Death Of A Pet

A.J. was a cat, Bombay, black, sleek. He and his mom, Juande (pronounced Wanda) joined our family when he was a few months old. Juande was a best-in-show winner, past her prime. A.J. was one of her offspring born with the “wrong” features (although my family agreed his too-pointy face was perfect). The man who bred cats  (“Harvey”) was glad to unload his over-the-hill beauty queen and her un-showable son.

When we picked up our new pets, Harvey explained that he’d send us Juande’s Best In Show certificate only after he received notification that A.J. had been “fixed.” We brought our cats to the vet for their shots, took care of A.J., and forgot to request our certificate. Harvey, who was ethical and responsible, contacted our veterinarian when he hadn’t heard from us. The vet assured him that our cats were well cared for and that A.J. wouldn’t be having kids any time soon. Harvey sent proof of our family’s one and only pageant winner. We were all amused, and congratulated Juande. She gazed at us in complete non-comprehension and fell asleep. 

A.J. was goofy. He ran in exuberant circles. His life’s mission was to hunt and ingest all things plastic. He darted out the front door at every opportunity and explored our garden, happily batting at flowers, chewing and spitting out leaves, chasing shadows. When A.J. and Juande weren’t playing with their houseful of humans, they happily scampered around, jumped on pillows, pounced and wrestled. Tired out, they groomed each other then fell asleep, their paws intertwined. On colder nights, they crawled under the covers with us, their little heads peeking out side by side.

The love among pets and their humans is like none other. In relationships involving only people, love is transporting and wondrous in its layered complexity. With A.J. and Juande, the uncomplicated purity of our shared love took my breath away. 

Then A.J. became ill with kidney disease. Treatment failed. He was suffering, and nothing eased his pain. I held him as the doctor put him to sleep, then eased him unconscious, then stopped his heart. He died gently, curled in my arms. 

The uncomplicated purity of my grief matched the uncomplicated purity of our love, and the same was true for Juande. I became her new A.J. She followed me around the house. She slept in my lap during the day. When she wanted to play, she pounced, careful to avoid biting or scratching. At night, she wrapped her paws around my hands and curled against me. As a writer, I work at home and unless I held her constantly, she cried. 

After a year, like many people who lose a loved one, she became more independent. She began to sleep on her favorite blanket, with or without me nearby. She stopped crying when she wasn’t in my arms. Every morning after she ate, she ran in exuberant circles around our living room before settling down to nap. 

One day, to my surprise, I found Juande chewing and spitting out a plastic bag, acting like her quirk-ball son. I liberated the bag and she began vigorously licking my hand, grooming me with an intensity I hadn’t seen since she groomed A.J. We looked at each other.

“I know,” I whispered, “I miss him, too.” She fell asleep purring. I opened my laptop, and began writing this essay.

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship — and was written in gratitude to Hollywood High School with its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Click here to read reviews, buy one of Amy’s novels. https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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The Chasm And The Continuum

Obnoxious, intrusive, frightening, harassing, assaultive — sexual misconduct takes place on a continuum. An obnoxious remark and a rape are obviously not the same, but they share the same continuum. As Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz stand (and cringe and punch and flail) in the spotlight, a gap (more like a crater) separates their perceptions from the perceptions of their accusers. The interplay between that chasm and the continuum weaves through each incident of sexual misconduct.

Andrew Cuomo — Governor of New York, accused of sexual harassment — stood in front of the cameras and said “I’m sorry” for “whatever pain I caused anyone.” He added that he felt “awful,” “embarrassed,” and that his mistakes were “unintentional.” He also asserted  that kissing is no big deal, that it’s how he greets all humans, that he had no clue he was hurting people. As he spoke, the chasm between his experience and his accusers’ viewpoints became glaringly, disturbingly, increasingly wide and deep.

Gov. Cuomo stated several times that he regrets making women feel “uncomfortable.” But let’s call it for what it is. Uncomfortable is trying on a pair of shoes a size too small, or meeting your fiancé’s great aunt who announces that your hips are too skinny to bear children properly, or being offered a bison burger at a dinner party and explaining that you’re vegan. Uncomfortable is nowhere near how demeaned, unsafe and often enraged people feel facing sexual harassment. 

From the other end of the political spectrum and at a different point on the continuum, Matt Gaetz (a member of Congress) is facing allegations of having sexual relations with a 17-year-old, of sex trafficking, and stories have emerged of his bragging about his conquests (including nude photos) to his Congress-colleagues. So far, Mr. Gaetz has expressed no regrets and appears sorry for nothing. He has been loud and brash in his outrage at the allegations.

In contrast to Matt Gaetz, Andrew Cuomo has tried (more like visibly struggled) to hit a humble note, saying he’ll “be the better for this experience.” I hope so, but “being-the-better” is only the beginning. The cultural undercurrents (and tidal waves) that led to #MeToo and #TimesUp are alive and well and kicking people in the teeth. There’s no easy fix for a chasm that’s centuries-deep and a continuum that’s millions-of-incidents-long. So instead of balancing on the ledge and shouting across the gorge, I’m stepping in. From the depths of the chasm, I’m offering this short post from the less-violent-but-still-damaging end of the continuum.

A while ago, on a popular social media site, a middle-aged man wrote a brief anecdote that he clearly thought was amusing. Years before, he and another male friend were walking, and noticed a woman’s breasts. The post briefly described how the two gentlemen stopped for a moment of silence, gazing in reverential awe at this stranger’s chest. The comments following the post suggested that at least some agreed that his story was funny.

Seemingly simple, deceptively complex. 

From age fourteen until my hair turned gray, strangers (always men) stared at me. Sometimes they approached and tried to initiate conversations, inviting me to join them for coffee or dinner or a certain aerobic activity. Sometimes they leered, rating my level of attractiveness, expecting me to be pleased at what they considered to be a compliment. Sometimes they whispered, huddled in a pair or a group. Sometimes they gazed in a moment of gentlemanly silence. Whatever they did, it was at best obnoxious, at worst scary, always threatening. (And I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve never been assaulted.) This didn’t happen because I was a creature of such celestial beauty that the angels burst into chorus whenever I appeared. It didn’t happen because I always wore mini-skirts (never owned one) and spike heels (never could walk in them). It didn’t happen because of any of the go-to excuses (you’re so pretty – you dressed provocatively) people offer to shift blame onto the survivor. It didn’t happen because I was special or remarkable in any way. It happened because I’m female. 

Perspective #1: My friend and I weren’t threatening. We were admiring her breasts in a respectful manner. She didn’t even know we were looking at her.

Perspective #2: She knew. And what you experienced as admiring and respectful may have felt quite different to her.

No matter how subtle this man and his friend thought they were as they stared at the woman’s breasts, I can guarantee that she was instantly aware. How do I know? Because almost all women on the planet, regardless of how conventionally attractive they are, deal with unwanted intrusions so often, from so young, that we’re trained to know. We have to know for our own safety, because too often, these situations escalate.

Perspective #1: We were just looking. Don’t you think maybe you’re overreacting?

Perspective #2: Rule of thumb: be wary of any sentence that begins “We were just….” And nope, I’m not overreacting. Welcome to the continuum, from the other side of the chasm.

When I faced similar situations in my younger days, I was immediately watching carefully, trying not to let the man know I was watching, in case he misinterpreted my attention as a sign of interest. I was gauging his build in relation to my own, in case I needed to defend myself physically. I immediately experienced him as a potential threat.

Perspective #1: This is harmless fun, a bonding moment with my buddy.

Perspective #2: Do you mean harmless and fun for you and your gentlemanly buddy, or for the woman? While you and your friend are happily bonding, she’s probably trying to figure out how to protect herself from an intrusion that might escalate into a threat. 

I’d assess the people around me, where I might turn for help if I needed it. I’d be aware of every building on the street, an office I might enter for safety, a restaurant with too many witnesses.

Perspective #1: If the neighborhood wasn’t safe, why’d you put yourself in danger by being there? If the neighborhood was safe, what were you so worried about?

Perspective #2: Your first question is an example of blaming the survivor. Regarding your second question — a common misconception is that sexual assaults take place only in dark alleys, by masked strangers, holding rusty shivs, surrounded by abandoned buildings. 

Whenever I walked alone, I was automatically alert, wearing a don’t-even-try scowl. In spite of my death-stare, some men crashed through the boundary. Sometimes they were overtly threatening. Sometimes they took my arm to stop me from walking away. Sometimes they invited me for lunch at a restaurant they owned, for drinks at their night club, to the theater, a concert, a movie. Every time, the answer was no No NO. Many of these unwanted overtures began with a moment of silent gazing. 

Perspective #1: You must have been doing something, sending unspoken encouraging signals, that invited men to approach you. And your scowl — no offense, but you don’t sound like a nice person.

Perspective #2: Sending encouraging signals — absolutely not — unless you categorize WWF (Walking While Female) as an encouraging signal. As for my scowl, apparently we define Not-A-Nice-Person quite differently. “No Offense” duly noted.

Even if the situation began and ended with gentlemanly reverence, I was painfully aware that I was being sexualized by strangers when I was going to the corner store for a carton of milk, or meeting a friend for lunch, or picking up my kid from school.

Perspective #1: You need a sense of humor. You’re taking everything too seriously. 

Perspective #2: Possibly — but not regarding this issue. Still, don’t take my word for it. Ask Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz. I’m confident that at this point in their lives, considering the trouble they’re in, both would agree with their accusers (and with me) on at least one point: this issue is serious.

Finally, take a quick moment to calculate the number of underlying currents, social norms and cultural mores I challenged or violated by writing this post. 

Perspective #1: Yeah, right, whatever. Can I go now?

Perspective #2: Sure.   

Or you can pause, gauge where you stand on the continuum, and take a step toward the other side of the chasm. 

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story is about the power of friendship as the students face homophobic bullying and navigate racial and economic diversity. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. Both novels deal with the chasm and the continuum of sexual misconduct.

Click here to purchase one of Amy’s novels, to read reviews, to check out the first few chapters.

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Passover During Plague

We’re entering our second Passover during the coronavirus pandemic. The story of Passover, told through a Seder, is about the emancipation of the Jews, and celebrates the freedom of all people. It’s a voice against persecution, and a celebration of the human spirit. The story includes plagues: blood, frogs, bugs, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of firstborns. That’s ten.

Today, We The People have our own cluster of plagues: the coronavirus — isolation — white supremacy — hatred and rage targeting Asians and Pacific Islanders — violence against #BlackLivesMatter — families living in such unimaginable desperation that they send their children to flood our borders — voter suppression — homelessness — poverty — educational inequality — hunger — an environment and climate that people have stretched to the point of breaking — lack of mental and physical health care — oppression and violence toward the LGBTQ+ community — sexual harassment and assault — school shootings — gun violence. That’s more than ten, and the list goes on. 

As a psychologist of 20+ years and as a person of 60+ years, I’ve witnessed the astonishing human capacity to heal from terrible injury. I’ve also seen the astonishing human capacity to cause those terrible injuries. Our country is at a crucial juncture. Too many have lost their moorings, swept up in currents of power at the expense of decency, driven by rage rather than by common sense. They don’t realize that their own corruption is another plague, causing damage not only to others, but to themselves as well.  

I look forward to the day when COVID-19 is under control, and my home can return to being a comfortable and safe place to host a Seder. Until then, I’m inviting each and all, every religion, to join together from our separate places, uniting against our plagues. 

Next Year In Jerusalem.

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship — and was written in gratitude to Hollywood High School with its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Click here to purchase one of Amy’s novels, to read reviews, to check out the first few chapters.

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Reaching Far Across The Aisle

Dear Mike Pence,

You and I don’t have much in common. I’m a liberal Democrat, an LGBTQ+ ally, a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, a believer in a woman’s right to choose. Still, we share a big problem, so like it or not, we’re on the same team. Our country is dangerously divided, and it’s up to me and you and each and all to help. I was a therapist for over twenty years, and a basic tool of my trade was empathy. From that foundation, I’m reaching out to you, far across the aisle.

Empathy is defined not by a single point, but by a spectrum. One end of that spectrum holds the folks who are naturally empathic, sensing what others feel with depth and accuracy, knowing intuitively how to respond. On the other end of the spectrum are people entirely lacking the capacity for empathy, no clue about others’ feelings, and don’t care. Most folks land in the middle. Of that middle group, some need to go through an experience in order to empathize with others going through a similar experience. They are capable of empathy, but only when they themselves can identify with the experience.

Mr. Pence, on the spectrum of empathy, where are you?

Through the years, I’ve viewed your career with sadness, outrage, fear, disgust. But recently, you surprised me. You took a stand, and refused to try to overthrow a fair election. You paid a steep price. A mob stormed the Capitol, hunting for you, chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” During the insurrection, your president never checked on your safety.

Powerful experiences, including trauma, can change people. A mob storming the Capitol and chanting their intention to kill — you don’t need an advanced degree in psychology to know that meets the criteria for a “powerful experience, including trauma.” So I wonder, did that experience/trauma lead to any changes in you?

Mr. Pence, nobody should ever go through what you went through on January 6, 2021. However, now that it’s behind you, I have a question. When you look back on that day, hiding in fear, pack-mentality-rage erupting and infiltrating the sacred ground of your workplace — have you thought about the fear you have caused in the course of your political career? 

Every LGBTQ+ student who was targeted and bullied — fearful of being hurt or even killed— terrified to go to school because of pack-mentality-rage — have you thought about them? How about their parents — having no choice but to send their children to school, knowing that they’d be targeted, in part because you paved the way for hatred to run wild against their kids? Can you feel empathy for those students, for those parents, now that you’ve known that same fear? 

How about the Black trans folks who have been murdered, because people felt it was okay to target Black trans folks, just because they’re Black trans folks? When Donald Trump turned against you, a powerful person who withdrew his protections, how did you feel? Can you understand that you’ve made many others feel exactly the same way when you, a powerful person, advocated withdrawing their protections?

And what about your insistence that “All Lives Matter” replace “Black Lives Matter”? Of course, all lives matter, but that’s not the issue here. The point is that Black lives are often treated like they don’t matter. When your president and his mob decided that your life didn’t matter, how did you feel? In that moment, the mob didn’t chant “Hang Them All!” They chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” Can you understand, in that moment, the difference between “All Lives Matter” and “Mike Pence’s Life Matters”? Now, having survived that experience, can you understand the difference between “All Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter”?

Take a pause, Mr. Pence. Imagine going through your trauma not once, but every day as you go to school, as a child or an adolescent on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Imagine fearing every minute that you’d be targeted with verbal abuse, or assaulted, or murdered in cold blood, because of the color of your skin or your sexuality or your gender identity. I’ll bet you never thought you’d share an experience of such emotional breadth and depth with people you’ve targeted. But like it or not, here you are.  

As a therapist, part of my job was to help clients find their hidden strengths — the kernels buried deep, camouflaged and cocooned. When these pieces reveal themselves, even just a glimpse or a flicker, the patient has a choice — learn and grow and build on those kernels, or run back to the old ways. Change, no matter how healthy, is scary and difficult. Healing means choosing an uncharted path, and always involves holding yourself accountable for your choices. These road-not-taken moments are pivotal points in therapy. The patient either enters a phase of tremendous possibility, or quits treatment. 

Through most of your career, Mr. Pence, you’ve treated many of your fellow humans as less-than, unworthy, disposable. But recently, a kernel of strength and decency emerged when you stood up to your president. Then on January 6, 2021, our country watched you undergo a powerful experience, a trauma. Can you learn and grow from your experience? Can you build on that kernel of integrity, forced out of hiding? Can you wrap your hands around it, own it, bring it into the light? Can you use it to forge a path into a new level of empathy?

Our country is broken and hurting, divided and scared, angry and sad — also hopeful and strong and ready to heal. It’s a pivotal moment for the United States of America, as we enter a phase of tremendous possibility. Like it or not, it’s also a pivotal moment for you, Mike Pence. 

Sincerely,

Amy Kaufman Burk

Doctor of Mental Health

Therapist-Turned-Author

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship — and was written in gratitude to Hollywood High School with its enriched and enriching diversity. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Click here for Amy’s books on Amazon.

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Clarity Through Chaos

One of the most difficult parts of being a psychologist is thinking clearly through chaos. Those moments are part of the job, and they matter. Decades ago, when I began training to become a therapist, my supervisors gave me several guidelines for evaluating a client, to help me think with balance, care and precision through emotional storms. They told me to begin with the basics, the setting.

Setting: 

Presidential Debate. 

Date: 

Just over a month before the 2020 presidential election. 

Place: 

National television, and immediately available internationally (in other words — everywhere).

The experienced therapists taught me to listen not only to the content (what was said) but also to the form (how it was said).

Content: Dangerous

Form: Chaotic

If I saw any sign of dangerous or chaotic thinking, then I needed to evaluate who might be at risk (self or others), along with the level of chaos.

Danger To Others: 

Consumed by self-interest. Appears unaware when his approach compromises the safety of others. 

Level of Chaos: 

High (unable to follow basic rules, violates boundaries, disregards structure).

If others were endangered, I learned to identify the targets and take steps to warn them.

Targets:

1. We The People

2. Our Democracy 

To Those Targeted: Consider yourselves warned.

In evaluating patients, I gauged their capacity for insight (self-awareness, understanding) and judgment (the ability to consider behavior and its effect on self and others). Insight and judgment are helpful markers for assessing overall mental status.

Insight: 

Little-to-no evidence of self-awareness or understanding.

Judgment: 

Impaired (unable to control his speech and contain his impulses, even though he knew he was on national television).

If insight and judgment showed signs of impairment, then I needed to evaluate reality testing (ability to assess accurately the surrounding environment, and one’s role in it).

Reality Testing: 

Evidence of inability to distinguish between truth and untruth. 

Words, behavior and thought process evident in my office provided a microcosm of words, behavior and thought process in the client’s life outside of my office. Using my interaction with the patient, I created a medium-to-long-term treatment plan.

Medium-To-Long-Term Treatment Plan:

Words, behavior and thought process evident in the debate provide a microcosm of words, behavior and thought process outside of the debate as well. As I imagine his debate-behavior at home with his wife and young son, or at an international summit, I am deeply concerned about this person’s capacity to function personally and lead politically. I strongly suggest forming a team to assess the damage and begin the (long, uphill, multi-faceted and jagged) process of healing on all levels — personal, family, community, national, international.   

To begin treatment, I was expected to document an immediate-to-short-term plan.

Immediate-To-Short-Term Treatment Plan: 

For The Subject — 

Subject is unqualified for his current job, and (urgently) needs to map out (assisted by others with intact mental status) an (effective and calm) exit strategy.

Treatment Plan For Everyone Else In the USA — 

VOTE.

Clarity through chaos. 

This moment matters.

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Amy’s novels are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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#BidenHarris2020

I’LL BE DONATING MY AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER BOOK SALE PROFITS TO JOE BIDEN AND KAMALA HARRIS.

Today, when I think of the election, I feel hope. I’m also ready to fight…and make no mistake: this will be an Ali-Frazier caliber fight. 

Below, I’ve included a brief description of my novels, and the link to buy them. Both have been on Amazon bestseller lists, and received many extremely positive reviews. Most important in this moment, both books endorse beliefs which are diametrically opposed to the values of Donald Trump and his administration. 

We need to form a strong team, together, to make sure that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have the opportunity to lead our country out of the multi-layered mess created by the Trump Regime. So if you’re a writer (or any type of artist) and you’re donating a portion of your profits to support #BidenHarris2020, send me a message and I’ll be glad to post about your work.

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable 

Caroline Black, 15 years old, transfers from a college prep academy to the local public school with over forty languages spoken among the students (and no, I’m not exaggerating — welcome to my amazing high school, Hollywood High). The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship.

Tightwire 

This novel follows Caroline Black into her first year as a psych intern. The story tracks a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. Tightwire was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

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His Own Personal Wall

When I was in graduate school getting my doctorate in mental health, I spent six months working in a locked inpatient psych ward. Some patients hated being locked in, but I was surprised by the number who confided that the locked doors helped them feel safe. When I asked why,  “Mr. X” explained. He was a middle-aged gentleman, always dressed immaculately in a 1920s suit and bow tie. He blinked at my apparent dim-wittedness and answered with the weary patience of an elder educating a youngling: “My dear, those locked doors don’t keep me in; they keep bad people out.”

“Build the wall.”

From the perspective of the medical model — identifying and treating the disease — the intensity of the cure needs to match the intensity of the illness. A nail clipper can cure a hangnail and a bandaid can cure a paper cut — modest interventions for modest problems. In contrast, an aggressive form of cancer might need surgery, chemotherapy, radiation — an extreme treatment to match the urgency of the problem. If Mr. X needed the locked doors of an in-patient mental hospital in order to feel safe, then his level of fear must have been off the charts. 

“I will build a great great wall.”

Those locked doors were Mr. X’s version of Donald Trump’s border wall, but the border wall is more extreme — which means that our president’s level of fear is also more extreme. Fear is contagious and since he was elected, our president has spread fear like fire — adding kindling, stoking the flames, stirring the embers, causing sparks to fly. As fear has been running wild in our country, keep in mind that the “great great wall” isn’t actually about Mexicans or immigrants. It’s about overwhelming, consuming, irrational fear. 

“It’s going to be a serious wall.”

Like the locked ward of a mental institution, the “serious wall” comes at an equally serious cost which goes far beyond money. Both create barriers, narrow our world, limit our view. But at this point the analogy falls apart. As people healed on the psych ward, they experienced the hospital as increasingly confining. Over time, identifying the source of his own irrational fears, Mr. X grew mentally stronger. He worked hard, and eventually felt ready to reenter the world on the other side of the locked doors. As Donald Trump’s border wall is built, unlike Mr. X, the Unites States of America will deprive itself of the opportunity to outgrow its own irrational fears. 

“That wall will go up so fast, your head will spin.”

With the murder of George Floyd, there has been a shift, and the United States is in turmoil. However, for the first time since Donald Trump took office, I see people turning toward each other, uniting instead of dividing. The magnitude of the movement against racism has snowballed, the momentum is fierce, and I feel a new level of hope for change. But apparently, our commander-in-chief doesn’t share my sentiment. Instead, there’s been a spike in his level of fear. In the midst of the protests, a new wall went up so fast my head was spinning — a fence surrounding the White House. 

“A wall protects.”

Is Donald Trump protecting himself from the BLACK LIVES MATTER letters recently painted on the road to the White House, large enough to be seen from space? Is he protecting himself from the many colors of the people he’s supposed to lead? Is he protecting himself from those who are supposed to be compliant as they’re oppressed? Is he protecting himself from the #BlackLivesMatter movement? And if he needs to build his own personal wall for protection, then why is he so very, deeply, extremely frightened?

“I will tell you that the problem our country has is that our leaders are so weak.”

For once, President Trump and I agree.

All identifying information about “Mr. X” has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Except for the quote attributed to “Mr. X”, all quotes are from Donald Trump.

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Amy’s novels are available on Amazon.                                                                                https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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For George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor…

I was around ten years old, and my class was studying the slave trade. Many of us were deeply affected, and I remember having several emotional discussions with my parents as I tried to understand how slavery could have happened. As a white girl, I didn’t understand the extent to which the mindset was still happening. 

Strangely, I remember one art project in vivid detail from that time, over fifty years ago. “Stevie” was considered one of our class’s finest artists. He was great with color, deft with his hands, accurate with measurement, drawn to different textures. This time, he built a ship from wood. He carved out a half-watermelon shape, and lined the edges with a thin slat. He then sawed a flat cover. He attached a flag, and added color and detail to his ship, with the flat cover as his deck.  

The class ended and we gathered to admire Stevie’s beautiful ship. Then he lifted the flat cover so we could see the carved area below deck. He had created stick figures from dark-colored wire and seated them, crowded side by side. He took a thin chain, the width of a light necklace, and looped it around their legs. In contrast to the ship above, he added no light or decoration. 

The entire class, including the teacher, stood speechless. I distinctly remember standing frozen, trying to contain a surge of emotion, feeling a bit dizzy, realizing I had forgotten to breathe. Looking back, that was the moment when I understood that art can evoke oceans, speak volumes, empower action, incite change. I didn’t learn that lesson from a museum or a special exhibit in a professional artist’s studio. My teacher was a skinny, quiet, brown haired child. 

Today (May, 2020), as protests form all over the United States, I watched an interview with Robert O’Brien, who is Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor. In his tailored suit, his sensible tie, his perfect hair — Robert O’Brien firmly denied the existence of “systemic racism” in the U.S. police forces. Needless to say, Robert O’Brien is white.

Folks, I’m white, too, and I have a request — more like an urgent plea. We white folks need to stop talking and start listening. We need to admit that our lack of understanding stems from our privilege. We have no right to tell Black people what they have and have not experienced. As a white woman, I cannot ever inform anyone of color that racism does not exist. I can ask them, but I cannot tell them. Then I need to listen.

When I say I need to “listen,” I mean listen in a specific way. I need to open myself to different perspectives. I need to accept that regarding racism, I’m always a student, never a teacher. If I realize that I have contributed to any form of racism, then I need to avoid my natural impulse to turn defensive. Instead, I need to embrace my own discomfort, because that discomfort is my guide to improvement. If I’ve made mistakes, I need to own my flaws and do better, then much better, then even better. Change is difficult, and in order to be on the correct side of change, I need to start humble, maybe more humble than I’ve ever been. I need to remember that there’s no loss of self-respect in humility.  

Declaring that racism doesn’t exist only worsens the problem. The United States has a history of several hundred years’ worth of oppression and death due to ongoing systemic racism. Robert O’Brien’s words are outrageous, arrogant, infuriating. More to the point, his aggressive refusal to acknowledge racism is an act of aggressive racism.

Around five decades ago, a 10-year-old child caught the essence of racism in a stunning piece of artwork. In case anyone is misreading my message as being that all white people are bad, here’s a quick fact check — Stevie was white. In my own way, with my own style, from my deepest self — I’m going to follow Stevie’s lead. I hope you’ll join me.

RIP George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor…

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship — and was written in gratitude to Hollywood High School with its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Click here to purchase one of Amy’s novels, to read reviews, to check out the first few chapters.

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Passover, Coronavirus, Chris Cuomo, Sanjay Gupta

Why is tonight different from all other nights?

Tonight is the first night of Passover during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Passover celebrates emancipation. The story unfolds through reading and song, in a multi-course meal with foods symbolic of specific events. Like many, my ancestors endured enslavement, loss, famine, thirst, sickness. Sometimes I wonder how they found the strength to push forward in the face of overwhelming odds. 

As Passover approached this year, I’ve been watching Cuomo Prime Time, CNN. Chris Cuomo tested positive for coronavirus, and has been broadcasting from his basement, isolated to protect his wife and children. Like any set ready for filming, his basement looks tidy and inviting on camera. But I can fill in the blanks. Just off camera, I imagine a pitcher of water, next to a stain on the floor, where he overfilled his glass, hands trembling with the rigors (rise in temperature, intense chills, shaking). I can see the fever-drenched blankets, draped over chairs to dry. I can picture a simple table holding a plate of barely touched food, an open bottle of Tylenol, a thermometer. 

For his show, Chris Cuomo dressed simply, in a zip-up sweatshirt to take the edge off the internal chill. He described a night of the rigors when his teeth chattered so violently he chipped a tooth. He had a fever so high he was hallucinating. His body aches felt like he was beaten with a stick. Yet, here he was, on camera, guiding us through our 21st century plague. There was no self-aggrandizement in Cuomo’s presentation — “I get why so many are so scared” — just a pull-no-punches description of his experience, both physical and mental. 

Sanjay Gupta, MD, CNN’s go-to doctor, joined Chris for a segment. Sanjay, like Chris, is stunningly articulate, bright crossing into brilliant. But their styles are different. Chris is fierce, electric, crackling high voltage. Sanjay is quietly intense, compelling in his lack of showmanship. As they spoke, the current between them was a palpable force, a bond radiating fear and hope, grit and tenderness, determination and vulnerability. In Cuomo’s words, “Together, as ever, as one. That is our remedy.” 

That’s also the heart of Passover.

As we face a time of extreme uncertainty, I have no idea what lies around the next corner. But neither did my ancestors as they fled enslavement, and I know from their history that we humans continually surprise ourselves with our capacity to survive plagues, to cross deserts, even to part Red Seas. Sure, I’m scared as I face today’s pandemic, and sometimes the fear takes me by the throat. I’m also ready, in Chris Cuomo’s words, “with almost a fanatical sense of passion to fight.” 

Why am I choosing to focus on Chris Cuomo, whose faith is Catholic? Because my Seder table always includes people of different faiths. Passover tells the story of the emancipation of the Jews, but it’s actually a celebration of the emancipation of all people. In my home, Passover has always been “together, as ever, as one.” 

Next year in Jerusalem.

___

UNTIL APRIL 30, 2020, I’LL BE DONATING MY BOOK SALE PROFITS TO ORGANIZATIONS HELPING PEOPLE COPE WITH THE PANDEMIC.

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author, living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Memphis, Tennessee. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows Caroline Black into her first year as a psych intern. The story tracks a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal. 

Click on the link to check out reviews, read the first few chapters, purchase a novel.

https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share

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Stop Calling “Coronavirus” the “Chinese Virus”

From our physical wellbeing to shaking hands — from opening our home to our basic livelihood — from our emotional health to getting a haircut. 

Everything has changed. 

Facing a pandemic, many of us feel an urge to band together. Although isolation is the right course of action, it’s counterintuitive, clashing against our basic instinct to huddle in a pack. Fighting our core instincts — even for the greater good — can cause a surge in anxiety.

Uncertainty adds additional layers of anxiety, opening the emotional field for anger and fear to run wild. As I write, vaccinations are up and running. Still, we don’t know how many are carrying the coronavirus, symptom free, contagious. We don’t know how many will become ill. When someone coughs, we don’t know if they have a garden variety allergy, or if we’ve just been exposed. Of those who get sick, we don’t know who will have a no-big-deal cough, who will spike a high fever, who will struggle to breathe, who will need emergency care. Yes, we’ve learned a lot — but we don’t know a ton. 

As the coronavirus continues to plunge us into turmoil, our natural inclination is to latch onto conclusions to counteract the uncertainty, grasp at targets to unleash our anger, search for others to blame for our fear and our losses. Being all-too-human, we have a bad habit of choosing the wrong conclusion, picking the wrong target, blaming the wrong Other. At that point, our anxiety can push us to turn against each other. Our country remains divisive and with COVID-19 surges ongoing, people continue to thrash and don’t know what to do.

Until the pandemic is under control, here’s what NOT to do: DO NOT take aim and fire at each other. I’ve heard several people (including our ex-president) refer to “The Coronavirus” as “The Asian Virus” or “The Chinese Virus.” Each time, I feel like I’ve stepped into a time warp, back to the early 1980s, when I was seeing my first psych patients, as AIDS hit San Francisco. People referred to AIDS as a “Gay Disease,” homophobia skyrocketed, and the damage was incalculable. Folks, for the love of our country — viruses aren’t Asian or Chinese or gay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States confirmed the first person in our country to test positive for coronavirus is a man in his thirties. Yet, we’re not calling this pandemic “The Male Virus” or “The Thirties Virus.” Why? Because that would be ridiculous. But it’s no more ridiculous than attributing a virus to a specific racial heritage or a particular sexuality. So let’s call it for what it is. Homophobia is homophobia. Racism is racism. A virus is a virus. A surge in coronavirus should never be an excuse for a surge in bigotry. Now of all times, We The People need to live up to our name. 

And for the record — as a healthy coping strategy during this public health crisis, racism is an epic fail. On top of being vile, let’s be clear about the benefits of racism: THERE ARE NO BENEFITS OF RACISM. Aside from being hurtful and damaging, referring to the coronavirus as “The Chinese Virus” will give only a fleeting moment of relief. Then the next wave of emotion will surge, and you’ll need to vent again. Your anger and fear and uncertainty and anxiety will continue to spiral. From a mental health perspective, racism has enormous negative impact but absolutely no positive impact. So — and I’m being as measured as I’m able — CUT IT OUT.

Which leads to the next question — what should we do with our anger? If I’m trying to get through this pandemic with an ounce of dignity, should I rage at an ex-president who doesn’t care one whit about me (female, liberal democrat)? Even more undignified, how can I feel personal outrage toward a virus mindlessly searching for a host environment?

A word of advice from my many years as a therapist — emotions don’t hold much stock in dignity. For the moment, I suggest we all set dignity aside, acknowledge our feelings, and respect (yes, respect) the humanness of our emotions. If you’re mad at the coronavirus or at our ex-president, I don’t blame you one bit. If you’re afraid, you’re having a normal reaction to a scary situation. If you’re buckling under the uncertainty, you’re not alone. The goal isn’t to NOT feel whatever you do feel. The goals are to handle your emotions so that you own the feelings, rather than allowing the feelings to own you — and to channel your emotions in a way that doesn’t cause more harm, maybe even does a bit of good. 

I don’t know how the landscape will look as this pandemic plays itself out. I do know that sooner or not sooner, later or much later, this public health crisis will turn quiet and today will become tomorrow’s yesterday. We’ll open our doors to gather, shed tears over our losses, steady each other as we find our way. Inch by inch, row by row, we’ll regroup, relearn, rebuild. Tentative and strong, we’ll venture into our next new world. Today, as individuals and as a country, let’s set the stage to take those steps together. 

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author, living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal. 

Amy’s novels are available on Amazon.                                                                                 https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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