Monday, July 31, 2017

Harry Potter’s Boggart and ERP Therapy

Two events in the past couple of years--a cluster of terrors in the news and my own motherhood genesis--have had me pulling out the stops when it comes to anxiety management. Stories of domestic terrorism and sex trafficking have horrified me, but the real fear has come from the accidents involving kids: the Cincinnati zoo fall, the Disney World alligator, and similar stories. Parents lose their kids in the store or airport hundreds of times a year, so I just don’t buy the notion that these tragedies would only happen to incompetent parents. Or rather, if the standard is perfection, we’re all incompetent parents.

One of the ways Michael has tried to help me manage anxiety about harm coming to my family is by suggesting bibliotherapy, and specifically, Harry Potter. He knows I love Harry Potter and have used it many times to deal with hard times--in fact, in the our household, the word “Aspirin” actually means the Harry Potter books. But in the case of anxiety, this is especially fitting: years ago, at another time in my life when anxiety was high, I sought counseling and I came across a therapy that Harry Potter is all about.

Exposure Response Prevention

It’s called Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). Basically, ERP boils down to the premise that when we avoid illogical fears, we fear it even more and fear-avoidance behaviors escalate. The Harry Potter series seems to share that premise, especially in its treatment of the boggart and Lord Voldemort’s name.

The Boggart as Anxiety

No one knows (except Mad Eye Moody) what a Boggart looks like while hidden in the closet or cupboard or chest, but in the open it appears as whatever a person most fears. The only way to get rid of it is to open the door, face the shape it takes, and finally dispel it using the incantation “riddikulus!” to force it into a shape inciting laughter.

When I first thought of the boggart as an irrational fear or phobia metaphor, I realized that I must not have been the first person to make that connection. And I wasn’t. Lots of people struggling with anxiety or OCD have thought of this magical “ghost in the closet.”

Like phobias, a boggart is:

  • Not real (more mental projection than anything)
  • Powerful despite not being real
  • Strengthened in power by attempts to fight what it represents (with the exception of Harry’s dementor) instead of fighting it as simply a shapeshifter.
    • So, if you try to chop off the snake’s head, that doesn’t make the snake go away and, presumably, your increased belief in the snake only makes the boggart stronger.
  • Can’t be beat with avoidance

Facing the Anxiety Boggart

Whether someone has a needle phobia, an OCD ritual (cleaning, confessing, counting), or a crippling social anxiety, the first step in getting rid of the boggart is to face what seems too terrifying to look at.

When the potential intolerable catastrophe has a physical threat, exposure means actually, physically coming into proximity with that threat. For those who fear needles, it might mean going to a blood drive and first looking at
  • unused, unopened needles
  • then, opened but unused needles
  • then, a trash can of used needles
  • then, a needle with drawn blood
  • then, a needle drawing blood
  • and eventually, perhaps, even giving blood.

When the threat is intangible, such as, say, the threat of your favorite store running out of ramen noodles, exposure can be done through imagination.

Imaginitive exposure involves intentional, attentive efforts to be “mentally” in the presence of a threat. Examples could include imagining or writing about impulsively hurting someone (keep in mind that someone is afraid of something because they don’t want it to happen--fear is not the same as ideation), or discussing with a therapist what it really would be like if one got in a car crash or ran out of ramen.

Exposure v. Catastrophizing

Imaginative exposure might sound like catastrophizing--that is, dwelling on the worst case scenarios--but it is ultimately a different process and has the opposite effects. The difference is that, in catastrophizing, we feel as though we are being “drug along” a terrible domino sequence that lead to utter chaos or hurt, and that is unbearable. In catastrophizing, we sense the potential for fear, sadness, or loss and do whatever we can to smother those feelings. Conversely, in imaginative exposure, we imagine the actual chaos and let ourselves feel the fear, loss, hurt and sadness, rather than trying to avoid feeling negative emotions. A person abides discomfort, and eventually that discomfort drops, because a body can only stay in a “fight or flight” mode for a limited period of time. Our values and priorities haven’t changed, but the possibility of ultimate ruin is a thought that we can experience with acceptance.

Dispelling the Boggart with Laughter

Now, the boggart goes a step further than ERP in its requirement of humor. Some therapists have certainly made this connection as well, but it isn’t core to exposure therapy.

I think this is brilliant. In joking about spiders and heights and our own inadequacy, we become less afraid. In fact, I used to be terrified of hurting my husband, because of his cerebral palsy--until I started pretending to accidentally step on his feet (affectionately, of course), and then profusely apologizing. He returned the favor, and it’s a habit we haven’t broken yet.

That said, as awesome as comedy is, it has its limits. Lupin didn’t want Harry to face the Boggart thinking it would form Voldemort, because how does Harry make the murderer of his parents humorous? Likewise, how could Molly have turned the images of her children, husband and Harry dead into a joke? Surely, it is cruel to expect people to respond to true trauma with humor, and cruel to consider them less well-adjusted if they don’t.

Fear of You-Know-Who

Humor may not have been the best way for Harry to deal with seeing Voldemort, the shape Lupin assumed Harry’s boggart would take, but the book doesn’t leave Harry
(or the rest of the wizarding world) without a choice. Most wizards and witches refuse to say the name Voldemort, but as Dumbledore says, “fear of a name only increases fear of a thing itself.” Or rather, avoiding even imaginative exposure increases fear. Some examples in our culture include avoiding saying that someone has died or admitting depression. You know that postpartum depression is truly something to fear when you feel bad calling it what it is.

Taking Fears One at a Time

I don’t think there’s any use creating more boggarts--for instance, at this point in my life I’m not going to go looking for scary stories about babies getting hurt and will instead be doing exposure to fears I already have thought about or been introduced to.  I’m not doing exposure by shoring up my heart with the news of every tragedy in my state or nation or beyond. But I can be forthright and front-facing to those fears that are present and that relate to my day to day life. I can resist the impulse to avoid things like going down the stairs while holding my son just because I’m afraid I might fall, or the impulse to refuse driving somewhere for fear of an accidence. I can acknowledge that painful experience is a possibility, one that I can’t control against. In the dark moments of anxiety, I can call my fears for what they are, and call my anxiety what it is. I wouldn’t have anxiety if I didn’t care. And, as Dumbledore says in not so few words, it’s awesome that I care.

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Behold the Ohio-est face I could come up with.

I remember staying at a home in Ohio where the towels were only red and black and the wallpaper was a watermark of the Ohio State logo. I also remember sitting in the backseat with my sister while getting a tour of the "horseshoe" (I think that's a stadium?) at Ohio state and chanting "M-I-C-H-I-G-A-N," also with my sister, and being told that we would be kicked out of the car if we continued.

Oh, also, at a July 4th parade, there was an ambulance pulling a stretcher with a Michigan fan dummy on it in between all the pretty floats.

Consider yourself warned.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Very Short Motivational Post

Sometimes, I lie in my bed and look up, so I can see how clean five of the sides of my room are.

I recommend doing this as often as possible.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


One night when I was pregnant with our baby, Michael came home rejuvenated from playing racquetball, excited to see me, and eager to bring the In-and-Out he got with his racquetball partner for the two of us to eat.

He knew that when he left to play racquetball, I had just started taking a nap.

He knew that when I take naps, I tend to be out for hours, that when I am wiped out, it takes me a long time to bounce back.

He knew that I wouldn’t really have the energy or the desire to make Spaghetti squash, the meal we had agreed on for the night.

He would tell me, an hour or so later, that he envisioned walking inside the apartment and finding me asleep in bed. I would wake up when he came in the room, realize I hadn’t started the spaghetti squash, and start apologizing—then, he would tell me that it was all okay and that he had dinner taken care of.

Michael did not know that although I was very wiped out, about an hour before I thought he would be home from racquetball I got out of bed, started the squash in the oven, and stayed up to clean and get some school work done.

He didn’t know that I had anticipated he would be home at least an hour before he arrived, and awake to know the difference.

He didn’t know that I had avoided eating anything except for a hard-boiled egg before he got home so that we could eat a full meal together. He had no idea that I had made a special pepperoni pasta sauce he favors. And he didn’t know that the only reason I had enough motivation to get out of bed and do all of that was because I knew it would be hard for him to wait another hour or more for dinner after playing racquetball.

Michael was ecstatic when he came home to me crying at the table with dinner ready. He was excited and happy because he was envisioning a moment where he could surprise me in just the perfect way. He was even so prepared for his vision that, having no keys, he rang the door bell right after knocking, something I don’t remember him ever doing and something he would only do if he suspected me asleep. And when he saw me there, crying, he was devastated—and although I was upset at him, he was far more upset at himself.

In the moment it felt raw, and it hurt. But now, I think of it and feel a sort of exhilaration that Michael and I could put so much into something for the other, and have it flop hard. I feel proud that we messed up so badly despite being well-meaning, and that messing up is part of our story. I feel that our friendship is alive, with all the hurts that can entail.

But the real point isn’t that couples need to communicate expectations so that hurts don’t happen. Rather, it’s that in marriage, those kinds of hurts will happen. A spouse will inevitably feel one inch tall sometimes, or feel hurt or neglected, or feel disappointed, or feel confused. Even when both partners are doing their very best and acting with their heart wholly given to their spouse and their marriage, hurts will happen. Even when the last thing either spouse wanted was to ruin the other’s night or make them feel small and faulty, that can happen. And, as far as setting expectations is concerned—expecting that makes all the difference.


Sorry Texas. You're a hard state to work with.

But really, everyone I know from Texas is pretty wonderful. Granted, that's like three people. But I've also heard about a waste-free grocery store in Texas, which is amazing, and I love the journal Iron Horse.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Life of a Slow Driver #1: Construction Zone

If I slow down to fifty, cars zoom past.

If I speed up I will get a double fine or maul some poor construction worker.

If I stay slow cars will keep honking at me and drivers will keep flipping me off and someone might rear end me.

Conclusion: don’t drive ever again.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

When You Look Like a Terrible Parent

I’m very glad that I don’t know how often I look as though I am being a terrible parent even when I’m not, because I think the social anxiety would kill me.

A few weeks ago I went to visit my brother and sister-in-law.

We were having breakfast.

In the course of this, my brother burst out “Mean Mama!”

I thought, perhaps, he was making a joke. Like, “Life is just so hard, having to eat toast for breakfast!”

He continued. “I saw that!”

He looked at my child. “Mama’s being mean, huh!”

At this point, I decided to give up the cool charade I try to present when I think people are making suave jokes that I should be getting.

I looked up. “What?”

My brother continued to address my child. “Mama is teasing you, huh? She keeps offering you food and then taking it away!”
“Umm, no,” I said, “I keep offering but this kiddo keeps on dodging my hand. So then I eat it.”

“Oh.” My brother stood there for a few seconds.

“Watch: Let’s try toast… no success. Now let’s try a bit of rice crispy… easy.”

I think he got it, but it was still a little awkward.

However, it could have been a much worse misunderstanding.

I would know.

Like on the day when I took my baby to campus in the middle of the snow.

It was blizzarding, so I decided the safest method to transport my baby was via a carseat strapped in a stroller. I had brought a snowsuit for my baby, but it wasn’t going to fit in the stroller, so I laid it on top of my baby as an extra blanket.

It looked vaguely like this:

I remember walking through the torrents of snow, in a very elated mood, alternating between cooing at my baby and looking at the snow and the other students around me. I definitely noticed that many students were giving me sidelong stares, some with more alarm than others, but I chalked it up to the fact that I was strollering my baby in the snow. Personally, I wasn’t worried; my baby was bundled up well and had the shelter of the car seat umbrella.

Eventually I made it to the right building and up four floors to my Professor’s office, where I knocked.

He opened.

“Come on in,” he said.

He paused.

“That looks dangerous.”

He pointed at the stroller.

I gave him a confused expression as I took the snow suit off of my baby and began to unbuckle the car seat.

“Oh! I thought that was the baby,” he said, pointing to the snowsuit.

It was a good reminder for me in seeing other parents doing things that seem a little crazy. Things aren’t always as they seem.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

It Gets Better (especially when you are at the beck and call of your brand new offspring)

Imagine walking into a room where a women is in labor. She is screaming and sobbing and shaking. You raise your eyebrows and say, "you know, it's just gonna get harder," and then walk out. Perhaps that would have been the better comic, but I'll leave it to your imagination.

It's absurd, and yet, if you are a new mom or dad, you might just have had an interaction like this. Like, fifty times. (Or if you're pregnant, which may well be harder than the insane demands of being a new parent).

If you are anything like me, this is one of the most soul crushing things you hear, and sometimes you just want someone to tell you that no, you aren’t crazy--caring for a newborn is a *ridiculous* amount of work, and eventually it will won't be so hard.

So let me tell you. It DOES get easier. Unless you have the easiest baby on the block and have been bestowed with superpowers, or unless you have a highly medically demanding child (and even often then, I have heard), it gets better.

Newborn babies are precious and magical and somehow have the telepathic ability that enables them to know exactly when you were about to eat dinner or use the restroom or watch a show and derail your plans, and sometimes you’ll probably be able to feel that awesomeness, but sometimes you absolutely won’t feel that way because you will be just so, so tired. And, as my dad says, some things will get harder. But many things will get easier.

Monday, July 10, 2017


Utah is possibly most infamous for its alternating hot flashes and cold sweats. Possibly it is experiencing menopause. In any case, the poor state is continually enduring the verbal abuse of its citizens because of this unfortunate condition. Any kind words and well wishes would be greatly appreciated.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Bit About Michael

Besides the fact that Michael practices law, is the chief stroller manager in our household, plays songs from The Secret Garden as well as devotional hymns on the piano, and majored in math and economics, here's what you need to know about Michael.

First: Racquetball.

Michael has probably played racquetball more times than you have seen a Progressive commercial.

When Michael has low blood sugar or makes a mistake at work, he wants to play racquetball. If he won the lottery, he would want to celebrate with racquetball.

When Michael thinks about Fatherhood experiences he is excited about, he thinks about going to Disneyland and playing racquetball.

If Michael planned the wedding receptions of his children, they might just happen in a racquetball court.

Second: The Addiction.

I remember vividly an early date with Michael.

We were watching A Beautiful Mind.

About halfway though, Michael paused the movie.

He turned at me, averting his eyes, and said, “you should know… I have an addiction.”

As someone who had spent hours sitting in addiction recovery meetings in my efforts to help a woman I knew overcome her addiction, and having seen really harmful effects of addictions in the lives of many I knew, I have to admit that this really worried me. For a moment, I froze.

He looked up at me, and said, “I’m addicted to chocolate milk.”

He still is.

(Mind, it would be a really insensitive thing to joke about if it weren’t for the fact that it really is an addiction. Seriously. So much of our monthly budget goes to chocolate milk that I could probably get Lasix in two years if we cut it out.)

Third: The Tree.

In Michael’s Junior year of college, he prepared for his roommates to move in by acquiring a potted tree from a neighboring apartment and kept it on the left side of the television in his apartment.

Michael watered the tree at least every week, and sometimes more, for two months. Unfortunately, this particular tree likely did not benefit from Michael’s diligence, as it was fake.

Now, you know more about Michael than his parents. (At least for a few minutes. We’ve never told them about his chocolate milk addiction, though we think they know.)

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Baby Snot Mustaches: A Catalog

In your time as a gainfully unemployed wardrobe and grooming manager for minors at their earliest stages of development, you will come across many confusing fashion statements.

However, amid the drool ties and pasta bowl hats and bubble beards and milk mustaches, nothing beats snot mustaches when it comes to variety and versatility, as these can come in all shapes, sizes and textures, and at any day or hour of the year.


The handlebar mustache leads the way in baby fashion as the primary staple. While other mustaches may have a short lifespan or take time to accumulate, this one is like a phoenix, rising again and again from the ashes.

You may find yourself seeing this when your baby is towards the end of a cold and just starting to have softer nasal discharge.

This particular configuration is also more likely to happen if you baby is a fan of licking their mucous off of their face or pulling at their stuffy noses, thereby dragging snot down along their upper lip and the corners of their cheeks.


The Charlie Chaplin 'stache may not present itself regularly unless your baby is sleeping or within a few months old, as this mustache requires a period of undisturbed snot buildup.

However, any attempts to remove this delicately poised mustache will almost certainly not result in a clean face and instead simply morph into an alternative snot mustache.


Snot sideburns may be especially common if your baby is prone to ear infections and tugging on their ears.

This may cause alarm in parents who fear that their baby is draining brain fluid from their ear canal, but rest assured that this is almost surely the result of fluid that has migrated from below the nostrils.

Should you come across the everywhere mustache in your endeavors, we wish you the best of luck.

As your little one may respond to any approaches you make involving aspirators or wipes with impressive acrobatics and sonic-booming screams, we recommend enlisting as many tag-team supervisors as you can and stocking up on peanut butter or chicken pot pies for your sanity.

Monday, July 3, 2017


Happy July 3rd, everyone!

I hope you are enjoying celebrating the dissolution of Idaho territory and creation of Idaho State in 1890 as much as I am!

Ode to Old Glasses

A few weeks ago I found a page that looked roughly like this in one of my old journals. Dearest Glasses, Fortunately you were bea...