Appreciating Clouds: Year-Round Gratitude

Listening to the radio the other day I heard a man describe an organization he created called “The Cloud Appreciation Society” (Listen to this TED Radio Talk Here.)  He told about how he and a small group of people often took time to stop and admire clouds in all their billowy, feathery, transitory beauty.  That simple act brought them greater well-being and contentment. This reminded me of how taking stock of beauty, love, purpose and process can be a powerful anti-depressant. It is noticing that is the catalyst.

We don’t need to have material wealth to be thankful. In fact, after our basic needs for warmth, food and safety are met, more possessions usually don’t make much difference in overall happiness, according to folks who research such things. It is instead, the quality of our relationships and our ability to focus on the sweetness and beauty in life that determines mood and thus our sense of overall well-being. (Read about some of the research on gratitude here. )

But many of us only notice what is wrong. We may have a negative mental filter. This way of seeing the world and ourselves keeps out the positive and our attention stays on what is difficult, uncomfortable, anxiety provoking, or mistakes we or others have made. This keeps us locked in depression, anger, anxiety and fear.

One way to work with a negative mental filter is to pay attention to the clouds. In other words, look for and highlight the good things, the beautiful things, in your life. They can be simple. For example, whenever I go for a walk I think of how well my body still functions, how it moves me from point A to point B, and how much it has been through and yet keeps going.

Or it could be like yesterday, while waiting for my son in a grocery store parking lot. I watched the sun set in a burst of orange and gold striated clouds, and thought how lucky I was to catch those ribbons of color at a time when I had nothing else to do but drink it in.

When I step into a warm shower after a long, tiring day, I am grateful for the abundance of water I have at my disposal and how good it feels to stand under a warm cascade of it. And at night when I snuggle up against my partner’s body and hear the rhythm of his breathing, I notice how safe and how loved I feel and am filled with gratitude.

In this time of year, when we are asked to pause and celebrate Thanksgiving, it is also a good time to begin a year-round practice of gratitude. Being grateful on a regular basis just might change your life. Here are some ways to begin:

1. Be mindful. Notice what is happening around you and find something to appreciate. Really pay attention to all the details of what is happening, of what you see or what you are doing. Be in the present moment.

2. Keep a gratitude journal or list. Every day at the about the same time, take five minutes to write down what you are grateful for. You may be surprised at the power of this one small change in shifting your mood and outlook.

3. Say thank you. Express your gratitude to people you care about. Do it in writing, in person, by text. Catch your children being good. Catch yourself being good.

4. Share some of what is good in your life. If it is possible for you to write a check to an organization you believe in, do it. If not, find some other way to be generous. When we share, we feel more prosperous and sharing highlights the abundance in our lives whether it be money, time, talent or skill.

5. Make a choice to notice the positive in people around you. Yes, that irritating thing your friend or co-worker, or partner does will still be there, but what about the way he always wishes you a good day, or how she knows when to give you space and when to offer a hug. Pay more attention to those kinds of things.  Pay more attention to the clouds.

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Cloud Watching.

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Happy Holidays? Surviving and Even Thriving in the Dark Times

The winter holidays come in the midst of ever darkening days when long afternoon shadows and cold winds seem to whip up feelings and memories along with the shaggy leaves. The weather and the short, dark days reflect for many of us a season not of joy and celebration, but instead, a time filled with disappointment and even despair.

What is it about the holiday season that can be so challenging? And, what can we do to weather it with greater peace and even a bit of joy? Read on for ideas about the origins of our misery and steps we can take to survive and, yes, even thrive, this time of year.

Expectations
Happy smiling faces, a perfectly set table, children dressed in red sweaters, a sparkling tree with presents stacked high, friends and family sharing eggnog under the mistletoe. These and many more are the mythological images we are bombarded with at the holidays. The message: This is what it should look like. Yours doesn’t? There must be something wrong with you.

For many of us, our families, homes, finances and even our cooking, are not perfect, far from it. But, we often long for the mythological holiday, that has probably never really existed. Instead, our reality could be loneliness, loved ones lost to death, dysfunction or distance. We may be unable to afford presents or a tree, or are afraid of Uncle Bob’s tirade after too much eggnog. Comparing our situation in all its gritty reality to the mythological images in the media can be disheartening and thrust us into melancholy. Those pretty images can prime us with unrealistic expectations that are a set-up for feelings of failure and disappointment.

It has been said expectations are premeditated resentments. This is especially true during this time of year. Work to minimize expectations, and make those you have realistic. Create back up plans to call on when things fall through (which they will), and don’t rely on others to make your holidays special. Take control of the things you can and let go of the rest.

Celebrate Meaning
Whatever holiday you choose to celebrate, take time to reflect on the essential meaning it holds for you. Are you just going through the motions because that is what you’ve always done, or what others expect of you? Or, are you in touch with and honoring beliefs or traditions that have meaning? How can you make that meaning more a part of the celebration? What could you eliminate that does not seem to be consistent with meaning? What could you add that would make this time more meaningful and memorable?

Invest in Moments Instead of Things
For many of us, this time of year is full of high stress and harried schedules when there never seems to be enough time, energy or money. And while we are rushing around trying to create a perfect holiday experience, we often miss out on the very thing that could build relationships, positive memories and create well-being. We miss out on the moment happening right now.

It can help to slow things down, and when we limit our expectations, that happens more naturally. Take time to really be with loved ones. Listen. Laugh. Be in the silence. Breathe. Look around and find the beauty in whatever is. Count your blessings. Consider how you can create more opportunities for connection and relationship building.

What most of us really want is more love and attention, not more stuff. This goes double for kids, regardless of what they might say.

Create New Traditions
It can be painful when things change in our lives and cherished traditions are no longer viable. Divorce, relocation, death, estrangement or changes in finances can make upholding past traditions difficult. Make a decision to be flexible and creative. Create new traditions that fit current circumstances.

For example, one divorced mom decided that rather than argue with her ex over who had the kids at Thanksgiving, she would create a new way of celebrating gratitude. So, every year she held a harvest potluck and musical jam session two weeks before Thanksgiving. She invited all her friends and family and told her kids to do the same.

Eventually, this occasion grew into an annual event that took on great meaning for this family and the many people who participated over the years. They discovered that being with people they were grateful to have in their lives, eating, drinking and making music together, was a great way to honor gratitude and what day they did it, didn’t really matter that much. In fact, celebrating early meant they were able to share the experience with many people who otherwise would not be available. During the Thanksgiving holiday itself, this mom treated herself to a day of reading and relaxation while her children celebrated with their father. It was a win for all concerned.

Opt Out
Can’t find meaning in the holiday? Not sure why you’re doing it all? Sick and tired of the commercialization? Do what another family did and opt out. They decided together when the children were 7 and 10 they would spend their Christmas budget on travel instead of presents. They held a meeting each summer to decide where they would go and what they’d like to do and see. The kids were involved in planning and research. Together they made many wonderful memories on their holiday get-aways and never felt deprived.

Acts of Service
Another way to opt out is to make the holidays about service to others. This can create more meaning both for us and for those we serve. And, serving others often is an excellent remedy for the holiday blues. You might choose to buy a gift for a needy child, serve food at a homeless shelter or walk dogs at the Humane Society while other volunteers spend time with their family. Or maybe you just bake a pie and leave it on your neighbor’s doorstep (even if you don’t like him much).  They are many ways to help and they all get us out of ourselves and into meaning.

Self-Care
If you are rushing around, eating lots of sweets, not taking time to exercise, drinking more alcohol, worrying about how you will pay the credit card bill, and staying up late to wrap gifts or put together bikes, it can be a recipe for irritability, illness, anxiety and conflict. Now is the time to increase self-care strategies rather than letting them fall away. Get enough rest. Eat your veggies and be careful about alcohol consumption. Monitor your thoughts for negative self-talk and keep within your budget. And, remember, it will all be over soon.

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Listening Skills for the Brave and Passionate: Taking it to the Next Level

The last few blog posts have been all about listening; what gets in the way, why listening is important and how listening well can enhance our relationships. So, if you have read and practiced the skills presented so far, now is your chance to take it to the next level by learning the components of effective listening.

There are four basic steps. They are, encouraging, restating, reflecting and summarizing. Though these are presented as steps and it is good to learn and practice them this way, in reality, the steps get all mixed together like a delicious fruit salad when you are really in the listening groove.

Encouraging

Purpose: To convey interest

How to do it:
• Maintain gentle eye contact
• Lean forward
• Smile, nod, line up your body so you are facing the person speaking
• Use a positive tone of voice

What to say:
• I’d like to hear about it…
• Would you like to talk about it?
• I’d be interested in your point of view…
• Sounds like you have something to say about this…
• How do you feel about that?
• Tell me the whole story…
• I see…
• Uh-huh…
• That’s interesting…
• Then what happened…

Restating

Purpose: To show that you are listening and understanding. To let the speaker know you grasp the facts and to build rapport.

How to do it:
• Restate the speakers basic ideas, in your own words, emphasizing facts.

What to say:
• If I understand, your idea is…
• In other words, your decision is…
• So when you came back to college you had a hard time finding child care, but this year it hasn’t been an issue for you. Is that right?

Reflecting

Purpose: To show you are listening and understanding how the speaker feels about the subject being discussed. Often you will need to take cues from voice tone, body language and facial expressions to uncover the emotions.

How to do it: Reflect the speaker’s basic feelings, using your own words. Identify emotions such as sad, angry, irritated, frustrated, happy, excited, relieved, etc. Be sure to confirm that you have gotten it right. Don’t assume you know how someone feels. Guess at their feelings, and then ask for confirmation.

What to say:
• You feel sad?
• So, you were pretty disturbed by what happened.
• Apparently, this has made you very happy. Is that right?

Summarizing

Purpose: To pull together important ideas, facts and feelings and establish a starting point for further discussion and to follow up with additional questions and clarification.

How to do it: restate, reflect and summarize the major ideas and feelings the speaker has expressed. Clarify facts and feelings.

What to say:
• These seem to be the key ideas you have discussed…
• If I understand you, you feel frustrated about the situation.
• Let me get this right, these are the events that occurred…. and you felt…. when these things took place. Is that correct?

So there you have it.  The four basics of good listening for the brave and passionate.  Remember, in a real conversation it is rarely this linear.  Instead you may start with encouraging, skip to reflecting feelings, go back to asking about the facts and restating them, reflect feelings again, summarize, encourage again, reflect and restate, reflect again, summarize, etc.

It is helpful to find someone to practice with.  Ask a friend or loved one if they are willing to have you listen to them tell a story about their day or a childhood memory.  This is a great way to hone your skills and give the gift of  being truly heard to someone you care about.  Happy listening!

Listening Practice

To learn and practice listening and communication skills in a class or one-on-one, contact Joann Lescher at Speaking from the Heart in Ashland, or for national and international trainings on non-violent communication visit The Center for Non-Violent Communication.

Books on Active Listening:

How to Listen So Kids Will Talk and Talk So Kids Will Listen By: Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

The Art of Active Listening:  How to Double Your Communication Skills in 30 Days By:Josh Gibson

Non-Violent Communication: The Language of Life By Marshall Rosenberg

 

 

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Listen Like You Mean it!

There is almost nothing better than when someone really listens to us and we get the sense that they understand exactly what we are saying and how we feel about it. The following skills will help you become a better listener and if you practice them, improve your relationships.

How to Listen Well:

  • Stop talking.
  • Clear your mind. One of the most common obstacles is what goes on in our own head when we are trying to listen. Instead of paying attention, we begin to think about what we will say next to defend ourselves, to make a point, or even to agree. Don’t do it! Focus on the other person and what they are saying and feeling. You don’t have to agree with someone to understand them.
  • Pay attention. Another common problem is distraction. It really isn’t possible to listen well with the TV on or your eyes locked on a cell phone.
  • Make time to listen. Sometimes important discussions should be scheduled. Don’t try to have a serious talk when you are hurried.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Lean forward. Show you are interested in what the other person is saying with your body language.
  • Check your assumptions. Ask the person you are listening to for clarification. Don’t assume you know what they mean. Get more details. Ask questions.
  • Restate in your own words what has been said and ask if you are getting it.
  • Guess at the feelings being expressed, even if the person hasn’t used any feeling words. You might say, “It sounds like you were frustrated with your boss today. Is that right?”
  • Empathize.
  • Be patient. Don’t finish sentences or jump in too soon. Some people pause for quite a while before continuing to speak. This can be particularly true when dealing with emotional topics.

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“What Most People Really Need is a Good Listening to…” Mary Lou Casey

Listening deeply is a skill that can improve our lives and relationships in profound ways. But most of us just don’t know how to do it. We don’t know how to communicate that we understand, not just the nuts and bolts of what is being said, but also the feelings and needs of the speaker. And this understanding is often all someone really wants.

Instead of listening to understand, we are often formulating our response, plotting our defense or thinking about how to solve the problem our friend, partner, child or colleague is discussing. This approach can create disconnection, anger and misunderstanding. On the other hand, listening well and communicating our understanding effectively can create intimacy, healing and compassion.

Below is a quiz to help you think about how you listen. The next blog post will outline simple ways to improve your listening skills and what gets in the way of listening well.

1. Do I listen to understand or am I getting ready to speak?

2. Do I look at the person when she/he speaks to me?

3. Do I allow the speaker to finish his/her thoughts without interrupting?

4. Do I keep my emotions in check when listening?

5. Do I ignore distractions such as the TV and phone when listening?

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Why Texting is Not Talking

If you own a cell phone and use it for texting, it has probably happened to you. One minute you are having what seems to be a perfectly calm, rational “discussion” via text, and then. . .your spouse, friend or colleague sends you 100 words of bitter outrage, that you never saw coming. The next thing you know, you have replied with your own diatribe and the two of you are locked in a text battle and you don’t even know how it started.

Chances are it began when the discussion changed from simple logistics or straight forward questions and answers like, “How about pizza for dinner?” or “What time are you picking up the kids?” to issues with emotional content. It is never a good idea to try to work through emotional issues, settle arguments, understand another’s feelings, communicate your own, or solve difficult problems through text communication. Why? Because three very important ingredients are missing from most text conversations:

1. Voice tone. With in-person communication, much meaning is derived from tone of voice and the volume you use to deliver the message. In text or email it is often difficult to discern tone. We may know when someone is YELLING. But by then it is often too late to salvage the conversation.

2. Body language. As with tone and volume, the cues we receive from body language are valuable tools of interpretation. Imagine you partner puts his/her arm around you and says, “You are always so worried about everything…lighten up, would you.” and then hugs you close. Now imagine getting those same words via text message. Without body language to shed light on your partner’s intention it could be easy to think she/he is criticizing you and respond negatively. An :) at the end of that sentence might help, but it could also seem flippant and insensitive.

3. Clarification. Another important aspect of an actual conversation, in real time and space, is that it offers the opportunity to clarify intention and meaning before responding. It is true that we can ask for clarification while texting, but it just doesn’t happen very often. Instead, we are usually crafting our response and pressing send with only an assumption about meaning to guide us.

Text messaging is a wonderful tool that can add to our efficiency and sense of connection. But used for the wrong kind of communication it can also be a wedge that creates anger and confusion. Use text for simple straight-forward communication. Save difficult conversations for in-person or over the phone. :-)

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Menopause: What’s it Good For? Part 2

An awareness of menopause as developmental, and interpretation of it as an opportunity for positive growth, are new ways of understanding this time in a woman’s life. In the recent past, “the change” has been described, mostly by male physicians, as a sad time of loss, in which women’s primary purpose, than of child bearing, was usurped. In this way of thinking, women’s usefulness was at an end when she could no longer conceive and bear children.

Menopause has been appropriated by the medical establishment and named a disease. The cause: Lack of estrogen. The cure: Treatment with hormone replacement. The very nature of this naming implies that a woman’s natural state is one in which she is fertile. This is a fallacy. The loss of estrogen from the system at perimenopause and menopause is as natural as the increase in estrogen at puberty. The fact that more women
live to experience this transition, is a sign not of disease but of our success as a species and our use of modern medicine, in its proper place, as an intervention in or prevention of actual disease.

A woman at mid-life may well feel sick, but it is not due to waning estrogen levels. Instead, the sickness brought on by menopause may be one of divided loyalties fueled by society’s expectations and enculturation. She is torn between what society tells a woman she should want and what the secret part of her being, shored up by changes in the brain, truly longs for.

Christiane Northrup describes the conflict like this, “The woman in menopause known mythologically as the “crone”, finds herself at a crossroads of life, torn between the old way she always known and a new way she has just begun to dream of. A voice from the old way…begs her to stay in place – “Grow old with me, the best is yet to come.” But from the new path another voice beckons, imploring her to explore aspects of herself that have been dormant during her years of caring for, and focusing on, the needs of others.”

It is in this window in time in which a woman struggles with her direction, the meaning of her life up until menopause, and the way she wishes to live going forward, that a therapist can be a witness and guide in her unfolding. It is through understanding this period as a developmental stage just as natural as the transition from baby to toddler or child to adolescent, that the informed therapist will be able to educate the client about this period and offer ways to examine past choices and future opportunities in a supportive and non-judgmental way. The informed therapist can also help navigate the still salient societal prejudice against middle aged and old women.

Menopause can be, given the support and knowledge necessary, a time of power and a consolidation of wisdom and skills, which offers women the ability to be a generative force in society.

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Menopause: What’s it Good For?

The Possibility of Reinvention

Women have an inherent passage at mid-life that is often the harbinger of reinvention: menopause. It is through this biological, social and neurological stage of development that many women redefine their identity, reorganize their priorities and become
powerful creators in the world. Because women now have many more years to live and to adjust their lives going forward, in menopause, they often first reevaluate and
consider the path they have trod. Then, with new insight and understanding of themselves and fueled by physical changes, including adjustment of hormones that affect mood and behavior, they embark on a new era of generativity.

Christiane Northrup puts it this way in her seminal work, The Wisdom of Menopause, “Throughout most of human history, the vast majority of women died before menopause; for those who survived, menopause was experienced as a signpost of an imminent and inevitable physical decline. But today, with a woman’s life expectancy averaging between seventy-eight and eighty-four years, it is reasonable to expect that she will not only live thirty to forty years beyond menopause, but be vibrant, sharp and influential as well.”

The Brain Re-Wired
Part of what happens in menopause is a powerful rewiring of the brain and nervous system. For many women focus shifts away from child bearing, from care-giving, and begins to bend towards their own, perhaps long buried, longings, dreams and interests. Northrop puts it this way, “Research into the physiological changes taking place in the perimenopausal woman is revealing that, in addition to the hormonal shift that means an end to childbearing, our bodies – and specifically, our nervous system – are being, quite literally, rewired…menopause is an exciting developmental stage – one that, when participated in consciously, holds enormous promise for transforming and healing our bodies, minds and spirits at the deepest levels.”

Regret as Fuel for the Journey
Many women describe menopause as a time of regret. Youth and vitality seem to be slipping away. Choices made have foreclosed many others: The education not pursued, the relationship lost or damaged, the journeys not taken. There are so many things we haven’t done, or said or experienced. But, regret can serve as both a road map for the second half of life as well as the fuel to move us forward.

The trick in using regret as fuel, rather than allowing it to depress us, is to grieve the past, forgive the younger you who did the best she knew how, and then reclaim or discover for the first time what is meaningful, what you are passionate about, what feels like adventure and challenge, and how you can re-jigger your life to include those.

Look for next week’s blog when we will continue to explore reinvention in the second half of life.

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Why a Broken Heart Feels Like a Punch in the Gut and What to Do About It

Everyone has been there. A relationship ends, whether through divorce, death, distance or calculated decision, and we are in pain. It hurts. We feel as if our heart was being ruthlessly squeezed and our guts twisted and flayed. Or, there is a sense of stabbing pain in the chest or stomach. And, if we didn’t know better we’d think we were coming down with something, because our whole body hurts, and all we want to do is lie down. This is heartbreak.

A broken heart, feeling hurt by rejection or lovesick for someone out of reach, have long been considered simply metaphors. But today researchers are beginning to discover that physical and emotional pain look an awful lot alike neurologically. It seems our brain doesn’t know the difference between an actual stab in the back or a symbolic one. The same areas of the brain “light up” when we experience both physical and emotional pain.

There also seem to be specific areas of the body connected to specific kinds of emotional pain. And as you might imagine the heart is where we feel the loss of a loved one most severely. The opposite is also true. When we are in the presence of a safe, nurturing loved one, the heart and chest are more relaxed, and breathing and heart rate are slowed, in what is called vagal-parasympathetic activation.  It is the feeling of well-being and comfort we experience when we are with those we love.

So what do we do when we face the inevitable heartache? Here are some simple guidelines to help you through the pain.

1. Be gentle with yourself. Accept that you may need extra sleep, support and nourishing food during this time

2. Get more social support. We are wired for connection with others. Find safe, nurturing people to help you through. Don’t isolate yourself.

3. Let yourself feel it. Some experts believe that if we do not express our painful emotions they may permanently affect our physiology and lead to chronic pain or other physical dysfunction. Journaling, talking to a safe person, counseling, support groups, art, music or physical endeavors may be ways to express and process your feelings. Remember that the only way out of grief is through it. Imagine a tunnel, in the middle it is dark, scary and lonely, but there is light ahead, and if you just keep moving you will reach it.

Winterspring Center for Loss and Grief

Read more about it

Read even more about it

 

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Top Ten Reasons Why Trying to Solve Other People’s Problems is a Bad Idea

1. We don’t really know what is best for someone else. Often a person’s greatest growth comes from struggle and pain. If we fix things for those we love, we rob them of the opportunity to meet life’s difficulties and learn from them.

2. We don’t have control. Trying to fix other’s problems means we focus our energies on people and situations that we have little, if any, control over. We really only have control over our own choices and reactions.

3. They will become dependent. If we are successful in solving our loved one’s problems, we teach them to count on us, instead of themselves. We cripple them with the belief that they can’t do it on their own. They may come back again and again asking for, and then even demanding help.

4. They will resent us. Most adults resent being told how to live their lives. They may rebel, or become passive aggressive to avoid our suggestions, prodding, hints or overt demands.

5. It’s exhausting. Trying to run someone else’s life drains the energy we need to live our own life to the fullest. If we are always scheming and planning and manipulating to get people to do things the way we see fit, there is very little juice left for our own hopes, dreams and ambitions.

6. It makes us mean. The strain of trying to keep everything together for everyone eventually leaks out of us as anger and resentment. We may become reactive and say and do unreasonable things.

7. It takes a toll on our health. Trying to control others is extremely stressful and too much stress negatively affects many aspects of health and well-being.

8. Insomnia. Poor sleep is a common symptom of over-involvement in the lives of others.

9. We attract “users”. Those of us who come to care-taking and controlling naturally often attract people who can spot our soft hearts and ability to solve problems. These folks take advantage of us through manipulation, malingering and feigned helplessness.

10. It undermines equality in relationships. The person in control and the person they are trying to help are not on equal footing in the relationship. This is often a barrier to true intimacy.

Here is an anonymous poem that reminds us to let go…

Let Go

To let go does not mean to stop
caring. It means I can’t do it for
someone else.

To let go is not to cut myself
off, it’s the realization I can’t
control another.

To let go is not to enable, but
to allow learning from natural
consequences.

To let go is to admit
powerlessness,
which means the outcome
is not in my hands.

To let go is not to try to
change or blame another, it’s to
make the most of myself.

To let go is not to care for,
but to care about.

To let go is not to fix, but to
be supportive.

To let go is not to judge, but
to allow another to be a human being.

To let go is not to be in the
middle arranging all the outcomes,
but to allow others to affect their own destinies.

To let go is not to be
protective, it’s to permit another to
face reality.

To let go is not to criticize or
regulate anyone, but to try to become
what I dream I can be.

To let go is to fear less and to
LOVE MORE.

For help with codependency check out Al-Anon Family Groups or read Melody Beattie’s book, Codependent No More.

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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