Thursday, July 26, 2012

More Room In A Broken Heart:The True Adventures Of Carly Simon

I had the pleasure this week of reading rock journalist and biographer Stephen Davis' new book, More Room in a Broken Heart (Gotham Books, 2012). It's a fascinating book about Simon's songs, her career, her difficult childhood, her role as a wife and mother, her friendships and struggles. I loved Simon's music, and the music of her former husband, James Taylor, as I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. It's a rare treat through this beautifully written book to get insight into their relationship with each other, and to what was happening in their lives as they were writing certain songs.

Davis knew the Simon family, and Carly's brother, Peter Simon, did the photography.
In following the chronology of Simon's life so far, he illuminates how Carly was able to translate her often intense feelings into words and music. For example, her writing about her experiences with men, as in “You're So Vain.” Her songs chronicle her lingering regrets, falling in love, becoming a mother, struggling with the distance between she and her father growing up, the distance between she and James during their marriage, dealing with James' substance abuse, breaking up, and becoming empowered on her own again.

The book really provides emotional insights, and it is intriguing to learn about how some of Simon's songwriting was so brilliantly honest and revealing. It also reminded me of Carole King's memoir, A Natural Woman, which came out earlier this year, in portraying the conflict songwriters and musicians can feel about what is commercially saleable, and who they authentically want to be as an artist. Simon, who is portrayed as dealing with anxiety and panic most of her life, seems particularly affected by songs and albums succeeding or failing, and having her self-image and outlook impacted by it. It seems it's hard as a musician/songwriter not to get your ego bruised in the music business.
This is a deeply personal, although unauthorized, biography. Davis has multiple sources, and is able to bring to life a sympathetic portrait of a woman who never felt loved by her distant father, who preferred her sister. She was also affected by her parents’ troubled marriage and divorce, and her mother's scandalous infidelity with the girl's young college-aged tutor.

Carly was hopelessly in love with James Taylor, but unable to save him from the darkness of his slide into worsening drug use throughout their marriage. From the book, it appears that Simon might always love James Taylor, and have some lingering regret that they couldn't make their marriage work. I especially was moved by the chapter that shares how, after their divorce, Carly stayed in their home at Cape Cod, and for a long time ran into traces of James. He had a habit of emptying his pockets and leaving the contents stashed in various places, and she found them for years afterwards.
Carly also missed the sound of James' Carolina twang in his singing voice as he had sung background vocals for her songs. I can remember seeing James live in concert about the time they were breaking up in the 70s, and he did a rendition of their song “Mockingbird” with Carly on tape from a big recorder on stage, saying he'd been trying to get used to doing things that way lately.

Davis also sheds light on the story behind James' work, and I found one story particularly interesting.  Taylor was in his 20s and recording in England at Apple Records. His close friends knew he was on a recording deadline, so they didn't tell him about the death of a good friend, Suzanne, by suicide, until the record was finished. This became his classic song, “Fire and Rain.”

James Taylor comes across as a talented but complicated man, with psychiatric inpatient and rehab stays. Some of his best work was created when he was heavily using drugs, including heroin. It makes you wonder if good treatment and AA/12-step programs early on could have saved their family. It seems bittersweet that he got sober later, and is raising a second family now. He is portrayed as really distant and unavailable when Ben and Sally, Carly and James' children, were growing up. It sounds like he's different now.

Carly is still not retired. She has battled back from some big losses: divorces, the death of both of her parents and her good friend Jacqueline Kennedy, her son's life-threatening illness, her own breast cancer, and business disappointments. She has reinvented herself numerous times. She was one of the most successful singer/songwriters of our time, going onto write an opera, children's books, and Academy Award-winning movie scores. She succeeded in her music career despite crippling anxiety that kept her out of performing for more than ten years in the middle of her career. She accomplished more than most other women of her generation had in recording popular music. She is ironically a symbol of an emancipated woman, but was also caught up in deferring to her husband's career and struggling to find a way to balance the roles of wife, mother, and songwriter for many of her professional years.

Life lessons from Carly Simon's adventurous life? You bet. You need a life of your own. Your dreams with the love of your life may or may not workout. You need to go on and build a great life anyway. Motherhood is forever, no matter what. Nothing gets better in a marriage where somebody has chemical dependency issues until those get addressed. You can beat panic and anxiety. You can reinvent yourself. You have to be yourself, even if everyone is telling you not to. Emotional honesty, combined with great songwriting, is something that most people can relate their own life experiences to. Strong emotion, about the love for a child, falling in love, losing someone you love, or being betrayed has a universal connection across time. Now, let me go track down those old, classic Carly Simon and James Taylor CD's for my car.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Importance of Unplugging

In its July 16, 2012 issue, Newsweek offers a cover story called "iCRAZY: Panic. Depression. Psychosis. How Connection Addiction is Rewiring Our Brains," which is well worth reading. It turns out that the internet can change how we think and feel. Next year, when the new version of the DSM (the reference therapists use to diagnose mental health issues), Internet Addiction Disorder will be mentioned for the first time ever, but in the appendix, for more research and study.

As parents of teenagers can tell you, life has changed for this generation of young people. Newsweek
states that the average teen is involved in 3,700 texts a month. This is why most of us parents have switched to unlimited texting plans! Most parents learn to text to be able to get updates on teens who are out away from the house. The average adult sends 400 texts per month. Many people check their messages constantly throughout the day in a hyper-vigilant way, often checking messages first thing in the morning, and last thing before going to bed. The average adult sends 4 times more texts now than in 2007, while teens have always been heavier text users, but their usage has doubled since 2007.

Newsweek writers reviewed studies from more than twelve countries to look at the impact of the computer and internet on our brains. Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience at UCLA believes "the computer is like electronic cocaine," triggering bouts of mania and depression. It can lead people into poor behavior choices, increase compulsive behaviors, and make people anxious. Nicholas Carr wrote the book The Shallows about how the internet impacts cognition, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The web can be a great resource, but it can also increase our passivity, dependence, obsessions, and stress reactions.

Stanford researchers are studying the rise in ADD, ADHD, and OCD diagnoses, and the possible link to being wired up. The internet draws us to its temporary rewards, with every message bringing potential social, professional, or sexual opportunities. One  2011 study showed about 80% of its participants brought their laptops or smartphones on vacation to stay connected to the office. (That's not really a vacation in the traditional sense, is it?)

One study at the University of Maryland  in 2010 had 200 undergrads go unplugged, avoiding all web and mobile technologies for one day. The students kept logs of the feelings they experienced, which included withdrawal, dependency, emotional distress, and a great deal of difficulty. Another study found that most of its subjects check text messages every 15 minutes or all the time, with the exception of those over age 50.

The brains of internet addicts can end up looking like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts, with extra nerve cells built for speed in the areas responsible for attention, control, and executive function. Other studies show shrinkage of 10 to 20%  in the area of the brain responsible for speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory, and other information in internet addicts. A 1998 study at Carnegie Mellon found over a 2-year period, web use was associated with loneliness, down moods, and fewer real-world friends. More recent studies duplicated these findings, linking extended web use with sleep problems, feeling worse, less exercise, and fewer face-to face interactions. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians add questions for children, teens, and parents about technology use in annual exams.

Bad experiences online can trigger depression. It can magnify the power of bullies through Facebook and other social media. Many people can feel a fear of missing out on something if they don't check for updates regularly. It's easy to understand how some of these dynamics can create exhaustion, burnout, stress, anxiety, and other mood issues.

The findings reported in this article from Newsweek this week fit with my clinical experience in counseling individuals, couples, teens and children. Technology is a great resource, but we need to make sure we control it, rather than let it control us. You need to know when to turn it off, and help your children learn to do so as well. (No technology at the dinner table!) We need to have real friends and real relationships that involve face-to-face time. The internet can lull you into stupid choices or a sense of intimacy with complete strangers. We still need to get outside, enjoy nature, and be active. Parents need to make sure their children and teens still develop people skills, because technology only goes so far. We need to make sure that as technology advances, we still develop our soft skills, our ability to communicate verbally, and the ability to give another person our full, undivided attention.

Plus, you just can't break up with someone by e-mail or text, it's just emotionally wrong. Not everything is technologically enhanced. We need to be discerning technology users, and know when to turn it off, go outside, or connect with another human being with our full focus.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Connecting Beyond Family Dinner

In the Sunday, July 1, 2012 edition of the New York Times, I ran across an article by the authors of a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy this Spring. The authors of the study are Ann Meier, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, and Kelly Musick, Associate Professor of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University. While there are a number of studies linking family dinner time to good parenting outcomes, this study shows that there are other factors that play a role, and other ways to connect besides family mealtimes. This study might be a good reality check for parents of teens, who may be realizing family dinners are sometimes extremely difficult to corral busy teens and parents into.

Meier and Musick studied factors from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative sample of teens, surveyed twice in middle school and/or high school, and again in young adulthood, between 18 and 26. Both the teens and their parents answered detailed questions about family patterns, living arrangements, and income. They focused on how the frequency of family dinners correlated with these three indicators of adolescent well-being: depression, drug/alcohol use, and delinquency (this included a number of behaviors, such as shoplifting).

This study supported previous studies that if you check in at any one point in time with teens, then family dinners do correlate with higher levels of well-being. However, if the researchers dug deeper and controlled for additional ways in which the families who ate together and didn't eat together also tended to differ, interesting details came to light. These two types of families often had a different quality of relationship with their teen, including the amount of activities with a parent and teen, seeing movies together, helping with schoolwork/projects, monitoring curfews and clothing choices, and different parental resources (income, one vs. two parents in the household).

Without controlling for these other factors, 73% of teens in their sample who rarely ate dinner with parents reported drug and alcohol use, compared with 55% of teens who regularly ate dinner with parents. However, if the researchers controlled for these factors, the differences in alcohol/drug use was cut in half between the two groups, from 18% to 9%.

When the researchers looked at how family dinners affect teens over time, the benefits appeared thin for the impact of family dinners on drug and alcohol use, mental health,or delinquency rates. It may, however, impact other things that weren't tracked, such as healthy eating patterns. While eating meals together and visiting and relating with your teens during mealtime is always a positive, these researchers encourage parents to think creatively. Do dinner together as often as you can, but also realize that driving time, leisure activities together like seeing movies, and being involved in many other little ways with your teen at home also count. Don't feel guilty. Try to maximize your connections with your teen when and where you can, and meals are not the only place good connections can happen. The most important thing that needs to happen is your teen knowing you are available, interested, willing to listen, and care about them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Don't Do Their Laundry:Tips on Raising Great Teens

It happens in my counseling office all the time. Just this week, I discovered several more parents of teenagers that are doing their teen’s laundry, even in the countdown months before college. Today, I have a few tips on not overprotecting the teen you love and contributing to a sense of helplessness, entitlement, and believing that others should be in their service. Just say no.

In recent years, college administrators throughout the U.S. are noticing a huge increase in the number of freshmen students who are poorly prepared for the emotional independence and self-reliance of living away from their parents. Many students struggle with the independent living skills of not only doing their own laundry, but also managing their own sleep schedule, waking themselves up for class, setting and maintaining a study schedule, managing their own food and exercise patterns in a healthy way, and dealing with budgeting and spending money wisely.

Here's a useful shift for loving (but overly involved) parents of high school students. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to identify and teach your teen as many independent living skills as possible. Many teens have no interest in learning as long as you are doing it for them, so turn over the task to them completely after you train them. If you turn a task over to them, and then sometimes do it for them, you are a part of the problem!

Basically, try never to do things "for" a child or teen that they are capable of doing themselves. Work yourself out of a job. High self-esteem in children and teens is related to feeling capable. Teens in particular are caught in-between independence and dependence. You job is to help them develop confidence in themselves, not just through compliments, but through realizing they can figure things out and develop a sense of mastery.

Since we will each live part of our adult lives alone (at the beginning, middle, or end of our lives, or in some combination, depending on what happens), I want all teen girls and guys to learn some basic life skills. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about what your teen needs to know how to do before launching to college. It's also where you need to reassign, train, and back off:

Before leaving for college, your teen should be able to:

1.      Do their own laundry.

2.      Make several basic breakfast, lunch and dinner items.

3.      Pump gas and maintain their own car. How to check tire pressure, call AAA (girls, too!)

4.      Call or email to make own appointments (doctor, dentist, orthodontist, career counselor, hair stylist, etc.).

5.      Pick up and clean own bedroom and bathroom.

6.      Wake up on time or deal with the consequences (at school, for example- without you rescuing).

7.      Have the experience of earning some money of their own. It's not easy, but teaches them about the value of money in a way no lecture from parents can.

8.      Manage the use of a debit card responsibly for budgeted expenses.

9.      Ask for what they need.

10.  Solve problems. You might try asking them what they think more about daily problems that come up at home, how they think a situation could be best handled, etc.

11.  In increasing amounts over the course of high school, have more freedom to plan their own schedule if they are being responsible, reasonable, and keeping you accurately updated.

12.  How to handle emergency situations, at home, in the car, and if away from home (earthquakes, CPR, procedures for fires, etc.)

13.  Create their own food and exercise plan. Get help if needed. A one-time consult with a dietician who can help your teen directly with building a plan for exercise and easy strategies to maintain fitness at college could be extremely valuable, and much more valuable than you lecturing. Sometimes teens just can't hear it from a parent, because they are busy trying to individuate from us.

14.  Scheduling their own homework/study times.

15.  Ask your teen to help identify what else they feel they need in terms of independent living skills. They may have other fears that can be addressed so they feel more confident when launching to college.

Of course, if your teen is dealing with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, or has learning disabilities or health problems, you need to pay closer attention. Always give out these increased responsibilities gradually and build skills along the way. We want to nurture our teenage sons and daughters’ sense of mastery and instill confidence. As a parent, sometimes the most loving thing you can do for your teen is to expect them to do more for themselves, and work yourself out of a job. I'd call that successful launching, and starting early is a really terrific idea.

In closing, as a gentle reminder to parents of high school students, summer is an excellent time to begin "Project Independent Living Skills." You can start with the lesson on laundry! 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Love Isn't About Control

On 60 Minutes this weekend, they featured a segment about the break-up that happened recently with Katie Holmes filing for divorce from Tom Cruise. It's all speculation, but they noted that Katie's "surprising" Tom with the divorce appeared to be a tactical, strategic operation taking quite a bit of pre-planning. The anchors conjectured that she seemed to be doing the emotional equivalent of escaping from Alcatraz. Popular media is reporting sources that claim Tom dominated Katie's career moves, the company she kept, and may have thrust her into a role in Scientology that she may not have wanted for herself, or for their daughter, Suri.

Love is better between equals. It really shouldn't be about controlling the other person, or getting them to do every little thing your way. A secure person can accept the unique differences between themself and the person they love.

When you choose a life partner, you want to build a life together, not fit them into your script. You want to hear about their desires, preferences, and ideas. You want a safe way to dialogue about your differences in a respectful way, and listen just as much as you speak. Don't lecture or deliver monologues to your partner.

Love between equals means that you each contribute to the relationship---through time, effort, and/or finances. You respect the contributions that your partner makes. You make big decisions together. You don't assume that you are always right. You don't hide important information from them, leaving them outside the loop in their own relationship.

Healthy couples disagree sometimes, respectfully and fairly. This means you don't call names. You listen to your partner. They listen to you. You both try to understand the other person's perspective. You compromise, or take turns in getting to influence important decisions.

People also change over time. In successful, enduring relationships, you need to be able to accept that your partner will probably change and develop over the course of the relationship. Hopefully you will also evolve. If you can't learn to be flexible, and make it safe and comfortable to be open with you about what they need, you partner may come to feel suffocated by the relationship.

Here are some tips for love among equals:

1.      Encourage your partner to talk with you about their needs, thoughts, desires, and hopes (even if they are different from yours)

2.      Celebrate the differences between you. Do some activities together, and some separate. (Happy couples also individuate. Think Paul Newman and Jo Ann Woodward: He raced cars, she was a ballet fan.)

3.      Allow yourself and your partner to change and grow.

4.      Listen as much as you speak.

5.      Share decision-making with your partner- don’t dominate in how things are done, from holidays, to how money is spent, to travel plans, religious practice, and everything else.

6.      Be open and transparent, and ask the same of your partner.

7.      Support your partner's growth and development. Keep working on your own.

It's over for Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise's marriage.
Hopefully, they can work out a way to work to respectfully co-parent Suri, despite the marriage ending.
It's sad when happily ever after goes bust a short five years later. Women are more commonly the partner to file for divorce. These critical skills of sharing power and control, and cherishing the differences between yourself and the other person are among the best tools that couples have for a loving relationship that really works and grows over time. You want to love someone who is your equal, challenges you, and lets you be you. Your partner deserves all these good things, too. Happily ever after? Maybe it's love, honor, respect, and negotiate ever after.