Claim Your Own Mental Fitness

I grew up in the dunes by Lake Michigan in northwest Indiana, the oldest of three children, born in 1944 near the end of World War II. My dad worked as an engineer and middle manager at US steel as the provider for our family. My mother was a stay-at-home mom who cooked, gardened and sewed beautifully for us. My two brothers and I attended a local school with steel worker and farm worker kids. Although my folks tried to create an ideal fifties family, my mother’s emerging mental illness gradually tore us apart. My father, brothers and I have all worked through our lives to overcome this, each in different ways.

I found support in our community church, from my teachers and in Girl Scouts. I came to believe that, despite any personal challenges, I had what I needed to live a constructive life and help others.  I also recognized that most other human beings have these possibilities too. I made a commitment to use whatever I learned from my own challenges to help others cope with the realities of human existence. This helped me transform my grief about my own family and find peace.

I went to Swarthmore College in hopes of finding a route to express my goals and found myself overwhelmed by a workload I was not prepared to handle. Since I lacked the confidence to change schools, I just studied all the time to catch up and survive. I majored in English literature because I enjoyed it and thought I might teach; I couldn’t find something that really spoke to me. Finally, after working in the Philadelphia public schools to support my husband while he went to graduate school, we moved to his job at the University of Iowa. There, I began studying psychology and gradually qualified for a teaching assistantship in the counseling psychology doctoral program.

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At the same time that I began this program, I found myself overwhelmed by the ending of my marriage, something I’d thought could never happen to me because I’d worked so hard to get my life right. I was overly frightened by the responsibility of raising my son alone, without family emotional or financial support, friends nearby or a fully engaged father. I began to have panic attacks night and day, and continued insomnia, for which I refused medication. I have since felt very lucky that I didn’t get addicted to the valium that was offered to me. I turned to prayer with renewed appreciation and guzzled the information from my counseling program like a thirsty weed.

Through teaching myself how to stop my panic attacks, I developed skills that I’ve been able to share with clients for forty years. I combined the learning principles discovered by BF Skinner, the personality concepts described by Eric Berne and the observations of therapists like Albert Ellis to form a program to heal myself. I practiced it and left panic attacks behind me after five years, greatly reduced my insomnia and was able to function as a calm, loving mother to my son. Of course, I then wanted to bring what I’d learned to others.

I worked three jobs to support my son and me in Chicago. I took training with the Theraplay Institute and provided therapy to children at Head Start centers around the city. I taught a class at a secretarial school in self-development. I marketed classes for the Dale Carnegie course. All these jobs grew and stretched me to be less socially anxious, more confident and even more determined to help others with the skills I’d learned. I found my first full time job in Indiana, where I’d grown up, at a mental health center serving two counties. There I was a liaison to the schools, provided therapy to families and kids and to a variety of adults. I developed a relationship-based behavioral program for kids that proved easy and effective. It’s included in the parenting chapter of my book described on this website.

From there I went to another center where I developed an in-house class for adolescent boys too mentally and behaviorally disordered to be managed in a school setting. I worked with other agencies to develop a system to ensure that high-risk families could get adequate mental health and other services. I continued to see clients with a wide variety of mental health and interpersonal problems. At the first center I received wonderful supervision from a team led by David Frieske, M.D. and Matthew Ikeda, Ph.D. At the second center, Cheryl Morgavan, Ph.D. also helped  me increase my skills and confidence as a therapist. These experiences helped update and enhance the skills I developed during my pre-doctoral counseling internship.

We moved to the Seattle, WA area in 1985 to immerse ourselves in the wild nature available there, hiking, camping and walking on the beaches. I worked part-time for a community mental health center in Tacoma and part-time for three different group-home providers for older kids placed outside their families. I developed a staff training manual with the staff at one of these and found humbling admiration for these people who gave so much of themselves to needy and often abusive kids, with inadequate pay or support. They truly demonstrated the power of mental fitness.

Finally, I was able to begin my long-wished-for career in private practice in 1988. I gradually turned my focus to serving adults and adolescents who could make use of my hard-won skills to heal themselves. I began work on a book to define what I was teaching, but found it too much work to fit into my life then. I should note here that working with my hands, sewing, crafting, gardening, tiling, and doing carpentry in various homes provided balance for my work with people throughout my adult life. Often I’d bite off more than I could really chew in my enthusiasm about a new project. I’ve made some time for crafting, too, especially with pebble mosaics. You can see some of them below. Creating lovely things kept me level and happy, though it consumed time I could have spent going beyond my work as a therapist in my career. I don’t regret it; I need to express my artistic side to feel whole.

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As a therapist I greatly enjoyed my clients, growing from my work with all of them. I had particular affinity with those suffering from anxiety, especially panic attacks, and with adolescents struggling to become someone they could enjoy and respect. I learned new skills for treating post-traumatic stress and began seeing some people who had multiple personality disorders. Helping to sort them out taught me things about our human functioning that I might never have imagined. I discovered ways to apply the stages of grief more broadly to help manage anger and trauma. With couples I was inspired to observe how much faster people can heal in the safety of a loving marriage than when they must work on entirely their own. I continued to enjoy coaching parents to provide what their children need to thrive.

As I approached retirement I determined to write the book I’d begun twenty-plus years before, enhanced by new discoveries about the brain and how to work with it. In writing I discovered even more clarity about this mental fitness formula than I’d known before.





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