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Monthly Archives: August 2016

My Internship

 

My internship with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) patients, at an out-patient day program on Long Island, started recently. I get very anxious before and after my hours, but the adrenalin rush gets me through while I’m actually working there. One of my favorite activities they do there is chair yoga, though, because it gives me a chance to breathe again. I wish I could bring Butterfly with me, for my own sake but also for some of the clients, who could use some of her ambient joy. One of the guys used to have a dog, but he can’t have a pet at all now, because his aide has allergies. If he could just sit with Butterfly for a little while each day, and whisper in her ear and pet her back, it could really help him. I know that it does wonders for me.

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Butterfly, my therapy dog.

The purpose of the day program is multiple: one, just to give the families of our clients a respite; two, to get the patients out of their homes and into social situations, so they don’t feel isolated and lonely; three, to fight off boredom and depression in whatever ways we can; and four, to continue, on a more causal and social basis, the work of speech, movement, and cognitive therapy that they can’t do on their own.

I am most interested in that last part, if only because it holds the most potential for my active participation. But for the clients, I think the most essential part of the program is the socializing part. At the day program they can practice their speech and memory skills without being laughed at (for the most part), and their brain injuries are taken for granted; they don’t have to compete with “normal” people for attention, or be embarrassed or ashamed by what they can’t do.

The structure of our days at the program is a bit loosey goosey, but the clients’ favorite activities, over all, seem to be games: guessing games, Hangman, Pictionary, Jenga, Connect Four, Uno, etc. They’re laughing and testing their social skills and showing off. It reminds me of kindergarten, though, with games like Duck Duck Goose and Musical Chairs, which I found extremely stressful. Those games seemed to exaggerate the possibility of rejection for me, rather than mitigate it. But the other interns, and even more so our supervisor, are much more comfortable with this part of the work. They enjoy the games and know how to stay upbeat and playful, pushing back against the depression and stuckness that might otherwise prevail in the room.

I do well with the clients one on one, and in casual situations, because I’m genuinely curious about them, but I’m afraid of how I’ll manage running a workshop or exercise from the front of the room. I wish I could practice some of my group-running skills on the dogs, but, first of all, Cricket is not a joiner, and second, they can’t hold pens in their paws, or answer my questions in words, so a lot of the exercises would be lost on them.

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Cricket is not a joiner.

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Unfortunately, dogs can’t write.

My supervisor suggested that I use my writing background with the clients in some way: so I collected poems and song lyrics the clients might relate to; and I printed out a page of Cricket pictures so that they can identify the emotions on her face, and make up stories about what happened before the picture was taken (I’m hoping her faces will be a good instigator for discussions on anger and anxiety and joy and relief, all kinds of things they wouldn’t automatically discuss with each other out of the blue); and I made up a list of autobiographical questions for the clients to answer and turn into short essays; and then there’s a group exercise in storytelling; and then I did research on hand drumming and handclapping therapy; and I made up a quilting pattern exercise, using fabric and paper and glue. So, at least I’ve found an outlet for all of my nervous energy.

Early on, my supervisor warned me and my fellow interns that some of the clients can be manipulative, and we shouldn’t believe them when they say this or that, and they don’t want to be challenged, and they can do more than they’ll admit, and on and on. Even if all of those things are true, it’s never as simple as all that. Motivation plays a huge role in what people can and can’t do. That’s not being manipulative, it’s about genuinely needing a reason to take an action and not wanting to just do what someone tells you to do.

Depression also plays a big role. The brain trauma itself can cause depression, and so can some of the medications they need to take to control their symptoms, but there’s also the depression that comes from having your life plan obliterated, and your sense of your place in society taken away from you. It is much harder to figure out motivation when you know that you can’t meet your own goals, no matter how hard you try. You need to not only come up with a new set of goals, but you have to accept that those goals will be very modest compared to the people around you. There’s an expectation that these clients should feel grateful that they have a day program to go to, and people who will pay attention to them, but that kind of gratitude can be hard to come by when you feel like so much has been taken away from you.

I’ve learned a lot from Cricket about how to accept bad behavior that isn’t meant to be hurtful. Her short-circuited nervous system means that she has low frustration tolerance, so she will use whatever behaviors she can think of to relieve her anxiety. She doesn’t mean to be a hellion; she just wants to feel better.

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Cricket just wants to feel better.

I’m enjoying the work, but it’s exhausting. When I came home from my first long day at work (Nine AM to Three PM feels long to me), Butterfly was out of her mind with excitement. She’s not used to me being away for so long and it felt great to be getting such a greeting; those are usually reserved for Grandma after she’s been out gardening for five minutes. She ran around in circles and bumped into her sister, who was hopping and panting and trying to sniff my shoes herself. It’s nice to be celebrated every once in a while.

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“Mommy! You’re home!”

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A Prayer for Healing

 

I have been very anxious lately, about the start of my social work internship and my research class, both of which I’ve been dreading since before I applied to graduate school. I haven’t found much that helps with the anxiety. Anti-anxiety meds like Xanax and Valium just wipe me out, meditation makes me more anxious, exercise is good, but leaves me exhausted. I’ve gotten better at asking for help from the people around me, but there’s just so much they can do. When you have no control, what can you do but pray?

Part of me really does believe that prayers sent out to God do reach some energy in the universe. It’s an imperfect system, like tweeting out to the world at large and hoping that the right person, who may not even be on twitter, hears you. But there’s a chance, and it’s better than not sending the message at all. I don’t believe that God puts my request on a list and then decides whether or not I deserve the help I want. I believe that somehow my message ping pongs around the universe, and if I’m lucky, it snowballs and connects with other energies and comes back to me in some form, hopefully something helpful.

I pray for my dogs all the time. I used to pray for Cricket to find comfort and calm. I would put my prayers into her scratching sessions, hoping that the practical behaviors I could do for her would be transformed into something more. And I am always praying for Butterfly – that she will have a good life, that her heart will last a bit longer – and I believe that my prayers work for her. Butterfly is a very good vessel for prayer, because she absorbs energy into her body and spirit without much of a defense system, whereas Cricket is more circumspect and “rational.” It is harder for Cricket to hear the prayers said for her, and to absorb the love sent her way, because there is so much interference – so much static in her system. But she still needs the good energy to be sent her way, even if only one prayer out of a thousand gets through her tough hide.

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“Do prayers come with chicken treats?”

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“I refuse to be healed. Deal with it.”

The cantor at my synagogue was ill this summer (don’t worry, he’s better now) and had to take months off from work. He spent a great deal of time alone, but, he said, because of all of the people in the congregation who reached out to him, and all of the people he knew were thinking of him and praying for him, he never felt like he was alone. This is what prayer can do. Just knowing that someone is praying for you on a regular basis can be healing, and make you feel cared for and safe.

And reaching out to God ourselves can make us feel less alone, even when we are physically alone. It reminds us of the human beings who wrote the prayers, of the people who taught us those prayers, of the times we have prayed together, and of all of the people who may be saying those same prayers at the same time all around the world. There’s a humility to prayer, a recognition that we can’t solve everything on our own, and are not expected to. Reminding ourselves of that on a regular basis can be healing in itself.

I think dogs pray too. First they ask directly for what they want: a walk, a treat, attention. But when the request is denied, or when they are left alone – when they feel powerless – I think they must pray the way we do. Like Butterfly picking up one of my socks when I was a way at the hospital, and carrying it in her mouth. The sock could be seen as a transitional object, as a way for her to hold onto me and feel close to me – or it could be seen as a prayer, that she would soon see me again.

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“Where’s Mommy?”

Cricket talks to God all the time with her barking. She isn’t so much telling me, or Mom, that danger is at the door, she is calling on God to protect her family. And most of the time, God seems to come through for her, so, it works!

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“Of course God listens to me. I am Cricket, and I am always right.”

Music is the best delivery system for prayer, because it reaches our hearts so much more quickly than words alone. It works especially well when we pray in groups, because it brings all of those heartbeats into the same rhythm, the same space, so that not only can you hear the words being spoken to you, you can feel everyone in the room coming together.

Ever since the cantor’s illness this summer, and the string of national and international disasters that have been overwhelming everyone, my synagogue has returned to the practice of singing a healing prayer at the end of Friday night services. People have found great comfort in singing it together, and saying the names of loved ones in need of healing, out loud or silently. I want it to work for me, but it doesn’t. Maybe the problem is that I don’t believe that my anxiety is worthy of a healing prayer, or maybe my hide is just as tough as Cricket’s and it will take a lot more prayer to get through. We are related, after all.

 

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“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

The Summer Olympics

 

Cricket has been losing her mind even more than usual lately, and I’ve decided to blame it on the heat. Of course, I’m projecting. I can’t stand the humidity of summer in New York. As a kid, I went to sleep away camp in the mountains, which was just a smidge better, until they made us play sports in the middle of the day, and ruined it. I am allergic to the heat. I get sun poisoning, usually on my arms, so I end up wearing a light jacket all summer long, and taking it off when I get indoors, which drives people crazy. I put sunblock on my face year round, so as long as I don’t stare up at the sun, I’m alright without a hat for a few minutes at a time. But the worst part of summer humidity is when I feel like I’m breathing through a straw, but not a nice, normal flexible straw, one of those hard plastic crazy straws that look like a roller coaster for tiny ants. Oh, and I don’t like bugs either.

So, as I was saying, summer is clearly a problem for Cricket.

Cricket has been tossing Platypus around like, well, like a stuffed animal. The problem, is, even though I still take the dogs out four times a day, none of those trips takes them beyond the backyard. We don’t walk through the goose poop fantasia of the duck pond, or get into the car and drive to the beach to sniff seaweed and rotting fish. We don’t even walk up the hill past the Seven Eleven for a hint of cigarette butts and old ham sandwiches.

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“Play with me!”

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“Platypus likes this game, Mommy!”

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“Let’s go outside!”

Cricket is getting stir crazy. She is barking at the next door baby (she made him cry!) and she’s been using me as a trampoline when I try to take my afternoon nap. Butterfly has been fine with the current level of exercise, though. She might enjoy a few more minutes of staring into the distance and listening to the wonders of nature (those birds are such gossips!), but she comes inside willingly and goes back to sleep until real physical need hits again. But Cricket wants to run and jump and hip and hop. I’m afraid to let her watch too much of the Olympics because it will give her too many ideas (though she would never want to go swimming – it’s like voluntary bath time – are they insane?!). The dogs would be fantastic at the Treat Toss and the Chase-The-Mailman race, but somehow these events have not made it into the big competition.

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“There’s more room in my mouth, Mommy. Throw another one.”

Of course I am watching the Olympics. The TV stations have conspired to have nothing else on during the Olympics, so this is all I’ve got. It’s not really a relief from the political drama of the past year, though, because the broadcasters keep making each event and race seem like life or death, not just for their chosen protagonist, but for the masses of unknown people who never even made it to the Olympics and are therefore at home in deep dark depressions with no idea what to do with their lives. Woo hoo!

I try to be inspired by the Olympics, but certain sports make me feel vicariously exhausted. When I watch Michael Phelps flap his arms over his head, my shoulders hurt. And those long distance runners give me leg cramps. I can’t watch women’s beach volleyball at all, not because it’s too sweaty, but because in those outfits they might as well not be wearing clothes at all; there’s no safe place to look. I can watch the gymnastics and swimming pretty comfortably, because they are indoors and nice and cool, but the Track and Field events look too damn hot! I think there should be some breaks in the coverage for a nice ice skating routine so we can cool off.

My favorite place over the summer is next to my air conditioner. I wish I could carry my air conditioner with me everywhere, like one of those old time boom box stereos, right up next to my ear. Maybe someday they’ll make high powered air conditioners the size of iPads and summer will finally make sense to me.

I’m sure I will end up watching some sports that do not usually interest me at all, out of guilt, the same way I watch Luge during the winter games, because someone worked really hard to get to the Olympics in that sport, and it seems only fair to give them a glance. Though I haven’t yet given in to my curiosity about the boating races. There’s something about watching athletes dodge old couches in the middle of rancid waterways that worries me.

One night, I found myself sitting on the couch, kicking for dear life, willing Michael Phelps to the end of the pool – as if he needed my help! I don’t bounce around the room during the gymnastics events; somehow I feel like I have more control over the outcome in the swimming.

At some point in the evening, inevitably, I have to pause the action on the TV and attach the dogs to their leashes and brave the Sauna that is the out of doors. And of course the dogs meander and sniff and pee multiple times and drag me to the far end of the yard for every possible exciting hint of cat, until I am a puddle of sweat. And then we go back inside, and I sit down next to my air conditioner to watch the gymnastics, and I know in my heart that I have done my share of the work and can now revel in team USA’s success.

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Hershey likes to leave her smell in places the dogs can’t quite reach.

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Cricket can smell that cat, but Butterfly is ready to go back inside, just like me.

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Much better.

Yoga Shabbat

 

The junior Rabbi at my synagogue has been developing a yoga class for Saturday (Shabbat) mornings. She did her yoga teacher training last summer, and started the monthly classes last October. I was curious about what the class would be like, because I’d always been bothered by the feeling that, even in the most secular versions of yoga, there are remnants of the religious culture it comes from. The history of Jews being forced to convert or conform to the dominant religion of given societies is a big part of my discomfort. I see a lot to like in every other religion I’ve ever come across, but participating in another religion is a completely different thing. It feels like a co-opting of my Jewish soul, but more than that it feels disloyal, like you would feel if you were in love with one man and yet kissed someone else. Prayer, and yoga poses, are not just thoughts or feelings, they are actions, and they count.

My hope was that the rabbi had found a way to make yoga feel a little bit more at home with Judaism, or at least less at odds with it. But I put off going all year long. I told myself that the classes were too early in the morning, or that I would have to rush to get to therapy afterwards, or I just had too much school work to do. But really, the idea of sweating and stretching into strange positions in front of my fellow congregants brought up a lot of old fears. When I finally decided, no excuses, that I would go to the last session of the year, I spent the two days leading up to the class flooded with awful memories of gym class in elementary school, and ballet classes, in my ill-fitting gym clothes or mismatched leotard and tights.

But I fought through the anxiety, and went to the class anyway. I took a spot near the back of the room, up against a brick pillar, both to hide, if necessary, and to have a stable wall to lean against, just in case. I brought my own Pilates mat, which is a little bit more cushioned than a yoga mat, and has a few holes in it from the dogs. At home, yoga means trying to stretch while scratching Butterfly with my arm twisted behind my back, and tossing a tug toy for Cricket, while trying not to lose my balance. But at least they haven’t peed on the mat, recently.

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“This is my idea of good yoga, Mommy.”

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Cricket can’t talk here, but she agrees with Butterfly.

The rabbi started the session by summarizing the weekly Torah portion, and then she turned on her iPhone, attached it to a speaker, and played variations of the Saturday morning prayers as the background music for the class. She started us off with “Shalom breaths,” and then we did a lot of Sun Salutations and Downward Facing Dogs, with more advanced poses in the middle of each flow. I pushed myself a little too hard to keep up, because I’m not really up to an hour and fifteen minute yoga class, but I didn’t want to seem weak or lazy. I had to skip a bunch of the advanced poses, and come out of others early, and I ended up resting in child’s pose a lot of the time (though it still took me four days to recover from overdoing it). I missed having the dogs with me. Focusing on them takes some of the pressure off of the need to achieve something beyond my abilities. Having Butterfly with me, sniffing my hair or licking my arm, would have reminded me that it’s okay that I can only do what I can do.

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“Om, Om, I mean, Shalom, Shalom.”

But most importantly, the feeling that I was doing something wrong just by being in a Yoga class on Shabbat was still there. There is a school of thought among Orthodox Jews that yoga is avodah zarah, worship of foreign gods, which would be a big no-no. Some people say that if you avoid the mantras, and chanting, and skip the Sanskrit names for the poses, and maybe skip prayer pose entirely, that would make it okay. But the rabbi kept the Sanskrit names for the poses, and used prayer pose, which upset me. Child’s pose doesn’t bother me, even though it looks very much like a Muslim prayer pose, because I think of it so completely as a child’s protective pose, making myself safe like a turtle in a shell. But yoga’s prayer pose, palms together at chest level, feels so clearly like what it says it is; it forces you to breathe differently and focus your attention in a specific way and it is a very good physical representation of open-hearted supplication.

A lot of yoga is meant to put your body in a position to teach your mind something. Warrior pose is meant to activate not just physical strength, but emotional strength and resolve. Child’s pose is not only a rest from exercise, it is a self-protective break from being confident and open and visible. These emotional and physical experiences are meaningful to me and make sense to me, but I cannot find a reason other than prayerfulness and supplication for me to be in prayer pose, and that feels too much like praying to a foreign god, and being disloyal to my Jewishness.

There’s a lot of talk, both in yoga and in liberal Judaism, about “intention.” You need to be aware of your intention when you say a certain prayer, take a certain action, or do a particular pose, in order to make it meaningful. The assumption then, is that your intention is all that matters, rather than the intention of the original creators of the prayer, or pose, or series of rituals. But, if yoga is part of someone else’s religious culture, what right do I have to take it for myself and strip it of its history? Is it really okay to take yoga poses and imbue them with your own intentions, like flavoring your ice cream base with vanilla or chocolate or salted caramel? Religion, to me, is cultural history, communal ties, rituals and behaviors, and the stories of my people. If Yoga comes from Buddhism and Hinduism, is it fair to take it out of that context and try to imbue it with Jewish feeling? Is it even possible?

Maybe I should just ask Cricket and Butterfly to create some fresh poses for me, like: Begging-for-treats pose, which really strengthens your core; and Barking-at-strangers pose, which gets your anger flowing and makes you feel at least three times your original size.

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Begging-for-treats-pose.

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Barking-at-strangers pose.

That could work.

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Butterfly’s idea of a resting pose.

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Cricket’s version, on Grandma’s lap.