Saturday, January 29, 2011

Encounters of the worst kind: the unexpected

Did you ever get into a confrontation that you've been dreaming about with someone who really gets on your nerves, only to leave feeling you could have said so much more--you could have done better! Well, read on...

As I sit, working away on a manuscript on helping cancer patients cope with illness and the emotional, social, and existential fallout associated with it, plume of smoke slithers it's way into the room and into my lungs. This is cigarette smoke. The irony is tragic and not at all comedic. I live above the most depraved, inconsiderate, life form that just barely meets criteria to be considered a human. Let's call him Mr. C for cretin. I'd like to refer to him as "the jackhole" but I am a lady after all. Mr. C is a middle-aged, unemployed, alcoholic chain-smoker who lives with his elderly, and sickly mother, as her sham caregiver. With caregiver status, he cannot be kicked out of the apartment and probably gets some kind of financial support for the alleged care he provides. We regularly have smoke invading our home, despite relentless complaints to the management, threats of moving, and threats of legal action. He is hated by every other tenant in the building for his smoking and incessant screaming absurdities across his apartment to his mother with the front door open. We now know that he no longer does street drugs, was on the honor roll twice, and is a man, not a woman, but a man. He also has his mother make him meatloaf. He also sings her church hymns punctuated by bursts of emphysemic coughing fits. He is a gem.
Yesterday, on my way to do my "awesome walk" (a lovely trek through the nearby hilly residential area that I cannot afford to live in while listening to the best walking-related playlist ever), Mr. C is standing outside talking to the owner of the property. He immediately confronts me. I've been waiting for the opportunity to verbally castrate this animal for years. But, instead for becoming aggressive and defensive, he starts apologizing to me for the smoke. Wha? Oh this is just pathetic. He starts saying that had he known his smoke was bother the hubs and I, he would have been more careful. He thought it was bothering someone else, who apparently doesn't matter. Stunned, I just keep my poker/skeptical face and just say OK. Apparently, this genius thought that when he smoked in front of his apartment the smoke just "goes up." I said, "yes, right into my apartment through the front door, the back windows, and even the bathroom." The apologies kept coming along with claiming that he's trying to quit. "I have the patch," Mr. C says. Instead of saying, "yeah, well show it to me," I just say OK. Walking away, I start digesting what just happened...and then become furious at myself. I should have said X, Y, and Z! I wasn't ready for this! It's not fair!! It also hit me that this guy was just putting on an act for the owner so he doesn't get kicked out. More anger boils within me. ARG! This is a classic example of the Jerk Store Syndrome: developing a great response to a potential conflict only to be caught off-guard and not being able to use it. Seinfeld fans should know what I'm talkin' about. Mr. C should certainly be returned to the jerk store.

Now, of course, I'll never have the opportunity to let this guy have it ever again. His sneak attack and ensuing performance was essentially a declaration of psychological warfare and being labeled a crazy bitch is not part of our strategy. One strategy we're toying with is coming up with ways to drive this guy nuts. He has a bad temper and has terribly poor judgment so eventually he'll probably threaten us, which will lead to him getting kicked out. Success? I hope. Meanwhile, we're looking for a new place--something that I really don't need to be doing while finishing my dissertation. Why do the inconsiderates always win?!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Oprah and Don Draper Have in Common

Journaling. The pre-internet-blogging-for-one.

Yes, Mad Men has gone there. Draper (as I like to call him with a little extra emphasis on the DRA, making me sound like a 1920s newspaper editor) is now journaling and viewers have the privilege of hearing every thought he puts down on paper with help of voice-over magic. I was half paying attention to the show (thanks, Facebook) and I thought it was a commercial for a high-end car. But no, it was Draper! His narrative was quite profound, so much so that I can't remember any of it, except for something about everyone being ruined. I can't help but feel frustrated watching these scenes knowing that John Hamm is sitting at his pretend desk in his pretend apartment pretending to think. Maybe I'm jealous... I want a voice-over throughout my days, streaming each of my precious thoughts . Would it be better if John Hamm was hired to read the script? But I still don't think my voice-over, read by Mr. Hamm would be that profound. Is it because Matt Weiner isn't writing it? What would life be like if Matt Weiner wrote the script? Right now, my voice over is saying, "Jeez, I sound high," in John Hamm's voice, no less. And there you have it.

Here, there, and everywhere...

"I don't know, it was sort of like I was plugged up...and now the plug came out. Wait, that doesn't sound good, does it?"

I actually said this to my therapist yesterday, accomplishing my childish goal of making him laugh at least once each session. I was referring to my brain being put on ice for approximately a year. Living with chronic stress for this long--and not the I have so much to do how will I ever get it done, but more like the life and death kind--can induce a dementia-like state where my mind is in a thousand places and nowhere all at once. Anyway, here I am. And there you are.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Lonely and Disappointed Italian...

Dear Azzurri (AKA the Italian national soccer team),

Today, you have disappointed me. I woke up at 6:30 AM to prep for the game, which included stretching, setting up ESPN, and getting a protein heavy breakfast within arm's length. I wanted to make sure I was alert, focused, and fueled for what should be a nice, easy win. Wearing my "Forza Italia" shirt from 2006, I positioned myself on the couch for maximum cheering ability.

Little did I know then that there'd be very little cheering. Instead of the champions I rooted for during the last cup, I was faced with a team that looked like they ate too much mozzarella this morning. You moved slower than my Nonna Lucia, and she's dead. You needed a personal invitation to approach the ball. You'd leave Slovakian players completely alone to chase a ball two other Azzurri were already on. Then, said isolated Slovakian player ran past you and stole the ball, like 74 times. Speed wasn't your only impairment, oggi. Skill was also out to lunch. In pee-wee soccer, I learned that you never pass center in the box. As a defender, I took this very seriously, even at 5 years of age. Only a stronzo would do that, right? Oh yes, right. Well, unfortunately, that stronzo is on your team...and he's much older than 5.

I have to admit, the last two goals were nice, even the one where you were off-sides. Maybe your clock was off but those happened in the last 10 minutes of the game. Poor planning, I have to say. You might want to bring an umbrella on the plane. I have a feeling it'll be raining in Italy when you return...raining rotten tomatoes.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Lonely Italian

No, I haven't been watching too many episodes of The Real Housewives of New Jersey (RHNJ). I've been too busy working on my self-torture project known as graduate school qualifying exam. What these two things, RHNJ and grad school in clinical psychology, have in common is that they are excellent examples of the how culture often shapes our thoughts and behaviors. Is this a MacArthur Genius Award-worthy idea? Most definitely not. It just helped me make sense of the fact that I am the only person of Italian decent in my program.

One day in our group supervision, a few classmates of mine were discussing a family case they were working with. They showed the session video, which had captured a mother and teen-aged daughter speaking loudly at the same time while waving their hands around. Our wonderfully insightful and incredibly supportive supervisor made a keen observation: this family talks very loudly and often over each other. Other families, apparently, were more quiet and subdued, often sitting in silence and taking turns to insult each other rather than interrupt, all of which is totally odd, in my opinion (Why? You'll see.) Then, my classmate says: Well, they're Greek. Aha! That's the diagnosis for poor communication skills, being Greek. Then said supervisor asks: Is this cultural? It's like Italians. Do we have any Italians here? All eyes turn to me, the daughter of Italian (pop) and Ecuadorian (mama) parents. Also, what makes me even more of an authority on all things Italian is that I'm a native New Yorker. I'm practically the Dhali Llama of Italian-American culture.*

What could I have done with this? At first, I sat there stunned with eyes wide open (not unlike those flashed by Dina or Caroline when there's been an "attack" on the famiglia). This is when I realized that I was the only person in the room with any sort of Italian descent. One could imagine this being a very strange moment for someone who grew up in a predominantly Italian/Irish area of New York where it was weird if you weren't Italian--instead of Smiths and Williamses, we had Cusomanos, Pagliucas and DiFazios. I also realized that I don't know any other Italian-American in Los Angeles, except for my husband's friend who's a self-identified "pizza-bagel," an Italian-Jewish hybrid from Boston. That doesn't count.

I asked myself: Are Italians loud? Some do of course speak at elevated volumes, myself and my immediate family included. My Italian immigrant family in Brooklyn is not loud, in fact, they are Mario-Puzo's-The-Godfather quite. All you'll hear from them is a low, scratchy whisper, at best. Unless you piss them off, then watch out. OK, so we're loud. Fine.

So, I responded: Did you just ask me if Italians are loud? (laughing) I suppose some are. Let's face it, I'm a little loud, for a therapist at least. How is this relevant to Greeks? Actually, what I think we should be asking ourselves is how this style of communication, marked by conflicting shows of power, interferes with their relationship? For one thing, this Italian (pointing to myself) often feels like it's so hard to be heard in this context, that you have to ramp up the volume. (Yeah, nice, right? Well, I could have just flipped the table on them.)

After this, I started to think about my therapeutic style: tons of empathy punctuated with playful challenging that I fondly refer to as "gentle-tough-love." I find that this approach help me build rapport quickly and gets my clients to let their guard down. Do I get this from my Italian culture? Maybe. Then there's the volume issue. I am louder than other colleagues, who have a distinct "therapy voice." It's softer that the "indoor voice" and much more annoying. Frankly, I hate when I'm spoken to that way in therapy. As a friend once told me: You like to keep it real. And I do.

My clinical evaluations from supervisors often say that clients appear to feel heard and comfortable with me. Maybe, because of my history of decibel-driven power struggles growing up, I know how important that can be for someone. I also don't let my clients off easy. I'm also like this with my classmates, albeit with much less tough love. I just think it's interesting how culture can shape my therapeutic style. Culturally-matching therapist and clients have been debated in the field and it's kind of a mixed bag of findings with regards to it's benefits or costs. What's interesting to me is that I often get contacted by other therapists trying to refer difficult clients. Maybe, the true "culture" here is just that neither the client or I take BS lightly. If that's a cultural match, so be it!
Now, geddouta hea!

*This just happen to be the PhDini being minister of all things Italian. Most other days, I'm the minister of all things "Latino." I'm very important and influencial.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What a therapist thinks about....

I've noticed that people are often curious about what therapists think about during sessions...or outside of sessions, for that matter. To sate this craving, I'll start posting random therapists' thoughts...enjoy.

Facing the music...

OK, I lied about writing regularly. I admit it. I'm a dirty liar. I sit in an over-sized arm chair of lies. In the spirit of forgiveness and acceptance, here I am.