Monday, February 14, 2011

Freedom From St. Shouldentine's Day

Feeling lonely today? Stressed out about being alone? Nervous about making the day "perfect" for someone else? Angry that your partner let you down?  Depressed that you are not with a significant other?

Then congratulations! You are one of the millions of Americans who have fallen prey to Valentine's Day "Shoulds."  Or, as I like to call it, "St. Shouldentine's Day." 

Every year, in the weeks prior to February 14th, the advertising industry starts pressing upon you that you "should" express your feelings for another person in a material way.  Candy, cards, jewelry, flowers, music, dinners, candles, I even saw an ad for KY lube this year! There is a constant influx of overt and insidious messages informing you that emotions should be measured in gifts, and if you're not measuring up, you are losing out. 

This frequently leads to stress and resentment in relationships.  The problem comes in when someone either doesn't have the money to spend on an expensive present, or doesn't know the "right" gift they "should" give.  When they "fail" to do the right thing, the partner often judges the person and their affection as inferior, and uses this single day to measure the quality of the relationship.  And, even if someone is able to give the "right" gift this year, then they are faced with the challenge of one-upping it next year.  See why the CEO's of Hallmark are sitting pretty?

If you're not in a relationship, forget about it.  Although being single is a very satisfying and peaceful choice for many, you are constantly confronted with oppressive messages that inform there is something inherently defective about you if you don't have someone by your side on February 14th.  Media and society cleverly instruct you that it is faulty to be on your own, and so you'd better spend a lot of money and time on finding someone to spend your time with (regardless of whether or not you actually like them and/or they treat your well).

Life doesn't have to be that hard.  There is an a much easier path to take today.  If you're in a relationship, communicate with your partner about ways to express affection that are consistent with your identity as a couple, which may or may not be consistent with society's "shoulds." If you are single, embrace the friends and family who contribute love to your life.  Try not to romanticize and idealize the experience of being in a relationship on Valentine's Day.  The grass is not always greener!

Remember, you can't control Valentine's Day, but you can control how you react to Valentine's Day.  You can remain an emotional servant to corporate America, or you and the loved ones around you can choose a healthier, more respectful, and more loving path.  I know which option I prefer, how about you?

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City. He specializes in issues related to addiction, bullying, caretaking fatigue, grief and loss, gay/lesbian issues, stress management, depression, as well as couples in non-traditional arrangements. He is the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To schedule a visit, email at

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tribute To Chris Bender

Chris Bender, October 16, 2000
On February 5, 2011, I lost a friend, an ally, a soul mate, named Christopher M. Bender.  Several kind people have wished condolences without knowing him or having any idea of who he was.  I'm hoping this column will offer a glimpse of the man and his meaning in this world. 

Many have to go through school and professional training to work in a healing profession.  Chris simply was a healer.  If you were one of the hundreds of clients he helped at Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs, or one of the thousands of patrons he served at The Timberline in Seattle, then you know how just one flash of that smile would make your entire day brighter, and gave you hope that tomorrow would be better. 

I had the chance to meet him first as a colleague at DAP.  I had recently moved to Palm Springs from San Francisco, where I had just experienced a long year of caretaking and bereavement for a loved one. Chris grilled me in the lunch room on my first day with questions such as, “Where are you from? Why don’t you have a boyfriend? What do you want to do five years from now? What music do you listen to...,” and immediately we bonded.  Chris was the perfect mellow-relaxed counterpart to my high-strung stressed-out energy at DAP.  He demonstrated to me how to balance productivity with breaths, country music, and staying “below the radar.” 

Then his partner Ricky began suffering dementia and was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  Because I had so recently been through a similar experience in San Francisco, we bonded as we shared the struggles, insights, and tears of witnessing a loved one decompensate.  That bond became the cement of a very intense and complicated relationship for the next eleven years.  It was a decade of his physical highs and lows, my move to New York, years where we talked every day, years where we talked not at all.  We traveled together, we bought property together, we watched hundreds of movies, and ate countless pieces of pizza.  We cried a lot. We laughed a lot. Often at the same time. 

During my last conversation with him a few weeks ago, he told me how excited he was to be taking on a new business project in Palm Springs.  His health was good, his energy was strong, and we planned for his first trip to New York this April for my birthday.  On February 4, he was admitted into the hospital with a fever.  On February 5th he died of Pneumocyctis Pneumonia (PCP) peacefully with two loving friends by his side. 

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  I have always believed in this, and I know Chris did too.  Pain is what we experience when we love other humans, live life fully and authentically, and make the most of every event and opportunity put in our path.  “Suffering” happens when we tell stories about that pain, such as, “This shouldn’t be happening, this is so bad, life is meaningless...” 

Chris Bender experienced great pain in his fifty-three years.  But not one day did he suffer.  He demonstrated how to handle loss with dignity, illness with grace, grief with resilience.  He taught me that we don’t have to make people and things “wrong” when life hurts.  He showed me how to embody healing, compassion, and hope for others.  He may no longer be physically with us, but I think we can all benefit from practicing these lessons. 

I remember one very specific talk we had about an afterlife.  He said, "When I die I want to go to long as I get to visit Hell on Saturday nights.”  If there is a Heaven, then I know he is there now with Ricky, and so many of the friends, family, and pets he loved and lost.  But come this Saturday night, watch out, Hell is going to never be the same again.
Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City. He specializes in issues related to addiction, bullying, caretaking fatigue, gay/lesbian issues, stress management, depression, and with couples in non-traditional arrangements. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To schedule a visit, email at