FEAR OF LOSING YOUR IDENTITY: Ending your work life does not mean that you are losing you. Instead, it means that you need to redirect the energies that for so long occupied such a large part of your life. This transition is by no means easy; it can be painful and disorienting but also enormously exciting and liberating. Friends and family will help remind you that there is so much more to you than just “the lawyer”, “the teacher” or “the realtor.” They are the constant when you are surrounded by change. All the qualities that made you successful at your career are just waiting to be channeled into new arenas!
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Novick Goldberg.
Author of The Apple and the Shady Tree — The Mafia, My Family and Me, Lisa was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Five Towns on Long Island. She received her bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and her master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. She now lives in Coconut Grove, Florida, with her husband, Stan Blake.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I am new to my career as an author. In 2015 when I was 57- years old I began to write my memoir, The Apple and The Shady Tree, The Mafia, My Family and Me. Encouraged by friends and my therapist to share the story of how I successfully emerged from a dysfunctional family life, I hit the computer keys. My writing ultimately served to kill two big birds with one stone; I confronted the demons from my past that were causing me such debilitating emotional stress, and I quelled my nagging unhappiness that I was an underachiever who had sadly never reached my potential. With the publication of my book and its subsequent distinguished reviews, I now consider myself to be an AUTHOR!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
As I am in the fledgling stage of my career, my journey has yet to face the peaks and valleys, triumphs and disappointments of more seasoned writers. For me, the most interesting stories involve the process of getting my book into the public eye. I knew that I had a good story that deals with topics such as: the mafia, mental illness, murder, a nostalgic look at growing up in the 1960s and 70s on Long Island, vintage Las Vegas and Atlantic City and my identification with my Judaism. Even though I could cast a wide net over my subjects and audience, I still needed to get my book to YOU! This was virgin territory to me; the more I read about the publication and public relations processes, the more I felt overwhelmed.
I was fortunate to be introduced to an old friend of my husband’s, Roy Sekoff, the founding editor of The Huffington Post, and a seasoned author who took me under his wing. He explained the pros and cons of going with a traditional publisher or self-publishing. He ultimately put me in touch with a production company that did everything from editing to a final product. If I was decades younger with a longer attention span, I might have been able to produce my book by myself with the help of tutorials on You Tube or books on publishing, etc. but being aware of my limitations and confident enough in my manuscript, I decided to make the funding game house to farm out the job!
Once the book was published, I needed to promote it. I was at dinner with a new friend at a restaurant in Coconut Grove, Florida where I live, just prior to the Covid lockdown. My friend invited her friend who is in the entertainment business in Los Angeles and we got to talking. The next thing I knew, I was on the phone with her public relations agent. I was signed-up before coffee and dessert were served!
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I made the mistake of telling a beloved, well-meaning family member too much about my book plans! With the utmost goodness in her heart, she decided to promote my book with whomever she came in contact. Sounds fabulous except she was not always great with the facts. One evening over dinner, just weeks prior to my first book signing, we had a conversation that unfolded like this:
HER: “Lisa, I am telling everyone about your book, The Shady Tree and the Apple.”
ME: “The book is called the Apple and The Shady Tree.”
HER: “Tree, Apple, Shady, Sunny…. does it really matter? They now know about your book!”
ME: “I certainly appreciate your help, but yes, it matters! TITLES MATTER! It’s not called To Kill a Hummingbird! It’s To Kill a Mockingbird! And it’s not called The Wrath of Grapes! It’s The Grapes of Wrath!”
Her public relations career was over as far as I was concerned! So, what did I learn from this? Make sure your parents, friends, and others have their facts straight before they brag. Once you set them on the right track, then you can let’em loose!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My therapist! Bless her heart! After a lifetime of suffering from generational and situational anxiety, I decided at age 56 that it was time to seriously address my issues rather than deal with them on a crisis-by-crisis basis as I had always done. I was living with the man who became my husband and I wanted to ensure that I was giving not only myself, but our relationship, the best odds for success.
I wrote The Apple and The Shady Tree over a 4-year period beginning in 2015. The long stretches of stop and start writing were due to fears that consumed me:
“would I be putting myself or anyone mentioned in the book in harm’s way by writing about my father’s involvement in the mafia?”
“what did I hope to accomplish in writing my book?”
“was I throwing my family “under the bus” with my openness about our mental health issues?”
“would readers perceive me as a vindictive victim?”
“how would my father who is no longer alive and my mother who is, feel about how they are depicted?”
“if the book is successful, how will I feel about being in the public eye?”
My doubts about finishing the book often shut down production for months, but my skilled therapist and I worked through the issues. I wrote my story with this list of fears in mind and realized that I would never be “free” unless I faced and came to terms with the facts about my role in my family’s dysfunctional relationship.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
The key to avoiding the dreaded writer’s block is to enjoy what you do! Unless you are on a strict production schedule, go easy on yourself! You may not be able to write every day; the ideas may get stuck and need additional time to grow. Discipline is surely important, however; forcing yourself to produce daily is stress that doesn’t necessarily translate into good writing.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
According to MentalHealth.gov, “mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.”
From my experiences, I believe the average person’s view of mental health is grossly simplified; you are either well-adjusted, happy and medication-free or you have serious “issues” rendering you mal-adjusted and in need of therapeutic care and perhaps medication. The fact is, mental health covers a vast spectrum of fluid in-betweens; where you are at one point in your life is no indication of where you were in the past or will be in the future. It is based on both our genetic and situational reality and it can ebb and flow with hormones, the challenges of our jobs, relationships with our partners and other family members and the life transitions that we plan for and those which hit us unexpectedly. Since these challenges are part of the human condition, are there any steps we can take to improve or optimize our mental health?
While I am not a therapist, I have spent most of my life struggling with anxiety and depression resulting from generational mental illness on both sides of my family as well as a chaotic and highly dysfunctional family life made worse by my father’s role as the moneyman for the Genovese crime family. I credit my strength and resilience to a variety of factors that I share in my book. Beginning as a young child, I adopted coping mechanisms to deal with the traumatic situations to which I was consistently exposed. Many of these tools were instinctive and allowed me to survive emotionally; others I created and adapted throughout my life to optimize my mental health. As my therapist explained to me, they made the difference between being successful v. being broken.
Most of my tips for maintaining mental wellness can be applied to any age group, be it pre/teens, retirement years and everything in the middle! What differs is how these tips can be applied to address the specific needs of each period in our lives.
- LOOK FORWARD TO SOMETHING EVERY SINGLE DAY, NO MATTER HOW SMALL. I found I needed something to elevate each day, no matter how small. A meal or phone call with a good friend was/is often enough to do the trick, even in the most difficult times. The demands of living in a Covid world have created a new set of challenges, but you can still look forward to a Zoom meeting with family, a relaxing meal or even an awaited television show! Contentment comes a lot easier if you go day by day; try to allow the average, readily accessible pleasures to take their rightful place next to the larger, seemingly more significant ones.
- QUIET, ALONE TIME IS A MUST. We are all busy. The demands of our work, family and social lives often take a toll on our mental health. Most people I know, are surprised that this year of Covid quarantining has not been as restful as they would have imagined. Many work from home and are doing their job while still taking care of children, cooking 3 meals a day and handling the myriad of stresses that this virus has spawned. As a result, we are sometimes so busy that we choose to ignore the red flags of psychological and physical maladies that threaten our well-being. I am guilty of perpetuating this craziness; I tend to get very grouchy when I take on too much for ME. The bright side is that I have learned to demand from myself and from others the down-time that my mind and body desperately tell me I must have. We need to think of alone time as a pleasurable, regenerative, vital part of maintaining our emotional health rather than as an undesirable situation. Read, watch a movie, listen to music, have a meal by yourself, lie on your couch and think… or don’t think…. your choice. Just stop the proverbial “running.”
- COMMUNICATE: For many reasons (mostly fear I think), people refuse to convey their needs and wants, which can lead to debilitating resentment, anger, feelings of helplessness, anxiety and depression. We tell our young children to use their words but as adults we often forget that communication gives us power, which gives us a sense of control in our lives, which can go a long way towards protecting our mental health. Upset with a friend or partner? You don’t have to be confrontational or nasty to smooth things over… use your words to determine what’s going on… talk. Nervous about a work project? A physical check-up? Your child’s behavioral issues? Don’t hold it all in and make yourself crazy. When possible, talk to your boss, call your doctor, have a conversation with your child. Communication should be an important tool in everyone’s life-skills toolbox. Communication can let us know where we stand with others, which is crucially important in lessening stress and helping us to maintain our mental equilibrium.
- HAVE FRIENDS AND MENTORS…. BEST YET, FRIENDS WHO ARE ALSO MENTORS! People need people; we are made that way. We thrive on the comfort and support that having someone physically and emotionally close provides. Having the option to share the good times and the bad with others anchors us; we are not alone. I like to think that we pick our friends because they bring out the best in us. With millions of people to choose from, we align ourselves with the ones share our goals and values. I was aware at a young age that for the most part, I did not want to lead the negative life that my parents had chosen for themselves and for my sister and me. Instead, I surrounded myself with the types of people whose lives I wanted to make mine. I identified those who had qualities that I wished to have, such as kindness, patience intelligence, civility and empathy and I learned from them. Whether it was my loving maternal grandparents, concerned teachers who recognized that I came from a home with troubles, camp counselors who pushed me to explore talents that I did not know I had, and even parents of my friends who unknowingly showed me about healthy family relationships.
- BE GOOD TO YOURSELF: An important part of maintaining a healthy mental attitude is to have a realistic perspective of ourselves. We need to accept that most of us operate on an ever-changing, complex mix of positives and negatives. It seems that many of us focus only on our shortcomings at the expense of our strengths. An acknowledgement of what is positive in our lives gives us a firm foundation on which to change that which needs work. When my daughter, who also struggles with anxiety and depression, beats herself up for a variety of in-the-moment-issues, I remind her to try her best to recognize and celebrate the wonderful characteristics that are uniquely hers and those that make her family, friends and colleagues love and respect her. A healthy attitude thrives when we are kind to ourselves.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
All the mental health coping skills I discussed are useful at any stage in our lives, from adolescents to senior citizens and everything in between. But now let’s look at how these skills can be tailored to the specific mental health issues that challenge those at both ends of the life spectrum.
For decades as I commuted from my home to various offices, raised my daughter as a single-mom and attempted a social life, I fantasied about how wonderful it would be to reach retirement age and make friends with the clock rather than continually racing against it. I pictured myself in good health and with a comfortable bank account ticking-off the entries on the bucket list that I had carefully curated. I envisioned not only the high-priced, major entries such as exotic travel and a vacation home, but also the more simple delights of not being tied to an office, enjoying that 2nd cup of coffee while still in my bathrobe and slippers and listening to Dr. Phil proffer advice from the TV.
I am now 62 years old now and what you might call “semi-retired.” Although I work daily from our home managing my husband’s mediation business and doing my writing, I am free to make my own schedule. In the pre-Covid world, I made a point of taking myself out to lunch every day. When alone, it was my sacred time to read the newspaper and relax; when a friend joined me, it was a time to catch-up on gossip and relax (the two are not mutually exclusive!) My work is vital to my daily mental equilibrium; I thrive on the structure, challenges, and accomplishments that it provides.
Many of my friends who are just beginning full-retirement, are grappling with unprecedented issues despite the endless books and articles on how to live one’s best life during these “golden years.” The obvious and more well-known recommendations center on the physical, such as eating healthfully, exercising, and being in tune to the changing needs of our bodies. The many mental health challenges such as boredom, loneliness, fear of getting old and loss of identity that are often more subtle to identify and remedy. Let’s look at some ways to help confront these very legitimate concerns.
1.) FEELING OVERWHELMED BY ALL THE NEW-FOUND FREEDOM: After retirement, the positive stimuli of a work environment (social interaction, structure, accountability, predictability) are no longer available and the retiree may find that filling-in this gap requires a pro-active and self-motivated approach. They may feel overwhelmed by the choices available to them or their family and friends pressuring them to “get out there”, and wholly embrace everything the world has to offer! Having the opportunity does not mean one has to feel obligated to dive into another form of commitment or structure. YOU determine what your next steps will be.
Two years ago my husband and I bought a country house in the mountains of North Carolina in a community where many of our Miami friends were situated. We were warmly embraced by various groups eager to involve us in their hobbies:
“So Lisa, what are you looking forward to doing now that you’re here in “camp for adults?”
“Do you play canasta?”
“No, but I would love to learn.
“No, but I love the sound of fingernails against the tiles.”
“Pickleball? Tennis? Pilates? Biking?”
“No, No, No, and are you kidding me? Biking on these mountains? NO!”
“Do you hike?
“I like to hike with a destination in mind, like to a coffee shop”
“Yes I golf, sometimes, when it’s not too hot, or too cold.”
I found myself getting exhausted just listening to their list of activities! I was a tad ashamed of my responses to all their well-meaning queries, but I wanted to be honest and I certainly did not want to get signed-up for something that I really did not want to do.
“So what is it that you like to do?” I was repeatedly asked.
“I’m not really a joiner. I feel like I’ve been on a schedule my whole life; right now, I kinda just want to read, do my needlepoint, watch Netflix movies and do my writing. I also really enjoy eating.”
The fact is, I do want to participate in many of the activities that I have available to me… I just want to do them when I am ready, at my own pace.
By communicating your needs to other, you are being kind to yourself.
2.) FEAR OF GROWING OLD: The first whiff of concern about aging begins weeks before your 50th birthday when AARP sends you a barrage of mail encouraging you to join their organization. You hesitantly look through their magazine that is filled with ads for treatment, compression socks, flip phones and articles on how to avoid getting scammed. You begin to think, “Is this me? Could shuffleboard be in my near future along with capri pants and sensible shoes? OMG! I’m still getting my period, what the hell isgoing on here?” Before you know it, you are imagining seeing sagging jowls and drooping everything else! “Could my nose be getting bigger?” A nightmare! A slippery slide down your memory’s lane.
Joking aside, for many, the perception that the clock is ticking is terrifying and can lead to a relentless quest to preserve one’s youth or a resignation that it’s time to purchase a comfy rocking chair. Both extremes will drive you crazy and prevent you from living your best life. How to avoid this trap? To start, try not to play into stereotypes of old age; they are notions that are just… old! Furthermore, aim to be the best you can for your age. Be kind to yourself.
3.) FEAR OF RUNNING OUT OF TIME: Hand in the hand with the fear of getting old may come the concern that there is so much left to do and so little time! This is what is called a “mishegoss” in Yiddish or craziness, a waste of time. It is never too late to see the world, learn a language, get a degree, learn a skill and so on and so on. Your imagination or lack of, is the only thing holding you back from plowing through your bucket list.
I am in awe of the things that I have accomplished in the last 10 years. I met a wonderful man when I was 53 years old and got married, moved from New York to Miami, started a new business with my husband, and wrote a memoir. All this came despite my “can’t do” upbringing, which filled me with lots of self-doubt. I accomplished all this thanks to luck and divine intervention, therapy and sheer determination. I envisioned it, believed in it, and made it happen.
4.) FEAR OF LOSING YOUR IDENTITY: Ending your work life does not mean that you are losing you. Instead, it means that you need to redirect the energies that for so long occupied such a large part of your life. This transition is by no means easy; it can be painful and disorienting but also enormously exciting and liberating. Friends and family will help remind you that there is so much more to you than just “the lawyer”, “the teacher” or “the realtor.” They are the constant when you are surrounded by change. All the qualities that made you successful at your career are just waiting to be channeled into new arenas!
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
The pre-teen and teen years can be a mental roller coaster for children (not to mention for their parents!) As they cautiously navigate the period between their childhood and adulthood, they face the challenges of learning to fit in with their peers, get along well with their siblings and parents, discover their sexuality and try-on a variety of different personas. As they run the gauntlet, they test and are tested. These pressures would be monumental at any age but are particularly daunting to this age group with their developing brains and mercurial mental health. So how do we help pre/teens to healthfully deal with all this stuff?
In my book, I describe the trauma that I experienced at this age due to the genetic encumbrances that I carry, and the ramifications of my parents’ poor life-choices, which included my Jewish father being the moneyman for the Genovese crime family. According to my psychoanalyst, who did not enter my life until 6 years ago, everything pointed to me ending up on remedy, homeless, in jail or a mixture of the three. I am often asked how I was able to overcome so shaky a start in life. The following are some of the factors that helped me to cope in those critical growth years.
- HAVE FRIENDS: Everyone at every age needs a friend (s), but for pre/teens, having the “right” friends, can make all the difference in what their future will hold. Good friends, are not only Saturday afternoon companions at the mall; they are powerful influencers who affirm and reinforce behaviors and shape the dreams and goals that will launch these young adults on their road to maturity. A good friend will listen when it seems that parents are not. A good friend teaches about sharing and trust and love, characteristics that are necessary in all types of relationships. Remember, you need not have a posse… you just need a good pal.
- HAVE MENTORS: Because preteens are practically at ground zero when it comes to figuring out who and what they want to be, having mentors offers living examples of what is possible for them to become. Even the most wonderful parents cannot be everything; mentors broaden the learning field beyond the family and show pre/teens that they have choices in their lives.
- HAVE A VOICE: Though easier said than done, I would encourage young adults to reach out for help when they feel in need. These adults-in-training frequently know, way before their parents are aware, that something is “off” in their lives. Perhaps they are being bullied in school, or unable to keep up with the demands of their schoolwork, or for no clearly identifiable reason, they are anxious or experience the blues. Their discomfort may appear to be temporary or minor, but if they are asking for help, they should get it. How much less complicated is it if a child is sophisticated or sensitive enough to know they require support? As a pre/teen, I told my mother I wanted to see a therapist but she was dead set against it, explaining, “you’ll get over what’s bothering you. Everything passes.” Much of her thinking was typical of that in the 1960s. Sadly, I could have greatly benefitted from outside help when I was young. Not everything passes, in some cases issues get compounded and scream out for attention but by then it may be too late. As a pre/teen, try to seek out the help that you need; if you are unable to see a private therapist, try to make use of the community services offered or school counselors who are there to guide you through the challenges. Your voice might be young and inexperienced, but when it comes to your mental health and the quality of your life….. ROAR! Someone will hear you.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
When I was 10 -years old I found a 1930s copy of the Nancy Drew book The Quest of The Missing Map at my grandparents’ house. The yellowed pages, the vintage illustrations and the outdated expressions drew me in. I felt as if I was making a strong connection to the child reader from decades prior, my mother. I savored reading that book and then went on to read every book in the series. I loved that the young sleuth never aged though she did become more modernized in her fashion and colloquialisms. She was pretty and kind, independent and very sensible. She had good friends and a wonderful relationship with her widower father and Hannah Gruen, the trusted family housekeeper. Nancy was everything that I would have liked to be. When I joined her on adventures to exotic countries or America’s small towns and stood next to her holding a flashlight to guide our way in some dark tunnel, field or castle, I was free from the stresses of my childhood. Testimony to the power of her impact on me is that on occasion I reread the books and still feel our connection. Nancy Drew is my hero.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My favorite quote since childhood continues to be “march to the beat of your own drum.” My mother introduced me to these powerful words and I have been faithful to them to this day.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!