Dialectics: 1. The art or practice of arriving at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments;


Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: ….DBT combines standard cognitive-behavioral techniques for emotion regulation and reality-testing with concepts of distress tolerance, acceptance, and mindful awareness largely derived from Buddhist meditative practice.  


DBT is a burgeoning mental health treatment model that is fat with interventions and techniques for use with a host of disorders and issues.  I will be super lucky to spend four days immersed in intensive training come November.  But I’m already using pieces of it here and there with clients, in conversation with distressed friends and family and also with my own damn self.  The main thrust is this: that two opposing facts can exist at the same time and both remain true.  For example, if my client says to me, “my mother doesn’t give a shit about me,” because her mother has been ignoring the mounting scores of lacerations on her thin wrists, I might say, “could you consider the possibility that your mother is acting as if she doesn’t care about you and at the very same time loves you very much?”  Or, more to the point, “can you consider the possibility that your mother is a terrible mother and, also, she loves you very much?” 


Of course, most people blink at you and furrow their brows and/or laugh derisively.  But then sometimes they also grow pensive.  Ideally, of course, this opens up the space to talk about the reasons why his/her mother became a terrible mother, what influences and causes piled up to prevent her from doing well.  This increases empathy, in theory, and pushes on the door marked reconciliation or forgiveness or maybe just forward motion.  And another central, related tenet of DBT comes in: “I care about you and admire you and accept you exactly as you are and I also will support you in changing things about yourself.”


Lying in bed under the skein of a new moon’s light and a heavy dose of nighttime decongestant and red wine at some small hour this morning, however, I was not thinking about dialectics in terms of clinical work.  I was thinking about dialectics in terms of language and meaning and Buddhism and life and the possibility that embracing wholeness presents.  I remember reading Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein when I was 20 years old, on a hot night in urban Venezuela and coming across this line (paraphrase): “Can you feel the difference between ‘I am angry!’ and ‘I am experiencing anger.’  Through that small distinction flows a whole world of freedom.”


It strikes me that an entire world of possibility flows through the distinction between


“I love my wife but she’s so fucking stressed out by her job all the time”




“I love my wife and she’s so fucking stressed out by her job all the time.”


The implication of “but” is that while I might love my wife, I can’t enjoy her or appreciate her or really be in possession of that love until some later time when she’s not stressed out.  “And” represents the possibility that even in the midst of horrendous stress I might enjoy my wife and celebrate the love I have for her. 


Or a kid might mourn the mother she wish she’d had while also knowing she did the best that she possibly could.  


Or maybe I’m just under the influence of daytime cold medicine.  

Small Talk

You’re getting a Master’s degree in psychology.  People want to know what that means.  They ask you if you’re going to be able to write prescriptions.  They ask you if you’re going to be testifying in murder cases.  They ask if you’ve been offered any decent jobs by the FBI.  They want to know if the things they heard on mushrooms last month mean they are schizophrenic.  They want to tell you about their love stories with “psychotic” exes (you explain that they probably mean “psychopathic,” but that that’s unlikely, too).  Often, they want to hear that not remembering most of your childhood is ok and normal and does not mean that they’ve repressed recollection of a ritual sex ring.  So you explain that actually what you’re training to be—what you’re already doing, only in internship so you don’t paid—is family therapy, or, if it seems more prudent, youth counseling.  Sometimes the fire of interest withers in their eyes at this point.  Sometimes they tell you how wonderful you are (especially if they also ask how much you’ll make).  Often, they want to know the harrowing details of your clients’ lives.  If you share anything, they want to know how you do it, how you leave your work at work and protect your heart.  You do fine with all of this, usually.  There is only one thing you do poorly with: when people—almost always older adults with grown children—express head-shaking sympathy for the poor parents of these fucked up kids that you serve.  Then you want to tell them in no uncertain terms what it actually means, this whole “family therapy” thing: that the state of a kid’s mental health is, nine times out of ten, a response to the family he or she lives in.  That we are only as “sick” as the family systems we form a part of.  That the next time a parent brings in a skateboarding “defiant” fourteen year old boy or a purging, self-harming sixteen-year old girl for you to “fix,” you’re going to have to take some deep breaths before responding.  

Jack London Bar: Writing & Healing (& Gratitude)

It was with tremendous trepidation that I descended the staircase into the dark, gritty space of the Jack London Bar (downstairs of the Rialto Room in old town Portland) last night to deliver a “lecture,” a proposition that would have, at many an era in my life, seemed unlikely or downright laughable.  A disco strobe swept the cavernous space and a brilliant young dude named Seth spoke eloquently about the history of mental illness in Oregon.  It was like a combination of a liberal arts symposium and a raucous bender.  But soon enough love and suppor trickled in, in the form of faces old and new–college classmates, activist colleagues, high school homies, and the occasional stranger.   I did my best to speak truth about the experience of writing & healing in my personal and professional life and found that, as I did so, I was weaving myself into a more real and integrated state.  I am deeply grateful to all the love–Lessie, Ben, Alex, Perla, Abel, Larry, Laurel, Paul–and the incredible guidance and support from savvy Mike and smooth Alexis of the Neocom Group.


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Once upon a time a story was something that my father used to put me to sleep or my mother used to keep my mind off fatigue on a long hike up the damp throat of a North Cascades trail.  I’m not sure I thought of ET or Star Wars as stories as such, but those, in concert with the limitless world of Narnia and the golden yarns spun by authors like Madeline L’Engle represented escape and liberation from my own world that was cracking under the weight of divorce and discord and other humdrum sorrows.  More than sports, pulpy YA novels with the right measure of gore and fright got me through early adolescence and by the time I was pretending to be too cool to read, I had deciphered my own desire to write stories, something that was unique rather than odd, something I could balance on in the crucible of image that was high school.  If you slid off from an afternoon kegger with a red cup and a spiral notebook and scribbled away by your lonesome, it was decidedly more acceptable than cracking a book of any sort to read.  In college, textbooks shouldered out novels and stories for the most part, but in the brief slices of time between semesters I would devour literature with a stored-up hunger—and I could still find time to pen purple prose poems about heartbreak and the facades that sickened me.  Of course I still knew very little of sorrow, and when I learned, it was writing the stories of loss and enshrining the memories of what was gone in story that saved me from a crevasse that otherwise might have swallowed language entirely.  Specifically, had I not had stories to write about my gone father, I wouldn’t have returned to graduate school after his death.  Specifically, if I hadn’t had a month at the Vermont Studio Center in 2005, I might not have lived much longer after my best friend’s life ended on a cold street. In the first decade of this century, my love for story curdled and turned—on me, or me on it.  I was possessed with the urgency of my fiction, convinced that my life would be spent dashing out novels of searing political critique wrapped in human cloth, publishing them with far-reaching presses and collecting the permission to do nothing else.  As most manuscripts piled up unpublished, despair and humility fought for dominion of my writing life—and that fight has not yet finished.  But something else happened, too.  In truth I’d been wading around in the healing power of storytelling for a long time—both for myself and for my students—but it was uncouth and sometimes improper to make it intentional in the classroom, where the focus was on objective quality and measurable conventions and concluded, usually, with letter grades.  Then I found Pongo Teen Writing.  Through Pongo I learned about the power of alchemy that can happen through poems (which are stories by nearly any measure): from victim to survivor, from shame at what has happened to pride in having lived through it.  And from Pongo the leap into youth therapy was clear, if also daunting.  When I sit with troubled, sorrowful, manic, traumatized but resilient kids in session now, they tell me stories.  And I listen for morals, for holes in the plot, for lack of detail or too much and what either might suggest.  I ask questions and I offer advice for revision; I try to get them to tell a new version of the story, one that leads in the general direction of liberation, even if it’s just a horizon for now.  I don’t tell them that I know what it’s like when an editor steps in tells you’ve missed a great opportunity—that maybe you can keep the frame but have to start from scratch on the content.  I do tell them that the stories we tell ourselves about our lives can mean life or death, liberation or imprisonment.