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Breaking Open

My last blog post was last May; it’s been a long time!

In that one, I wrote about seeds, – seeds planted in soil and metaphorical seeds within us.  I noted that before a seed becomes any kind of new life, it has to be broken open.  I promised a second post to talk about this.

Nature created the process of scarification which “involves weakening, opening, or otherwise altering the coat of a seed to encourage germination.” (Wikipedia) This process of change can be glamorized, but when humans have to soften, weaken, or break open, it’s rarely glamorous at all.  Many of us have been taught to automatically resist this kind of surrender. Yet despite our best intentions, we are forced into breaking open.

Despite intending to blog again sooner, last summer became full with gardening, a kitchen renovation and personal health challenges. And then my sister Beth’s heart started to fail.

Beth faced numerous and significant health problems for at least a decade, including two open heart surgeries.  Last summer, a medication that had kept major symptoms of congestive heart failure at bay became ineffective.

My sister played piano skillfully – often at church and to accompany other musicians and also just for the love of it. She sang well too, her alto voice strong and sure.  She grieved when unable to play piano as she became weaker and Fuchs dystrophy worsened her vision.

Beth was thorough and detail-oriented; an excellent proofreader. She used those skills in various jobs throughout adulthood. She found numerous errors on my website!

She loved her family, her children, and her grandchildren.  Those relationships weren’t always easy, but they were a priority and she relished time spent with family.

Beth died last mid-September.  My husband and I flew to Kansas, where she lived all her adult life, to attend her services.  

While there, I realized  – visiting her home, talking with her friends, walking her neighborhood, and also through a nearby arboretum she loved –  that I didn’t know Beth well.  We’d lived far apart since she moved there for college.  We loved each other and stayed in touch with texts, emails, and occasional phone calls but weren’t close friends like some sisters are. I wish I had worked harder to stay better connected.

Now in mid-2023, I continue to grieve and mourn her death, untimely at age 65, along with the deaths of my dad, a dear friend, and several neighbors in the past three years.  I realize that I, like a seed, have been broken open. 

I discovered that a big part of me does not want to write about this kind of being broken open.  It’s messy, painful, and uncertain.  It takes so much energy.

Yet in some ways I am more alive than ever.  When you view a dead person, you know that they are not here anymore.  You know, from the heartbeat and blood coursing through your veins and your quickened breath, that you are.  And this provides an opportunity for living better and more intentionally.

Certain old goals or propensities of mine, now more than ever, simply don’t matter.  They just don’t.  I have been torn from some of my perfectionism and need to control life.  I don’t have to get everything done in a particular way;  it does not matter.

And certain things really do matter.  I’m more aware of my deep love for my spouse and children, for my other sister, mom, family members, friends, and yes, my clients. I am a little better at being grateful.  I know more clearly I want to spend my time doing what juices me, with those who love me, and in places that are important to me.  These clarified values help me focus my life, my goals, and daily actions.

I’m also learning that grief is a process; it takes time, it’s bumpy, and when we experience loss of any kind, but particularly the death of people we love, we never return to who we were before they left us.  We are altered.

I am not an expert on grief, but with my sister’s death, I received another initiation into it.  It broke me open in unfamiliar ways. Like the seed’s shell must soften and surrender to the soil before the next step of growth, I want to be open to continued growing and learning from this dark and hopefully fertile space.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW   July 2023

Seeds and Psychotherapy

Every spring I spread a handful of my now 8-year old arugula seeds over the early spring soil.  And every year a small lawn of arugula emerges. It looks like nearly every seed germinates. Hardy, more impervious to weather and moisture fluctuations than a lot of my greens, they haven’t yet failed to sprout.

Every year I think the same thing – surely by now these old seeds are dead. And every year, I’m wrong.

A client who worked as a farmer brought me those seeds. She’d barter part of her fee with grass-fed meat, organic eggs and a wonderful variety of vegetables.  And once she brought me this hefty quantity of arugula seeds hand-harvested from the farm.

Is there a point to this story?

Yes, thanks for asking – there are several – one broad and one personal.

Spring is when we are most aware of life popping from dead-looking limbs, seeds and earth.  Spinach, arugula, lettuce and coriander are growing in my raised bed right now even though it still freezes at night and has occasionally snowed since I planted them.  Seeds are amazing if you let yourself think about them. Rattling around in seed packets, they look absolutely lifeless, inert.  When planted in proper conditions, they break open and reach toward light. 

(Look for a blog post coming soon about that little phrase “breaking open.)

But never underestimate the power of a seed – the literal seeds for planting or the metaphoric seeds waiting in you.  Many clients begin therapy, not only when something painful or challenging has happened or is happening but when they “know” that something has to change.  This knowledge is a seed.

Second, please consider that you are never too old or worn out for change and growth.  

I recently turned 60 and it was a big deal emotionally. I think I thought I’d be all grown up by now. When I took the time to explore why I was so sobered by entering my 7th decade, I discovered regret, gratitude, reminiscence, sadness, hope, acceptance, and then finally, a deep belief that as Stanley Kunitz writes in his poem, The Layers, “I am not done with my changes.”   (This is a poem worth reading, especially if you are in middle or later life.)

I have some ideas and dreams for my 60s – seeds still wanting to germinate. And I’ve worked with many clients from their early 20s into their 70s who bring seeds, that while initially dead-looking, are embedded with potential and hope.

Pain, loss, death, transitions, anxiety, depression, past trauma – none of these easy – can all be seeds.  These experiences and symptoms point us to something that needs attention.  When we are willing to go in the direction of our difficulties with care and kindness for ourselves, we find those seeds more ready to break open, stretch toward warmth and grow into new life.  Easy? No. Possible? Yes.

What seeds might be wanting to sprout into something new, healthier or invigorating in you?

Brenda Hartman-Souder    May 2022

What’s a First Session Like?

Meeting a therapist for the first time requires courage. You request help for symptoms or challenges. You show up and know the therapist will ask questions that might be hard or painful to answer. And you don’t yet know your new therapist, so how can you know if they are trustworthy or if their questions are good ones?

Or maybe you don’t know anything about what beginning therapy is like.

When I started therapy in 1990 (yes, it’s a long time ago!) I was certain I was irrevocably messed up. I was worried my new therapist would label me or pronounce my pathology as severe.  Back then, I didn’t know anyone who had actually gone to therapy. I was awash in an unspoken taboo that therapy was for the weak or very ill.

But I was suffering from serious anxiety that affected my functioning AND I was studying to be a therapist. Feeling desperate, I called a favorite professor and asked her to recommend several local therapists. And then I picked up the phone and scheduled an appointment.

My therapist was kind and listened non-judgmentally. He helped me feel safe.  He was not in a hurry to dig out answers to questions about my entire life history.  Rather, he asked good questions and reframed what I believed was negatively going on inside me. By reframing, I mean he understood my symptoms as messengers and taught me to pay attention to them, respectfully and with curiosity.

Instead of trying to get rid of symptoms, I started to understand the marvelous way our mind, body, and emotions work to communicate important information.  Therapy changed me.  I still say therapy saved my life. I was not suicidal but I was caught in destructive beliefs that would have spun me deeper into despair had I not reached out.

Starting Therapy With Me

Before I meet with a new client for the first session, I schedule a ½ hour no-charge video or phone consultation. I want at least a thumbnail sketch of what’s going on and what you are looking for by contacting a therapist.  Talking briefly before we schedule the first appointment helps us both know if we are a good fit for each other.  I will also answer questions you may have about therapy or my theoretical framework. 

What’s It Like?

A typical and good question potential clients ask is “What happens when we first meet?”  

Every therapist will answer that differently because we are as diverse as our clients.  But here’s my answer:

When I meet with a client for the first time, my sole goal is that you’ll leave the session with a sense of safety and hope.

That’s it.  Everything else is, as they say, “gravy,”  Because without feeling safe and hopeful, therapy can’t progress. We’ll talk about whatever you need to in order to feel safe, understood, and hopeful that change can happen.

Therapists are trained to gather information early and health insurance companies and agencies often expect therapists to document history in early sessions.  Learning about your current situation, your family of origin, relationships, coping skills, strengths, and pivotal life events are all important, in time.

As a self-pay therapist without insurance or agency-inflicted rules and regulations, I have more freedom and I take it.  First I want to really listen to you, create safety in how I interact with you, and start to understand what’s going on, what you need, and what you hope might change.  We’ll get to everything else in time.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSWR        February 2022

Recommended Reading

photo by Jason Wong, Unsplash

Below are books I recommend the most often to clients, along with some blogs I follow.  I’ve read these books myself, many of them more than once, and find personally and professionally helpful. 

Working with Symptoms and Challenges Clients Bring to Therapy

The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, by Francis Weller

The Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts are Gifts to Help You Heal, by Sheryl Paul

No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model, by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D

The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living – A Guide to ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), by Russ Harris

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, by Lori Gottlieb

Specific to Trauma, and Mind-Body Practices

Transforming Trauma: The Path to Hope and Healing, by James S. Gordon, M.D.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk, MD

Family Systems:

Growing Yourself Up: How To Bring Your Best to All of Life’s Relationships, by Jenny Brown

The Dance of Anger: A Women’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, by Harriet Goldher Lerner

(This book was revised after 25 years but it’s still a classic good start for both  men and women to understand family systems theory and how to work at understanding and changing patterns in family and other systems.)

Self-Compassion/ Mindfulness

Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change, by Pema Chodron

True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, by Tara Brach

Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN, by Tara Brach

The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive, by Kristen Neff, PhD., and Christopher Germer, Ph.D.

For Highly Sensitive Persons:  

The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.

For Those with Deep Spiritual Questioning

Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Falling Apart, by Kathy Escobar

Leaving the Fold, by Marlene Winell

Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It, by Brian D McLaren  (I’m still reading this one!)

Getting Clearer about Life Values  and Making Brave Changes

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport

(Both of Cal Newport’s books address the distraction and lack of focus we so often experience with the rise of digital technology.  If you are looking to make some changes in your relationship with social media and digital devices, these are good resources.)

Adventures in Opting Out: A Field Guide to Leading an Intentional Life, by Cait Flanders

The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything, by Cait Flanders

A Few Blogs I Follow:

Restful Insomnia with Sondra Kornblatt:

Conscious Transitions with Sheryl Paul:

Heather Plett:

The Anxious Overachiever, by Dr. Kathleen Smith  (A good blog to learn more about family systems theory):

Highly Sensitive Refuge: founders Jenn Granneman and Andre Sólo:

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW-R

1400 Filters

It’s Sunday afternoon and my 22-year old daughter is moving into her newly rented apartment.  

All week long, I’ve felt the weight, the shift, the grief of this ending.  She returned home in mid-March 2020 when the pandemic forced her out of a house near campus, rented with five other college seniors.  Back then we thought it’d be a few weeks or a month and then life would return to normal. Obviously, we were wrong.

No one in my nuclear family got Covid-19. But the restrictions, the forced changes, the worry impacted us, like it did a lot of other humans.  In 2020 our son moved to the dorm for his first college semester. The reality of masks, social distancing, and forced time in his dorm without a roommate was no life at all, and he returned to live at home his second semester.  

So, for almost 17 months the four of us made it work, dividing chores, supporting work and school schedules, and spending a lot of time together.

As she packed, my daughter asked to take some of our coffee filters. When I reached for the package, I mused that soon after the four of us started hunkering down together, I ordered a 4-pack of 350 – that’s 1400 coffee filters. They are almost gone. “That’d be a good blog title,” she said.  

Fourteen hundred filters for fourteen hundred Aeropress coffees, for hundreds of coffee breaks together.  When we look back on this pandemic, I’m pretty sure all of us are going to fondly remember the late morning coffee gatherings if we can’t fondly recall a lot of other things.

Our young adult children didn’t need us in the same way younger kids needed parents during the pandemic.  But they did need the space our coffee breaks and meals provided to vigorously debate politics and other national and local issues. They needed the safe spaces of our living room, porch, and patio and the presence of me and their father to express fear, disappointment, grief, anger, and hope. They needed to process plans for their lives during Covid-19 and now as life is somewhat opening up.

Our children are both in transition. Our son is returning to college this month; our daughter starting a new job.  By the end of August, our home will be much, much quieter.  And fall is coming too.

I’ve had more trouble getting and staying asleep these past weeks. I know it’s my body and brain registering these shifts along with the worry about the Delta variant.  I tend to feel and process life deeply.  Years ago, when I was in steady therapy and fussing about recurrent insomnia, my therapist said, “Your body knows when something’s happening, even if you don’t.”  Decades later, I’ve learned to accept this tender, sensitive side of me that disturbs my sleep.  It’s my harbinger, telling me to listen to what’s going on and be with it, to feel whatever emotion is begging for attention, and to drop the old, old storylines that something is wrong just because I’m feeling a strong emotion or dealing with something challenging. 

My parenting role is changing as both our children leave home and that’s cause for a little sorrow and also some joy.  I’m confident our children will move into their next stages of life and figure them out.   

I’m also tired of the intensity of these past 17 months – the house that couldn’t stay clean; meal planning, grocery shopping, and food prep for whole-food eating that keeps us healthy; the coordination of cars and schedules, the lack of solitude and quiet. I’m weary.

And I am also grateful we got to know each other better as adults who belong to the same family.  We grew closer as a family; we became a true shelter for each other through a troubling time.  My worry about not being a good enough mother faded as I watched our engaged young adult children pitch in, make the most of it all, figure out challenges and show up for the warm togetherness of coffee over and over.  We bonded in a deep way that would not have been possible if the pandemic hadn’t forced our daughter home and if our son had stayed in the dorm.  I know we aren’t going to get this time we had back. I know that it was priceless.

So, yes to the sorrow of an era of intense togetherness ending. 

Yes, to the reality of uncertainty as the pandemic is far from over.  

Yes, to the possibilities for growth and new adventures for all of us. 

Yes to the life force in our children as they grow and change.  

Yes, to the changing slant of light with shorter days. 

Yes to 1400 coffee filters.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW-R

photo by Alex Chernenko, Unsplash

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