Mental Health, Romantic Relationships, Stigma, and Storytelling

 Dr. Allison Sallee, founder of C2 Change: an Austin nonprofit offering free or-low cost mental healthcare services.

Dr. Allison Sallee, founder of C2 Change: an Austin nonprofit offering free or-low cost mental healthcare services.

Dually inspired by NAMI’s recent article on mental illness and relationships, and Cider Spoon’s own forthcoming book on romantic relationships of all stripes (both healthy and not-so-hot), this month’s blog entry is dedicated to overcoming the stigma of mental illness in romantic relationships, and exploring the role that storytelling can play.

Here, I’ve interviewed Dr. Allison Sallee of C2 Change to help us understand this nuanced issue. Dr. Sallee is a featured contributor to Of Tiny Threads (Forty Acres Press, June 2018). Proceeds from book sales benefit C2 Change’s Twogether in Texas curriculum.


What are two of the most common mental health issues prompting couples to seek out therapy today?

Couples most commonly come in requesting help with communication. Poor communication or miscommunication can lead to feelings of disconnection, further contributing to communication concerns.

Secondly, couples often come in regarding their children. They have questions about how best to parent; how to manage the grandparents and/or other extended family members who may be involved; and blended family issues.

How do people in romantic relationships say they have experienced stigma (in regard to their mental health) from their significant other?

Sometimes, one partner may view seeking help as “weak”—or may be scared that seeking help means that the relationship is doomed or in more serious trouble than they want to acknowledge. This fear can often shut down the one partner’s attempt to resolve issues. 

Significant others may also stigmatize their partner’s issues: criticizing them for a reaction to grief, for instance, or for being diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder.

How does storytelling, or sharing their stories, help partners cope with and/or better understand mental health issues?

Sharing stories is an essential human activity. It is one way we connect with others on both small and big levels. When partners share their stories, it can develop and foster empathy. In addition, it helps the other partner to stop making assumptions about the first partner’s behavior.


For twelve real-life stories from married couples (and one thruple!) in America—as well as more illuminating insights from C2 Change therapists Dr. Allison Sallee and Brendan Owens—order your copy of Of Tiny Threads today.

Accountability: Why You Need It in Your Business, Relationships, and Even Your Writing

What is an accountability partner?

As Austin life coach Myrna King defines the term, “[An accountability partner is] simply someone who we make promises to about what we plan to achieve, over a specific period of time, within an agreed upon partnership framework. Both partners lay out goals and then take steps towards achieving them.”

Myrna is the one who introduced me to my own accountability partner (and fellow life coach) Dr. Lisa Raphael Bogaert. Lisa and I meet in person or via phone once/month for “check-ins.” We review the list of goals we set for the previous month in regards to our respective small businesses, we discuss our progress and whatever roadblocks or other challenges may have cropped up, and we talk about how to move forward. How can next month be bigger, better, stronger, and what might that mean? More clients? More conversions/better retention? More effective advertising? A new workshop on offer?


Accountability is key in your business because it keeps you, the solo-preneur, LLC, or C-corp owner on the up-and-up. Your revenue stream spikes when you’re servicing your area competitively, respectfully, and most important—lawfully, and all of these factors create the reputation that one day will either attract or repel all future business. You know, that mythical day when you can stop hustling on street corners and attending every. single. networking breakfast or happy hour in a 25-mile radius because finally people are knocking on YOUR door. [Yeah, I dream about that day, too.] Indispensable things that my accountability partner has gifted me include: self-employment tax advice, business leads, and July’s upcoming co-led workshop!


Accountability is so important in relationships that Dr. Lisa Raphael Bogaert and myself are offering a joint workshop on it July 16. Practicing accountability with your spouse, partner, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc, means you make weekly, monthly, or bimonthly goals together for yourselves, your commitment, and/or your family; you “check-in” and hold each other accountable to what did or didn’t happen/improve; celebrate the gains; and re-strategize tackling the problem areas. Ways that I’ve used accountability in my relationships include daily check-ins on the best parts of our days, and News Years resolutions for what we hope to achieve in the next year of being together.


Though I am not certified with the International Coaching Federation (ICF), you might call what I do for my Cider Spoon Stories clients “coaching.” As a ghostwriter, I coach you through content curation, design principles, and the sometimes-tricky world of custom publishing. As an editor, I coach you on details like word choice, paragraph cohesion and transitions, and overall content analysis. Sometimes you just need someone to say, “Have 5 pages ready for me to review every week,” just to keep you writing and keep you in the game. Knowing that someone else expects something of you can make all the difference as far as your motivation level!


I strongly suggest that you don't choose a friend or family member for this exercise—at least when it comes to business or writing. People who know and love you are less likely to practice tough love in these two scenarios, quicker to let your goals slide into the next month and the next, and then you're not really accomplishing anything! Obviously, in a relationship your partner is your accountability partner. In business, try asking that really cool, confident, interesting person you met at BNI last week to help mentor you (and yes, you, them!) When it comes to writing, contact Cider Spoon Stories!

Incorporating Oral History Assignments into College Writing Curriculums

Before Cider Spoon Stories, Jess taught writing and art at Benedictine University in Illinois. In both her Writing 101 (Composition) and 102 (Research Writing) classes, Jess found it imperative to assign an oral history and/or interview component as part of at least one major writing assignment per semester, given the wide variety of career fields in which storytelling skills are applicable, as well as the incredible array of corollary benefits that accompany the unique fusion of people skills and technology skills incumbent to the interview process. She recently presented her theories on a panel at CUNY’s “Transitions and Transactions: Literature Pedagogies” Conference in Manhattan in April 2016. The following details her findings.

Career Fields Utilizing Storytelling Skills

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Entrepreneurship/branding
  • Parenting
  • Education
  • Grantwriting
  • Medical
  • Law enforcement
  • Engineering/technical writing
  • Arts/theater
  • and more.

Learning Objectives Met by Oral Histories in Common College Writing Assignments

  • Fosters clear, concise, specific communication
  • Spurs engagement
  • Allows information to be assimilated over/despite the glut
  • Challenges student conceptions/misconceptions
  • Makes history real
  • Broaches uncomfortable topics safely
  • Informs believable character dialogue, motivations, and setting in fiction/CNF
  • Informs documentary poetry and activisit art
  • Creates of the student an ‘expert’
  • Prepares student for real-world experiences post-graduation
  • Fulfills a vicarious experience
  • Generates empathy
  • Refines organizatioon skills
  • Reiterates importance of cross-cultural comparison and artifact preservation

Other Benefits


Survey Says: Write a DIY Family History Guide!

Last week I posted a 7-question market research survey to the world of social media. In a nutshell, I wanted to find a way to offer my writing services to families and individuals who cannot afford a full ghostwriting package.

To that end, I intend to write, publish, and sell a DIY family history guide! Here are some of the excellent suggestions I received from fans and readers. If you have another idea to add, please leave it in the comment box below!

Q1. I am authoring a new genealogy guide to help kids write their parents' or grandparents' life stories. The guide will be a full-color, interactive book, with lots of interesting prompts and space for creative expression. Kids might complete the guide over a summer break, a long road trip, or several holiday visits, for example. Is this a product you would buy?

A1: 86% Yes; 14% Maybe.

Q2. Thinking about the ages of your own kids, or kids to whom you might gift this book--what age range should the book target?

A2. 57% 4th and 5th graders; 43% 6th and 7th graders.

Q3. Should the book target a specific gender of child user?

A3. 100% Both boys and girls.

Q4. Let’s say the book is a large paperback, printed on recycled paper. What other features would you like to see?

A4. 43% prefer a hardback format; 14% prefer an ebook format.

Q5. About how much would you be willing to pay for this book? 

A5. Answers ranged from $10.00 to $50.00, with an average price of $28.00.

Q6. Suggest ways to make the book friendly/accessible to users of all genders, religions, sexualities, races, etc.

A6. Include images of children that reflect the noted characteristics; Include an editor’s note to the effect that “family is subjective” and may also include adopted individuals; Allow kids to personalize the book with their photos; Use a template format that kids can build off of and get creative with; Allow kids to design the cover; Include maps and other cultural associations.

Q7. Suggest some interesting prompts for the book. Prompts are the questions that the child will ask his/her parents/grandparents. For example, "How did you spend your summer breaks as a kid?"

A7: Did you like school? Did you ever get in trouble with your teacher ? What grade were you when you had your first girl/boyfriend? What was your favorite book or story? Who is the first person you remember? When did you have the most fun? Who is the oldest person in the family you remember? Who could make you smile/laugh no matter what? What was the worst thing you remember? What were the rules in your house? Who were your best friends? Do you have pictures of them? What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you become that? If not, why not? Who did you admire most? Do you remember when any of your grandparents or other relatives died? What did your house look like when you were a kid? Did you always live in the same place? What important lessons have you learned as an adult? Maybe an activity prompting them to participate in a hobby that their parent or grandparents enjoys or used to enjoy and then reflect on that experience. What is your favorite food? Who was the first friend you remember having, and what did you do together? What was a favorite toy you had? What kinds of games did you play indoors and outdoors? Is there a special recipe you have to share? Describe a typical school day that you remember (from start to end) … how did you get there in the morning, what was the day like, how did you get home, etc. What is a special song you have a memory of listening to? Do you remember your first date/crush? What kind of chores or household duties did you have growing up? What were your parents like? What was your childhood home like? What was the most amazing place you ever traveled to?

Thanks for all the help! GUIDE FORTHCOMING CHRISTMAS 2016!

Using story instead of pills to heal PTSD

PTSD and the DSM-V

The DSM-V (the 5th and current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) was published in May 2013. It introduced many important changes to 2000's DSM-IV-TR, including a long-overdue categorical shift that finally removed PTSD (Post-Traumautic Stress Disorder) from the list of anxiety disorders.

For the first time, PTSD is being recognized as a trauma disorder, the direct consequence of exposure to an external traumatic event. Mental health activists hope that PTSD sufferers will in turn be subject to less stigmatization, as the shift finally liberates PTSD from the realm of inherent mental illness, and acknowledges its origins in an etiological event--the traumatic stressor.

Should PTSD be Renamed PTSS?

One more change that still needs (ethically) to be made is the renaming of PTSD to PTSS, replacing “disorder” with “syndrome.” Not only does “disorder” have a more negative connotation, but it fails to account for PTSD's spectrum of symptoms, any or all of which sufferers may experience--rendering the one-size-fits-all approach both futile and inaccurate.

The Psychology behind PTSD

In Jungian terms, PTSD affects the ego, or that part of the person we call the Self. The ego is the center of consciousness; it orients us in time and space; and the ego wants to survive as long as possible with as little pain as possible. When confronted with pain, the ego defends itself with the only weapons it has: projection, idealization, and denial. All three of these defense mechanisms have as their corollary suppression and repression. Because the psyche is a closed system, repressed energy necessarily leaks out in other forms: anxiety and depression, for example. 


No one "cure" has ever worked for every PTSD sufferer, but there are many suggestions for helping individuals learn to cope with high-level stress. The first is practicing empathic presence. Empathic presence occurs when the PTSD-afflicted individual meets with a qualified therapist who simply listens to the individual's story, over and over again … until such time as the story begins to lose its power. At that point, the story stops “owning” the individual.

There are many free or low-cost resources for people with PTSD (click here for a list of Austin’s veteran services, and here for a unique civilian service), but a kind friend with a good ear can also go a long way toward alleviating said suffering. To be an empathic presence for someone you know, practice being a “container” for story, where narratives may be received and treated as sacred. Friends and family members, even more so than therapists, are good about seeing the human being and not just his/her symptoms.

PTSD and Cider Spoon

When asked what war was like, a Vietnam veteran recently replied:
“War is 99% boring and 1% sheer terror.”

PTSD is commonly associated with veterans, but many non-veterans suffer from PTSD. Rape victims, abuse victims, and those who have lived through car accidents are just a few more examples of afflicted sub-groups. While there are more PTSD services than ever before, the paradigm of trauma remains the same. Our vets and others are dealing with the same problems as 40 years ago, and still not feeling heard.

At Cider Spoon, my job is to listen to your story. No judgment, and no “therapy” in the licensed sense … but helping you make sense of your life all the same, through healing narratives. 

Bastrop is burning, but life is good.

As I type, Bastrop, Texas is burning. Yesterday a wildfire claimed over 30 homes. Smoke curtains nearby Austin with a throat-searing haze. My nose keeps running and it hurts to swallow, but life is good.

Many of you will recognize the phrase “Life is good” from the iconic wearables line that really took off at the start of this century. Founder Bert Jacobs spoke to 7,000 women at the Texas Conference for Women on October 15, and he left us with a story about his mother: Dying of cancer, she did not have to run around “making up” for the love she wished she’d given, because she’d given it all her life. Instead she asked her sons to throw her a party—because life is good.

Candy Chang, urban designer and installation artist, reinforced the sentiment with an overview of her Before I Die walls. Stenciled in white paint on abandoned buildings in over 70 countries around the world is the inviting phrase “Before I die, I want to __________.” Hope-filled messages written in every language and chalk of every color overflow her new book that showcases the walls. Chang’s offering of a receptacle (even a shrine) for low-barrier, anonymous community input is her attempt to “make democracy more accessible” while encouraging “unbridled creativity.” “Embrace the honest mess and remember you’re not alone,” she said ... because ultimately, life is good.

Life is good, and it’s fast. Faster than ever before. “Who controls the speed and the incline of the treadmill?” asked Carson Tate of Working Simply. “You do.” We can speed up or slow down life by saying Yes to what best aligns with our highest priorities, and No to those asks we feel we “should” do regardless of personal benefit. When we don’t say No, Tate joked with a smile, we end up "shoulding" all over ourselves—and that’s not what Candy Chang meant by “honest mess” … that’s just a mess. Life is good when we reach the flow state and improve efficiency. When drafting your to-do list, batch ‘like’ tasks and build in time for thinking and reflecting.

And not just thinking and reflecting—but stimulating your reticular activating system. This is the part of the brain that gets a workout whether you’re actually experiencing a given scenario, or just picturing it in your mind. Visualizing success is like practicing being successful—and in this example anyway, practice really does make perfect. The Olympics committee keeps 10 psychologists on staff just to coach the athletes on their mental game. Picturing your prosperity can help actualize it—and life is good when everyone prospers. Focus on prosperity and abundance rather than scarcity and fear.

Bastrop is a frightening place right now, but it will overcome and you will, too. Life is good.

Swallow Your Pills! Seniors & The Pharmaceutical Future

I have a soft spot for older adults. They make up 50% of my clients: grandparents who want to write their life stories for the grandkids. I loved my own grandparents so much that I cherish the time I get to spend with other people's grandparents. Like those grandkids, I only want the best for our ever-growing, ever-aging population.

What does the best look like?

Yesterday I attended Aging 2.0's speed-pitch start-up contest, featuring 8 presenters pitching brand new boomer-oriented problem-solving technologies. We the audience got to vote on the pitches, taking into account such factors as ease of use, impact, and social/environmental responsibility. The products and services ranged from mental healthcare access to home healthcare and personal training; all of them had an app component.

The verdict:

While I certainly believe in capitalizing on the power of technology, especially as a tool of access for seniors, I wasn't convinced that anyone would want to log on daily or multiple times/day to scan healthcare provider profiles or record the number of sit-ups completed. Instead, I was most drawn to the one pitch that promised an immediate and easy solution to a real and pressing problem: that of making sure older adults take their medicines--the right ones--on time, every day.

The product:

As EllieGrid explains it, "EllieGrid is the smartest pill box in the world. We allow people to organize their medications & vitamins in seconds. (Yeah, seconds.)" A riff on the traditional pillbox, featuring large and organized cubicles, EllieGrid allows patients to dump a whole bottle of pills into a compartment rather than counting out the pills by days. EllieGrid can then be programmed such that each day, an alarm goes off reminding the patient to take his medicine. The compartments with the requisite pills for that time light up, and a digital display tells him how many pills to remove from each compartment.


Simple and brilliant. No more over-medication, under-medication, or forgetting whether or not Grandpa has taken his pills already! Now he's guaranteed to be feeling well and up to sharing his stories with Cider Spoon! Thanks, EllieGrid.

Weddings, Anniversaries, & Family Reunions, Oh My!

Introducing a brand new service: memory compilation!

  My sister and I as flower girls once upon a time.

My sister and I as flower girls once upon a time.

Did you know that not every book has to have a single author? Write an entire book in one day or weekend by asking the whole family to participate!

When you hire me as your event's memory compiler, I'll help preserve your special day forever by interviewing & capturing attendees' own stories, memories, remarks, or well-wishes.

Weddings are great because they bring the whole clan together. Take advantage of that time to record a whole book of family memories. The memories can be of the happy couple, or stories of other family members' own weddings. What was magical and what went horribly wrong that we can now laugh about? What advice do older couples have for newlyweds?

Same for anniversary parties and family reunions! Get all the genealogy down in one go, so unborn generations can enjoy it years from now. 

What’s the ghostwriting process like, you ask?

I’m so glad you’re interested!

It definitely varies from project to project. Are we talking full-length book? Chapbook? Grant proposal? A couple pages of web copy? The possibilities, and the appropriate approaches, are endless!

Let’s say you want to write your life story as a full book. I’ll ask you when it’s most convenient to meet for coffee. We’ll get together, you’ll tell me a little bit about what you have in mind, and I’ll direct the conversation with a couple pointed questions, to make sure we’re on the same page about everything.

At that point, you can decide whether you’re interested in pursuing the project with me. No obligations, and no questions asked if you just don’t feel like I’m the right vehicle. If you *do* want to proceed, however, I’ll slide you a contract to look over and we can talk terms: deadlines, payments, etc--all the “paperwork” we need to get out of the way once and then never worry about again.

Either the same day or later by phone, we’ll set up regular meetings for you to download to me your story. Can you meet once/week? Twice? Only twice a month? Doesn’t matter! I’m here to help you write your story on your schedule.

It’s easy. It’s low-pressure. It’s hopefully FUN! 

Hospice & New Beginnings

I don’t know about you, but when I think of hospice care I think about, well, death. Aren’t hospice nurses people you enlist when there’s no hope left, and you just want to make the end of life as comfortable as possible for your loved one? If hospice is indeed synonymous with death, then why would I title this blog entry Hospice & New Beginnings?

Well, for a few reasons. 

First, I recently signed up to become a hospice volunteer. My friend Emily at The Awareness Movement told me how much hospice volunteering impacted her life, and it sounded like a good cause. I liked hearing her stories about people’s final moments: their hopes, fears, & regrets. And of course where there’s a story, there’s a writer waiting to record it. =ME! So hospice is a brand new beginning in my life.

Secondly, as I learned at my first weekend of volunteer training, hospice care definitely does *not* have to be an elective option best left until the very end. In fact, I’d now encourage anyone who qualifies for hospice (or their family members) to seize the moment directly! Not only is it covered by most insurance plans, but all of a sudden you get a whole team of amazing people at your doorstep who want to help make sure YOU are able to make the most of every single day, disease and sickness be damned! In fact, patients can even graduate from hospice when they get better--so, far from a death sentence, it’s a new beginning!

I can’t wait to help families record their loved ones’ life stories. Dr. Atul Gawande leaves us with these 5 great starter questions to get your grandpa/mother/brother/daughter talking!

1. What is your understanding of where you are and of your illness?

2. Your fears or worries for the future?

3. Your goals and priorities?

4. What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice and not?

5. What would a good day look like?