Thursday, June 27, 2013

Movie Review by Mother and Son: Phoebe in Wonderland

This is a joint movie review by me and my son. We watched the movie together and he said it was so good that I should blog about it and he wanted to help.

Phoebe in Wonderland (2008) is a movie about a nine year old girl with Tourette Syndrome. The movie shows her and her family's struggle as she starts to engage in obsessive rituals, inappropriate behavior like spitting and saying mean things, and repeating what other people have said. At the same time that all of this is happening, she is in a play of Alice in Wonderland where her symptoms disappear because she is able to hyper-focus. Her drama teacher, Ms. Dodger is really the only person who can get through to Phoebe, but after Phoebe jumps from the catwalk in the theater, Ms. Dodger is fired. There are other meaningful subplots such as Phoebe's classmate Jamie who is harassed because the other kids think he is gay, and Phoebe's mother who struggles with wanting to work and being a mother.

Review by Rev. Katie:
This movie was powerful in so many ways, not all of which I will have enough room to talk about here. For me, these themes stood out the most:
  • Phoebe believes scary things people tell her and then in order to avoid them, she creates rituals. One ritual she has is something I did when I was little too. The first time we see Phoebe with "odd" behavior, she is repeating "Step on a crack, break your mother's back," and she is avoiding the cracks in the tile floor. I did the same thing when I was little, avoiding cracks wherever I walked. Phoebe also has compulsive hand washing, which I have to this day, thinking that she needs to wash her hands a certain number of times in order to do well in her audition or make something else good happen. Then her friend tells her that she either needs to pray or do something she hates in order to get the part of Alice in the play, so Phoebe starts rituals of jumping and clapping with a pattern and number of squares on the walkway outside and on the steps. When I was little and walking up stairs, I always had to jump two steps in order to feel safe. What this shows is that for some of us, our brain latches on to superstition or fear and desperately makes us try anything in order to be safe. This means what we say to kids really matters and tormenting kids with scary things is seriously life threatening. 
  • Throughout the movie, Phoebe explains so well what it is like in her brain. She says at one point "I can see myself wrecking and ruining and I don't know how to stop." There is a heart wrenching scene with Phoebe crying in her bed to her Mom that she does not know why she does these things. It is also eye opening when Phoebe's father blurts out an unkind statement to her and when he goes to apologize he says, "The words just came out." Phoebe replies that the same thing happens to her. This is when her father is able to understand more of her inability to control her behavior. 
  • At one point, Phoebe and her sister and running around the table, giggling and asking their parents to have a baby. Their father clearly gets overwhelmed with the noise and the stress, and blurts out: "Really? Do you think your mother could handle another one like you?" Immediately Phoebe runs away and starts into ritual jumping of squares on the tile floor and is saying "screw you!" She is trying to calm down and tell herself that what her father said was not true. Phoebe also sees and speaks to characters from Alice in Wonderland when she is scared or upset and in this scene she asks them if she is the reason why her mother would not have another child. Again, Phoebe is trying to calm herself and tell herself she is not a bad person. This scene shows so clearly how insulting and shaming a child with difficult behavior only triggers the behavior and makes them think they are bad. If this happens over and over again, the child can not longer fight off the belief that they are bad and they start to believe it. By the time they reach adulthood, it is programmed into them and this is their default belief about themselves so even their own beliefs then trigger the negative behaviors. Fortunately in the movie, the father apologizes, which really is important. None of us will be perfect parents, but sincere apologies and letting your child know that your reaction was due to your problem, and not because they are bad, is one way we we can help them not end up believing these things about themselves as an adult and making the illness worse. 
  • There is a scene where Phoebe's younger sister says she wants a different sister, one she does not have to take care of and does not have whatever Phoebe has. The mother insists that Phoebe is fine, but the little girl rightly says that the mother has no idea what is going on. This scene not only shows how hard it can be for siblings who know what is going on but also for parents who are unwilling to see that their child may need help. For most of the movie, the little sister is the only one in the family who even helps Phoebe, even participating in some of her rituals. The sister just gets tired of basically being the only adult in the house. 
    Theatrical Poster
  • Phoebe's parents eventually take her to a psychiatrist who diagnoses her with Tourette Syndrom, but Phoebe's mother insists this is not true and that Phoebe's behavior is her fault, so she fires the psychiatrist. Phoebe's mom does not want her labeled, thought of as "less than," and medicated leading to a life full of side effects. This is understandable. The problem is the mother blames herself, and thinks she can fix Phoebe, rather than accepting the diagnosis and looking for a better way to handle it if she does not want to use medications and such. There is too much shame in our culture surrounding brain disorders so parents become scared and are unable to see what is going on and search for the right kind of treatment for their child. I was a bit disappointed that the movie ends with the parents accepting the diagnosis and Phoebe explaining it to her class without going into what they do to help her. It might be assumed that they went with the medications and that the psychiatric diagnosis and now somehow things are ok. This ending risks promoting the idea that medication works for everyone and cures all. This mentality leads a lot of people to judge parents who use alternative methods of treatment for their children. But, no movie can be perfect or cover every aspect of life. There is not enough time!
  • Twice Phoebe gets punished by her teacher and principal for spitting on other kids when the kids have chased, berated, and scared her and she has asked them to stop but they won't. This happens way too often- a child gets pushed to their limit and then punished while the larger group of bullies is defended, all because this child is "different." Even my son asked "Why is it always the nice kids who get in trouble when the mean kids do something wrong?" He said the approach of the drama teacher was much better: Rather than taking a punishment approach when someone writes "faggot" on Jamie's costume, the drama teacher addresses the whole group and teaches them something. This actually created a change in the way people treated Jamie rather than punishment which creates no understanding. It's a very powerful scene.
  • The drama teacher, Ms. Dodger, is the only person who understands working with children and how to help them be their best selves. She allows children to make decisions on their own, encourages the kids to be the directors of the play, and is non-authoritarian. Unfortunately, after accidentally saying something hurtful to her friend Jamie, Phoebe runs and climbs up the catwalk. Phoebe retreats into Wonderland for solace and looks down the ladder of the catwalk and sees the hole that brought Alice to Wonderland, so she jumps. It is not a long jump and Phoebe gets a sprained wrist. However, the drama teacher gets blamed for this and there is a terrible, yet typical, scene when the principle questions Phoebe and distorts what she says to make it look like Ms. Dodger told her to jump. Ms. Dodger was the only person who actually helped Phoebe and the other children. In fact, it is Ms. Dodger who gives Phoebe the most beneficial advice- that one day she will see herself as she is, even the parts that are different, accept herself, and on that day she will feel love. Far too often, it is the more creative teachers who know how to help children with brain disorders, but few people ever listen to them.
  • After the jump off the catwalk, Phoebe asks her parents if people usually feel hope. They think she did not feel hope and that is why she jumped. Rather, Phoebe explains that she felt hope when looking into Wonderland and that is why she jumped, but in the real world she feels no hope. This illustrates how people often misinterpret behavior that seems to them like self harm. Also, when Phoebe's mother confronts Ms. Dodger and mentions her daughter does not feel hope, again Ms. Dodger gives the best advice- that sometimes we don't feel hope but we keep on anyway, and then we know we have it.
Review by Jeffrey, age 9:

"This movie will change your life.

The movie was awesome. I think it kind of showed me what Mommy's life was like when she was little.

I think teachers could learn a lot from Ms. Dodger, like that kids can do things on their own and they do not need you watching over them every second. 

Parents could learn to not think when something goes wrong that it is their fault. In the part of the movie where Phoebe is crying with her Mom in bed and the Mom asks "What's wrong" and Phoebe says she does not know, the Mom did not keep asking her what was wrong. If we don't know what is wrong, don't keep asking us anymore because it really gets annoying and it puts too much pressure on us. 

People can also learn from the movie that if you are different, that does not mean you are bad, it just means you are special. If someone ever punishes you for being different, then you should talk to your parents and have them fix it. If someone punishes you for being different, that is very mean and it can make you feel bad about yourself."

Both Jeffrey and I recommend that you watch this movie and talk about it afterwards. We both learned things about one another and how to help each other when we are having a difficult time.

I know now not to try and fix everything for him when he says he is not sure what is wrong, and he knows that he should always tell me if he ever starts to feel overwhelmed like Phoebe's little sister. We also talked about apologizing when we say unkind things to each other and how that makes all the difference in how he sees himself as a person. Of course, we also discussed that you you can't just be mean all the time and think if you apologize that it makes everything better. You need to try and act better each time.

When you watch the movie, let us know in the comments what spoke to you.


Rev. Katie and Jeffrey

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Recovering from Mental Illness by Combatting Shame

I have had many good therapists since I was 19 years old but recently one noticed that I had a lot of trauma and abuse which was not being addressed properly. She referred me to another therapist who specializes in this and I have been seeing him for ten months. He is really the first therapist who has been able to help me actually start to recover from my bipolar disorder rather than just manage it. How did he do this? He requires me to have compassion for myself. (Which is probably advice now I have shared with many of you personally.)

Why does this work? Because it combats shame. In trauma and abuse, shame is what devastates you in the end. It is what hurts your soul, reprograms your brain, creates imbalance, and ruins your life. Shame becomes programmed into us. It is so automatic in many of our own minds and in our culture that we do not even realize this is what is hurting us, or even that it is happening.

Frankly, many people think shame is the way to make/encourage people to do better in life. Many parents subscribe to a definition of "tough love" which really entails shaming. I noticed this when my son spilled a milkshake into my purse the other day. At first, I heard in my mind the reaction I was trained to have: "Jeffrey! What's wrong with you? You need to be more careful! Look what you did! You ruined my purse. I can't take you anywhere." But instead I said "Jeffrey!" and paused knowing I could never say those things to my beautiful child. I continued with "Oh no, your milkshake! Let's clean it up and get you a new one. We all spill things." 

As shame researcher Dr. Brene Brown says we need to understand the difference between guilt and shame:

Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am bad.

Yelling at my son "What's wrong with you? I can't take you anywhere!" would have been shaming him- telling him he was bad. 

If we think we are bad, if we feel shame or other people shame us by telling us we are bad, then we believe we are not worthy of connection and belonging. If we are not worthy of connection and belonging, which humans are hard-wired for, then we enter into despair and our lives fall apart. In her Super Soul Sunday show with Oprah, Dr. Brown says: "Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying, and aggression. Guilt is inversely correlated with those."

Watch this amazing clip to see this explained in a powerful way:

My therapist has been continually working with me to help stop me when I go into shaming myself. As I have worked with my therapist, I see how shame pervades my life. In everything I do, good or bad, I shame myself. I believe bad things happen because I am a bad person who makes them happen and good things must only happen to me due to a fluke or I must have done something bad in order to get this thing that is good. That means I probably shame myself almost 24/7. That is just not healthy and if shame is correlated with high rates depression, I am sure it is correlated in many ways to other mental illnesses.

So, how has my therapist helped me recognize shame? Dr. Brown says the one thing that combats shame is empathy, which for me is the compassion that my therapist is trying to teach me to have for myself. He notices when I shame myself right away, but in order to get me to see it, he asks me if what I say to myself is something I would say to a congregant or my own son. It is not.

When I believe other people's shaming of me, he again asks me to have compassion for myself and ask if what that person did to me I would do to someone else. I would not.

He also reminds me that when someone shames me, I need to first stop and acknowledge to myself that it hurt and that was not ok, rather than jumping to the conclusion that I deserve to be hurt because I am bad.

So, how does this work, this whole guilt and shame thing when you actually do something that is not all that great? Maybe this story will help:

One morning my husband left very early to go out of town. I forgot to set my alarm and I woke up late, took a shower, and walked out of my bedroom to realize my son was still home! I had not only forgotten wake up, but also get him breakfast and take him to school! He was just hanging out playing on his computer. Then, since it was so late and I was overwhelmed, I decided just to keep him home from school rather than have to explain what happened to the school. I felt like the worst mother ever and I told my therapist that. I said I was irresponsible, lazy, didn't care enough about my son evidenced by the fact that I even forgot he was in the house! What mother does that? His reaction was that I needed to have compassion for myself. To first realize that I must have been very exhausted to have slept in so late. That does not mean what I did was great, and I could have still taken him to school, but I am not a bad mother. Next time I will try and remember to set the alarm and if I do wake up late, I should probably take him to school anyway. Feeling guilt for doing something not so great and learning from it was an appropriate reaction. Feeling shame and thinking I am a bad mother who does not deserve her child was an inappropriate and damaging reaction.

The thing is it is hard to stop the negative programming in our brains. If we have been shamed long enough and thus learned to shame ourselves, we actually need to reprogram the way our brain thinks in order to stop it. It takes a long time of practicing compassion for yourself at every situation for you to start making a dent in the negative programming. And then when others shame you, it is very easy to fall back into automatically shaming yourself. It takes a lot of work on your own, support from positive friends, and sometime distance from those that shame you frequently until you have enough shame resilience to not have their behavior set you back.

The best way to practice compassion for yourself is to do a lovingkindness meditation daily, or even a few times a day. The lovingkindness meditation starts with yourself and then moves outward eventually to the whole world. I like the way Jack Kornfield describes this meditation since he encourages you to see yourself as a child because that allows you to feel love and compassion for yourself. Below is the first part of that meditation and you can click here for the rest of it:

"Begin with yourself. Breathe gently, and recite inwardly the following traditional phrases directed toward our own well-being. You being with yourself because without loving yourself it is almost impossible to love others.

May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy.

As you repeat these phrases, picture yourself as you are now, and hold that image in a heart of lovingkindness. Or perhaps you will find it easier to picture yourself as a young and beloved child. Adjust the words and images in any way you wish. Create the exact phrases that best open your heart of kindness. Repeat these phrases over and over again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind. Practice this meditation for a number of weeks, until the sense of lovingkindness for yourself grows.

Be aware that this meditation may at times feel mechanical or awkward. It can also bring up feelings contrary to lovingkindness, feelings of irritation and anger. If this happens, it is especially important to be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be received in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection. When you feel you have established some stronger sense of lovingkindness for yourself, you can then expand your meditation to include others."


Rev. Katie

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Adventures in Acupuncture

Five weeks ago I started acupuncture to help with my bipolar disorder. It seems to be helping as I am finally getting numerous days in a row that do not end up in manic meltdowns. I am able to handle things a better and have more functional time during the day. I have actually been letting my husband sleep and not talking to him all night, which he is very happy about. It takes at least a few months to be sure a treatment is working, but this looks promising. Part of the actual experience of getting the acupuncture though was an adventure for me though.

I have no trouble with needles so I did not anticipate any issues with getting acupuncture. However, at my first appointment, after the practitioner put all the needles in me and left the room, I instantly panicked. For some reason it did not cross my mind earlier that someone who has panic attacks being in confined areas might have a serious problem with being basically pinned down and unable to move, at all.

I had one of my worst panic attacks that day because I could not get out of the situation I was in without serious pain and I could not do any of the little things I usually do to try and calm myself down. You can not really move any part of your body because the needles really hurt if you move. It's fine if you lie still, but I tried to wiggle my fingers to clench my hand, which I do when I am panicking, and it was extremely painful. Technically I could get up, with the pain, but really, what would I do then with no clothes on and tons of needles all over me? There is really no where for a human pin cushion to go.

Attempting to relax. Photo by J. Norris

That was one of the worst half hours of my life. I kept panicking, fearing I would get sick, unable to move, knowing I could yell for help but that would be extremely embarrassing.

Apparently, most people fall asleep during acupuncture and they find it very relaxing. I find it excruciatingly terrifying and I lay there doing anything to try and distract myself- singing songs in my head, counting, but mostly I kept saying over and over again in my mind "When is this going to be over?"

Until we can figure out how to get rid of my panic, I can not go to acupuncture by myself. So, my loving husband takes three hours out of his week to go with me (between driving there and back, meeting with the practitioner, getting all the needles put in, laying there, and getting everything removed.) It may sound odd that he would figure out how to go with me, but the acupuncture seems to work enough that it is worth all the time and effort.

Some days I am able to lay there quietly and we both get some meditation time in, which is nice and he finds that quite relaxing. Other times I am an anxious wreck and I have him talk to me to try and make the time pass faster.

My acupuncturinst is not quite sure what to do with me and the anxiety since he has not had anyone have acupuncture make them so anxious, every time. Then I realized though that most people who have severe anxiety over being confined would never get acupuncture in the first place.

I am glad I did not think this whole thing through and realize acupuncture would cause me to panic because then I would have missed out on a treatment that really helps me- better than medications have done. Even if acupuncture makes you nervous for any number of reasons, I would encourage you to try it because it might really help.


Rev. Katie