Mr. Karen Carpenter

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Just days before her wedding, Karen Carpenter discovered her fiancee was a liar.

Karen had been dating high profile men for years, sometimes casually and sometimes seriously. Alan Osmond and Steve Martin and Tony Danza. She was 5’4”, petite and small with an enormous smile. She looked healthy and strong at around 115 lbs, but she was hard on herself, often starving herself while using laxatives to empty her system and uppers to boost her metabolism and energy, and her weight would sometimes drop to 90, 85, or even 80 pounds, giving her the look of a skeleton covered in skin.

Her voice, though, her voice was unchanging. She kept an impossible schedule, touring the world and making music with her smoky and sultry voice in its lower register, somehow conveying the emotional weight of every word, whether she sang of falling in love or of being desperately lonely or of being heartbroken.

Talking to myself and feeling old, sometimes I’d like to quit, nothin’ ever seems to fit, hanging around, nothing to do but frown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down

and

why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near? just like me, they long to be close to you

and

what to say to make you come again, come back to me again and play your sad guitar, don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby?

Karen’s mother, Agnes, ruled the household with strong words and harsh expectations. She saw her son, Richard, as a musical prodigy who would have a successful career playing the piano, and she saw Karen as a talented young woman who could support Richard in his rise to fame and then perhaps Karen could become the wife and mother she was meant to be. Karen started her music career behind a set of drums, playing for her brother’s band, but when they heard her sing, she was moved out in front as the lead singer. She was the one everyone saw and heard and remembered.

Karen and Richard were dubbed the squeaky-clean rock stars, full of innocence and virginity, during their era, and their personal lives matched that at first; they even lived at home with their parents until they were in their mid-20s, for years after they had become famous. In time, Richard struggled through drug addiction while Karen fell in and out of love, hoping to find a unicorn of a man, who could love her, give her a family, be independent and devoted, and be able to handle her fame.

Karen met Tom Burris during a difficult time in her life. She had just tried launching her own musical career, her own solo album. She had smiled and beamed through the hard work of making her disco album, but after a year of hard work, her family and friends had discouraged her from releasing it, hearing the tracks and telling her it would be unsuccessful. And so she shelved the album, and it would only be released years after her death.

Tom had appeared perfect, and he came at just the right time. He was handsome with a flashy smile and a nice career and stories of vast wealth, and he was blonde and blue-eyed and seemingly devoted to Karen. He claimed he had never heard of her, though she was world famous. A decade older, Tom rushed a divorce with his current wife and proposed to Karen, promising to give her everything she ever wanted, and Karen, hesitant at first, said yes. Then, weeks before the wedding, Tom told her that he had had a vasectomy and that he couldn’t give her children. Karen was heartbroken and furious. He had lied to her. She called off the wedding, but her mother had already sent out the invitations and Karen was pressured into continuing.

And so, Karen Carpenter married Tom Burris married on August 31, 1980. She cut the honeymoon short, immediately unhappy, and then Tom began asking for money, having lied about his personal fortunes. He bought her a car, but they later repossessed it for missing payments. After months of unhappiness, Karen began working on the divorce proceedings, changing her will to keep Tom mostly out of it.

Karen’s health was failing, her body unable to operate without food and sustenance, abused by pills and laxatives. She started treatment and wanted fast results. The therapist was rough on her and Karen began facing harsh truths, especially in a therapy session where her mother could admit love for Richard but not for Karen, not out loud at least.

And so Karen was 32 when she woke up one morning, started a cup of coffee, and then collapsed naked on the floor in her room in her mother’s basement, her heart giving out on her. She died minutes later. It was 1983.

I was five when Karen died. I grew up listening to her amazing voice. It was heavenly, and it made me feel all the feelings. And now, I’m 38, older than she was at the time of her death, and I’m learning about her life. I’ve played her music for the week while I’ve read about her, and I’ve watched her old interviews as she denied having an eating disorder late in her career. I’ve watched her awkward singing behind a set of drums early in her career, and her extreme confidence as she flirted with the audience masterfully in the middle of her career. And this morning, I sit and type about her sad story, one talented and beautiful young woman who wanted love and happiness just like anyone else. And  I realize, it’s a rainy day and a Monday, and I’m feeling down.

But good Lord, that voice…

 

 

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Delivering the bad news

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Direct and uncomplicated, in a soft and nurturing voice, that is the best way to give bad news.

“Mrs. Jones, I’m sorry, but your daughter didn’t make it, the damage was just too severe,” comes across much better than “Hi, Mrs. Jones, I’m Dr. Miller. It was an absolute honor to help your family as much as I could. I’ve been practicing as a surgeon for 15 years and I have a very good reputation and widely renowned skill. I want to assure you that I did everything I could but it was just too late. Your daughter didn’t make it,” or “Mrs. Jones, maybe you should sit down for this, I know this must be difficult and I hate to have to be the one to tell you this, but your daughter is dead.”

Delivering the bad news is terrible, every time. The words hit their audience, and the pain is immediately evident, the range of emotions going from shock to fury to disbelief to anguish to deep depression to guilt to fear, and never in a predictable order. But there are ways to make the difficult better. Or at least less terrible.

As a social worker, over the years, I have had to sit with clients in some of their darkest and most painful spaces, as they process through neglect, abuse, and trauma of every kind, from cheating husbands to recently lost freedom to major drug addictions. Every human has been through hard things, and they come to therapy to talk about it. Sometimes, though, I have to be the one to sit with them and tell them the bad news.

There is no easy way to tell someone that I have had to call Child Protective Services, or that I have to give a difficult report to a probation officer, or, worst of all, that someone they knew, and perhaps even loved, is no longer living.

When I’m delivering terrible news, I tend to mentally divide the people I’m talking to into three categories, as I watch to make sure they are going to be okay. One, I watch for those impacted by standard grief: loss, emotional pain, shock. This category encompasses everyone at varying levels, for hearing the news about a terrible trauma happening to someone else, even someone not known well, is enough to elicit low levels of pain. Two, I look for people who have old wounds now being opened up by the difficult news, specifically those who have past traumas that are being brought to the surface. Example, Sandy hears about a coworker’s suicide, and is immediately reminded of the suicide of her father from years before. These types of trauma recall are more acute and have a wider range of impact. I worry about the last category the most, though. Three, I make sure to be extra sensitive toward people who may be already at capacity with current life stress. Examples, Joann has cancer and is now dealing with her best friend’s death in a car accident, or Mark is fighting for custody of his children in a terrible divorce battle and now is now learning about his beloved boss’s fatal heart attack. The onset of grief in those who are already at capacity comes in unpredictable ways.

When I give difficult news, I sit with the person for a few minutes afterwards to make sure they are stabilizing and okay, then I make sure they have someone with them. Depending on the severity of the shock, I recommend they get a ride home and have someone safe to be with. As often as possible, I recommend the person remove as much stress as possible and engage in self-care, treating themselves as if they just got out of surgery. I recommend blankets and a couch, a favorite movie, a glass of wine or mug of hot chocolate, and a hot bath. I tell them it is a bad time to spend money, to begin a major project, to have a difficult time with a loved one, or to drink alcohol–grief is going to happen, and it is best to provide the body with as much comfort and ease as possible. Too often those in grief wind up sick afterwards.

Recently, someone asked me what the hardest kind of bad news was to deliver. The news of a death of a loved one is always the worst. But there are varying kinds of that as well. When someone dies as the result of a medical event, such as a heart attack, there is a certain comfort that comes with that as we can reason with ourselves that it was there time. Grief in these situations comes naturally, generally. But when someone dies as the result of a preventable accident, or worse, as a result of the negligence or violence of someone else, it is a much more painful and confusing prospect, and grief takes much longer, often, and brings an entirely different kind of pain.

The worst, however, is having to tell someone that a loved one has died as a result of suicide. That brings a tremendous amount of anger, anguish, and extreme and acute pain that the loved ones never quite heal from.

Grief is baffling, and healing takes time. I see people shift from crying uncontrollably to laughing at happy memories to painful anger toward God to abject numbness. It’s natural to feel like a crazy person while grieving.

Grief is painful, and ranges from brief to sharp to all-encompassing, coming in drops over long periods of time. It is heavier in the beginning, then less frequent as the days go by and the sun keeps rising.

And though it is difficult to be the one to give the bad news, it is my honor to be able to help those in their times of need.

What to do with a Furrowed Brow

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I recently taught a college class on Anger, to a group of social work students all learning the skills they will need to interface with others in emotional situations.

I left several colors of markers standing near the white dry erase board: black, light blue, dark blue, red, pink, yellow, purple, orange, green. On the board, I wrote simple instructions, to write out all the different synonyms of MAD they could think of.

The students started with a few easy words. Underneath MAD appeared ANGRY and FRUSTRATED and PISSED OFF. Soon the list expanded to IRATE and ENRAGED and INCENSED and INDIGNANT and IRRITATED.

I kept the class silent after the words stopped, silently encouraging them to continue, and then words related to MAD started showing up, without a direct connection. HURT and EMBARRASSED and HEARTBROKEN and RESENTFUL.

By the end, nearly 50 words showed up on the board. I then had the students write down a 1 to 10 scale on their paper, and write words under each number to demonstrate escalating anger. They looked up at the board, selecting words from the list, perhaps placing UNCOMFORTABLE under number 1, PEEVED under number 3, FURIOUS under number 6, and FOAMING AT THE MOUTH under number 10.

I asked students to remember the last time they hit a 10 level of anger, and many of them couldn’t think of one. I asked the students to list things that made them angry at a 7 level, and I asked them to describe how they handled that anger.

We talked about anger being a full body emotion, one that dwells in your ears, in your teeth, in your stomach, in your fists, in your brow, in your feet, in your fingertips, and perhaps most of all, right on your tongue. We talked about anger coming in different colors, from mild yellow to sheer red to darkest black. We talked about anger being a secondary emotion, how it generally stems from, or is directly connected to, feeling hurt or jealous or betrayed or disappointed first.

We talked about anger being a gut-level emotion, a programmed response that we learn as children to protect us from the pain of the emotions that lie underneath. We talked about anger’s connection to sadness, to guilt, to fear, to pain.

And then we talked about anger being a healthy emotion, one that is important to survival. Every human gets angry. It’s what we decide to do with our anger that matters most. We talked about recognizing anger at number 4 or 5 rather than waiting for it to boil over to 8 or 10, and we talked about how the negative consequences of anger tend to increase when the numbers climb and we, in the moment, care less about the results of our actions; at least until the anger dissipates and we are left with the wounds it has inflicted.

We talked about all of the anger in the world today. Righteous primal anger, directed inward and outward. We see it in furious Facebook posts about political parties who didn’t vote the right way, in criticism of elected leaders and in those criticizing the critics. We see it in ignored text messages, in clenched fists and tight breaths, in blaring horns on the freeway, in tear-soaked pillowcases, in consumed bags of potato chips, in unheard wails to a God who doesn’t seem to be listening.

We talked about anger being directed toward the past or toward the future, yet how anger is always an in the moment emotion, happening right now. We talked about anger being like a fire, one that can burn brightly but never maintain the flame and smoke without fuel.

And then we talked about participating with anger, deciding what to do with it. We talked about having angry, healthy workouts instead of passive aggressive social media posts. We talked about being inspired into social activism instead of ignoring the phone calls of family members with different opinions. We talked about constructive conversations with loved ones that result in compromise and change instead of furious words and unsightly sneers. We talked about listening to the pain behind the anger and charting a course forward instead of feeling helpless and despairing and retreating into the shadows.

Lastly, we talked about anger being a part of us, an unchanging and consistent emotion, something at the very essence of being human. We talked about getting healthy and fit, emotionally, and how anger will still be there, along with the other emotions we perceive as negative. We talked about anger being a primal force, something beautiful and constructive. We talked about anger’s connection to trust, and love, and family, and faith, and justice, and humanity itself.

Then we, all of us, left the class angry. And we each got to decide what to do with it.