Its Been a Minute

The phrase “It’s been a minute” can be heard among New Orleans folk to mean a very long time.

For example, ten years after Hurricane Katrina, the city’s more vulnerable populations still endure secondary wounding and re-traumatization. The vulnerable, however, are not limited only to economically disadvantaged, racial and ethnic minorities, uninsured, young or old, the homeless, crime victims or those with chronic health conditions, including mental illness.

Psychological and emotional vulnerability can spread across the sociocultural spectrum, depending upon the type of losses being endured. Some traumatic experiences have a beginning and end, with the promise of eventual “closure.” Others involve repeated and layered traumas over time, with a cumulative negative effect.

I don’t see people wearing a t-shirts that say “I Survived Katrina,” because they’re not completely sure they really have survived. It might be inaccurate to describe their stress as  post-traumatic, because they still endure the occasional and sudden “flash forward” — for instance whenever a big storm forms in the Gulf.

Brooding over what else might happen is the emotional equivalent to a physical wound that keeps on oozing. The crisis never seems “over.” The announcement of “all clear” does not come.

Do you sometimes wonder: “When does this ordeal really end? Will things ever get back to normal? Can our community ever heal? Will the serenity and security of calmer times be restored in my lifetime?”

Such gnawing questions can side-rail the grieving process, with significant implications for mental, emotional and physical health. In my day job, I practice psychotherapy in a primary healthcare setting, where it is more than obvious the mind-body connection flows and counter-flows. Our minds and bodies keep score and the issues are in the tissues.

Find someone you can trust. Open up. If you don’t talk it out, then the pain can seep out sideways, when you least expect it and in ways that can cause other problems.

Believe it or not, I counsel with individuals and couples who are just now talking about various traumas they have endured, ten years after the occurrence. Now that’s way more than a minute!

Be well. Do good work. Stay in touch.

Reid

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Precious in His Sight

Everywhere we turn, there are signs of human life being increasingly disrespected.

We act shocked at gruesome images of beheadings by the death cult known as The Islamic State, with their unholy combination of the worst traits seen in al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Khmer Rouge, and the Nazis. Its soldiers have systematically rounded up groups of “unbelievers” — which can mean anybody who disagrees with their fanaticism — and slaughtered them in a manner Heinrich Himmler would have applauded. Addicted to bloodshed, they have targeted for total extermination entire categories of people.

Yet, why should we be so shocked? I walk out of my office in New Orleans to the sound of five gunshots down the block and see a man sitting motionless in his car, after another drug deal gone sour.

Later, I hear of another person shot dead just because he was walking through the neighborhood, and still another murdered because someone did not like the music emanating from the victim’s booming sound system.

A mother of two is hit by an out of control vehicle and left for dead on the street. The driver flees the scene without calling for help. It’s unfathomable to think somebody would leave a human being lying there without any care. The victim was rushed to the hospital with two broken legs and severe head trauma, only to die a few hours later.

Then, I read about a gang of teens descending upon a homeless man and beating him to death, “just for the fun of it.”

And, over this past weekend in New Orleans, there were five murders and 11 wounded by gunshot, which is less than the recent killing spree over a long weekend in Chicago, with at least 14 murdered and 58 wounded.

Against such a backdrop, I also follow erudite but, frankly, vacuous discourses among seemingly intelligent people arguing in favor of routine abortion, assisted suicide and “death coaching.”

Add into this mix disturbing reports of high-risk thrill seeking gone wrong, and deliberate, willful, habitual behaviors known by evidenced-based research definitely to harm the body, and you wonder if our society is becoming another death cult.

It is utterly unacceptable when people are abused mentally, physically or tyrannically. Any view of humans as mere objects constitutes abuse and profanation of life.

If God is still granting a person breath and life, there is still value in that life, from conception to the grave and everything in between.

This includes the toothless old woman in the clutches of advanced Alzheimer’s, just hanging on while not knowing where or who she is.

It includes someone with severe disabilities, the baby born with multiple birth defects, the young adult who is autistic, or folks who cannot care for themselves.

You will be reminded of this when you’re about to go under anesthesia for emergency heart surgery, or when you look into the eyes of your granddaughter and remember how close she came to not surviving birth, or when your wife looks up into your eyes from the hospital bed and says: “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

And you might still be able to smell the cookies and Kool-Aid as you recall the faint strains of a song sung by kids in the church basement during Vacation Bible School: “…they are precious in His sight.”

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“Participatory Medicine”

Enlisting full cooperation from patients is the greatest challenge facing anyone providing health care. A July 30, 2014, article in U.S. News & World Report reveals: “An estimated $300 billion is wasted each year in the U.S. because patients don’t follow their prescribed treatment regimens, which lands many people in the ER or in prolonged hospital stays.”

According to the American College of Preventive Medicine, only around 50% of prescriptions are ever picked up from the pharmacy and only about 25% of those are taken as prescribed. Medication noncompliance rates are even higher for those with a chronic medical condition.

Non-adherence encompasses a wide range of behaviors:

  • Avoidance in filling a prescription
  • Neglecting to acquire it once filled
  • Skipping doses
  • Splitting pills
  • Stopping a medication too soon
  • Not re-filling a prescription
  • Taking more than prescribed.

There are many factors, including inconvenience, side-effects, cost, social stigma, questions about benefit, lack of belief in treatment, forgetfulness, frustration, lack of social support.

When trying to evaluate a client’s medication adherence, I ask such questions as:

  • Were you able to start taking your medication?
  • How and when are you taking it?
  • What have you noticed since you started taking it?
  • Do you believe there are negative side effects?
  • What else has changed since you started taking it?

If they feel resistant to following a doctor’s instructions, I might ask:

  • What’s most important to you?
  • What are the best reasons for following your doctor’s advice?
  • What needs to happen for you to want to change?
  • What can you start doing differently?
  • What is your next step?

As a patient, it is important to communicate honestly with your doctor and nurse. Let them know if you are having trouble with some aspect of the treatment regimen.

On the one hand, there is a sense in which you are the expert when it comes to what you feel and need. On the other hand, doctors are informed by evidence-based scientific facts. An honest dialogue between you both will go a long way in figuring out how best to treat your illness.

A counselor will help you understand what is behind your resistance. When you look at all the information, questions tend to answer themselves. A therapist can help you become an active partner in your healing, better educated on your condition, and encouraged to do whatever you can to help yourself. Finally, a therapist also can help you communicate more openly and effectively with your healthcare providers.

I think we’re all split down the middle. On the one hand, taking one or more pills every day to solve a health problem can feel like a defeat, and the regimen confining. Also, it can be hard to trust a giant pharmaceutical company poised to make billions by pushing the newest drug-of-the-month.

On the other hand, symptoms of fatigue, circulatory problems, high blood sugar, foggy thinking, blurred vision, sores and the like can cause great anxiety about the future. Also, it is easier to think about drug companies making an obscene amount of money if I know their medicines actually promote healing. It is not a crime to make a profit.

There is a sense in which all health care, including psychotherapy, is essentially self-care. Patients who have the ability to work in partnership with their providers as full team members will experience safer and more satisfying outcomes. It can be described as “participatory medicine.

Reid Doster
Licensed Professional Counselor
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Primary Care Behavioral Health Consultant

Thin Places

Are we earthly beings on a spiritual journey, or spiritual beings on an earthly journey? 

My sweet sister, Barbara, died when an insulting ordeal with cancer hit her hard and fast. In what seemed like an instant, she was gone.

Over the years, she and I had maintained a fragmentary conversation about being “visited” by people who had already died. We recalled our father describing an incident after Phil, his younger brother, had been shot down over Germany while piloting a B17. Dad was awakened in the middle of the night to see his younger brother standing at the foot of his bed in the Officer’s Quarters. Unaware of the downed aircraft, Dad “spoke” briefly with his brother before intuitively sensing Phil’s earthly life had ended. Later, this was officially confirmed.

Barbara herself described two occasions after Mom died, when she was “visited” by Mom in Barbara’s sewing room (Mom loved to sew) and they engaged in heartfelt conversation. Our sister, Suzanne, related to me a similar experience.

However, nothing of the sort ever happened to me, probably due to my skepticism!

The very last time I saw her, Barbara again promised to “visit” me, saying “When I leave this place, I’m gonna really bug you,” and then hugged me in such a way that I can still feel her squeeze.

Two days after she died, being all churned up inside and needing something to do, I ventured into the summer heat to cut grass. As soon as I cranked the mower, a bright red insect started buzzing around my head. Thinking it was a wasp or hornet, I stood very still, before realizing it was a dragonfly. I had never even seen a red dragonfly, much less had one land on my shoulder, where it attached itself quite firmly. For forty-five minutes, the creature clung to me as I trudged behind the mower and, over the noise, seemingly whispered things into my right ear. Then, in the blink of an eye, it vanished, leaving me with a strong feeling that something or someone had communicated with me through this weird and wonderful encounter.

I was prompted to do some dragonfly research, and then better understood why I sensed a message in this experience.

“Now, I’m Free!”
Formerly a brown nymph confined to murky waters, this dragonfly one day emerged toward the light, broke out of her shell, and transformed into a neon skimmer. Dragonflies are the fastest and most maneuverable insects on earth. Hovering, darting and looping with ease, poise and elegance, they skim above the surface of this world and soar into the beyond. No more containment. Everything is possible. Dreams can be fulfilled, and the birthright claimed. I was prompted to recall a marvelous question from scripture: “Death, where is your victory?” (I Corinthians 15:55).

“I Can See Clearly.”
Unlike mere humans, with only two pupils for gathering light, dragonflies have complex eyes comprised of 30,000 light sensing organs called facets. They can see in 360 degrees, all at one time, with amazing situational awareness! Mesmerized by this big-eyed bug with a bright red body, I remembered reading in Matthew 6: “If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” And, trying to describe Heaven, 1 John 3:2 claims: “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

“This Is Easy.”
Common houseflies quickly become exhausted when beating their wings 345 times per second, while dragonflies need only 30 strokes per second to remain aloft, and can do it all day long, without resting, even consuming their meals while in flight. I thought of Jesus’ invitation to come to Him, learn of Him, experience rest in Him, because His future for us is easy and light (Matthew 11:28-30).

“The Real Me Has Not Changed.”
Dragonfly fossils have been found from 320,000,000 years ago, the Carboniferous Period, pre-dating dinosaurs and flowering plants. They’ve remained essentially the same, retaining their uniqueness throughout the ages, while nearly everything else around them has evolved. The thought of something unchanging hints at the imperishable and immortal body in heaven, as referenced in 1 Corinthians 15.

“I Love My New World.”

Joni Eareckson Tada asked, “How can I miss a place I’ve never been? But I do. I miss heaven.” When Barbara told me “I’m ready to go,” I think she was, in a sense, missing heaven. St. Augustine wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in You.”

Barbara’s last question to me was: “Do you really believe there is a heaven?” Our eyes locked onto one another and I said: “Yes, I am sure of it.” There was a prolonged pause as we gazed deeply into each other’s eyes, and that sacred moment reminded me of Paul’s assertion in Romans 8: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

The Celtic people used a peculiar phrase — “a thin place” – to describe any situation or circumstance where there seems to be a thin veil between this life and the next. Now, my rather ordinary backyard has become a “thin place,” where winds of the spirit sometimes call forth red “dragons” that neither bite nor sting but deliver messages from another place, filled with mystery and awe.

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Your One Thing

When Saint Augustine (354 – 430 C.E.) penned the timeless words “Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” he spoke volumes to us who live in an even more complex world, with never-ending distractions, and who frequently wobble with restlessness. He eventually discovered his one thing, and the world was never the same.

We observe a similar “one thing” strategy among revered and influential leaders in modern Christian history, e.g., Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa or Dr. Martin Luther King. Each discovered his or her “one thing,” pursued it with abandon and persevered with paradoxical “rest.”

If you could do one thing to make a significant, lasting, possibly life-changing difference in your level of personal fulfillment, would you do it?  This “one thing” might be a decision, phone call, commitment, or tough conversation. It might consume a minute, a month or a lifetime, but it’s a decision you know deep down would bring more meaning and purpose to your life.

Take a moment and honestly consider how you spend your time. Ask yourself:

“Even if I didn’t get paid a cent, would I still do this?”
“Would doing this inspire me every day?”
“Does doing this come as naturally to me as breathing?”
“Do I feel I’ve been given a special gift to do this?”
“Does time seem to fly when I’m engaged in this activity?”

If so, then you are pursuing life as you were born to pursue it, perhaps paving a path for others, helping people live, learn, love, laugh, and leave the world in better condition than they found it. You’re enjoying some good “rest.”

It’s not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do, but instead attempt to do too many things in the time we have.

Instead, we should be more like postage stamps, sticking to one thing until we get there!

This takes mindfulness, deliberateness, intentionality and focus. Researchers say an idle phone conversation while driving takes a 40 percent bite out of our focus and, surprisingly, can have the same effect as being drunk! Maybe it’s time to reduce distractions.

Have you been in an indecisive holding pattern because you insist upon knowing conclusively what you’ll be doing in 10 years? Unlike in the movie “Back to the Future,” Doc Brown isn’t going to fly the DeLorean back from 2043, land on your doorstep, hop out with his “future glasses” and give you a new compass heading into your yet-to-come.

The future is now. Honor the one thing you know in your heart you are being called to do.  This process is sequential, not simultaneous. Lorne Whitehead noted in the American Journal of Physics (1983) how one domino has the momentum to topple another that is 50% larger. Starting with a two inch
domino, “geometric progression” means the 23rd domino would be taller than the
Eiffel Tower and the 57th would nearly reach the moon!

Whatever your “one thing” is, it will not leave you alone, because the one thing you have that nobody else has is YOU — your voice, your mind, your story, your dream. The inspiring Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965 C.E.) wrote: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”­­­­­

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