A Raleigh Therapist's Blog

Thoughts on counseling, healing, and creating the life you want

On Wax Myrtles, Anxiety and the Impermanence of Thoughts

 

I have a deep and abiding animus towards my neighbor’s wax myrtles. This is the story of how, one day in May, they tried to kill me.

wax myrtle

If I owned a blowtorch, and didn’t worry about Johnny Law showing up to cart me off, I would lay waste to those bastards (the trees not the neighbors) with extreme prejudice. Also, I’d do it in a leather jacket or something so that at least the visual of a slightly rotund, middle-aged woman screaming invectives at the silent trees was a little less lunatic and a little more badass.

The thing about wax myrtles, in case you aren’t familiar with them, is that they are prodigious breeders with clever, creeping root systems. My anonymous backyard neighbors never trim their trees, so the limbs cascade over our fence and parachute hopeful little invaders into my flowerbeds. Frantic weeding doesn’t seem to forestall waist-height wax myrtles from choking my rose bushes or shooting up through the hedges. Once the intruders are established it’s nearly impossible to pull them up. They’re now defiant little trees holding fast to the soil with concrete tentacles.

Earlier this summer, as my daughter bounced merrily on the trampoline, I went about my usual rounds, grumbling and excommunicating all the wax myrtle saplings to a green trashcan by the deck. At some point in my angry circuit, I must have also grabbed a handful of poison ivy. Sitting at dinner with my friend Sarah later that night, my arm began to itch. Since we’d been talking politics I thought I just had hives. But, when I woke up the next morning, an angry rash was already slithering up the right side of my body.

“Dude. That’s gross. I’ve never seen anything like that.” the doc chuckled cheerfully, while writing me a script for 4 medications. The abridged version of the next few days is that one of those medications conspired with my Grave’s Disease to explode my heart and kill me. I would have died with an infected, elephantine arm in a mostly clean shirt my husband got at a software conference. The indignity of it. Later, standing on my back porch impotently contemplating a week’s worth of newly rooted interlopers, I imagined the taciturn wax myrtles back there howling vicious, mute victory in our battle for territory.

When clients tell me that they have increasingly anxious thoughts crowding out the useful thoughts, I think about my crusade against the wax myrtles and sympathize. Sometimes, it seems that no matter how diligently one tries to keep a clear mental landscape, anxiety has other ideas. For every fragrant flower of a thought there’s a weed. And, when you try the wrong fixes (drugs, alcohol, insert vice of choice here) it turns out like the poison ivy—you get royally effed up for your efforts. The thoughts are still there waiting for you when you get back from that vice anyway. And now they have more ammo too.

I’d like to tell you that with ninja-like discipline, we all can achieve perfectly clear minds. But some of us just aren’t blank slate people. We’re always going to have active, creative minds that devise internal torture chambers of the most intimately perfect kind. We can’t decide not to have thoughts. To be honest, you can’t even decide not to have really weird, screwed up, disturbing thoughts. The mind does what the mind does. The key is in deciding what orientation you will have to those thoughts:

Decide to be a professional thought tourist rather than a professional thought homesteader.

Take a look and accept that there will be something else to look at a moment from now. No guilt. Please never feel like a failure because you have moments of entertaining thought patterns that you don’t like. Instead, give yourself credit for developing the capacity to recognize that those thoughts will be as transitory as the pleasant ones. Those of us who have battled anxiety and have gotten a “win” have done it not by having perfect thoughts. Rather, we have stopped letting those anxious thoughts have special status.

Let me belabor the point a minute in case my obnoxious use of mixed metaphor wasn’t illuminating enough. You can’t decide not to have scary thoughts. But you can decide to view them as a room you walk through on your way to somewhere else. And somewhere else. And somewhere else again. Mindfully, you look at the thought and observe it. You wouldn’t feel shame about mindfully looking at a nice thought and observing it. Be an equal opportunity thinker. Everything arises for a moment, and everything passes away. Focus on noticing the thought and the body process and noticing even that pass away too. If you focus on not having the thought, you might as well come help me weed wax myrtles next spring. Your effort is not in the most useful place.

If you’d like to learn some mindfulness practices to help you become the river rather than the rafter? Would you like to develop a better sense of humor about your anxiously creative brain? Why don’t you come on in so we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

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On Concert T-Shirts and Other Life Souvenirs We Can Stand to Release

There is a running joke in my family that Jason Isbell is trying to kill me. You know, Jason Isbell of the “best songwriter of his generation” muckety-muck and acclaim? Each time (of the three times) I’ve bought a ticket for one of his shows, I have been laid low by an absurdly strong plague, reduced to an afflicted puddle of self-pity on the couch.

There has been Norovirus. There’s been Strep. The flu stopped in for a visit, ushering in a double ear infection. Speculation arose in my friend circle that a vortex rending the fabric of space and time would spin out of the sky were I to actually attend a Jason Isbell show. Fortunately, all that really happened was that I drank an overpriced soda and shamed the really tall guy in front of me into jamming out a bit to the right. I may have been disappointed by the complete absence of cosmic spectacle. I may also have been a bit loopy on cough syrup and total lack of restorative sleep.

If you don’t know who Jason Isbell is, just Google his name and any combination of the words “redemption,” “gut-wrenching” and “Southern Gothic.” Then, spend a few hours thumbing through the resulting wordgasms penned by keyboard jockeys punch-drunk with rhapsodic Isbellitis. It’ll get you right up to speed.

To be fair, Isbell has the same annoying, flabbergasting quality that David Foster Wallace had. He draws word pictures so clearly that it pinches your guts to hear them. The fact that he does so in entirely plain language makes the emotional injury his talent inflicts on the slightly less-talented listener all the more keen. Unlike Wallace, no occasional trot to the dictionary is required to soak it all in. “Oh,” I have said to myself at least a million times. “This guy apparently has access to the same sized vocabulary that I do, and he can do that with it?” Also, he’s probably cooler than us. And wears more fashionable shoes.

I’m telling you all of this, gentle reader, to punctuate the improbable truth that the one time I actually made it see the famous Jason Isbell–the ONE time I actually arrived and heard this dude play–I hadn’t even gone to see him.

Nope. I dragged myself there (ear infections and all) to hear the opening act.

Amanda Shires, an extraordinary fiddle player, singer and songwriter was slated to perform beforehand at the Raleigh show. She’s Isbell’s wife, and stayed onstage to accompany him during the main event. But, I wanted to see her perform her own stuff. And, because the world doesn’t know its you-know-what from a hole in the ground sometimes, she isn’t yet well-known enough to do the big tours he does. I had already resigned myself to road tripping alone to Nashville just to hear her play for an hour.

I stumbled upon Shires during my free fall through one of those YouTube rabbit holes you get into sometimes. You know the ones. You start in some logical place, but end up watching like 5 episodes of People’s Court (the old ones with Judge Wapner), continue on past videos about how to hand roll sushi, and then, finally, stumble across something that holds your attention. After one of those junkets, there she was. Staring at me matter-of-factly, and singing this song:

 

 

You’ve probably experienced this yourself, but there are some artists that you’re very aware you’re enjoying with the totality of that artist’s fan base. For instance, even when you’re alone in your car, if “Don’t Stop Believing” comes on, it always kind of feels like if you rolled down your windows at the stoplight, everyone else would be singing along too. It’s a shared musical thought we all could narrate together at any minute. But, there are other performers you keep like a secret you have just for yourself. When you show up to an event of theirs, it’s almost jarring that other people are even there, singing those familiar words. And each of those strangers carries inside themselves a personal meaning and a living song—just like you do.

For me, even when I saw Amanda Shires standing in front of those all those people, her songs still felt like a conversation she and I had in my living room one night. Though gorgeous and lush in both verse and instrumentation, it’s not necessarily easy listening music. You have to engage with her songs, not just consume them. Shires’ music is intellectually participatory in a unique way. I guess there’s just something about musicians who were instrumentalists first and later become wordsmiths. The conversational interplay between her violin and her voice has an equality of contribution to the material effort of the thing. I just love her.

So there I was, at my first Amanda Shires concert, also seeing Jason Isbell as the free gift with purchase. And, what else does one do to seal in that memory but buy a t-shirt? (If you’re not the kind of person who buys a t-shirt at concerts, I can’t even with you.) Standing in the heat of the merchandise line behind a gentleman who truly could have benefited from a trip down the personal hygiene aisle, I noticed that there were no Amanda Shires t-shirts. None. There were only Isbell t-shirts. I stood there anyway, hoping that the guy behind the merchandise table could pull a few from some magical stack I couldn’t see. But, there simply weren’t any.

I half-heartedly bought a stretchy, grey Jason Isbell shirt. It wasn’t the souvenir I wanted or expected. But, I keep trying it on, noticing it doesn’t fit and then shoving it back in my top drawer to take up space anyway.

And damn it, y’all, isn’t that just like life a lot of the time?

Sometimes…sometimes at especially pivotal moments, the universe just doesn’t give you the takeaway you envision. Your souvenir is second best or it’s actively terrible. Life packed your bag not with what you deserved, but with some other grotesque, unwanted care package. And there you are. Holding it. Staring warily at it. Trying to figure out how to hoist it up onto your back so you can stay the course on a road that suddenly seems a lot longer.

It’s the affair your wife had with a coworker after you took care of her through more sickness than health.

It’s the addiction your teenager developed even though you tirelessly sacrificed for him to have a wonderful childhood.

It’s the panic attacks you have as you try to make sense of being violently attacked when you were just out buying cereal in your sweat pants.

Maybe it’s not even one singular thing, but it’s the thousands of small, wretched souvenirs you are toting around from traversing the landscape of a marriage that’s crumbling or a job that breaks your spirit and insults your intelligence. As Charles Bukowski said, it’s often “not the large things that send a man to the madhouse…no, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies that send a man to the madhouse…not the death of his love but a shoelace that snaps with no time left…and the dread of life is that swarm of trivialities…”

When you’re dreading the weight you’re carrying along with you, trivial or not, it’s time to edit the collection. You can only be an emotional Sherpa for so many things. Your heart is not a democracy in which everyone gets a vote on filling up the empty spaces with the detritus of his or her own struggles. Edit. Trim down the hurt.

I floridly hate therapists and life coaches who tout that there’s one fail-proof way to logic through the hard times. I don’t think there is, and I don’t trust anyone who believes in one-size-fits-all emotional solutions. Rather, we have to trust that for each of us there is a process towards health that may not be immediately apparent, and which also might require some careful trips down blind alleyways before presenting itself. The process is in and of itself the important part. Discovering the emotional vehicle by which you’ll take a stand against hoarding people, feelings and memories that no longer serve you is a sacred journey. Will you meditate? Write letters you may or may not send? Discover activism? Teach yoga to women at the domestic violence center downtown? Rediscover your faith in something?

Therapy is a place where you figure out why and how to do the work. Consider it the platform from which you begin to discern just how much of you is available for change.

Few things give me the sads more quickly than a scared, traumatized client who believes she has Law of Attractioned an atrocity into her life that can only be healed by thinking perfectly good, magical thoughts. That’s not to say that I don’t think we have the majority stake in creating our experiences. But, our authorship is always in collaboration with the universal intelligence, our bodies, people around us, larger societal realities, and other things over which we absolutely cannot have sole dominion. And anyway, groundedness doesn’t require perfection as its primary fuel. Simply put, emotional health is a commitment to looking at all the parts as they move and recalibrating when new information arrives.

My impression, both personally and professionally is that resilience happens when we make good friends with the idea that we are often holding the space with thoughts, experiences and sensations that suck. Periods of pain are not avoidable. They can be the forges in which we are shaped into something rad by the fires of hardship. But let’s be honest, they can also be the pigsties in which we get drenched in crap. Poetic, I know. I’m a woman of the pen.

I invite you to take a good look at the things you’re carrying around, particularly the ones that no longer render happiness or useful pain. Then, engage in some process (therapy, meditation, retreats, creating art, helping someone else) that helps you curate the emotional relics that are worth keeping around. Souvenirs of past experiences are wonderful when they continue to create meaning in your life. Otherwise, they’re like my Jason Isbell shirt—uncomfortable, not quite what I wanted, and taking up space I could be using for things that are a better fit.

Would you like to come in and rifle through your emotional inventory? Is it time to reorganize your ledger of relational debts? Do you just want somewhere to show off your latest concert tee? Why don’t you come on in so we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

Twitter: HollyCoxLMFT

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On the Merits of Meditation for Mothers and Other Reluctant Superheroes

One afternoon 5 years ago, I hunkered down on the cold, sticky floor in my pantry with my head between my knees, gazing down at a single, lonely cheerio by my right toe. Beck warbled out from the cell phone I had tucked under my arm so it wouldn’t be baptized in the glop on the wood boards.

I breathed.

I panicked.

In the next room, my oldest son unceremoniously crashed something into something else. And there I sat, contemplating the sheer vertical wall of obligation that I felt to my work, and my family, and the dogs, and my mother, and to the thirsty garden had I left to sprout weeds in the back of my house. Beck continued his muffled serenade from my armpit, balefully strumming along. “Baby you’re a lost, baby you’re a lost cause.”

I needed something I couldn’t even define. It wasn’t relaxation exactly, but rather reconnection. I wanted my life to intersect again with something that I had become untethered from a long time ago. But who can really articulate a gut thing like that? And if you can’t take it out of the abstract, how can you find a solution for it? When, a few months later, a friend of mine suggested I try meditation, I rolled my eyes at her. “Yep, because if I could simply sit and not think about stuff, I would just effing do that, Suzan. Meditation sounds like an excellent way for me to make myself even more anxious and frustrated trying not to think thoughts. Sorry, I have a busy mind. I don’t think I’d be any good at it.”

The thing is, I was woefully misinformed about what meditation really involves. Rather than believing it to be a gentle process of helping all my mind-body horses pull in the same direction, I thought it was about brutally censoring my interior process and forcing the body to fall into line. Believe me, gentle reader. If that were the case, I wouldn’t suggest it to you, because frankly, I couldn’t do it myself.

Culturally, we  have rendered busyness and stress poetic so that we can anesthetize ourselves to the fact that they’re poison apples. To make sense of frighteningly frenetic lifestyles, we cultivate a kind of self-congratulatory resignation to crushing ourselves ever more completely between the cogs of the hustle. We’ve grown so used to lives with no expansiveness—no space to be bored or contemplative or simply unoccupied, that we don’t know how to slow down. Not doing feels like death or failure or maybe both.

I’m worried for my generation and for the youth of today. As much as I am the absolute person for whom social media was created (because I really do enjoy photos of your dog dressed up at Halloween) I fear that it robs us of the ability to be dimensional humans.  What if we love creating these electronic shadow boxes because somehow they’ve become a stand in for the genuine presence and human interconnectedness we instinctively know is needed? Hey, at least we can check up on our friends and family at lunch and stoplights. Done. Relationships accomplished. And, it’s been documented online so it must be real. Worse still, sometimes we prefer the online version of ourselves to the more complex version that’s walking around in daily life. You know, the one in which people see you at unflattering angles and have uncrafted, unpredictable conversations. This social busyness without real substance has a narcotic quality that when consumed in unchecked quantities, drives us away from our core.

The landscape of what clients are asking from therapists has changed dramatically over the past decade. Folks who came in complaining of crippling anxiety or deep feelings of meaninglessness used to be a subset of what I saw in my office. But now, it’s the most common thing I’m asked to address, no matter how high functioning the client may otherwise be. This terrifying feeling of being adrift on the white waters, headed for rocks is a root issue. And those roots bear fruit in the form of loneliness, burnout and a genuine sense of frazzled dread. People are dragging themselves to counseling to ask (no, beg) for a way to pump the brakes in a world that won’t give them permission to slow down at all.

But here’s the thing: we’re all appropriately anxious. Why wouldn’t we be? We’re doing too much of the wrong things and not enough of the meaningful ones that can make us feel anchored. There isn’t a therapist walking this good, green earth who can talk you through selling out your core need for groundedness. You don’t want that kind of voodoo anyhow. Rather, you need to change your approach. Behaviorally. You have to choose reconnection with yourself, and choosing it means actively engaging in it. Purposefully.

Meditation is one of the most powerful ways I know of to foster calm and presence, and to combat anxiety, rage and overwhelm. There are a host of impressive physiological benefits associated with a meditative practice, including increased wellness in brain, heart and immune function. But when I teach it in my practice, I am offering it as an antidote to busyness and all the attendant emotional and spiritual catastrophes that result from failing to remind yourself that you, as much as anyone else, deserve your compassion, tenderness and focus. I don’t know how to wave a magic wand and help you ignore your problems so that you can keep forging ahead. But, I would love to ride along with you as you return to yourself and discover how to be present with whatever exists at that moment—good or bad. That is joyful living.

I think most people don’t meditate because they have heard or imagined some really persuasive reasons about why it’s difficult, time-consuming or only for patchouli-scented weirdoes. I mean, disclaimer here; I can’t claim that I’m not a patchouli-scented weirdo. I still listen to way too much Deep Forest, and not in an ironic, “I’m so 90s” kind of way. But I’m also just like you—type A, over-scheduled, worried about how many of my children I’m raising to be outright serial killers, and in general, just doing the best I can to hold it all together. In the spirit of us being life twinsies, let me debunk three of the biggest stumbling blocks to starting a meditative practice.

1) I have to be able to clear my mind and stop thinking: No. No you don’t. Really. Seriously. I’m not even kidding right now. Soak that in for a minute. Instead, the process of meditation is about noticing the thoughts as they drift by, and then gently coming back to whatever you’ve chosen to focus on for that session. It’s noticing and returning over and over again with a spirit of compassion for yourself. As you progress, it’s about being present in the gap between the thoughts. This is a much different, and more honest experience than hoping against hope that your mind will simply stop doing its schtick.

I struggled with the idea of meditation for years because I happen to be a person who likes to engage in a great deal of recreational thinking. I’m a writer and a professional problem solver for heaven’s sake. Thinking is kind of my jam.

It didn’t help that my very first meditation teacher told us imposingly that we just needed to “clear the mind completely.” There I sat on my meditation pillow, breathing in the bliss of the people around me, developing a cramp in my crossed legs and in general NOT succeeding in clearing my mind even a little. My practice at that time in my life was impressively short-lived because I felt like a failure. “Whatever those folks have that enables them to clear the ol’ mental movie screen must be special about them,” I mused, deflated.

Later, I had the good fortune to learn with really wonderful instructors who helped me understand that meditation is developing an ability to be present with thoughts, emotions and sensations without chasing them, and to also be present with the gap between the thoughts as well should that arise. The space between thoughts is what most people mean when they think about clearing the mind. But the gap, cool as it is, is transitory for all of us. Every meditator in the world is a thinking person who experiences thoughts as part of the meditative experience. In other words, you and I don’t have to panic about having perfectly normal brains. Rather, we can practice being present in that moment, whether it’s a gap moment or a thought moment. That alone is a special and rare experience in a world in which life compels us to keep running, planning and executing at all times.

One of the teachers I’ve been privileged to learn from is Swami Atmavidyananda Giri, a senior monk with Kriya Yoga International. Yes, I know his name makes him sound like he’s sitting around in his bare feet wearing a cool monastic robe. Spoiler alert: he actually totally is. “Meditation,” he said, “is not about imagining, it’s about perceiving. If you are trying to pretend that you are not having thoughts at all, or are pretending that you’re having different thoughts than the ones you’re having, that is imagination. That is not presence. Instead, we observe the thoughts and do not pretend that they are not there. “ I loved this because it allowed me to cultivate being the watcher rather than being the thought slayer.

Many times when we meditate, we are using a point of focus like the breath or a mantra. When you notice that you have wandered off, simply acknowledge that you have drifted and gently come back. As another wonderful teacher of mine, Davidji, notes, the noticing that you have wandered off towards a thought is the very essence of mindfulness. In that moment of noticing, you were truly awake. If you have noticed that you’re thinking of something else, (and you may notice this many times during a session) simply return to the object of your focus. Davidji likens the experience to being on a swing set—drifting from focus to thought and back again. Even Swami Atmayidyananda, when asked if he ever thinks while meditating, replied that sometimes notices he is having the thought, “I am meditating.”

2) I need an altar, 3 hours and a $150 mala I saw on Instagram: Let’s be honest here. It is so tempting to look at those clean, sun-burnished ritual spaces in Yoga magazines and assume that meditation will be supercharged by a special space or fancy equipment. But it doesn’t require that. It requires you. Period. That’s all.

At least several times a week, I meditate in my parked car. That’s the space where I don’t have children, the phone in my office, or my dog competing for attention. Parents, you know you spend 10 minutes in the parking lot at Target listening to the radio or flipping through Facebook. Since you’re going to be there anyway, allow yourself to close your eyes, watch your breath and meditate for 10 minutes instead. Space in schedule made. I suppose it’s possible that one day someone will think I’m dead in my car and tap on my window. But, that just gives me the option to open my eyes and scare the Bejesus out of them. Score.

When I’m at home, I meditate on my son’s orange velour video game chair. I got it on Amazon for about $30, and it allows me to sit on the ground with my legs crossed and a bit of back support. Sure, it looks like some wannabe Romeo from the 70s with a gold chain and lots of curly chest hair would have been pleased to have it in the back of his slightly-creepy panel van. However, that chair gets the job done.

I’m don’t mean to imply that it wouldn’t be awesome and entirely worthwhile to intentionally create a beautiful space in which to practice every day. Rather, I want you to know that the most beautiful, sacred thing you bring into your practice is your authentic presence. That curious, reflective place lives inside you all the time no matter where you meditate. The more you visit it, the more you pave a superhighway back there rather than the bumpy dirt road that seems to be the only way in now. You can access this space in the most ordinary of places, with time you have carved out from the schedule you already have, no handmade mala blessed with the tears of a Himalayan monk required.

3) I Already Have Other Ways to Relax: Sometimes, when I introduce meditation as an adjunct to psychotherapy for clients suffering from existential overwhelm and anxiety, they note that they already knit, play tennis or read to blow off steam. While I love macramé cat scarves as much as the next person, I’m not suggesting that you meditate as a vehicle for relaxation. Of course, meditation may offer some relief from tension. But, as your therapist, I want you to cultivate a deep mind practice in order to reconnect, not relax.

When anxiety, and all of its accompanying dread, cyclical thinking and runaway body sensations arise, we come unmoored from processing the present moment effectively. Instead, we are trapped in our heads, planning and ritualistically rehearsing worst-case scenarios. Provoked with people and processes that drive us into reacting mode, we lose the ability to alight anywhere for long. For happiness and ease to exist, the capacity for centeredness must be cultivated with care. We have to remember, sometimes moment-by-moment, how to return to ourselves and to the now. If you would like to get realigned on a deep level, practice meditation in order to grow your ability to reach that place and stay there.

Would you like to discuss how to reorient to a more robust version of yourself? Are you curious about how mediation can compliment psychotherapy? Why don’t you come on in so we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

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Why an Ideal You is More Important Than an Ideal Partner

Vulnerability with a partner when trust has been lost can feel like jumping off the edge of the world without a safety net. We only like to extend ourselves if we can snatch that exposed feeling back. When we can say, “Well, I don’t care that you didn’t respond to my bid for attention because you’re a jerk anyway,” it feels a lot safer. I mean, who wants to be the Dodo who continues to ask someone (who only questionably likes you) to support you when you’re ragged and fragile?

Well, you do.

Yeah, you.

I don’t care if you click off this blog and go watch fail videos on Facebook now. You still saw this. You’ll be thinking about it while you’re staring, glassy-eyed, at cats falling into bathtubs 14 different ways. Might as well hang around so I can give you the skinny on how to make your relationships warmer.

Relationships that fundamentally forbid showing your tender parts are not intimate. They’re transactional, sure. They may get “the business of us” done. Kids will be squired towards adulthood, dogs will be walked and taxes will be paid. You might even fit in some good sex here and there. But, partnerships in which you’re gaurded lack personal authenticity. Frankly, tucking in the feels all the time is a hell of a lot of work. That exploding thing you do when you least expect it? It’s because you’re relationally tired. That zoning out thing the other one of you does with regularity? That’s also because you’ve got a bad case of the relationship tireds.

You can put on a façade for your boss, and your mother-in-law, and for that one aunt who reminds you that you were a lot thinner when you were 24. (Am I the only person who had that aunt? Bueller?) But when you’re with your boo thang? No, you have to be you or you’re going to be a miserable, mean-spirited caricature of yourself instead. And, you won’t do that because you’re actually a miserable bastard. You’ll do it because you have begun to lack the reserves to pretend anymore.

When couples come in with high levels of conflict, I work pretty hard at demanding that they change their communication patterns. However, I work a bit more on asking them to articulate their ideal selves as partners.

Who do you really want to be as a husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend?

How does that best version of yourself communicate?

What does your ideal version of yourself contribute emotionally, sexually, financially and spiritually to your union?

What would be the first signs that you are beginning to transform into the partnered you that you most respect?

I think the litmus test of a good relationship is not just how your partner behaves towards you. Rather, it’s how able you are to blossom into the spouse you’re capable of being—the compassionate, passionate, engaged you that is hiding under all the layers of aggression or ambivalence that has calcified the relationship.

When you’re asking yourself if you should stay or if you should go, one of the pivotal questions must be, “Can I safely and joyfully perform the best version of myself in this relationship?” I want couples to speak about this with one another at length in session. They should know who they’d be getting if change were to happen in the relationship.

Making space for your partner to live into his or her potential is no small feat. It requires incredible courage and resilience, and an ability to recognize fledgling efforts at evolution. Moreover, it requires you to support a partner you may be angry with (for lot of good reasons) during a planting season when the ground looks barren so that the reaping season is ripe with juicy collaboration.

Do you want to have a conversation about how you can be deliberate in the way you partner? Do you want to figure out if your partner can support that best version of you? Why don’t you come on in so we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

Twitter: HollyCoxLMFT

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On Going to Concerts in Hurricanes and New Year’s Resolutions

A few months ago, Hurricane Matthew raged outside my back door. As I watched the trees convulse against the house, and the rain-lashed fence bow and release, I made the only decision a sane music fan could make. I went to a concert. Like, anyway.

You see, gentle reader, I’ve had tickets for Jason Isbell twice. Twice has some bit of unexpected mayhem gone down that prevented me from getting to the show. Take if you will, the charming Norovirus that manifested in Florida after I flew all the way down for the performance. So, I just wasn’t going to give my John Paul White tickets up to the gaping maw of Mother Nature without protest. Sorry, Universe. Not this time.

The downpour marched on in ragged, unorganized sheets. I shrugged on a worn pair of Chucks and my husband’s favorite hoodie and prepared to be the only idiot in the village that came to the venue. I may have been foolish, but I was not disappointed. John Paul White was exactly as I imagined him—all wry humor and pathos telegraphed out to us through an epic pair of pipes and a mostly pressed suit. I sat with my wet sneakers propped up on the edge of stage because so few people came that they moved us all up to the first few rows. And then, I got to pose for a photo with old dude himself.

I have a muddled relationship with meeting authors or entertainers I admire. I feel compelled to do it if the opportunity arises. Because, if you can breathe the same air with badassery, you probably shouldn’t pass that up. But mainly, I prefer my own, secret understanding of who they are and what they do. I feel awkward about encountering the real thing. The actuality can be kind of intrusive in the face of who I imagined.

So, when John Paul White suddenly materialized in the flesh while I was busy buying a concert T-shirt, I stood in line to meet him, awash in equal parts eagerness and reluctance. For the record, he was extremely nice, and possessed of the practiced availability of someone who knows that he represents some idiosyncratic abstraction for each of us. Here’s the photo: 14502945_10208371363575307_6444982498755663642_n

 

It’s nice, right? We might both look like we’re going to a funeral or maybe the podiatrist, but it’s a nice shot. Now, kiddies, here comes the point of this blog, other than to humble brag that I met John Paul White in the middle of a hurricane:

My camera app still up, I ran out into the rain to wait for my husband and happened to pass by two members of the opening act, The Kernal and His New Strangers. I had never heard of them before that night.

I “knew” John Paul White. So, do you think a single thing came out of my mouth to him about how much I admire his lyrics or musicality? Do you think I told him that my 2-year-old daughter refuses to listen to any song but a very specific one of his on the way to preschool? That I recommend one of his songs to clients sometimes? Nope, I said none of that because I “knew” him, and it all somehow seemed established and therefore less open for examination.

But, I was happy to rhapsodize to the heretofore unknown Kernal and Cotton about how their harmonies had been so tight and surprising that I simultaneously got shades of the Eagles and the Judy Bats. And, oh yeah, I also kind of thought The Kernal resembled what would happen if David Foster Wallace and Christopher Lloyd had a love child. I asked why the band was called the New Strangers. I asked for a photo or five. Now, look at the difference between the photo of me, The Kernal, and Cotton and the one with John Paul White: 14502685_10208371374375577_1633006656388846154_n

 

You know what you notice in that second picture? Curiosity about the moment and the people I was with just then. Joy in discovery. Mainly, it was that I was present in that second photo because I was having more fun posing for it than I was imagining who I would show to afterwards. I was just there.

I have one job as a therapist, and it’s the same job no matter what issue you come in to address. The whole point of therapy—pick any problem you want–is to develop a capacity to be where you are, right now. To look into trauma and hold the space with it so you can be here now. To look at your partner and acknowledge, in the face of history and vulnerability and disappointment where you are together right now. To look at physical sensations that may be scary or painful or aggravating and be with them just as they are, now. All of that is fruit of the same root—a strong aversion to tuning into this moment when some far-flung future or past are so much friendlier or at least familiar. Also, my apologies to Ram Dass for stealing his schtick. He’s not wrong though.

I’m the sort of person who has a million New Years Resolutions every year. I think I just like to hedge my bets that something gets done. This year, however, I’m putting myself on the spot. I’m looking at the root of all the emotional chaos that creates the peccadillos of which I am most guilty—overwork, disconnect from source energy and consuming rather than creating. I’d like to tune into the most basic meaning of mindfulness—being available to what is, right this minute, right where I am.

Just as a brief programming note on that—I don’t think we’re all struggling with mindfulness because we’re pathological. On the contrary—humans have extraordinary emotional ingenuity that forges more pathways forwards and backwards in our imaginations than reality could possibly present. It’s kinda rad when those powers are engaged in a user-friendly way. Like, you know, when you’re psyching yourself up to run a marathon or going back over memories that no longer trigger because you’ve done hard work on them.

I hope all of you out there have a wonderful holiday season and a very happy start to 2017. If you want to show me your pictures of random encounters with famous people (I have some with Al Gore and Carrot Top to trade) or you just want to have a few life-editing conversations, give me a ring. I’d love for you to come on in so that we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

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On Getting Older, Changing Your State and the Merits of a Personal Theme Song

I’m not quite 4o yet, but I sure am breathing heavily down 40’s neck, warming up her collar and whispering the tidings of my imminent arrival. I’ve done all the requisite machinations of a woman teetering off the edge of her youth and into a robust, and hopefully juicy middle age. I have fewer you know whats to give about how people judge me and what they may think. I’m doing all the things. You know, cutting my hair, learning to roller skate and thinking about getting a tattoo. Then, upon deciding that I am too afraid of needles to approach the tattoo with a 10-foot pole, I have bought myself a tiny, fierce new car. I’ve never been one for an ostentatious ride. I feel conspicuous in it. But, I think it’s everyone’s duty at some point in life to (literally and metaphorically) put down the windows, pump up your jam and roll out like you mean it.

Hopefully, unless we have had to cope with misfortune or trauma, our early years are a hothouse of blooming creativity and extravagant imagination. More often, youth is the place where we collect the experiential odds and ends we need to be really interesting humans further down the line. Forging an existence that has purpose  is a constant, iterative process of intentional engineering. If youth offers anything extraordinarily delicious, it’s a lack of expectation as one is becoming to know who you’re supposed to be. We’re allowed to make it up as we go, giddy with discovery and sensitive to meaningful newness. What I liked most about my twenties was trying on hats–journalist, therapist, swing dancer, poet. I stamped my own individuality all over my life. And, if I have learned anything about happy people in general, particularly the older ones, it’s that they continue to remain awake to the option to create themselves over and over again. Their dreams don’t stop taking up the really good real estate in their own lives. I’m talking psychological beachfront condos, baby!

To that end, I have decided that I need a theme song. You know–an intro and an outro. A slick beat that heralds my desire to be intentional, and kind of bad ass as well. I need something that will effect an immediate state change in me whenever and wherever I desire it–no matter if I’m hearing it through my stereo or in my head. Here’s an example of the hilarious Peter MacNicol gearing himself up to face a difficult situation via his musical spirit animal, Barry White.

This isn’t, of course, anything new. Anyone who loves Tony Robbins or any of the NLP folks will recognize the idea that when you’re stressed or stumped, purposely changing your state by physical movement, affirmations or meditation is a quick, easy way to ritualize a return to the productive zone. That’s the place we call flow, where we can create and thrive. I teach my clients lots of tricks to do this state change stuff, so they can manage it in meetings, traffic or even while they’re doing leisure activities. When you come in, we can try some of the intellectual widgets that have worked for other people and you can also develop a few idiosyncratic ones of your own. History is full of folks who used their own experiences, culled from years of living as themselves, to combat undesirable mental and emotional roadblocks. The incomparable Leonard Cohen, for instance, chants, “Pauper sum ego, nihil habeo” before performing. That’s Latin for, “I am poor, I have nothing.” This incantation is intended to “reduce the weight” he and his fellow musicians feel before heading onto stage. To someone else, that wouldn’t be a useful approach. But, it works for Leonard. It’s essential to figure out how you best do you, and then to do that. Not for nothing, Keith Richards just eats a shepherd’s pie. Because, you know, Keith Richards.

If we can help you notice the state changes you experience in times of stress, anger, hopelessness, anxiety or overwhelm, we are more than a few steps down the road to mindfully creating a blueprint for your own happiness and contentment. If you’re able to be very present in moments that ordinarily would have “just happened” to you, what interesting changes could you invite? There is a process of creativity to assembling a tool box. And I am here to tell you that it is fun, interesting work.

What will you be doing in the next few weeks to improve your chances of conjuring up a life at your highest vibration? Me? I’ll be listening to my new theme song…and feeling good.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

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On the Power of Grieving Well and Irish Wakes

This week, upon the passing of my Aunt Sadie, the last of my grandmother’s seven-person sibling group, I was suddenly struck again with a deep longing to see my grandmother just one more time. My grandmother, whose wedding ring I wear and china I pull down for special occasions. My grandmother, who taught me to drive and prepped me on how to answer interview questions for my first big job. My grandmother, who thought it would be much more fun for her grandkids to just call her by her first name–Helen. We used that name like a mighty title conferred by God. She wasn’t just anyone. She was THE Helen Abbott–queen of Church Street in Winterville, NC USA. And she was copiously, extravagantly loved.

Somewhere, down beneath the raucous family gatherings in which we gleefully toasted to her many eccentricities and around the corner, just past my cheerful admonitions that she had a good life and a kind death, there lives an inestimable ache. When someone dies, you prepare yourself to grieve in all the typical ways. I mean, I wrote my damn dissertation about grief and loss, so believe me when I tell you that I snottily assumed that my own trajectory through the landscape of mourning would be poetic, deeply meaningful if wrought, and full of cleansing tears.

Yeah, that’s not what happened.

Instead, I floundered, bubble wrapped in a numb kind of desolation that was suddenly hardwired to any thought I had of my grandmother. I didn’t feel pain so much as an emptiness I still can’t describe, a yawning grey cavern where so much joy and color used to live. In many ways, that was far worse. Even now, when my oldest son passes pictures of my grandmother in our house, he talks about her by name as though she’ll just drop by at any moment for a cup of coffee. Some days, I kind of join him in peeking around the corners to catch a glimpse of her.

The evening after Helen died, all of us grandchildren went out to have an Irish wake. Giddy with exhaustion and an unfettered desire to do something rebellious in the face of death’s hard-core insistence on nuking our family unit, we sat at a small-t0wn night club drinking fish bowls full of fruit flavored alcohol. I twirled the pink paper umbrella between my fingers as I cheerfully gyrated around the floor to late-nineties slow jams, my face a rictus grin of disbelief and distance from the biological certainty of her death. My sweet friend, Laura Jane, who had tagged along perhaps for moral support, perhaps to drive–I was so traumatized I honestly can’t remember–kept asking me, “Honey, are you going to be alright? I think Helen would think this is hilarious, but are you going to be alright?”

And this, of course, is the pivotal question that you ask yourself after the doctor shakes her head at you, or the state trooper arrives at your door. Whatever grim harbinger of extinction shows up to let you know that your world has been blown apart…when that messenger has departed, you’re left to reflexively grab your chest and think to yourself, “Will I ever be alright?”

I think the answer to that question depends on what you believe the nature of loss to be. Do you expect to be fine in the same manner that you were before? Or do you suppose, as a very wise client of mine often says, “to have a new normal?” Can you accept that the raw power of the grief and the sheer magnitude of the love can hold the same space at the same time?

The death of my Aunt Sadie has intersected with several conversations I have been having with clients who have lost an important person. For some, this is a loss that happened years ago. For others, the cut is a fresh one. But they are all asking themselves if they’re doing this grief thing the right way. If they cry, when is the weeping too much or gone on too long? If they don’t cry, does that mean the anguish hasn’t really been felt and is instead lurking, waiting to spring?

Research about the nature of grieving in our country has discovered that we the people tend to gloss over the suffering of the loss in favor of honoring the brightness of the light that was extinguished, never admitting that we can do both at once. (Don’t even get me started about the newest DSM revision pathologizing grief responses even further.) Somehow, we have all become so very afraid of the power of mourning that we try to neutralize it under the auspices of “moving on” or “looking at the life not the death.” While I am all for making sense of sad situations in a positive manner, I think that can only be done with real authenticity when we have really honored the fact that coping with a loss is actual, confusing soul work. It’s ok to not know if you’re doing it right. It’s ok for it to be different from day-to-day. It’s ok for you to do the best you can without knowing what the end destination of “ok” looks like. Please be gentle with yourselves and know that your map for getting through this doesn’t have to look the same as anyone else’s.

So, I raise my glass to Aunt Sadie and Helen and all the wonderful people we have to thank for shaping our lives into a patchwork of love and connection. Know I am holding you in that heart space as well.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

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How to Build Your Imaginary Brain Trust Through Books

Have I ever mentioned that I’m a bibliophile? For me, learning to read was exactly like being given a free lifetime supply of the best, most potent psychedelic drugs known to humanity. If you’ve never hallucinated yourself into the pages of particularly vivid story or poem, then you have missed out of on the most basic pleasures of an intellectual life. Go read something right now–vampire novels or  superhero comics or someone’s diary. Don’t come back until you find writing that makes you forget time is a relevant metric.

When I look at my bookshelf or Audible library, I see a whole team of star players who can give me advice about whatever existential crisis the universe has dropped into my lap that day. If you don’t have a brain trust in real life that can help figure you out how to get out of your own way, there is always one available to you between the covers of a book. I, and other therapists and life coaches, are awesome resources. But let’s face it, we’re expensive guns hired by the hour to do very targeted work. Great books, particularly electronic ones that you can listen to while doing dishes, driving, nursing babies or making baba ghannouj allow for a pretty consistent immersive experience into life-changing big ideas. I look at it this way: change your background noise, change your life.

At some point, all of us feel stuck at best and trapped at worst. Who can draw a finer point on it than Rilke? He says, “For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth.”  I think all of us have that one corner of our intellectual/spiritual/emotional room that we keep pacing without appreciating the vastness of our choices. Seeing that you’ve gotten yourself into that corner is the first step to pacing the whole of the room.

So here, without further ado, are the books that have been most impactful for me this year. Some of them are explorations of social science that are salient to my career as a therapist. Others are volumes of poetry or essays that are salient to my life as a human.

  1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  2. Cape, Spandex, Briefcase: Leadership Lessons from Superheros by Dave Kahn
  3. No Mud No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Nhat Hahn
  4. You are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero
  5. We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider
  6. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
  7. Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All by Russell Simmons
  8. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
  9. The Motivation Manifesto by Brendan Burchard
  10. Tribes by Seth Godin
  11. Build the Fort by Chris Heivly
  12. The Pleasures of the Damned by Charles Bukowski (Skip this one if you don’t like both poetry and salty language. But, I got so much enjoyment out of it that I included it anyway.)
  13. The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron, Ph.D.
  14.  The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
  15. Mindset by Carol Dweck
  16. F*uck Feelings by Michael Bennett MD and Sarah Bennet (Written by a Harvard Shrink and his comedy-writer daughter–legit, I promise.)
  17. Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality by Thomas Lynch
  18. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
  19. What I’ve Learned: The Meaning of Life According to 65 Artists, Athletes, Leaders and Legends complied by Esquire Magazine
  20. The Power of Ambition by Jim Rohn
  21. Presence by Amy Cuddy
  22. Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabbat-Zinn
  23. Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabbat-Zinn

What books are making waves in your mind at the moment? Why don’t you come on in so that we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

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On Having a Good Cry and a Great 2016

When was the last time you had a really good cry? You know the ones that make you feel a little wrung out inside…slightly weary and perhaps kind of light-headed?

I’m an exceptionally easy crier. I cry when I am too happy, too miserable or too anything at all (for which I seem to have a low threshold). I cry at those diaper commercials with the brand new babies air nursing in their sleep and at the ones with Sarah McLachlan balefully yodeling over sad pictures of pound puppies. I cried when I got married and my children were born and my dad told me he was going to retire. I cried because my wonderful friend, Katrin, did an amazing fund raiser for Syrian refugees and then I cried thinking of the plight of Syrian refugees. Today, I cried because my wonderful ophthalmologist, who never minds when I cry during my appointments, is moving to New Jersey. It was a double cry fest up in his office today.

I think this particular quirk of mine is a foundational explanation for why I am so comfortable doing a job in which most of my day is spent with crying people. Usually, the most immediate thing a new client does when crying in front of me for the first time is apologize. And, I tell them that it’s alright–because it really is alright. Being with someone while they cry is a sacred thing. I am always grateful for the opportunity to be present in those sessions. The intersection of the sometimes terrible now with the desperate hope for a different, better future is powerful–even if it comes dressed up as tears.

I hope that as 2016 gets underway we all work to be more in touch with our emotions rather than less. I hope we stop feeling ashamed of genuine displays of feelings and instead find constructive, meaningful ways to roar them out to the world like the badass lions we all are. And mostly, I hope we support one another in shows of vulnerability and honesty because those are the cornerstones of emotional health and spiritual flexibility.

Would you like to make this year the one in which your accelerated evolution brings you to happy tears? Are you ready to transform into the person you deserve to be? Why don’t you come on in so we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

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Surviving the Holidays: A Treatise on Rockwell, Wine and Service

The tinsel is up and the tree is trimmed. And, as usual, I have done precisely none of my Christmas shopping. I’m not sure what happens exactly. Is it the rush of holiday parties and end of year business responsibilities? Or, is this just me shirking the equivalent of grownup homework? The world may never know. But, the net result seems to be that I am the biggest bah humbug out on the stroll today. The one and only thing I took pleasure in shopping for is a set of those funky reindeer antlers that attach to your car. And, wouldn’t you know I couldn’t find them? So, if you know where I can get them, drop me a line. Bastian tells me we would prefer the ones with lights.

Do the holidays bring out the best in you? Are you cheerfully blazing a trail through Pinterest making pretzel nativity scenes or quietly dreading the complex warfare that family visits can invite? Probably, we’re all doing a bit of both. And, I’m here to tell you that it’s alright. Yes, gentle reader, nobody is a warm, sweet cup of hot cocoa every minute of the season. Sometimes, you’re the fruitcake in the corner. Here’s a few tips to make it through the festivities, be they tame or tumultuous:

1) Everyone’s Families are Mixed Nuts: When I was a kid, my grandmother Helen had a set of plates with Norman Rockwell paintings on them that she pulled out for every Christmas. Washing them at the sink after the meals, I often pictured Rockewell himself living out each of the idyllic scenes he painted. Turns out that his own childhood was not particularly happy and he often felt bullied and alone. Sad, right? But, he created that warmth he longed for through his work and you can have a hand in painting a happier life too. You are entitled to feel complex emotions about your family gatherings and to set boundaries around how and when you’ll interact with folks who make your life difficult.

2) Sneak Off: One of the most standard pieces of advice I give couples around the holidays (and all the time, really) is that you and your partner should sneak away to a hotel by yourselves. If your house is anything like mine, there are children, dogs and laundry underfoot all the time. Honestly, if you have on two matching socks right now you’re ahead of me. Priceline was made for folks who could do with a cheap bottle of wine and some clean sheets for a few hours. You know you’d spend about the same amount at dinner eating that crappy blooming onion monstrosity anyway. You don’t have to stay all night to have a great time and the babysitter won’t know the difference. You deserve it, your partner deserves it and you can leave the hotel maid any wine you don’t finish.

3) Serve as a Family: One of the best gifts you can give your kiddos and yourself is to take a break from shopping for the latest electronic wizardry and help others. There are a million ways you can serve both in person and with your pocketbook. Sing carols to the elderly, bring cookies to your kid’s school, pick an angel off the angel tree and buy gifts or serve at your local homeless shelter. Remind yourself that you are not only an awesome person, but also one who is connected to his/her community via bonds of compassion and love.

Do you have some pre-holiday jitters you’d like to work out? Do you know where I can buy my automobile reindeer antlers? Why don’t you come on in so we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

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