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Last Picture Mom and My Brothers were Photographed Together

LAST Photo of Family Together Left, My deceased brother, Jeffrey (9 months before his suicide and four months before his only marriage); Ex-husband, Ric; Me, Brother, Gary; nephew, Caden (Gary’s grandson); and the matriarch and glue of the family, Edythe Mark, celebrating a remarkable run of leading her family for 90 years. The occasion was a birthday surprise party for her, planned by my devoted daughters, Nicole and Allison.

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Tonight marks three years since my sweet, younger brother gave up all hope for joy and a future. Instead, he broke all our hearts and ended his life. He struggled with the monkey on his back since he was thirteen. We were a middle class family, and Jeff was the youngest kid on a block of kids that stuck together like Gorilla Glue. He wanted desperately to fit in with his older brother, Gary, and the other cool boys who traveled together like a pack. As vulnerable to peer pressure as he was to pleasing his parents, my baby brother would cop an attitude and try to act the part of a street smart teen. In reality, the more the others made fun of him for being “Jargus” or called him pejorative names like “Blockhead,” the more determined he became to win acceptance by taking more and more risks.

Like teens everywhere, it was important to Jeff to belong. He never outgrew the need to be accepted to the point that he would sacrifice himself to do so. He took other people’s temperatures to determine how he should feel. His “selfhood” was defined not by his own ideas and values so much as by what he thought other important people expected of him or what he could do to belong and gain acceptance. The amount of energy he and his parents put into one another and into him determined how much he would depend upon relationship in later life to survive. He never grew away from a profound need to be cared for and nurtured to the same level he experienced with his parents as a child. It created in him extreme relationship dependence. If he believed, for example, that a teacher disliked him, he could not perform. Relationship environments that were warm and nurturing were crucial to his functioning.

Jeffrey entered the world of heroin addiction at thirteen. While the other boys experimented with heroin, Jeff married her. In fact, my brother took heroin as his mistress till the end of his life at 56 years old. His escapist behavior reflected a high level of anxiety, borne of unresolved emotional attachment to his parents. He remained a child in relation to both of them….never related adult to adult, even as an elderly man. It was difficult for him to know, for example, when one of his decisions was more reactive to someone telling him what to do ( an authority figure or even a girlfriend or the mother of his child) or when a decision was truly a reflective one. In other words, Jeff could not easily distinguish between his thoughts and his feelings. It was difficult for him to know when he was merely acting in reaction to being told what to do or when he truly was acting out of a thought out or reflective response.

As a very young child, Jeff had frequent petite mal seizures. His parents worried and took him to Mayo Clinic and myriad doctors to try to figure out what was going on and to alleviate the physical symptoms. They may have inadvertently created many of his emotional symptoms by allowing him to bend and break the rules, lest he become upset from the same consequences the other two received as a matter of course-and suffer another seizure! Because his well meaning but anxious mother and father believed his bad temper could create medical crisis, he held inordinate power in the home. Medical crisis was most certainly created anyway…the terminal illness, however, was not epilepsy, but addiction to opiates. Anxiety was ubiquitous in the household, passed frantically back and forth among family members like a hot potato.

Jeff enjoyed being indulged, yet resented Gary and Barbara as being favored for their academic achievement. Even at his mother’s 90th birthday, he made a toast to his beloved mother and publicly and proudly referred to himself as “your baby boy.”

Jeff was not permitted to learn from struggle. His parents meant well. But they overhelped, making it a foregone conclusion that he would underhelp himself when it came to overcoming his dependence upon heroin. If he had potential trouble with the law, they would hover, rushing in to rescue and to alleviate the very pain that motivates people to change. They believed they were doing the best by him, but, in reality, their parenting choices were made to calm themselves and, in the process, unwittingly rob their youngest son of normal growth and development. He would not mature, and heroin was the crutch that allowed him to ignore this developmental lag. His parents needed to maintain their anxious focus just as much as Jeff needed to fulfill their dark expectations. It was a reciprocal feedback loop. The same template of intensity…of neediness…would follow him in his adult romantic relationships. And theory suggests he would settle down with a woman needing about the same amount of attention as he needed.

Jeffrey worked with his father in the multigenerational family scrap metal business and proved himself to  be a talented-nay a gifted- entrepreneur. Money was a commodity he knew how to create and to increase. Still,the intensity between father and son was as strong as the fusion between mother and son. As the child most tied in to the family system…the epileptic one, the addicted one, and the one in the family business….the baby of the family was thus less free to grow and develop.He was always the anxious focus of his parents. The anxiety has a contagion. It is never helpful.

The individuals in this family prided themselves in being ‘”close.” Yet being very close can stifle the spirit and ultimately predict emotional cutoff. Drugs are one way people cut off from one another and even from themselves. In our family, we were so undifferentiated that if one person had an itch, everyone else scratched. It was hard to know where one family member started and the  other one ended.

When people give up “self” to the group, it is normal to feel an anxiety borne of the fear that one has allowed themselves to disappear….to be incorporated into the group. It is a survival instinct then to cut off from others if one becomes too aware that there is no “self” left. Similarly, the one who cuts off creates a reactivity in the “left” one and the distancer/pursuer dance may begin.

To some extent, we all struggle to carve a bit of individuality out of all the togetherness that is part of being a family. There are many ways people cope with the anxiety borne of this fear of being incorporated or swallowed up into a system. Some people use substance to escape their fear that they are alienated from themselves, that they are broken….broken in love.

The lack of capacity to remain connected is paradoxically related to one’s inability to hold on to oneself in relationship to important others. Furthermore, the indulged grown child may lack a belief in their own personal agency and self efficacy. Often they believe they are at the mercy of the universe and there is a desperate kind of effort to escape the inner, chronic pain of disconnection and escalating ruptured relationships. Denial and defensiveness keep these people stuck and lonely.

Jeff’s life was defined by repeated efforts to overcome opiate dependence with the accompanying crisis and relationship loss. Bridges were burned beyond repair before his fiftieth year. When complete contact with his one child was severed…a beautiful, bright,thirteen year old daughter who adored him…his life took a lethal turn for the worse. Stints in prison and debilitating depression followed that emotional cutoff, which occurred, not coincidentally, the year following his father’s death in 1997.

Jeff panicked at the prospect of losing his mother to death. He had grieved inconsolably for years, for he had lost his most prized relationship-his thirteen-year-old daughter. Additionally, he had lost huge amounts of money, reputation, a beautiful home, the freedom to live near his family in California, and, sadly, the love of his life and the mother of his daughter. After his latest stint in prison, he met a random woman in a bar and invested his heart, soul, and wallet into winning her. She was a rough woman, many years his junior. He would marry her thirteen months prior to his mother’s death.

In the end, he believed the woman exploited him. Against the advice of friends and family, he had rushed to marry her , fearing he was aging and anticipating being “utterly and completely alone.” When that marriage went South, he became frightened. Humiliated. A desperado. He packed it in. By marrying her, he had tried one last time to find an adult relational home and recoup his myriad losses over his life course. But his tendency toward fusion made him too anxious to allow himself to love or be loved. So it all went from bad to worse.  This final loss was more than he could bear. Life became stripped of meaning. No relational home seemed available to Jeff. He was terrified at the prospect of being alone.

Murray Bowen, one of the foremost pioneers of marriage and family therapy, believed family members profoundly affect one another and that death is one example of this profound interdependence. Ripple effects or emotional shock waves can usually be observed in members closest to the ill or dying member. Changes such as marriages, divorces, obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction, or even workaholism all provide escape from the emotional  processes swirling about the family system. Physical illness and even death may follow after the death of a spouse or child. Bowen defined the ” ‘Emotional Shock Wave’ as a network of underground aftershocks…occurring most often after the death or threatened death of a significant family member.” (1978). The connectedness of major life events following serious illness and death may stimulate vigorous denial of any connection between the death and the events. He believed that this denial and subsequent occurance of serious life events occurred most frequently in families with a high degree of fusion or emotional “oneness.”Grief and loss work in the form of family of origin research can help people become a bit more aware of these tendencies to be reactive to the “undifferentiated ego mass” of the family and to operate within the fusion.The effort can help them move through the grief process in a timely and healing manner and also gain more basic self in the process.

As the person in the family system who apparently absorbed much of the anxiety for the system and accommodated more than was healthy for him to do in life, Jeffrey dealt with his relational crises/mental health challenges through self medication. He had struggled since his early teens, becoming stuck in a cycle of addiction, subsequent relationship heartbreaks,and repeated incarcerations.Shame, rejection, and regret haunted him most days of his life. He tried and failed to kick over and over again, in expensive rehab after expensive rehab.

The stigma our society has placed upon seeking mental health services is dangerous, especially in a shrinking world of escalating changes occurring at breakneck speed. Suicide is a genuine health issue, like cancer or diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the tenth most common cause of death in the United States. About 30,000 people  die by suicide every year–more people than by murder or HIV.

For sibling survivors of suicide, there is never closure–only reduced frequency and intensity over time. Sibling loss is not honored as much as parental loss; yet a sibling should be in our lives longer than anyone else. It is a profound loss to be the remainder…the surviving sibling, who shares fifty per cent of our DNA and huge amounts of life experience.

My dear brother, Jeff,  had physically left the premises on a hot July night in 2012. I found his suicide note in my mailbox upon arriving home from work after nine one night, and I remember my cry sounding less than human-more like an animal howl. I knew my mother would not be much longer for this world, because they were so close as to be like one organism. She had two more years for us to love her and cherish her.

Since Jeff died on July 19, 2012 and since Mom died in March of last year, family members close to Jeff have also experienced huge changes. There have been babies born, talk of divorce, real estate deals, major moves,weight loss, new romantic partnerships, an emotional cutoff, and returns to college. Mother’s caregiver of twenty five years has suddenly developed serious cardiac problems.

Changes in reaction to entrances and exits from the family system reflect the notion that change always is accompanied by stress. The intense emotional process that defines a family system in the face of illness and death demands that individuals closest to the deceased take especially good care of themselves in the months and even years following life threatening illness and death.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham‘s systemic model of marriage and family therapy practice, visit her website at www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call her at 619 9906203 for a complimentary phone consultation. If you or someone you know is in suicidal crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, California, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, often suggests books to her clients that might lead them toward making deeper meaning of their own life experiences. TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, by Mitch Albom, which covers existential themes, is reviewed below.,

“If you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward.” -Morrie Schwartz

The symbiotic nature of the mentoring relationship through time and space is beautifully depicted in TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE by Mitch Albom. Indeed, the term “mentor” is eponymous with a character in the Odyssey, who advises Telemachus, and pushes him forward in his search for his father. It is especially instructive for the student of marriage and family therapy studies to read TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE as if he were assessing both men from the psychosocial, contextual, and lifespan perspectives. From each of these vantage points, the careful reader will not only internalize Morrie’s lessons, but also become aware of changes in both men as a result of their interaction over time and space. Thus, observing both intrapersonal and interpersonal movement as well as changes one or both men make in their larger environments is cogent to the student of systems. In an effective manner, this remarkable bestseller serves as a kind of adjunct text for individual and family life cycle development students, for it will demonstrate to the budding clinician the notion that everything is connected and must, therefore, be interpreted in a contextual manner, and that when change occurs within one person, change will also become apparent in all whom he/she touches. In a Virgina Satir-like manner, the reader will be taken on a peak experience, the emotional learning experience, the real stuff of learning…the kind of teaching mold from which Morrie Schwartz emerged: the Confluent Educational Movement of the Sixties.

Clearly, Morrie, the former Brandeis, sociology professor of 37-year-old Mitch Albom, is not an ordinary man. He is an extraordinary man whom we meet as he faces his own slow but steady death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease; he is inspirational, because he exemplifies the apex of emotional maturity. It is with a sense of concomitant awe and recognition of developmental stages completed in a timely fashion that we watch him transition into this final life stage, exhibiting a joie de vivre to the end.

On the other hand, Mitch, consistent with his pattern of disconnectedness and negative feelings over his previous life cycle stages, has lost touch with his beloved professor since he graduated in ’79, despite his intention to always keep in touch. It is not surprising that he did not follow through, for in letting important relationships like the one he enjoyed with Schwartz go, we realize that he is merely following a familiar pattern of letting go all that is important to the heart. So, as might be expected, he has also lost touch with his old friend, his wife, and, ultimately, with the essence of his own personhood. In the fast-track culture in which he lives, a culture which is more egocentric and self-serving than those of other times, Mitch shows how his emotional maturity has been retarded by the interplay between family of origin issues and the materialistic values of his generation. His drive to succeed in the business world at the expense of his sense of connectedness to others suggests both a fear of intimacy and an abiding external locus of control (defining his worth in terms of society’s definition of success).

The question of individual differences in native-born resiliency should also be compared and contrasted. Morrie, who had a childhood colored by the loss of his mother, and impoverished further by a cold, distant father, apparently overcame even these attachment challenges, as can be inferred by his admirable responses to his final developmental tasks–end stage intimacy outcomes are positive and, this, in large part, results in an integrity of the life review. It is clear that Morrie displays an emotional maturity impressive to any lay person or to any clinician. Probably not lagging seriously in prior developmental milestones despite non-normative changes in earlier life, the clinician might have to consider biological, individual variants. This humanistic professor, product of the idealistic Sixties, well represents Steve Wolin’s Challenge Model of Resiliency (1991). No Damage Model was Schwartz, but rather a stellar example of initiative, humor, creativity, healthy relationship attachments, independence, insight, and morality.

Albom, a successful sportswriter and unsuccessful spouse, is lurched back in time when he mindlessly but serendipitously sees an ailing Morrie beamed into his living room from his television, which is tuned into Ted Koppel’s Nightline. He is transfixed as he hears how Morrie intends to ‘teach’ his last course to a nationally televised audience: a course on how to live even while dying. The dialectic of teaching others how to live while in the midst of facing death and even enjoying one’s last days when physical handicaps demand a return to the dependency of childhood is difficult at best (especially if one can smile despite needing someone else to ‘wipe my own ass”).

Morrie’s palpable enthusiasm to Mitch’s return to his life is illustrative of Morrie’s ability to enhance and enrich his own growth and development through connection. His manner of finding the positive in perceiving transitional challenges, thus reframing what might have once seemed overwhelming, buoys his journey, for it is all about the ability to live in the moment and in so doing, achieving a kind of freedom which subsequently empowers him to creatively move through and onward to the next milestone task in his life cycle.

Indeed, Morrie delights in the prospect of teaching Mitch one final class: in it, he sees his opportunity to generate wisdom while completing an important task during the last life cycle stage, a life review. Through Mitch, Morrie will also re-connect with a piece of his past, tasks which are generative and are consistent with what is important to do during the eighth life stage.

Thus, in what will prove to be a mutually beneficial partnership, the young man and the old man agree to meet every Tuesday for fourteen weeks. Through deeply affecting dialogue, Morrie offers consummate love, liberally spiced with humor, aphorism, examples, reminiscences, and philosophy. Schwartz personifies successful completion of the developmental tsks of Eriksen’s seventh and eighth age life stages.

Conversely, through Mitch, the training clinician sees what it looks like to not age well…what it looks like when a man has experienced significant failure in negotiating the earlier developmental tasks of adulthood. Morrie offers a picture of intimacy instead of isolation, of generativity instead of stagnation and of ego integrity instead of despair. On the other hand, in listening to Morrie, Mitch, who feels an intensified awareness of his years of isolation and angst of emptiness, is in increasing pain and paralyzed to move forward. He can now admit his drive toward materialistic acquisition has been tragically misplaced over many years. As the sole audience for Morrie when he completed his life review, Mitch became empowered to reframe his own notion of what it meant to live and be a success.

The astute, psychologically-minded reader could handily identify points at which Albom hit developmental lags, just as Albom identified them himself as he listened to Morrie’s review of his own rich life course. Albom effectively illustrates how individuals are agents of change in one another, and then how profoundly individuals affects one another from differing generations, historical contexts, cultures and life experiences intersecting.

As a result of what had synchronistically become a highly successful theraputic alliance, Mitch begins to question his values and reorder his priorities. Most impressive to the training clinician is the fact that Morrie has moved him forward in his individual development, evidenced by his initiative in reconnecting with his brother, suffering from the same disease, from whom he had been estranged for many years. Morrie is able to go ever so ‘…gently into that good night’ (rather than railing against death, as Dylan Thomas exhorted his father to do)after completing his life review, taking joy from his own initiative in getting on Nightline, teaching a former student their mutually, most memorable class, his involvement in a book project, and organizing his own living tribute memorial.

From a holistic perspective, we see in these two men an example of the systemic concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Teacher and student are profoundly changed by and through one another. Teacher is empowered toward a more joyous letting go of mortality intersecting with his memories of his past history.

Though not free of stressors, he sees it as a life well-lived, exemplified and capped by his ability to be of benefit by connecting with a younger individual.

Conversely, instead of feeling the joys of intimacy through ties to mate, work, and larger society, Mitch suffered an emptiness borne of his compulsive need to define his success in material terms, not serving his healthy development. Mitch is a man whose psychosocial development got ‘stuck’ somewhere in time. Morrie models generativity when most people would allow the physical stagnation to spread to emotional anguish and/or stagnation, thus cutting off their life force energy in spite of the fact that they are still blessed with life.

The importance of connectedness between generations, within families, extended families, communities, career netweorks, agape friends, and between hearts and heads is repeatedly driven home throughout this spiritual book. With each metaphorical example, the reader is charged and changed. Circular causality is on bold parade as Morrie’s empending death marches toward finality before millions, and it is Mitch who, at the same time as his demise, seems to be reborn. Rippling further outward, Morrie’s exemplary way of dying is portrayed to a nation of television viewers, also affected, by witnessing Morrie’s inspirational approach up close and personal. Most saliently, Morrie offers himself to Mitch as an opportunity to develop intimacy with another human being, perhaps the crowning human achievement and one that has eluded the younger man until his professor’s death. Thus, old and young men goad one another toward increasing their respective levels of emotional connection in facing death by and through

one another. By comparing and contrasting where each of these men are when we meet them in terms of their lifespan stage and how each of them subsequently handles the respective tasks that their chronological age suggests, the student can see how feedback loops compliment the completion of milestones within a specific context.

It is difficult to say who got more out of the Tuesday meetings: Mitch or Morrie. Is there an irony to the fact that when people are dying, the living seem more able to hear what they have to say? Should an individual’s ability to reverse developmental emotional retardation as a result of their vertical communication with another be questioned? Did Mitch, in fact, change enough to donate a portion of the proceeds from his bestseller to Lou Gehrig’s Disease research” The circular causality of human interaction and the dialectic that it is possible to find joyous tranformation on the other side of painful transition, even unto death, is part and parcel of the beauty in this little book.

At the close of TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, Morrie tells the story of a wise, little wave reminding another frightened little wave that he is ‘not part of a wave, [but]part of an ocean.’ Morrie Schwartz and Mitch Albom are testament to Katherine Kubler-Ross’ assertion that ‘…one of the most productive avenues of growth is found through the study and experience of death…individuals who have been fortunate enough to share in the death of someone who understood its meaning seem better able to live and grow because of the experience. Indeed it is patently clear that human beings do have the capacity to utilize an interpersonal relationship positively and move themselves forward, especially if the context is right. Morrie’s life–and death–reflect a man whose ego identity thrived as a result of the composite power and cumulative wisdom of most of his life choices. As Eriksen asserts, ‘Those who can accept [death]accept the whole [more than the sum total] of their own lives and those who get to such a point of maturity find that death loses its sting.

Morrie tells Mitch that “We have a sense that we should be like the mythical cowboy…able to take on and conquer anything and live in the world without the need for other people.” Poignantly, at the end of the book, Mitch resumes a relationship with his ailing brother, Steve, thus exhibiting hope and promise that intimacy will no longer elude him, even after Morrie is gone. And at the beginning of the book, Mitch describes Morrie as “…a small man who takes small steps, as if a strong wind could, at any time, whisk him up into the clouds.” It is a certainty that Mitch Albom would echo the idea that big heroes can reside in small places.

Dr. Cunningham is a relationship counseling expert. She practices couples counseling, marriage counseling and treats relationships issues of all types in San Diego, CA. She offers evening hours and a complimentary telephone consultation. You may reach her at 619 9906203 or visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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  In my private practice in San Diego, I work to provide quality services for marriage counseIing, relationship counseling, and individual psychotherapy. Oftentimes, I listen to young girls and women of all ages obsess about their weight, their appearance and their disappearing youth. I try to provide a safe holding environment as they work to relieve themselves of the overwhelming social pressures to be the prettiest, the skinniest, and the sexiest version of themselves they can create. I coach them to practice self care and take pride in themselves. However, I also coach them to make their life purpose revolve around what they can accomplish rather than merely upon a superficial and dangerous emphasis upon appearance and youth.

After talking at lunch with a close friend and colleague about the troubles of Demi Moore, I had a moment to reflect upon society’s demands to value appearance over substance. Magazines, movies, tv shows, and internet blogs seem to scream that “youth” trumps wisdom-that what we wear matters more than what we think. Some young women and many older women buy into this message so passionately that they kill themselves trying to meet these youthful, botoxed, skinny standards.

This week,  ABC News reported on Demi Moore’s downward spiral as reflecting her obsession with losing weight and battling against the clock as she approaches the big 5-0.  After public humiliation in the face of her estranged younger husband, Ashton Kutcher, betraying her with gorgeous, younger women, she seemingly dropped off her own psychological cliff. Demi appeared so emaciated in this week’s photos that she could have been mistaken for a cancer patient. Sad. Really sad. As she moves into a new decade, her refusal to eat seemed to say symbolically that she just could not swallow it. That she simply wants to disappear. 

Moore’s reported erratic behavior and alleged drug abuse sends a loud message to her daughters that adulthood is not fun and that aging gracefully must be for fools. She makes it appear that it is devastating to cross from youth to middle age. This woman’s daughters are learning deep lessons by watching their mother. Partying with their mother. Suffering as they watch their mother suffer. Wondering if growing older is really as devastating as Mom would have them believe. Moore reportedly gave an interview to Harper’s Bazaar and said, “What scares me is that I am ultimately going to find out at the end of my life that I am not really loveable, that I’m not worthy of being loved…that there is something fundamentally wrong with me.”

When daughters watch their mothers obsess about weight, worry about their changing appearances, be more ambitious about choosing their wardrobes than they are about the enduring consequences of their life choices and try to “hang” with and/or marry much younger men in an effort to cling to their own youth, they are receiving a devastating message. As mothers, we must realize that we are always modeling something–but what? In fact, the deepest lessons our daughters learn is by watching what we do, not what we say. So what are the lessons that we teach our daughters by our own actions?

Little girls learn at an early age if Mom is more concerned with style over substance. Sadly, Rumor, Scout and Talullah may have learned that their mother believes that her greatest value is in her appearance–that her validity as a human being is wrapped up in what she weighs, how she looks, and whether she is still “hot.” In a mad effort to deny her own mortality, she hangs with young people and seemingly tries to deny she is turning fifty with erratic behavior and recreational drugs. If Demi’s daughters are fortunate, they will look at life and their own intrinsic value differently than their mother. They will try to make meaning out of their life in a way that honors experience and wisdom over youth and appearance. Instead of survival of the prettiest, they will see their survival as being rooted in resilience-in the lessons they can discover that are present, but must be uncovered, in each of their life challenges.  Hopefully, Ms. Moore will benefit from professional help so that she can turn her life around. As a woman and as a mother who is facing myriad challenges, she now has an opportunity to teach her children more about the meaning of life by giving new meaning to her own. She has the opportunity to show that there is no shame in stumbling if one picks themselves up from the fall. She can model the joy of recovery from all of the Sturm and Drang so publically displayed. She has the opportunity to review and perhaps modify her values that have privileged vanity over inner substance gained from a life well lived. She has the opportunity to bounce forward, not just back-because of, not in spite of, her recent adversities.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham‘s strength-based practice, visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call her at 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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