Gingerbread Houses and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Thanksgiving is one of my hypomanic seasons. I'm getting better at not taking on projects that worry my wife. In fact, I have given up gingerbread houses altogether. Which is not to discourage you, just to acknowledge that they were once my one great weakness. That woman in the fringed dress down there? - Each bit of fringe was an individually placed sprinkle, separated out from a container of red, green, and white sprinkles. See what I mean?

But I did learn some things from my hypomanic gingerbread houses. And learning is good for the brain. The following post is a repeat from ten years ago, when I was in the throes of it. It explored the relationship between gingerbread and cognitive behavioral therapy. I am one of many who have a love/hate relationship with CBT, which I freely acknowledged to my CBT therapist in our first session. Nevertheless, she persisted, and I persisted, and I do rely on it daily and have written about it from a variety of angles. So here it is again, for those of you who want to explore CBT and also for those of you who want to know how to make a nine patch quilt out of fruit rollups:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - Gingerbread Style, 11-25-2010

First Cognitive Therapy Technique -- Distraction

My therapist said Think of something you might find enjoyable.  You don't have to do it.  You don't even have to enjoy it.  The goal is not to move your mood from 1 to 10.  Any mood change is a bonus.  The goal is simply to give you something else to think about [-- besides what I had been thinking about.]

Distraction is one of those really irritating CBT techniques.  I am traumatized and can't stop thinking about this.  Okay, so think about something else.  I pay money for this?

But my other therapist, totally different method, said pretty much the same thing.  And I was six weeks from a major project I had promised for the holiday season.  And I am not sure it would have worked except that the wheel was ready to turn from early autumn danger to late autumn hypomania.  But he did and it was.  So...

She said think about it.

I guess I overshot the mark.

Ya think?

To Diagnose Hypomania -- Pay Attention

I used to churn out 10-12 gingerbread houses each season, back in my undiagnosed days.  I used the Joy of Cooking recipe and floor plan.  But each and every one was one of a kind: a log cabin made of pretzel sticks and peanuts for the chimney, another with candy canes on the roof for a chalet effect... No, I wasn't manic.  I was excited...

It could be said I don't know when to quit.  So a simple suggestion, think about something you might enjoy instead of what you are thinking about right now, became a fourteen inch high, furnished gingerbread house.

See what I mean?  Once I decided to tile the kitchen floor with candy corn, I was gone.  Note the faucets for the aluminum kitchen sink.  And the handles on the refrigerator.  There is a fireplace hearth down there, made of a Milano cookie.  Even as I was installing these things, I knew I was out of control.  But I could not stop.

Here is a nine patch quilt, made from fruit rollups.  Plus a teddy bear on the pillows.  Should you decide to start quilting with fruit rollups, here are my methods.  Unroll them a few days in advance to dry a bit.  Don't overreach.  Let the materials tell you what they are willing to do.  Use liberal amounts of vegetable oil on your fingers and cutting utensils.  Keep the knife clean.  I recommend an exacto knife, under supervision if you have a problem with sharp objects.  Place your product between oiled sheets of cling wrap, then between sheets of paper.  Iron at LOW heat for five seconds.  Breathe.

I refer to this as my diagnosable gingerbread house.

By doubling the dimensions, I had introduced engineering issues.  I needed weight bearing walls.The closet was designed for that purpose.  I made a double wall facing the living room.  But I failed to double the wall with the door.  Two by twelve inches, it was the first piece to break.  The pretzel sticks inside the closet hold it together.

Metaphor Alert -- Community

If I were to get philosophical -- and while I bent over this project, holding my breath and waiting for icing to turn to cement, I had plenty of time -- I would reflect that sometimes things or people are created that do not have the structural integrity to withstand the pressures to which they will be submitted.  Nevertheless, they can get by with a little help from their friends, even friends that brittle themselves, like pretzel sticks.  This is the essence of support groups.  Get into one.

Some of us are not particularly unstable, but we collapse under pressures beyond normal experience.  If we don't have to bear the weight by ourselves, we can make still our own creative contribution to the whole.  The fireplace wall fell into three places.  Twice.  It stood, once it received a full back brace.  The brace is not flashy.  It is not even visible, covered by the outside of the fireplace.  But it is essential.

This is the essence of community.  Christians call it the Body of Christ.  If the house were all ribbon candy, how would it stand?  If the house were all support, what would cover the kitchen floor?

Anyway, diagnosable.  The roof also collapsed, the weight bearing walls notwithstanding, because I pushed too hard while attaching it.  Be gentle with yourself, my friends.  The stronger parts can injure the weaker.  Self-restraint is especially important where you are strong.

But we can learn from our mistakes, and turn them into more creative opportunities.  The roof went for snacks to a bible study group.  I replaced it with a lighter version.  And then I broke one side again.  This time I finally listened to my spouse, and put up just half a roof, so people could look in on that nine patch quilt.  None of us has all the answers.  And sometimes irritating advice is good advice.

Even if it is irritating.

Another Cognitive Therapy Technique -- Dialectical Thinking 

Even in the midst of this craziness, I kept aiming at sanity.  My mantra was Prototype, prototype.  The point of a prototype is to make as many mistakes as possible, in order to learn, and not make the same mistakes while doing the real thing.

I was making a lot of mistakes.  Boy, was I learning.

Dialectical thinking means that life is not divided into black and white.  One can hold a painful thought and a positive one in the same brain at the same time.  That and valium got me through.

I learned not to use a double barrel aged single malt scotch as a brace to hold up a wall while assembling, like the soup cans above.  The bottle was missing only as much as is pictured here before I made that particular mistake.  Sigh.

After mopping up the nearly full bottle of scotch and as much shattered glass as I could find, it was time, it was time to stop working on the prototype.  Well, after I built the fire in the fireplace.

Two hot tamales, cut on the bias, a couple little pretzel sticks and a sprinkling of ribbon candy crumbs.  The back of the fireplace is the inside of a mint Milano with the white frosting scraped off.

Like I said, diagnosable.

It wasn't finished.  It still isn't finished.  But the time for prototype was at an end.  The time for the real deal had begun.

To be continued...

all photos of gingerbread houses by Helen Keefe 
photo of scotch by Suat Eman

Ritual, Stress, and Surviving a Pandemic Thanksgiving

Human beings are pattern-seeking creatures. Place us in an absurd situation, we feel stress. We respond by ritual behavior, or clinging to biases, or even inventing an explanation. Does this sound like anything happening around you for the last several months?

Some of these responses serve us better than others. Biases preserve energy by saving us the time it takes to make case by case evaluations. But they also can be mistaken and rob us of original insights.

Invented explanations are how we manage the terror of acknowledging any bad thing that is out of our understanding or control. Why did Daddy hit me--again? Who is to blame for all these fires lately? How could my candidate have lost? We tell ourselves a story that makes sense of the event, relieving the pain of uncertainty, and thus gaining control over our emotions.

Ritual behavior has been found to reduce the stress of absurd situations. Rituals here can be anything, repeated actions whether checking the doors at the end of the day, knitting (for heaven's sake!), saying the rosary or other mantras, or social gatherings with predictable patterns like sports events or family dinners.

Oh dear. Here comes Thanksgiving Day, with its predictable guest list, predictable menu, predictable behaviors. Even the arguments create a sense of normality, they are so predictable. Rituals, every one. And while we might have dreaded some of these things in years past, will this year's quarantine mean we will be denied even the ritual dread?

In the United States, responsibility for managing a worldwide pandemic has been fobbed off on state governors, which seems to me to be above their pay grade, but it is what it is. So how this year's event may or may not resemble last year's will vary across state lines and local willingness to follow executive orders. In Iowa - good luck even figuring out what those orders are. In Oregon - no more than two households may gather in one room, with no more than six people. Our family's Thanksgiving includes six people, but four households. So we will be making some changes.

Under the circumstances, our strategy is to control what we can control and reenact what rituals we can reenact. So Darryl will pour drinks, at least at his house. Margaret will try a new recipe - the specific recipe is not a tradition, but that Margaret will try something new is as predictable as Thursday. Helen will make the pies. And I will pour a glass of white wine as the first step of making the giblet gravy, with a mix on hand in case of disaster, but there never has been a disaster, so Helen will question why I buy the mix, just like she does, and I do, every year.

We'll have a bit of novelty, but even that will have a ritual aspect. While I am making gravy, Helen will take a pie over to Margaret's and come home with Margaret's Brussel sprouts, because Helen always makes the pie and Margaret always makes the sprouts. If we time it right, maybe we will synchronize the sitting down to eat, with Darryl saying grace over Zoom.

I think we can manage it. And next year, God willing and the people cooperating, we will return to the original pattern, and close the day with hugs all around, having given thanks that we are all still alive to give them.

I pray you will be too.

We can do this. Happy Thanksgiving!

gifs from

Between Stimulus and Response

I went searching for a Viktor Frankl quote. Mental health pro-tip: When desperate, Google "Viktor Frankl quotes." I mean, how does even the most desperate, darkest depression argue with a Holocaust survivor?

Here is what I found:

Okay, I confess, when you put an inspirational quote on top of a beautiful peaceful scene, it loses its inspirational value for me. That's just the way my brain works.

So I'd make my own image if I were inclined to that sort of thing, like if I were having a hypomanic episode. It would be three boxes, left to right.

On the left would be a screenshot of a webpage saying something like, Cannot open page because search timed out. Maybe, Cannot find printer. I saw those images on my laptop a lot last week.

In the middle would be one of those breathing gifs.


On the right would be... a question mark. Because the response is unknown. That is the area of freedom. So we don't know the response until it is chosen. Get it?

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

So there is a story behind my interest in the space between stimulus and response. It goes back to that first image, the screen that said my laptop could not find, of all things, my website. (My wife's laptop couldn't either. This was not a laptop issue.) Its address is plastered all over all my social media accounts and emails, because I am a new author with a book to promote. But that morning, my professional website seemed no longer to exist.  In fact, when I tried to sign in to the platform, the platform denied my existence. Like, as though I didn't even have an account.

That was stimulus, alright. And these days, the stimulus made me even more wobbly than I already am. How about you? Are you a bit wobbly, too, these days?

David Conroy says, Suicide is not a choice. It happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.

If you don't get the connection between losing a website, losing the existence of a website and suicide, well, good. You've never been that close to the edge. And I'm glad for you. 

But believe me, it could have been the last straw, the very last straw. In another year, it might well have been. But lately I have a little less pain and a bit more resources. That critical balance is in my favor.

I paused. I put some space between stimulus and response. I breathed. I slept on it, thinking maybe this catastrophe would just go away in the night. Actually, I didn't sleep much, but you get the idea.

In the morning, the missing website was still missing. But now I remembered one of my resources. My son just happens to be a lead software programmer for a major cyber-security company. He fixed my website once when an update rendered it uneditable. So I texted him.

He got me in touch with the host. (What do I know about platforms and hosts? One refers to shoes the other to communion wafers?) Well, they couldn't find a problem. Neither could my son. And over the course of an afternoon spent chatting with one and texting with the other, somehow the platform straightened itself out and my website made a fully functional return to my laptop.

What was the problem? Who knows. The programmer threw around phrases like hug of death and the rdap database event that he saw on the host's log. He said, 

I've learned not to try to understand everything.

Has anybody created an inspirational poster with those words on a beautiful peaceful background? 

He also said The internet is held together with toothpicks and elmers glue. Oh wait, I do have an image for that one:

So anyway, I spent the day practicing the pause (more or less). I am sure that the cortisol did wipe out a few brain cells, but not as many as it might have, and not so many as to push me over the edge. I call it a win.

And I commend the process to you today and in the days to come. Between the stimulus and the response there really is a space. And that space is your power to choose. Hang onto that space until you are able to choose wisely.

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