Friday, December 5, 2014

Getting it done.

I used to write weekly blog posts.  Now I don't even post monthly.  I am juggling so much.  My writing has focused on dissertation revisions.  Yesterday, I got the thumbs up from my advisor:

I reviewed your revised dissertation and I'm prepared to sign off on it.  Your revision represents a major revision in line with the suggestions of the committee.  It is now much improved, more cohesive and focused.  I recognize that this was a lot of work. Very nice job. Congratulations.

I have been waiting for this day my whole life.  It is here and I celebrate.  
Thank you, Yesus, and family & friends.
I love you mom.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Trauma, Silence, Disclosure & Health

"Upheavals that were kept secret were more likely to result in health problems than those that could be spoken about more openly."

"Individuals who were victims of violence and who had kept this experience silent were significantly more likely to have adverse health effects than those who openly talked with others."

"Having any type of traumatic experience is associated with elevated illness rates; having any trauma and not talking about it further elevates the risk."

"Keeping a trauma secret from an intact social network is more unhealthy than not having a social network to begin with."

Pennebaker & Chung, 2007

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I love science

“The thing that differentiates scientists is purely an artistic ability to discern what is a good idea, what is beautiful idea, what is worth spending time on, and most importantly what is a problem sufficiently interesting yet sufficiently difficult that hasn’t been solved but the time for solving it has come now.”

Savas Dimopolous
Theoretical Particle Physicist
Stanford University

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Right Here, Right Now

On Friday, May 23, 2014, I passed my dissertation oral defense, with revisions (this means I gotta address the changes recommended by my committee before submitting the final draft of the dissertation to UCLA and the Library).

UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs graduation program, June 2014

I was having a panic attack right before the defense so I reached out to a good friend and actor - he offered emotional support and a host of tips to cope with performance anxiety. It helped a lot.  Thank you, Randy, my Mexican-American Richard Gere.

Randy Vasquez at LA premier of movie, "Volando Bajo"

After passing the defense, I could not stop smiling.  I walked the streets near the beach and on the beach all night.  I know I appeared odd by the looks I got from strangers but I did not care because the defense was over, for good.

View of Santa Monica pier while laying on the beach and feeling fistfuls of sand fall through my fingers

On Friday, June 13, 2014, I participated in graduation.  It was a magical day. Truly.

My daughter in the victory stance

Me in my electric blue robe

That's why I do it

I'm officially smarter today

On Thursday, June 19, 2014, I flew to Hawaii to celebrate with my daughter.  It was a magical trip.  Truly.  "Mom, you are so annoying," said my daughter on the third day.  I deserved it.  I had been gushing non-stop :)  I was relentlessly joyful.

Yes, this happened and it was that beautiful

I am middle aged and the next 45 years of my life feel bright with hope.

I am working six days a week for the next four weeks.  Thereafter, I will juggle part-time jobs, including teaching grad school courses in social work, until I secure a tenure-track Assistant Professor position somewhere.  Or God's plans will take me in another direction.  I'm open.

I attended some workshops on documentary film making so I'm planning to write a research and development proposal for a documentary about the life, art, trauma and resilience of one of my mentors.  Normally guarded, he has readily given me the green light to proceed.

I'm in the moment and I'm smiling.

Me happy

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Integrating Evidence and Clinical Judgment

--> It is not ethical or compassionate for us, as service providers, to shape programs by our intentions when we lack evidence for our practice decisions (Rubin & Bellamy, 2012).

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Complexity of Resilience

Since resilience may occur in at least one domain (say, academic, social, emotional), it is possible for a child to be resilient and still suffer from the residual effects of trauma.

Evidence suggests that adolescents identified as resilient scored high on anxiety and depression scales and urban adolescents in particular scored high on emotional distress scales despite showing intellectual and social competence.

Whether social adaptation, operationalized in terms of success in meeting societal expectations of behavior, exacts an emotional toll or fails to ameliorate psychological dysfunction resulting from the experience of adversity is not clear.

Researchers have described resilience as a process that helps youth to mend, albeit with a cracked shell.

(Resnick & Taliaferro, 2011; Baum, 2004; Howard, 1996; Hunter, 2001; Howard, 1996)

Letting Go

Ex-Wife:  I'm glad I chose to love you, even though it broke my heart.  It's all good. Take care.

Ex-Husband:  Yes. That makes two of us.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Unlimited Possibilities

I write about the good news in my life - not in a back-door FB braggy way - but to provide a living example that the impossible is possible.  The possibilities are endless.

I am surrounded by people with more or less smarts, more or less $$, more or less attractiveness, more or less _______.  What has seemed to matter more are my beliefs.

Beliefs can make a sugar pill (placebo) beat a new drug in clinical trials.  Researchers find this annoying.  I think it's pretty cool and spend a lot of time thinking about how to bottle it, then give it away for free.

I am a deeply spiritual person so my beliefs come from my faith in God and that God loves us.  But I have seen that a faith in God is not required in order to believe in unlimited possibilities. 

I love my daughter and there is not a train I would not jump in front of in order to protect her.  There is not a person I wouldn't face in order to stand up for her.  There is not a thing I wouldn't do for her.  She knows mama bear has got her back. 

I can do all that because this mama feels that God has got my back.  I feel that God wants to protect us.  Because that's just what a loving parent does.

I believed that I would get here and now I'm here.  There was a lot of work and pain and joy in between, fer sure.  But life is full of work and pain and joy whether or not you do what you came here to do. 

Paraphrasing a theologian, if God gave you a passion or talent for something, then there is a hunger or need in the world for it.   

I am passionate about loving and being loved.  I am passionate about learning, reading, asking questions, seeking answers, writing things down, creating joy, and spreading hope and good news.  I am doing all of this because this is what I came to do and I believe.

What did you come here to do? What do you believe?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Fellowship Reception Speech


Good evening, my name is Alejandra Acuña.  I’m a PhD candidate in the social welfare doctoral program.  

I’d like to share a few words about my personal background, professional journey and the impact that receiving a fellowship has had on my future goals.

My parents were immigrants from Northern Mexico. I was born and raised in East Los Angeles, the fourth child of five - and the first (and only) in my family to graduate from college. 

After several years of working in public health programs, I went back to school to earn a Master’s Degree in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley in 1996.  Since then, I have been a professional social worker practicing in child welfare, mental health, and public schools.  I have also done a lot of teaching as a Field Instructor for MSW interns and as a Lecturer at Cal State LA.

In the fall of 2009, at age 41 and the mother of an 8 year-old daughter, I began the PhD program at UCLA.  With the assistance of various fellowships, including the Meyer and Rene Luskin fellowship, I was able to pay for tuition and fees.  This meant I had library privileges for my research and health insurance.

It is said that in the Spring we reap what we sow.  I am scheduled to defend my dissertation in a few weeks (May 23).  It is entitled: Family Storytelling and Adolescent Post-Traumatic Resilience.

My research examines the relationship between open family communication and post-traumatic resilience among adolescents, primarily low-income urban youth.  I found a positive relationship between open family communication and post-traumatic resilience, however a high number of lifetime stressful events and a high degree of problem family communication overpowers the positive effects of open family communication. 

Developing interventions to improve the mental health of urban families through social marketing campaigns that promote the benefits and skills of storytelling, as well as reduce the prevalence of problem family communication, is my next professional and research task.

I came back to school because I wanted to learn how to do research.  Growing up and working in urban communities inspires my research questions, particularly about interventions that improve the mental health and well being of urban youth and their families. 

I am the wildflower that broke through the concrete jungle of East Los Angeles and for the rest of my life I wanna take a jackhammer to the cement so that other wildflowers can bloom.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

La Frida


She literally broke open her chest cavity to reveal her innermost innermosts.  That’s why we relate. That’s why we feel so connected to her heart.  She looked trauma in the eye and wept, laughed, fucked, journaled and painted herself into wholeness and came out the other side – an icon, a role model, a cautionary tale, a mujer muy chingona.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I am the wildflower that broke through the concrete jungle and for the rest of my life I wanna take a jackhammer to the cement so that other wildflowers can bloom.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


and in the Spring, we reap what we sow
May 1996, I graduated from the MSW program at UC Berkeley.

May 2001, I gave birth to my daughter - one of the most important people and experiences of my life.

May 2005, I visited Paris for the first time.  A dream of mine since the day my mother enrolled me in French class at my East Los Angeles Junior High School in 1979.

May 2014, I will defend my dissertation. Finally.

May is the month of mother's day.

I am juggling four part-time jobs to pay mortgage, bills and my health insurance. I am co-parenting an amazing girl, as a single mom.  I am spent.  I am happy.  It is happening - the impossible is possible. An at-risk low-income ethnic minority urban girl is coming full circle -from East LA to Westwood and back.  My mom would be so proud - is proud.

My sister, Carol, asked me:  Do you ever thank God for your brain?  Yes, sister.  Thank you, Yesus, for my brain, my mom, my daughter, my family, my friends, my mentors, my teachers, my inner voice, my healers, my readers, my books, my 2000 Toyota Echo, my jobs, my home, my life, my mistakes, my lessons learned, my opportunities, my faith, my hope, my persistence and presumptuousness in the face of sure defeat, and a reader miles away who sent me a note saying "keep writing."   

Happy Spring :)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The. Final. Stretch.

I have written to keep track of ideas, articles and references over the last 5 (!) years.

I have written to help me make sense of what I got myself into.

When I meet or get an email from someone about the blog, I realize this experience serves others too.

I got a request to write about the time commitment of a PhD program.  Here's the quick and dirty, Alison:

1st year: 2009-2010
  • 2-3 hours of daily carpool commute with a lovely classmate
  • Three 3-hour courses per quarter:  Epistemology, Research Methods, Statistics, Policy, etc.
  • Lots of reading and writing.  I remember sitting for 6-12 hours a day to read articles and write papers. Seminars for doctoral students are small, which means you gotta do the reading and present or get called on to summarize the thesis of a book.
  • Working a part-time job 10 to 20 hours a week.
  • A 6-hour comprehensive examination (four essays) at the end of the first year (brutal).
  • No time for friends, exercise, movies or reading the Sunday paper, etc.
  • Gained 10-15 lbs. (sitting and stress eating during study times).
2nd year: 2010-2011
  • 2-3 hour commute, two days a week, but this time without my lovely carpool partner.  We took different courses based on our research interests.
  • Two or three 3-hour courses per quarter.  Cool courses in other departments:  Latin American Medicine, Shamanism and Folk Illness (Community Health Sciences), Family Therapy (Psychology), Stress & Disease (Psychology), Community Partnered Participatory Research (Health Services), Social Marketing (Community Health Sciences).
  • Research internship.
  • Working a part-time job 20 hours a week.
  • Lots of reading and writing.  
  • Began writing publishable paper (second comprehensive written examination required by the doctoral program)
  • Exercise, nutritional cleanse, dancing, lost 20 lbs.
3rd year: 2011-2012
  • Done with coursework, so now I am writing at home (publishable paper).
  • Exhausted.
  • Publishable paper approved.
  • Teaching and working a part-time job about 20 hours/week.
4th year:  2012-2013
  • Awarded fellowship to work on dissertation proposal.  
  • Teaching and working a part-time job about 10-30 hours/week.
  • Successfully defended dissertation proposal.
5th year: 2013-2014
  • Working full-time (several part-time jobs).
  • Submitted manuscript for publication.
  • Requested IRB approvals from University and school districts for dissertation study.
  • Data collection and analysis.
  • Drafting results and discussion chapters of dissertation.
  • Schedule defense for May.
  • File dissertation by June.
  • Graduate on June 13 :)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Structural Family Therapy Tenet

"One of the central tenets of family systems theory is that the child, the identified patient, is serving an active role in holding the family together by helping the family avoid other problems...the structural family therapy assumption [is] that treating the whole family is important because it improves the symptoms and protects the family, whereas treating only the child may result in deteriorated family functioning."
Szapocznik et al., 1989

Monday, February 10, 2014


"We go back...and back...and back...through the layers of fear, shame, rage, hurt and negative incantations until we discover the exuberant, unencumbered, delightful, and lovable child that was, and still is, in us."

melody beattie

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Consistency = Trust

"I think that sociopaths (particularly young ones) actually feel happier and thrive better in a world of clearly defined boundaries; when rules are consistently enforced, the child will just start to take them as a given.  I certainly did. I think simple cause-and-effect rules with clear, predictable outcomes for compliance or violation encourage the young sociopath to think of life as an interesting puzzle that can be gamed.  As long as the young sociopath believes that she can acquire some advantage through skillful planning and execution (and finds some level of success, which I feel is almost a given), she will stay committed to the structure of the game you have set up...

The worst thing that parents can do is to be inconsistent.  It makes the child sociopath think that the game is rigged; in that case, it doesn't matter what he does, except to the extent that he can out-cheat the cheater (typically the parent).  Providing me a system defined by clear incentives, my parents laid out a way for me to gain positive benefits while exercising my sociopathic traits.  I didn't have to rely on the soft intangibles of empathy or emotion to get what I needed."
from Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas

Monday, January 20, 2014


"What makes Iago evil? some people ask.  I never ask."
That's the first line of Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays.

Why doesn't Didion's Maria ask??  Maybe she already knows (her dark side).  Maybe she doesn't care (depression, nihilism, ennui?).

Well, I wanna know!  Don't you?

First, let me introduce you to Iago, the puppet master in Shakespeare's Othello.

Othello includes themes of racism, love, jealousy and betrayal with the following central characters:
  • Othello (a Moorish General)
  • Desdemona (his new wife)
  • Cassio (his lieutenant)
  • Iago (his trusted junior officer)
  • Rodrigo (pines for Desdemona)
  • Emilia (Iago's wife and Desdemona's maidservant)
  • Bianca (Cassio's lover)
Iago hates Othello for promoting a younger man, Cassio, above Iago (ENVY).

Iago tells Roderigo that he plans to use Othello for his own advantage (MANIPULATION).

Iago persuades lovesick Roderigo to tell Desdemona's father about Othello & Desdemona's elopement and get Othello accused of seducing her with witchcraft (RACISM).

Iago persuades Roderigo to get into a fight with Cassio.  Othello blames Cassio for the fight and strips him of his new rank (MANIPULATION).

Now Iago persuades Cassio to persuade Desdemona to appeal to Othello on Cassio's behalf (MANIPULATION).

Then Iago persuades Othello to be suspicious of Desdemona's relationship with Cassio (MANIPULATION).

Iago convinces Othello that a planted handkerchief was received by Cassio from Desdemona (GOSSIP & MANIPULATION).

Enraged and hurt, Othello resolves to kill his wife and asks Iago to kill Cassio. Othello proceeds to make Desdemona's life miserable, hitting her in front of visiting nobles (EGO, INSECURITY, ENVY & JEALOUSY).

Roderigo complains that he has received nothing from Iago in return for his money and efforts to win Desdemona, but Iago convinces him to kill Cassio. They fight, and Cassio mortally wounds Roderigo (MANIPULATION).

During the scuffle, Iago comes from behind Cassio and badly cuts his leg. In the darkness, Iago manages to hide his identity, and when passers-by hear Cassio's cries for help, Iago joins them, pretending to help Cassio (LIES, DECEPTION & MANIPULATION).

When Cassio identifies Roderigo as one of his attackers, Iago quietly stabs Roderigo to stop him from revealing the plot (MURDER, SAVING FACE/IMAGE).

Iago then accuses Bianca of the failed conspiracy to kill Cassio (GOSSIP & LIES).

In the night, Othello confronts Desdemona, and then smothers her to death in their bed (JEALOUSY, SAVING FACE, MURDER).

When Emilia arrives, Othello tries to justify his actions by accusing Desdemona of adultery (JUSTIFICATION FOR VIOLENCE). Emilia calls for help (SUPPORT SYSTEM). The Governor arrives, with Iago, Cassio, and others, and Emilia begins to explain the situation (TRUTH). When Othello mentions the handkerchief as proof, Emilia realizes what Iago has done, and she exposes him, whereupon Iago kills her (SAVING FACE/IMAGE, MURDER & REVENGE).

Othello, belatedly realizing Desdemona's innocence, stabs Iago but not fatally, saying that he would rather have Iago live the rest of his life in pain (BETRAYAL & REVENGE).

Iago refuses to explain his motives, vowing to remain silent from that moment on (THE PLAYER RAN OUT OF GAME, THE JIG IS UP, CLAIMING THE 5TH).

Both Iago and Othello are apprehended for the murders, but Othello commits suicide with a dagger. Othello's successor exhorts Cassio to have Iago justly punished (JUSTICE).

In Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas (pseudonym) writes:
"I don't feel that anything is inherently wrongful.  But more important, I am never compelled to refrain from doing something merely because it is wrong - only because doing so would result in undesirable consequences.  Thus, evil has no special meaning for me.  There is no mystery in it.  It is a word to describe a sense of wrongness that I do not feel."
Notice how Iago persuades (clever-smooth-talking-con-artist) everyone else to do his bidding - not because he feels it is wrong but because he doesn't want the "undesirable consequences" for himself.  However, when he can secretly kill, he does.

There is no mystery in evil for M.E. Thomas (and possibly for Didion's Maria) because "it is a word to describe a sense of wrongness" that they don't feel.

For empaths, there is guilt and pain associated with doing wrong.  For sociopaths, there are no such pesky feelings to get in the way or stop them.  So actions are taken that are perceived as advantageous, albeit risky, because they can.  (Remember: "I did it . . . because I could!" -- Bill Clinton).  I mean, they've got nothing to lose.

Or do they?

M.E. Thomas offers:
"Sometimes in choosing to manipulate or exploit weaknesses in others, you create vulnerabilities in yourself, for example by harming your reputation or feeding an addiction to increasingly outrageous antisocial behavior.  Controlling your impulses also allows sociopaths to overcome our isolation by forming long-term, meaningful relationships.  Sociopaths who truly seek to cultivate power realize that the greatest power they can acquire is power over themselves."
Further, Thomas notes that, "Psychologists look at the list of sociopathic traits (i.e., charm, manipulation, lying, promiscuity, chameleonism, mask wearing, and lack of empathy) and think they understand the 'what,' but they don't understand the 'how.'  I believe the 'how,' the origin of many of our observed behaviors, is that we don't have a rigid sense of self.  I believe that this is the predominant defining characteristic of a sociopath."

No true sense of self, that may be the core issue.

Kevin Cameron, an international expert on violence, calls this being an "empty vessel." Cameron noticed the dramatic lack of connection between young people and healthy mature adults, particularly among many young people making threats of violence and almost all of school shooters. These youth shared a lack of clear identity, place, and purpose. Their parental and other adult relationships were often marked by extremes on a continuum from neglect to over-involvement. Some experiencing both extremes at different times and others experiencing predominately one or the other.

Giving young people (and ourselves) a clear identity, place and purpose may help to save us from ourselves and our darkest impulses.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What We Love about Therapy

"Once in therapy, clients reported the sessions to be a safe haven of comfort and hope where they could experience a respectful and relaxed atmosphere in which to converse. 

Those clients expressing a positive experience with therapy had a tendency to use words such as:
  • supportive
  • unbiased
  • nonjudgmental
  • warmth
  • feeling accepted
  • engaged
  • context for change
  • collaborative
  • comfortable
  • caring 
  • involvement
  • trust
  • understanding
Of critical importance to some clients was having a regularly scheduled session where they could:

(a) interact with each other differently,
(b) limit the influence of their everyday problems, and
(c) focus on relationships."

Chenail, R.J., St. George, S., Wulf, D., Duffy, M., Scott, K.W., & Tomm, K. (2012).  Clients' relational conceptions of conjoint, couple and family therapy quality: a grounded formal theory. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(1), 241-264.

Fears about Therapy

"Along with feelings of hopefulness, clients may be concerned about
(a) how they will be treated,
(b) whether or not they will be treated sensitively
(c) whether or not therapists would be trained sufficiently to be trusted with sensitive issues, and
(d) what pain they may suffer in therapy."

(Chenail et al., 2012)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Notes on Detachment

Lessons on detachment benefit all of our relationships, but they are particularly helpful for health and human service workers where there is a fine line between what we are responsible for and what our clients, patients, or consumers are responsible for.

"Detachment is the ability to care deeply about a situation or another person from an objective point of view.  We are able to care but not be controlled by or invested in how another person responds to us."

"Healthy detachment wears many identities.  Letting others take care of their own affairs and not doing for others what they need to do for themselves is detachment.  Not creating or preventing a crisis when it's clearly not our business to be involved is detachment.  Not manipulating others to carry out some aspect of their lives according to our wishes rather than according to their own plan is detachment.  It is neither kind nor unkind to be detached.  It is simply being in charge of the only things we need to be in charge of."

"...the ability to be independent and compassionate, yet no longer clingy and obsessed with getting constant approval from others."

" is about developing a healthy interdependence -- that is, independence that frees all of us to be all we can be, but still allows us to get an appropriate amount of support and encouragement from other travelers."

"Coming to understand and eventually celebrate our powerlessness over people, places, and things is the key to our freedom -- freedom from enmeshment, freedom from the fear of rejection, freedom from the fear of failure, freedom from the fear of success."

"...I could or should be the one to decide exactly who I would bring to the party every day of my life."

"...respecting others' opinions while maintaining our own perspective and integrity."

--Karen Casey

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Health Disparities Among People with Mental Illness

Mentally ill adults with serious mental illness die about 25 years earlier, on average at age 51 versus 76 for Americans generally, primarily due to cardiovascular disease.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Fiction & Empathy

I need to read more fiction!  I have been thinking that for some time now.

When people behave in a way that makes absolutely no sense to me, I think:  I gotta read more fiction

Real life behavior seems strange sometimes.  While others interpret a man's jealous and threatening behavior as "that's just a man in love," I'm more apt to perceive the behavior as "psychotic" or even "demon-possessed" because my conceptualization of love is that it is not controlling, demeaning, deceitful or cruel.  But when you have looked into the eyes of Othello, Desdemona, Iago and Rodrigo, then you are just grateful to be alive and living well.

Well, it turns out that 'theory of mind' researchers find that reading serious fiction boosts one's ability to understand others, a precursor of empathy (check out LA Times article for more on this).

I read somewhere that writers are the best observers of human behavior.  So reading literary fiction isn't just about plot twists and turns, but the underlying motivations of human behavior.

Developing coherent narratives integrate both event details and associated feelings, in a structure with a beginning, middle and end, and lots of detail.  Even the most bizarre zig zags in a story make sense when you understand the context and human motivation.

I may need a tutor too.  In fact, when English teachers explained the meaning of a line in a poem - I understood the explanation but wondered, "how the hell did you get that from this??"  The leap seemed wholly mysterious to me, making a literary poem harder to figure out than an algebra problem (at least math is logical!).

I'm gonna read more fiction in 2014.  That oughta round out my education and help me understand myself and others better.  Unfortunately, the pile of Hollywood gossip magazines in which I indulge while sitting at a bookstore don't count (although that was their draw for me - to better understand the machinations and drama of human relationships). 

The study about fiction and empathy clearly differentiates between the benefits of popular fiction and literary fiction (the latter wins).  I am open to reading suggestions if you've got some...


Surprise me :)

Truth Opened

Freud presented a paper in April, 1896 to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna on the sexual abuse of his female patients by t...