Sometimes You Gotta Fold ‘Em

An increasing part of my clinical work has to do with loss:  loss of social connection, employment, retirement; personal mobility, plans for the future.  It can be as simple as loss of a hug.  Or as complex as loss of identity.   Or as painful as loss of a love one.  Or even the feared loss of one’s own life.

Like with the ideas around resilience, there are moments we can stop, breathe, and figure the next step.  Holding on tight or bounding on have never served me well.  A moment in traffic after being cut off turned into a mini stupido Grand Prix, until the guy in front slammed on his brakes.  I rear ended him.  My car was totaled and his fine.  And it’s my fault.  Clearly, I needed a to take a brake, both metaphorical and real.

Take a break or have a break, I figure. Easier said than done.  And what kind of break?  A breather?  Or perhaps retire from the field all together.

Two of my oldest and dearest therapist friends have given up their offices because of the pandemic issues.  Norita (spouse and co-therapist) and I are currently paying to hold onto an office we are not using.  Paying for a placeholder.  Retire?  Move to full time teletherapy?  Easy to forget to be grateful that I even have the choice.

So let’s say you have spent years helping and guarding the city, the county, the state, the nation.  Your identity is profoundly connected to being a protector, whether it is as police officer, the service, firefighter, medical worker, social worker, or therapist.  You are our guardians.  And in this long term pandemic, you’re getting tired.  Now what?  Hold ‘em?  Fold ‘em?

Written by a 23 year old Don Schlitz, it took two years of trying to sell the song “The Gambler” before it was picked up.  Kenny Rogers recorded it, sending the song to spectacular heights.  It has been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry.  Clearly, for Don, it was a good decision not to fold ‘em.  

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run…

When to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em

Kind of like Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be.’  Perhaps a bit less intemperate.  What are the factors in deciding whether to hold ‘em or fold ‘em?  

Having been hit with severe economic issues after my father died, (ranch to a small single parent home), my own approach is inevitably economic first.  Is a different life style sustainable?  Would I have to cut back things that are meaningful to me and my family?  Will the kids be okay?  We have been blessed with a solid financial advisor to help with that one.  Still not easy.

The psychological aspects are even more complex.

 In an earlier blog I proposed a series of emergent roles in this pandemic: The Guardian, The Opponent, The Isolate.  These were complimented with subsidiary roles:  Placater, Egoist, and The Chaos Creator.  Let’s see how these roles play out in the face of “hold ‘em or fold ‘em.” 

The Guardian:  Here is the ‘First Responder’ whose work is to be protective, vigilant.  Our society cannot proceed safely without these folks.  And here, I would argue, you would find those who would have the worst time with “Fold ‘em.”  Yeah, I know, towards the final quarter of one’s career there is the constant watching the retirement clock, rumination about the pension, griping about management, and all that.  But, still, when push comes to shove, the Guardian will show up, take risks that most would avoid, and get the job done.  Lots of folks in this role have dedicated their lives to saving lives, protecting the innocent and helping survivors.  The question for the guardian becomes— if I ‘Fold ‘em,’ who am I?  What good am I?  What value do I have?  And even more painful — have I failed those that I was born to protect? The victim.  The city itself.  And the flip side of that is— If I ‘hold ‘em’- put off retirement, put off a lateral transfer, etc., won’t I just burn out?  Make an error that will get me fired… or even worse?  

The Opponent:  This one might be better named The Contrarian.  I’d guess every Department, company, cohort, family has its share.  Who knows why?  Maybe for the species to survive we need those who say— “This is BS.  I’m not going to try and capture that saber tooth tiger with a couple of sticks and a rock.”  In any case, ‘Fold ‘em’ for this role is equally difficult.  The Contrarian finds identity in opposition.  There’s energy and ego there.  ‘Fold ‘em’ means not going to battle anymore, arguing against.  Let it turn out however it may.  Give up.  

The Isolate: Of all these roles in the pandemic, I’d bet The Isolate would have the easiest time letting it all go and withdrawing from the field.  The Isolate never wanted to go out and play ball in the first place.  More interested in drawing on their own resources.  The Isolate will have a harder time re-emerging into society when this damn pandemic gets a vaccine.

Knowing when to ‘fold ‘em,’ (move, quit, retire, transfer) is a tough call at any time.  Now it is particularly rough.  More than any time in the last 100 years, the future social, cultural, economic course of this country is unclear. 

Hold ‘em is a gamble.  Fold ‘em is a gamble.

Some thoughts on steps:

  1. Start with ‘what do I need.’
  2. Check in with family, friends, therapist, 12 step sponsor, etc. 
  3. Be prepared to grieve (either way there will be losses).
  4. Take a look at, maybe make a list, of what is pushing you out, what’s pulling you.
  5. Look at both the positive and negatives of the next step.
  6. And remember, stay or leave, neither will be perfect.  Both might be ‘good enough.’
  7. And if figuring this out becomes obsessive, grab the remote and switch the internal channel to mute… for a bit.  
  8. A lot of times, a simple bit of action helps- a drive, a kind act.
  9. How does hold ‘em, fold ‘em match up with my innate values?
  10. And let’s not forget Mark Twain:  “Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.” 

Go easy, folks

Negotiating Relationships During ‘Shelter in Place’

What happens when, in this time of pandemic shelter-in-place, one roommate, partner, mate, best friend keeps pushing the boundaries?  “It won’t hurt to …”. “These rules are overdone anyway.”  “They don’t expect everybody to follow them.”  

They are more likely to get in a grocery line even if they are well past seventy.  Or twenty-somethings heading to a beach party.  This can get them in trouble, sure, but here’s the behavior that can get all of us in trouble.  It doesn’t just fall on them, it falls on all.

There are cultural ingredients here—  The American rugged individualist.  Emersonian self reliance and all that.  Independence over interdependence.  In moderation, these traits can be highly effective.  They’ve led to creativity in the arts, sciences, and industry.  Even in this extraordinary circumstance,  individualism  can be an excellent trait— scientific research, creative ways to cope,  the creative and now necessary redesign of social institutions.  

Another dynamic happens for the compliant.  They pretty much follow the rules.  Safer there.  There’s less anxiety on this side of the line.  Perhaps this comes from the ability to visualize the catastrophic results if they, their friends, and/or their family get sick.  They can get annoyed and angry when their roommate, family member, partner pushes the limits.  On one hand this compliance is a useful safety measure, a governor on the system.  On the other, it can become like a harpy, an annoying car alarm that after a while everybody simply ignores.  Ineffective.

Negotiating these two styles is tricky.  Especially in these emergency conditions.

On a microlevel, at home, at one’s apartment, condo, it gets complicated.  These living spaces can be mini safety blankets.  Home Base.  Womb-like.  They also can be toxic pressure cookers.  The lone wolf negotiating with the compliant can disintegrate into a something destructive fairly quickly.  For the independent, their identity is at risk.  For the compliant, their body is at risk.

At worst these two styles simply clash, rotating between anger and hurt, need and avoidance.  The isolation of shelter in place and quarantine decreases the moderating influences of others.  

Some steps toward a shelter in place dialogue: 

1.  Acknowledge our vulnerability and helplessness in this pandemic.  We are all at risk; we are all vulnerable.  Begin the conversation based on honesty rather than contention.

2.  Catch the anger as it arises.   Anger is an expression of frustration and fear.   Giving voice to the underlying feelings allows the other to engage in a non defensive way.  Step back.  Breath.  Beforehand, think through what you want to accomplish in the dialogue.

3.  “You always…” “You never…” These fighting techniques pin the other down rather than open up a dialogue and negotiations.  

4. Make sure you have taken care of yourself before you begin the negotiations.  You are less likely to lay your emotional turbulence on the other.

5. We all need trusted people to check in with in these times.  This can range from a family member, best friend, AA sponsor,  perhaps a common sense work companion.  

6. Sometimes a blow out can be helpful.  Things have finally built up to the point that it needs to be released.  Extended isolation afterward is damaging.  The sorting out of the feelings and issues, the ‘debriefing’ can be a positive payoff.  

7. Cut a deal with your in-house group:  it’s ok to step back from solving these problems.  Long debates typically end poorly.  Keep it short, then move on.

8.  Reach out via social media.  Share your experiences.  Ask what others are doing.  Ask how others are doing.  Join a sing a long.  

9.  Conversely, pull away from the ongoing interactions.  Be by yourself for a bit.  Meditate. Draw.  Fix something by yourself.  Dance in the mirror.

10.   As Nelson Mandela said—“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”   

Go easy, folks.