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Ask Julie: Mother-in-law Passed Away and Left Us $50,000 In Debt

Q: To start off I was best friends with my wife’s mother. She took me in and gave me a family. Within the last 2 years both my wife’s mother and grand father passed away. My wife and I lived with them before we got married.

We ended up getting married twice, once in a church and once in my mother in law’s room at the nursing home. She was 46 years old when she died and it happened this past march.

Since then I have found that we have tons of money to pay out in inheritance tax and to her medical bills if we want to keep our house. My wife has stopped doing anything around the house and she won’t go do any of the legal things that need to be done by her.

How can I get her more motivated without hurting her feelings and how can I keep my sanity though out all of this. I don’t really know what to do to get myself motivated to be happier.

A: I am so sorry to hear about your recent family losses and financial difficulties. You’ve both lost two important support people, and while they can’t be replaced, it important for you and your wife to get additional support during this difficult time. While grieving is different for every person, it seems that your wife’s grieving may have turned into depression. Her “lack of motivation” and difficulty functioning may not be something she can control at this point.  Your difficulty being happy is also concerning to me and I recommend that both of you get an assessment for depression by a mental health professional. I also want to encourage you to seek out a grief counselor to help you process your losses, and a grief group so you can talk with other families who are going through similar experiences. To find a therapist and a group in your area click here.

In addition to mental health support, please seek professional advice on your legal and financial matters surrounding your mother-in-law’s passing, if you haven’t already done so. Tax issues and liability for medical bills can be complex and very stressful.

Thank you again for writing.

Take good care of yourself!

Julie Hanks, LCSW

Ask Julie: Are Panic Attacks Part of Grieving?

Q: I recently lost my dad around Christmastime, so I know I am going through a grief process. One of the things that happened to me recently is when I heard of the Japan quake. Then looking at other news, it was about the supermoon. Then my mind was flooded with all these things in the world and I had a panic attack. I mean I was truly scared and normally I do not think of these things, it lasted maybe a day…all night and the next day . Is that from realizing my own mortality? In the death of my dad ? Or am I maybe just losing my mind … a little?

A: I am so sorry for your recent loss of your father. I don’t think you are losing your mind. The death of a parent is a huge life event and often brings a sense of your own mortality to the forefront and upsets your view of the world. It makes sense that after the loss of your father, the person who is often experienced as the “protector” in the family, you’d feel for a time that the world had become scarier and less safe.

Stressful situations, like the death of a parent, can sometimes precipitate anxiety. While panic attacks usually peak at about 10 minutes, it is possible to have clusters of them. Since you don’t mention specific symptoms I can’t be certain if it was a panic attack or another kind of anxiety disorder. I suggest that you seek out a mental health evaluation to determine whether or not you have developed an anxiety disorder and if so, to get treatment. Also, I highly suggest attending a grief support group. Hospitals,  hospices, and community clinics often host groups to help grieving family members find support by sharing their experiences with others who are going through similar losses.

Take good care of yourself!
Julie Hanks, LCSW

Ask Julie: Is My Fear And Worry Normal?

Q: Okay, I consistently have worry.  I try to make it go away by obsessing over my smallest worries.  Because “Murphy’s Law” somehow dictates to me that doing that would mean that whatever horror I think would happen, won’t.  Its started consuming me to a point where I flip out all the time.  Its affecting my work and my home life.  I want to stop but it’s like I am going down a waterslide, I can’t just stop.  I have no one who understands.  They keep telling me that I just need to stop worrying but its not that easy!  I honestly don’t know what to do.  I know its not “normal” but is it really that weird?  I just really need some advice on what to do.

A: Thank you for your excellent question. The short answer is “no.” It sounds to me like you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, which is something you just can’t “stop” or will away, no matter how hard you try. Since work and relationships are being negatively affected, I suggest that you get a mental health evaluation from a licensed mental health professional very soon. If you need help finding a therapist one in your area click here.

Since you haven’t given specific symptoms, it’s difficult for me to guess which anxiety disorder you’re most likely suffering from.  In addition to an evaluation and therapy, consider learning more about mindfulness practices to help you calm your thoughts. Since many people in your life don’t understand what you’re going through, seek people who do understand.  A local support group, group therapy, or online support groups like Psych Central Forums gives you access to people who know what it’s like to struggle with excessive worry.

Take good care of yourself!

Julie Hanks, LCSW

Ask Julie: I’m Not Happy. I Want To Be Rich And Famous!

Q: I just cant seem to be happy. I’m married and have a baby. I work, have a house, car, family and friends. but nothing pleases me. I want to be famous/rich/popular. When I was younger I wanted to be a actress/singer/writer/director but nothing became of it. I just seem can’t to please myself. I know I sound spoiled and selfish because I have been gifted and beautiful life, but nothing seems to make me happy. Please Help.

A: Please get a screening for depression from a mental health professional. Sometimes even mild depression can make a full life feel unfulfilling and empty. The good news is that depression is very treatable through psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

You may also want to consider pursuing additional creative outlets. Your dreams of expressing yourself through acting, producing, etc. may be a signal that you have some gifts in this area that deserve attention.  While becoming rich and famous is a rare occurrence, pursuing creative outlets can provide an emotional richness and joy to life that may be missing in your current life.  Look for opportunities in your community to do what you love in the creative arts and see if that boosts your enjoyment of your life.

I can relate from personal experience to the need to express and create. As a performing songwriter, when I feel an emptiness in my own life, I usually sit down at the piano, or pick up a guitar to discover more joy and meaning again. Please write back and let me know how your mental health screening goes, and share what opportunities you can find to express yourself creatively.

Take good care of yourself!

Julie Hanks, LCSW

Do You Suffer From “Christmas Perfectionism”?

If you already struggle with perfectionism, the holiday season can be particularly difficult for stress management. For one thing, there are often higher expectations, more on your to do list, and more people to please. So, whether you struggle with perfectionism when it comes to buying the “perfect” gift, decorating the house “perfectly”, sending out the “perfect” Christmas card with the best family picture (mailed the day after Thanksgiving), or whether your obsessed with what to make for Christmas Eve dinner. Never fear! Here are a few tips to help you take a step back and let go of holiday perfectionism.

1) Says who?

Perfectionists tend to have rules about how things should be.

  • Write down a list of a few of your Christmas “shoulds” that weigh you down.
  • What if you thought about every tradition, decoration, gift as optional, as something you get to choose to do or attend or buy, or not?
  • Add the question “says who” at the end and actually answer the question. For example, if my rule is “I should give a handmade neighbor gift to everyone on my street…says who?” my answer may be “Martha Stewart”
  • Ask yourself if you want to accept that rule or reject that rule. Read more

“Ask The Therapist” Live Facebook Event Dec. 21

The holiday season can bring out the best…and the worst in all of us, and in family relationships. Here’s your chance to get FREE advice to help you during the holidays and those cold winter months.

I’m excited to be participating in PsychCentral.com’s Ask the Therapist Live Facebook Q & A event with Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker. We will both be available to answer YOUR mental health and relationship questions on Wed. Dec. 21st at 5:30-6:30PM MST in real-time in our Ask The Therapist Facebook Group.

Click here for details

Send you question to PsychCentral’s Ask The Therapist column anytime here

Ask Julie: Can Adults Have Separation Anxiety?

Worried bride

Q: I’m 18, and I’ve been slightly dealing with Separation Anxiety throughout my childhood, I’ve never been to a psychologist or therapist for it to know that it officially is the disorder, but whomever I get close to, I get upset and have a fear of being alone, if they die or if I die, or if they leave and forget all about, etc. I’ve been in a relationship with my girlfriend for about 5 months now, and I fear that my childhood Separation Anxiety has turned into Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder, because, recently, for weeks on end, every single night, as if on cue, I get overly-upset and cry, and have wandering thoughts of loneliness and death surge through my head. And, last night, I made myself sick because of it and ended up vomiting and was shaking uncontrollably, and I was dizzy and had a terrible headache. And it’s always because I miss all of my close friends and my girlfriend and have a fear that she will leave me or she will die, and leave me all alone in this world, and she will be moving soon, and I fear that I won’t know how to cope enough and will have worse anxiety attacks. Could you help, please? I’m in desperate need of some advice on this subject.

A: Click on the arrow below to hear my response…

Play

Podcast: Play in new window

Here are a few additional anxiety resources on Psych Central:

Find a Therapist Here
Information on Psychotherapy for Anxiety Disorders
Psych Central Community Forum for Anxiety, Panic, & Phobia

Take good care of yourself!

Julie Hanks, LCSW

Originally appeared in my PsychCentral.com column

Creative Commons License

photo credit: spaceodissey

Ask Julie: Is My Face Twitching Caused By Anxiety?

Q: Sometimes, when I am in front of a group of people, my face starts to twitch.

For example, today I did a presentation in front of my class and my face began to twitch. When I pursed my lips, it stopped.

I’m not sure if other people can see, though — no one looked at me strangely or anything when my face twitched. I think this may be due to a subconscious anxiety or something, because I don’t actually feel afraid. So, my question is, how do I get rid of this?

Should I try some relaxation or breathing exercises before presentations? Any suggestions are appreciated.

A: Facial twitching can be influenced by many factors including stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, caffeine, and other serious medical conditions.

Even though you weren’t afraid, your body may be simply responding to the stress of presenting in front of a group. Before your next presentation make sure you’re well prepared, have enough sleep, avoid caffeine and try deep breathing exercises. Meditation or yoga may also be beneficial. If the twitching continues, consult with your physician to rule out other medical conditions.

Take good care of yourself.

Julie Hanks, LCSW

This post originally appeared in my Psych Central Ask the Therapist column

Self & relationship expert Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW is wife of 22 years and mother of 4, a licensed therapist, a popular media contributor, and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. Listen to Julie’s podcast You and Yours , on B98.7 radio as the Bee’s Family Counselor, and read her national advice columns on Psych Central! and Latter-day Woman Magazine

Pack Rats-Why We Hold On To Stuff & How To Let Go: Studio 5

Is your stuff taking over your house? Find out how to tap into the emotions that keep you from letting go and de-clutter your life.

Studio 5 Contributor and therapist, Julie Hanks, explains why we hang on to stuff and how to let it go.

In recent years shows about home organization have cropped up on just about every network. From the Style Network’s Clean House, A&E’s Hoarders, to HGTV’s Mission: Organization, we are obsessed with people and their “stuff”; with watching self-proclaimed “pack rats” learning to de-clutter and transform their homes and their lives.

Just like excessive clutter and collectibles can get out of control, an excessive focus on cleanliness and order can become problematic. I call this end of the spectrum the “neat freaks”. In April Women’s Health Magazine I was interviewed for an article called “Worried Sick” about a woman’s story of becoming obsessed with cleaning and detoxifying her home. Read the article online.

Why We Hold On To Stuff

Perfectionism

Believe it or not, just like neat freaks, pack rats are often perfectionist, too. But, instead of wanting a perfectly organized bookshelf, a toxin free home, or uniformed stripes on the vacuumed carpet, “pack rats” are paralyzed by not being able “to do it all” says Judith Kohlberg, author of Conquering Chronic Disorganization (source). Messy folks tend to feel overwhelmed by deciding what to keep and what to let go of, so they put the decision on the shelf, literally.

Solution: Decide On the Spot

Remember, there is no “wrong” choice. Too often small decisions feel like moral issues when they are merely preferences or benign choices. Dr. Gerald Nestadt Director of Johns Hopkins Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic suggests that when you pick something up is the time to decide its fate. Either put it in its place or throw it away (source). This is a means of preventing unnecessary clutter from ever entering the house.

My kids bring stacks of papers home each week and I frequently move the same piles of papers to several different locations around the house for months. But since working on this segment, I’ve actually tried to decide the fate of each paper the moment I touch it and it works! My kitchen counter isn’t cluttered with various piles of school papers. The things I decide to keep are stacked in a cute basket on the counter.

Solution: Face Your Fears

Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that can happen if I throw this paper away or if you donate this piece of furniture? Is your fear that you might regret it? Is it that someone may be upset with you? That may have to pay to replace it? My favorite question to ask myself is “Can I buy it back on Ebay if I change my mind? ”

Several years ago I worked with an overwhelmed client whose home was littered with piles of books, papers, clothes, and she felt unable to make decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. Her daughters didn’t want to have friends over because they were embarrassed of the clutter and chaos. My client’s family of origin didn’t have enough money to provide for my client’s needs or wants when she was a child. Through therapy she discovered that she was holding onto things because she was afraid of not having enough, like she felt as a child. Being surrounded by “stuff” gave her a sense of security that she and her family would always have more than enough. Through facing her fear of not having enough, and through grieving her early losses and unmet needs, my client was able to find the motivation to let go of much of the possessions she was clinging to.

Sentimentality

You may hold on to things as reminder of fond memories of the past, of close relationships, or of people who have passed on. Consider that the meaning isn’t in the object itself, but in the meaning you ascribe to that particular treasure. You have the power to change the meaning you give to an object.

Solution: Keep Just One

Holding onto boxes of every piece of art that your child draws doesn’t freeze time. Saving boxes of clothing from your great grandma’s closet that you’ll never wear won’t bring her back to life. So, hold on to one of the dresses or your child’s favorite drawing and let the rest go.

I recently posed the question on Facebook “What things do you collect and find it hard to let go of?”. The most common answer was “things that my children have made”. Art projects, papers and cards made by your children are precious gifts, but you don’t have to keep ALL of them. Try applying this rule and keep one per year.

Solution: Take a Photo

If there’s an item with particular meaning or special memory associated with it take a photo of it before you toss it, sell it, give it away, or donate it. Just because an item is associated with a special memory doesn’t mean that you have to keep the actual item.

This idea recently came up in a conversation with my mom, who collects vintage kitchen items. I asked her what it was about vintage kitchen items that were so sentimental. She described memories of her mother in the kitchen. The kitchen was the heart of my mother’s childhood home, and subsequently the kitchen was also the heart of my childhood home as my mom raised 9 siblings who are all grown. I suggested to my mom that she take photos of her favorite items and make a collage on her kitchen wall instead of cluttering up her home by keeping all of the actual items in her living space.

Frugality

“I might need it someday” or “I paid for this” aren’t necessarily good reasons to hold on to clutter things but are common reasons for doing so. While being frugal is an important trait for financial responsibility, it can become too much of a focus and lead to holding on to too much stuff. It’s crucial to balance financial concerns with the emotional and relational costs of having a disorganized or in extreme cases, a hazardous environment.

Solution: Toss It After 2 Years

You know those partially finished crafts that you bought, or those piles of fabric collecting dust, or that closet full of old clothes that you’re holding on to just in case you get to that size again, or those shelves of books you haven’t touched in over a decade? If you haven’t touched something for two years then maybe it’s time to let them go.

According to a recent survey on SmartShopper, the average woman owns about 17 pair of shoes. I own 17 multiplied by 7! I realized that my shoes represent being prepared for any event, and they represent that I have options in my life. I also realized that some are also attached to memories. So, I am challenging myself to give away the shoes I haven’t worn for 2 years.

Solution: Put People Before Things

If there’s no place for company to sit down because your couch is covered with collectibles, or your family is standing while eating dinner because the dinner table is covered with boxes of your treasures your are paying a high relational cost. If your stuff is taking priority over your relationships or starting to impact your sleep, work, and other parts of your life its time to take action and ask for professional help. If your piles of stuff put your family’s health at risk or create physical danger it’s time to seek professional help to understand the emotional and mental roots of you’re your relationship with your stuff.

In an A&E’s Hoarders episode a grown woman Darcy shares her pain about her mother choosing to live with “nameless faceless trash” first, and has distanced from her Mom. This extremely sad case illustrates how out of control things can become when you cling to things over people. Watch A&E’s Hoarders Episode 26.


Ask Julie: Do I Have Adult ADD?

Q: I’m a student receiving my Master’s degree. Within the past two years I’ve felt my body and mind change significantly in many ways.

I feel extremely anxious when doing tasks (even small ones like packing/unpacking a suitcase). This is the same with grocery shopping or attempting my homework. I then push everything aside and get nothing done. My habits of cleanliness such as my apartment have declined because I refuse to motivate myself to clean. I’ll find myself in the kitchen then in the bedroom for some reason the randomly in the bathroom, ultimately accomplishing nothing. I get distracted by TV a lot and it impedes my homework. I also feel pressured on what to do when I finish my masters and feel like I’m too lackadaisical to even search for jobs. My relationship with my boyfriend is also affected by this in that I’ll freak out on him, refuse sex, and find him at the mercy of which high or low I’ll be on. I’ll also find myself drinking and smoking cigarettes more often to avoid doing work or tasks. I feel like I have adult ADD due to these symptoms and have spoken with my mother, who revealed she believes she has it as well but was never properly diagnosed. I would like to know what to do and what would happen if I see a psychiatrist.

A: Next time you talk with your mom ask her if she recalls you having similar attention problems in elementary school.

While your symptoms do sound a lot like adult ADD, it’s important to determine whether you experienced these symptoms during childhood or whether they are new. If all of your symptoms are recent, it’s very unlikely that you have ADD. If they’ve been going on for years, it’s more likely that you have have ADD.

There are other possible explanations for your recent changes in your behavior and emotions. Depression or anxiety disorders often emerge in young adulthood and symptoms are similar to what you’re describing – difficulty concentrating, irritability, lack of motivation. ADD is often associated with other mental health conditions as well, so there may be a combination of issues that you’re struggling with.

Your idea about getting an evaluation by a psychiatrist is right on target! An evaluation will provide a clear diagnosis and suggest course of treatment to help you manage your symptoms. Your doctor will likely recommend medication or psychotherapy, or a combination of both.

If you’ve never had a psychiatric or mental health evaluation, it’s natural to be a little nervous because you have no idea what to expect. When you set up an appointment with a psychiatrist, he or she might give you some questionnaires to fill out before the appointment. During your appointment he or she will perform an in-depth interview with you. Medical or psychological testing may also be recommended. In addition to your evaluation and psychotherapy, you and your boyfriend may want to consider couples counseling to help repair any damage to your relationship.

You are in a stressful time of life full of transitions and important decisions – graduate school, serious relationships, career choices. These can be exciting and incredibly stressful. Make sure you’re taking care of your basic needs by getting adequate sleep, eating well, and engaging in regular recreation and exercise. No matter what your diagnosis, all of these lifestyle choices will help you manage your symptoms and will contribute to your overall health and happiness.

Take good care of yourself.

Julie Hanks, LCSW

This post originally appeared in my Psych Central Ask the Therapist column

Self & relationship expert Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW is wife of 22 years and mother of 4, a licensed therapist, a popular media contributor, and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. Listen to Julie’s podcast You and Yours , on B98.7 radio as the Bee’s Family Counselor, and read her national advice columns on Psych Central! and Latter-day Woman Magazine