Inhabiting Solitude


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By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

“All I want to do is eat chocolate cake and sleep.”

“I accidentally tried to hug my neighbor whose brother just died, and she shrank back like I was a cobra.”

“Some guy told me to stop petting his cat.”

These are weird times.

My therapist friends and I have all been messaging each other about the transition to telehealth in response to the pandemic.  We miss the immediacy and vibrancy of in-person sessions. Between audio glitches and freezing screens, we miss the ease that being in the same room as our clients provided. Like all of us, we are doing our best, figuring it out as we go along.

None of us know how long this situation will last. We don’t know how bad it will get. We don’t know if all of our loved ones will survive. We don’t know if the supply chain will be interrupted. We don’t know the long-term effect on the economy.

Humans like to quantify. We want to know what to expect and how to prepare. To feel safe, we want know what’s coming and how to endure or enjoy it.

And that is precisely what we don’t get to know right now. In the absence of certainty, many of us default to following the news as closely as we can. In this new landscape of invisible enemies, virologists and epidemiologists are the leaders. Doctors and nurses the front-line soldiers.

We must take this pandemic seriously enough to radically change our behavior for the foreseeable future. No more get togethers. No more movie theatres, or restaurants or nights out on the town. No more school. Every surface that someone touched is a possible transmission spot.

On the other hand, we still need to walk the dog, cook meals, vacuum, fold laundry. Focusing on small, doable tasks brings a sense of normalcy, of continuity to our lives.  We need to balance taking appropriate personal responsibility for protecting others along with continuing to have a full life that includes love, learning, exercise, joy, mindfulness, flavor, progress, and creativity.

As we drill down deep in to our time at home, with family if we are lucky enough to have them in the same household (and you’re right, it doesn’t always feel like luck) I wish for you an opening into realms you haven’t visited since childhood. I wish for you thinking time, staring into space time, imagining time. Dream time is slow and mysterious and a rich source of creative inspiration.

On the other end of this situation, we can emerge rested and connected to our deepest selves, ready to engage with one another from a place of deep gratitude.

Viral Fears


By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

Here in Seattle we have the unfortunate claim of being the epicenter of the US outbreak of the Novel Corona virus. Diagnostic criteria are still being refined, and confirmed cases increase daily. Most public gatherings have been cancelled, some schools have closed, and travel is being put on hold. This flu seems to be most dangerous for our elderly and immunocompromised, so it is unlike the influenza epidemic of 1918 which was especially lethal for young adults and children. It does however seem quite contagious.

For the majority of us, even if we get it and must quarantine ourselves, the most likely negative consequence is loss of income/education and a certain degree of cabin fever. These are inconvenient but luxurious concerns compared to death.

A good citizen is one who cares for the group as a whole. Even though we may be below age seventy and free of underlying health issues, we are each responsible for doing our part to care for the tribe that is the public. It is likely that a good number of us will need to quarantine to slow the progress of this virus.

Here are some measures that can be taken to reduce transmission:

  1. Wash all of your clothes each time you wear them. It appears that the virus can live on fabric for up to a week. The dryer is a germ-killing machine.
  2. Clean “high touch” areas such as door knobs, light switches, faucets and handles daily. At work don’t open doors or turn on/off faucets with your bare hands.
  3. Wipe your phone screen and computer keyboard daily.
  4. Wash your hands like an OCD person: hot water, twenty seconds of lathering, plus a paper towel equals clean.
  5. At home, switch out your kitchen and bathroom hand-towels every day. Or switch to paper towels for the duration.
  6. Try not to touch your face. This is hard! With every itch, I’m going through tissues like a fiend.

In preparation for your mental health needs, under self-quarantine:

  • Put together a list of projects for yourself and your kids in the categories of household, yard and bedroom tasks as well as creative/intellectual projects so you can still experience purpose and progress in your life.  
  • Pull out those books you’ve been meaning to read.
  • While you’re still healthy and mobile, get the ingredients to tackle cooking something new and challenging. An hour of prep is nothing for someone with two weeks of 24 hours to fill.
  • Maintain a normal sleep/wake schedule. Late nights watching Netflix plus isolation are a recipe for depression.

No matter what happens:

  1. The amygdala and limbic systems are the portions of the brain responsible for recognizing potential danger. The news is a constant amygdala stimulation event. The prefrontal cortex can calm the hindbrain down with conscious and soothing self-talk. Use your prefrontal cortex.

We will get through this.

New Year New You


By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

I’m trying to do this thing that I’m really lousy at. It stimulates all of my defenses: fatigue, defeat, distraction, avoidance. I’m trying to create a new web site, and to do it myself because that’s a thing now…normal non-tech people can write articles and use a template to create their very own website.

Thirteen years ago, I hired my best friend’s husband and he did a great job putting my website together.  But every time I raised my fees or wanted to add info about a group or list my latest presentation, I had to go through him. Then he went and got a full-time job (so rude!) on top of being a part time musician (selfish!) so I didn’t want to ask him to find the one free hour in his week to work for me.

I like thinking and writing. Unfortunately thinking and writing are abstract and real-world change requires decisiveness on the material plane. Paint colors aside (I’m really good at choosing paint colors) I fairly suck at the million-and-one decisions required to do complex projects. My partner recently built me the sweetest little writing studio in the world. In addition to building it, he also took on the design so that I didn’t have to decide layout or siding material or the slope of the roof. Those kinds of choices overwhelm me. And so it is with designing my own website. As I look over my articles from thirteen years ago, I realize my thinking has changed so I need to update them. I need to choose a new domain name. I need to decide if this picture should be centered on this zone, while losing this other zone. On and on the decisions roll.

I’ve decided that this year my theme will be boldness. I will be trying new things, scary things, things that help me grow and become more competent and to feel more alive. I will take risks and adventure forward because here I am in the middle of my life and I want to expand my possibilities, rather than retract into stale routine.

My hope for you, dear reader is that for this new, untouched year of your one precious life, you make a commitment to pick one under-developed area to grow and nurture. You’re not the same as me so your area of construction will probably be different. Maybe you’ve got boldness on tap and could use more empathy.  Maybe you work constantly and could slow down. Maybe you check your phone obsessively and could commit to putting it away when you are with others. Whatever you chose, I wish you success and joy in the pursuit.  Meanwhile, I’ll be working on my new website.

The Diva and the Doormat


by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

We find balance between the extremes Two common extremes have to do with how we relate to other people. On the one side, you have your divas. These are the folks who require an outsized amount of time and consideration to engage with the larger world. They are always running late. They need to curl their hair, paint their nails, and have the temperature just so. There was a rock band in the 80’s that shall remain nameless (only because I can’t remember) that had written into their performance contract that the stage be kept at a perfect 70 degrees for all their outdoor venues. They traveled with a thermometer.  They refused to play if the temperate was off by two degrees. These guys were major divas. Ironically, divas put themselves under massive pressure to look good and perform perfectly under all circumstances, and because no one can look good or perform perfectly in all circumstances, they try to control the circumstances which means controlling everyone around them. Family members, employees, neighbors and community members are all reduced to delivery tools in the diva’s insatiable quest for comfort.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the doormats. They apologize preemptively. They don’t ask for what they want. They back down immediately when challenged. They practically invite domination. These folks accept mistreatment because they have disconnected from their own self-protective anger in order to protect their connection with others. They don’t believe themselves to be worth sticking up for.  Doormats are the parents who beg their near-adult children to clean up after themselves. The women who stay with mean or unreliable men. The men who stay with cruel and demeaning women. Doormats behave in passive aggressive ways because they still get mad about mistreatment, and they still punish mistreatment, but they don’t have the relational power or the emotional skill to have direct conversations about their needs.

Many people flip between diva and doormat behavior, depending on their perception of the importance of the other person. If you want to see a bunch of doormats, watch the behavior of people around a famous person. They ogle, they fawn, they do everything except act like they might have their own important ideas. If you want to see a diva, watch modern hip-hop videos. They show off money, (doormat) girls, weapons, all the symbols of social importance and dominance.

If you want to be as emotionally healthy as possible, avoid these extremes. Also avoid people who exhibit these extremes.

Good Stuff


Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Lately I’ve been chewing on the balance between care of self and service to others.  I believe we all exist in a web of connection. Consider the underground fungus: it transmits nutrients to tree roots, which keeps the trees alive and in return protects the fungus from drying out.  If the fungus gives away too much of its nutrients it dies, and if it gives away too little, it struggles to live.

As humans, we hold this tension of self versus other constantly: Do we check in on our elderly neighbor or take those few extra minutes to savor some time alone?

Too much service to others creates depletion, resentment and fatigue.  Co-dependents are not happy people. They give and give, and exhaust themselves and wind up indignant and angry that their needs are never someone else’s top priority.

On the other hand, folks who only care for themselves, who spend their time and energy in sole pursuit of their own betterment suffer from isolation and meaninglessness. Without sustained and reciprocal connection to others, our existence lacks purpose.

I want to live in the intersection, to promote and protect my own well-being without apology while actively supporting the well-being of others. There’s a way to do this, but it takes a spirit of experimentation and willingness to make mistakes and plenty of time to get it right and then have the balance go and shift on you so that what worked at one point no longer works. No matter, its what we’re here for. Share your good stuff. Just make sure you keep some of it for yourself.

Relationship Repair


By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

I once called a client a “walking vagina.”  For real. This was years ago.  I’d like to think I’m more delicate with my Sword of Sarcasm these days; but the truth is I’m not always able to tell the difference between useful humor which cuts through defenses and damaging humor which just hurts feelings.

I know I’m a weirdo and my humor can be fully wrong. I rely on the quality of the relationship, the trust my clients feel towards me that they can come back and tell me if something I say lands in a way that hurts rather than helps or clarifies. This requires trust and courage on the part of my client and humility and non-defensiveness on my part. And it’s helluva good practice for IRL—because people (including this therapist) are imperfect and language is an abstract, approximate tool for building reality.

The backstory of my inappropriate comment was this: my young adult client was being texted in the middle of the night by a guy who was only interested in no-strings-attached sex, while she had a huge crush and yearned for a relationship with this same fellow. This happened enough times that she knew what was going on, but still found it irresistible when he booty-called her. I was trying to engage her self-protective anger to increase her ability to resist him. So, I told her he was treating her like a vagina delivery service. This worked! She stopped responding to him. Yay! But I also hurt her feelings. Boo!

When I hear about how many supposedly terrible therapists there are out there, I wonder what the hell is wrong with my profession?! Then I wonder: what if there are just these unfortunate moments when the therapist is trying to say something useful in a unique, therefore noticeable way but they get it wrong?  And if the client feels hurt but they don’t go back and have a conversation, then the comment becomes this toxic thing that erodes trust. And that doesn’t even include the (abundant!) times when the therapist is trying to summarize what is happening and they just don’t get it.

In real life, like in therapy, we are constantly trying to understand one another, communicate needs, make meaning, provide care, and feel received. If you have conflict in your life or in your therapy, try this: call upon your courage and talk to that person.  It might not work. They might lack humility or willingness to hear your perspective. They might deny responsibility for hurting you, and when that happens it really sucks. And it might work: you might feel better understood or better understand where they were coming from. But no matter how they respond, you will be operating from a place of courage and willingness to process your pain, rather than withdraw from connection.

Trusting Teens


adult beautiful child cute
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By Tanya Ruckstuhl

My kids are seventeen now, and share their own car. Each milestone towards their independence feels like a celebration and loss both. Parenting teenagers is categorically different than parenting younger children. For one thing, they have strongly held opinions and great oratory skills. Teenagers are natural born litigators, able to argue a point to (my) exhaustion.

When they were young, my primary job as a parent was exposure: to provide safe and stimulating experiences so that they would experience the world as a large, varied and mostly safe place. All our trips to the parks, aquarium, zoo, swimming and even the grocery store were fun ways to build that understanding.

Now that they are older, my job has shifted from creating their experiences to supporting their choices. It’s mostly my job now to affirm their competence, to offer my opinion but to always convey the message “I trust your judgement.” When we are trusted, we feel and are more competent and make better choices.

One of my sons has taken on a heavy load of volunteering and working on top of a demanding academic schedule. He loves his volunteer work and loves the money he makes at work. He doesn’t want to give any of it up. Now his boss is asking him to work both weekend days. I feel protective of his free time and don’t want him to.  We discussed why he should limit his working hours and how to respectfully set a boundary. At the end of the conversation, he rehearsed what he would tell his boss and I complimented him on his word choice. It was different than mine. It was better. More succinct. The whole conversation was one of those lovely opportunities where I could still exert some appropriate protection by sharing my ideas and he could then handle the situation on his own entirely.

If you have teenagers in your home, be sure to tell them that you trust their judgement. It’s so important to their emerging independence to feel and to be seen as competent.