal power; to act on our own behalf and make choices without the burden of consideration of others.  Connection is security: its being part of something larger than ourselves, being important to another person who is equally important to us, as well as expanding our understanding of the world via other perspectives and ideas.

To be our healthy we need both freedom and connection. In relationships we need to recognize that our own balance is not going to be the same as our partners.  My friend S tells me about how her husband listens to baseball on his transistor radio.

“I get mad at him because he’s not available when he’s listening to the games.”  She wants more connection and he wants more freedom.

Another friend tells me how her husband wants her to retire like he has so she can be more available to him but she doesn’t want to give up the stimulation of her work.

“I don’t want to sit around watching TV.” She wants more freedom while he wants more connection.

This happens in non-intimate relationships as well and to make matters still more complex, different people connect in different ways.

My friend K loves to chat on the phone.  I would rather get together than chat on the phone, but because K is a dear friend and I know her preferences, I will call and talk.  She would prefer we talked more often, and thinks of the phone as a valuable tool to enhance connection.  I prefer to use the phone as a tool to make plans to get together. Both of these are types of connection, but they are different.

There’s nothing inherently superior about freedom or connection.  There’s nothing inherently superior about the phone versus the coffee shop.  We all need to find ways to negotiate getting our own needs met interpersonally as well as individually and also-just as important-we need to expect that other people will have their own formula for this same balancing act.

It’s not all about you and it’s not all about me—it’s about all of us.

Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes


By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW, MSW

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One of my clients recently got their dream job and promptly had a full on freak out.  Another who had been desperately lonely fell in love and started having panic attacks. Another sold their start up for a significant amount of money and was haunted by the burden of managing it. If these folks sound unusual, they are not. Change pretty much sucks. Even good change, wanted change, positive change is weird and leaves us all a little spooked and sleepless.

During times of change and the resulting teeter-totter roller coaster it places us on, I try to remind myself that I am a collection of thirty trillion cells seeking homeostasis. On a cellular level, we crave stability and continuity, but on an intellectual and emotional level, we crave personal growth.

What’s a human to do? Do we capitulate to our biology and remain stagnant for maximum efficiency? (Hint: Oh.Hell.No!) Or do we tell ourselves that change is good AND frightening? (Um… as well as inevitable so you might as well stop fighting it).

When we are in times of change we need to expect discomfort. It helps to name it something friendly like “growing pains” and to greet that pain with all the compassion, faith and patience we would show our best friend if they were going through that very thing.

The Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz as well as the American poet Mary Oliver wrote some wonderful poems about this aspect of life that can be taken like medicine via a careful reading. Unlike many psycho pharmaceuticals, side effects of poetry-as -medicine include feeling better and becoming a more interesting person.

Journaling is ALWAYS a good idea, but especially when we are in transition because it provides a format to check in with ourselves.

Mindfulness practices like meditation and prayer provide another way to calm the inner turmoil during times of change.

Reaching out for support from a friend, family member, and/or professional support person such as a therapist, doctor, coach or just some kind and available person you happen to connect with can help provide you with time and space to think out loud (particularly crucial for the extroverts) and figure out your next steps.

Any way you find your way back to equilibrium, as long as it doesn’t involve addiction or arrest (because anything that gets you in trouble is not in service to equilibrium), I say make like a certain athletic footwear logo and go for it. (PS: My Jock Sister writes this clarification: “The logo is “Just Do It” you athletically challenged person.” Duly noted.)

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By the way, if you are a therapist in the Seattle area, I will be presenting at the November meeting of the Seattle Counselors Association on social anxiety disorder:

http://www.seattlecounselors.org/membership/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=2&products_id=49&zenid=fpaucpiu0j9dkmm6ohe56q65v4

Hope to see you there!

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“Well…Back In My Day” (Sound of Spittoon Being Used)


By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW, MSW

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I’ve been chatting with young people lately, thinking with them about the future and how to negotiate finding their own place within this big changing world economy. First a disclaimer: I don’t have a clue what it is like for today’s young adults.  Five million years ago when I attended university I had a salaried position working for the state lined up two months prior to graduation.

It seems like achieving financial and professional independence is happening later and later in life and this creates tremendous stress for all parties involved.  Young adults want to feel like they are contributing and not just taking from society. They want the satisfaction of traveling in a professional direction with a future. The parents of young adults want to relax and stop worrying about where their adult child will land.

The unprecedented rate of technological change has left many of us scratching our heads (Me, when I first got a cell phone and was talking with a client, at the end of the conversation: “Um…I don’t know how to hang up.”). The economic collapses of Enron, the mortgage crisis, the dot com bust, the housing bubble, Lehman Brothers, the bankruptcy crisis in Greece and Iceland etc…etc…means the landscape of our economy is volcanic and absent an oracle or a direct line to Warren Buffet it’s hard to know what to expect.

Add to that the overly fawning parenting culture we have entered, where talented children are told they are geniuses instead of told they must nurture whatever native skills they have with diligent effort for the rest of their lives.

I haven’t come up with any sweeping conclusions for my young adult clients, but I have a few principles I’d like to share:

  1. Don’t take out student debt for a hobby. A hobby is any major that is unlikely to support you. Creativity is a vital part of a rich and meaningful life, but rarely a reliable source of income. You can double major or minor in things like art, dance, and writing.
  2. Everything we learn is additive. It’s easy for me to assimilate new information about mental health theory and research because I have a lot of knowledge in that area. The more we learn about anything, the more easily we can learn.
  3. The world only wants your gifts if they benefits people/institutions outside of yourself. Discover that being of service is in itself a gift and not a burden.
  4. Be tech savvy unlike me. Don’t really know how to expound on this one except to say I feel like the smoker telling their kids “don’t smoke! It’s bad for you!” Technology and its endless iterations looks like it will be the major employer for the foreseeable future.

Also I just want to say: adulthood is delightful.  Sure you’ll have more responsibilities and less free time, but in exchange you’ll deepen your connections to other people and to your community at large and you will get to have amazing experiences like decorating your home and falling in love and throwing a successful dinner party and the quiet satisfaction of contributing to the greater good.