Other Side of the Couch

Welcome to a blog that aims to be full of insightful ramblings from a licensed psychotherapist, with a specialty in sex therapy and marriage and family therapy. It is my hope that this blog will be of interest to people in therapy, people contemplating therapy, people contemplating being therapists, people about to be therapists and people who already are therapists!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


For those of you who have written asking me why I'm not writing on my blog anymore, I have good news and bad news.

First the bad news. I'm not going to be writing in this blog any longer. I felt that I had exhausted what I really wanted to say here.

The good news? I've got a new blog, "Speaking of Sex With Jassy," and you are very welcome to hop on over and see what I'm writing about there.

I look forward to your questions, comments and emails!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Leave John and Elizabeth Edwards Alone Already

George Bush has decimated the country, dumped our economy into the toilet, started an illegal war based on duplicitous, purposefully trumped up allegations of WMD's, ordered American troops to bomb, shoot and blow up innocent citizens in Afghanistan and Iraq and we have done nothing. He has eroded our civil rights and trampled on much of what Americans have always held dear and yet still we do little. No impeachment. No taking to the streets in massive numbers. Few demonstrations of outraged indignation, least ways few that have been televised or reported on in the press.

But John Edwards does what countless other husbands have done before him (a conservative estimate by Shirley Glass, Ph.D., has extra-marital affairs running at 25% of wives and 44% of husbands) and the pundits on TV are salivating and creaming in their pants over the salaciousness of the situation. Upstanding, loving, good-hearted and otherwise honest and trustworthy people have affairs. Try as the press might to demonize the likes of Bill Clinton and men like John Edwards, an affair is not evidence of a lack of character. It's just evidence of boundaries that peeled away, leaving the person in a committed relationship open to the lure of an affair.

Focusing on John Edwards is a huge red herring for the American populace, as our cost of living sky rockets, our climate continues its wobbly descent into global warming via serious drought, melting icebergs, wildly fluctuating temperatures and general planetary instability. Our outrage over John Edwards cheating on his plump and dying wife, with a slim blond co-worker, Rielle Hunter, takes our attention off the crap that the neo-cons are pulling as they lurch into the dying months of their last few months in office. Meanwhile, John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth have a lot of work to do in a short time as they have Elizabeth's incurable cancer to contend with. The task of rebuilding a marriage after an affair is an onerous one. I'm sure that task is not helped by the orgiastic delight with which news shows go over and over the details of the affair, pontificating for hours on end about whether Ms. Hunter's child is Edwards' "love child" and whether he should be allowed to stay in office due to this "serious error in judgment."

Our outrage also distracts us from what we should be doing to protect our own relationships, to have the kinds of discussions in our relationships that draw lines in the sand and define what fidelity means to us, whether we are in a monogamous or non-monogamous relationship. In my experience with couples who are dealing with the aftermath of an affair it feels to both partners like the world has tumbled off its axis. Partners need time, understanding, non-judgmentalism and compassion to heal from the impact an affair has on a relationship.

I hope the Edwards family has thrown out their television sets.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Inspiration For Being A Therapist

I grew up in the United Kingdom. Although I was born in Swansea, South Wales, my family moved into England when I was still of elementary school age. One of my most vivid school memories was of a particularly loved teacher at Elmbridge Road Junior School in Elmbridge, Gloucester, UK. Mr. Rapson was my home room teacher when I was 10 or 11 years old. He was a very short, rotund gentleman with a short-back-and-sides hairdo, extremely baggy brown pinstripe suits, and a habit of twitching and blinking. In retrospect, I think he had Tourettes Syndrome, but back then it was just intriguing to watch him twitch and blink his way through our classes. English, and in particular story writing, was my favorite lesson time. Back then, we used ink pens that you had to continually dip into ink pots which teetered precariously in their roughly carved out holes in the rickety, creaky, wooden school desks - pens that left you with ink stained fingers and spots of Indigo Blue on your school uniform.

On one particular occasion, I had lovingly written, in ink and “joined up” writing, a vivid story, complete with my usual huge cast of characters, all busy relating, chatting and talking to and about themselves. Mr. Rapson bent over my desk and said to me, “All they do is sit and talk to each other, dear girl. Can’t you make them do something more interesting?” Shocked, I sat and pondered his question seriously. What, I thought, could be more exciting than sitting and listening to other people’s stories?

When my paternal grandparents died my father inherited all their books, which came housed in a huge, mahogany bookcase, with sliding glass doors. I believe it was my grandfather, Stanley, who was the avid reader and one of the book collections he had assembled over the years was a complete set of detective fiction by Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of the Perry Mason stories. I must have been about 9 or 10 years old when I picked up the first one and I was hooked. I slowly read my way through the entire collection, falling in love with the characters, fascinated by the complexity of the plots, and the development of the relationships between people. What 10 year old would not have been fascinated by books with titles like, “The Case of the Vagabond Virgin,” “The Case of the Cautious Coquette” and other fascinating and attention-getting headings? Thus began my love-affair with Mystery/Detective fiction. As I grew up, I moved onto Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle and later I read my way through the mysteries of Patricia Cornwall, Sue Grafton, John Grisham, The Kellermans, P.D.James, Martha Grimes, etc.

Can you see where this is going?

Being a therapist is a great deal like being a detective. Day after day, people come in and sit on the bright red psychotherapy couch in my office. Their job is to tell me stories about their lives and my job is to listen carefully. I hear about their parents, their siblings, their lost loves, their current loves, their fears and confusions. I hear about times in their lives when they have triumphed. I hear about times when they feel disappointed in themselves and feel that they have sadly failed. I hear about places where they feel strong and confident and places where they feel vulnerable and scared. They come in individually, looking for a place to make sense of the pieces they present to me over the weeks and months. They come in with partners, with friends and family members, each person with their unique spin on the same situation, with their own narrative to explain how their lives intersect. My job is to listen respectfully, and be able to pull all the seemingly disparate pieces together. (I have to confess that in this endeavor, I find it much more useful to think of myself as “channeling” Erle Stanley Gardner than Winnicott or Minuchin!)

So, if you’re good at Math in school, you’re told that you would make a great mathematician. If you’re a great athlete, you may be encouraged to think of yourself as an Olympic hopeful. But hardly anbody has words of encouragement or direction for small children who are just plain entranced by what human beings feel, experience, want and need to talk about.

So, yes, I was influenced to become a psychotherapist not just by my own crazy, wacky, dysfunctional family, but also by Mr. Rapson, Erle Stanley Gardner and the legions of mystery writers who came after him. (And there are those who say I look more like Miss Marples as each day passes!)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Health At Any Size

I come from a long line of short, strong women ranging in size from voluptuous, to chubby-to-fat in girth, without exception sporting large breasts and wide hips. The women in my family live well into their late 80's and early 90's, with few health problems other than sore joints and seasonal colds. We have always eaten well and heartily. My own mother, nearly 79, still works out at the gym a few times a week, does numerous laps in the Olympic size pool there, still does her own home repairs, and likes to regularly go belly-dancing with my sister. For her 77th birthday, she went rappelling down the side of a 200 foot building and sent me the photos framed as a birthday present. She says she'd like to go hang gliding sometime in the next year or so. She shows no signs of slowing down yet. And she's for sure no light-weight.

If you've seen my photo, you'll know that I have not let the maternal side down. I'm most definitely fat. I tried not to be for years, but I am. That's just me. "Porky of bod," to quote an old friend (and I've come to love that expression) and it doesn't seem to change, no matter what I've managed to do to artificially shape-shift through dieting and (many, many years ago) a not-so-charming eating disorder. It never lasts and I'm miserable while I'm trying, so I've stopped. But I eat healthily and well for the most part, although I am planning to exercise more than I do. I'm in a sedentary occupation, with broken knees (a double knee replacement is in my future) and despite my occasional earlier incarnations as a gym-and-beach-bunny, in my nearly mid 50's I'm beginning to come to terms with the fact that this is just me - who I am - a fat (yes folks, it's just an adjective) therapist with above average intelligence, a big heart and a fairly healthy constitution.

I believe in "health at any size." I don't consider that being fat condemns people to a lifetime of diabetes and heart-disease, and I think that making healthy food choices is important because we only get one body and it's good to honor the one we get. Exercise is important for the same reason. (I'm not going to fight with folks about this - go look at Kate Harding's blog - she's written about this far better than I ever could.) I know that my perspective is an unpopular one, but I also think that time and adequate research will prove what most size-acceptance activists already know - it ain't that bad to be fat, if you are eating well and moving your bones regularly!

My granddaughter is 9 years old. A huge fan of Beyonce, Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus and Fergie she sings along with her mother in the car, as the radio blares. Most of the words are beyond her understanding, but she's beginning to comprehend the idea that it's important to be "sexy" and that for some reason having the right kind of body is important. She's heard that being bootylicious is good, but fat is bad, although with a size-acceptance grandmother, she understands that laughing at fat people is not kosher and despite this, sadly, I have overheard her occasionally as she succumbs to the use of mockery, the chosen tool of most oppressors, when she sees fat people, young or old, on TV. For right now, she's a gymnast, muscular, slender, strong and lithe. And like many women who walk through my office door each day, she's confused. If bootylicious is good and "shaking your jelly" a la Beyonce is fine, where is the line between that and being overweight or fat?

"Are you bootylicious?" she asks my daughter the other day.
"Why yes, I suppose I am!" says my daughter, herself curvy with ample "toppage."
"Will I be bootylicious?" asks granddaughter, a furrow forming between her eyebrows.
My daughter, contemplating her own heritage, replies "Yes, sweetie, you will be bootylicious sometime in the near future."

Granddaughter is relieved, but I believe she's still confused. I think she's wondering how on earth you maintain bootyliciousness without sliding into fatness?

I can't think of one single female client I've had who hasn't, at some point, talked about the same confusion, and complained about the body they're in. Occasionally a man will talk half-heartedly about "getting in shape" but it's rare that they exhibit the same self-hatred as the women. Some women won't have sex for fear of their partner seeing their bodies. Some won't allow their photograph to be taken because they can't stand to see themselves. Some give up on big damn lives because of the body they have, the self-hatred they have and the flesh on their bones. Some won't go for walks, won't go swimming, don't go dancing even though they really want to, don't pursue relationship because they don't consider themselves desirable, lovable, sexy and attractive. Some of them count each calorie,and live lives of numeric and caloric turmoil as a result. Some of them have had weight-loss surgery, despite the health and morbidity risks attached. Few of them will make eye-contact with me as they talk about their hatred of their bodies. I try to reassure them that it's fine to talk about with me. However, if you're looking for diet support, I'm not a good person to come to. I encourage my clients to do what I try to do as best I can. Live as big a life as you can without being so concerned with the shell you're living it in. Eat healthily and heartily and stop when you've had enough and are full. Have sex. Get wet in a swim pool. Get mad when somebody tells you that you don't have a right to a life of joy, excitement, companionship, sexy times until you've changed your body size. This is your one shot at life in the body you have.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Settling In To Life As A Northampton Therapist

Moving to Western Massachusetts has been a culture shock in many ways. There are sights, sounds, smells and personalities to familiarize myself with, and as somebody who lived most of my life in an urban setting, the learning curve is enjoyable, but steep.

The small town I live in is very rural, and other than a small log cabin near our home, there are no houses for half a mile and then another 2 miles before you come to the next building - the local (and only) grocery store. Despite the fact that our land is on a fairly major (for Western Mass) route, sometimes more than 15 minutes goes by without a car, truck or tractor driving past. During an ice-storm, few cars can get make it up the steep hill just past our house and when the ice and snow have carpeted the road surface with such a thick slick of slippery white, and we leave the lights on around our driveway to let people know that if they are stuck, they can call friends to be towed, and have a cup of tea while they thaw out and wait to be rescued. In between frequent snow and ice storms the road surfaces are visible and what was once a smooth road surface now ripples with frost heaves; parts of the road are almost split in half where the town didn't get around to crack sealing in time for the winter freeze.

One of the local farmers owns the corn field across from our driveway, and as spring approaches he tows cart-loads of manure and dumps it in the field, ready to spread it over the cornfield, readying it for the summer crop. Right now, the manure is frozen in dark clumps, forming piles which stand out starkly against the snowscape in the field. But as soon as the thaw comes, the manure will warm up and the smell will be unbearable to us city-slickers for a couple of days. I'm sure that we'll get used to it after a few years, but for the moment the smell is strong and unpleasant, as much as we appreciate the benefit it brings to the soil.

People are friendly and welcoming, but cautious and understandably so. I've been told by new friends that local people are wary of growing too close to those "flatlanders" who have newly arrived in the hill towns region of Western Mass. Apparently, as life can be harsh and hard here, sometimes people give up and return to their urban ways, leaving their rural friends behind. So there's a cautious "wait and see" approach to newbies in town. Your impact on a small town is much, much larger than the one you'd have in an urban town setting, and it's wise to be careful and even more respectful towards neighbors than you would normally. We clearly need each other more out here. Alienating neighbors is not a good idea.

I have always enjoyed spending time alone, and can wile away hour upon hour with books, writing letters, journaling and reading professional journals and magazines. Now a lot of my time seems to be taken in driving. Sometimes it takes me as much as three hours to get into Watertown where I spend two days a week seeing clients at my Watertown office. When I'm back at home, I have a 40 minute (19 mile) drive into Northampton to see clients one to two days a week. I plug in my Blue Tooth headset, and talk on my phone to friends and family on the long drives backwards and forwards down the Massachusetts Turnpike, and my CD box is overflowing with music that I listen to in between phone calls. I would still rather be sitting with my legs up on our over-stuffed leather couch, reading a book, but music and phone calls make the trips bearable.

My practice is still building in Northampton, but meanwhile my online therapy practice more than keeps me busy. I have developed a sub-specialty in working with transgender active duty military personnel (and sometimes their family members), and as my name gets passed around transgender chat rooms and transgender support sites online, this practice continues to build. (There is much to say about this, and my intent is to write a series of blogs on the issues facing people who are transgender and serving in the armed forces.) Meanwhile, sitting at my computer upstairs in my study wearing fluffy flannel pajamas, warm slippers and my favorite Pashmina around my shoulders (purchased by my mother as a present for me at a store in Heathrow Airport) conducting therapy online with a soldier stationed in Iraq is another wonderful way to pursue a life as a therapist, and adds greatly to the quality of my professional life that I can conduct some part of it in my PJ's!

Northampton is delightful. The town is fully of bijou restaurants, music venues and clothing stores, one-of-a-kind art stores, and so many bookstores that I feel as if I've died and gone to heaven. They don't call this area "Happy Valley" for nothing! Suffice to say that this is not a welcoming place to live for republicans. The town is very gay and lesbian friendly and while it's not as ethnically diverse as I would like, there's plenty of room for all sorts of people. People watching here is a delight. I described it to a friend as being "Harvard Square on steroids." I don't think I've ever seen as many white people with dreadlocks in my life!

Being one of only three sex therapists in the immediate area of Northampton and Amherst has also meant that I've been met with a very big and friendly welcome by local psychotherapists, eager for places to make referrals for clients struggling with sexual disorders. So, I've been invited to join online lists of local psychotherapists in private practice; I've received invitations to meet and socialize in local restaurants with like-minded clinicians; people have freely shared their resources whether it be suggestions for where to find office space, or how to locate a good billing person. I've been stunned at how fast I've made friends - what took years to accomplish in Boston, has happened in a matter of months in Northampton. So, my practice here has been growing nicely, and I love my new office space on King Street. In addition to being just a brisk walk into the hustle and bustle of the downtown area, there's also the benefit of being set back from the street, so my office is quiet and peaceful no matter what the time of day.

I feel quite blessed these days.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Are "Gay Divorcees" really feeling gay?

Same-sex couples have been dealing with relationship break-ups in therapy for many years. A new wrinkle for some of these break-ups is the inclusion of legal marriage and legal divorce. While 50% of heterosexual marriages end in divorce, there are particular issues to same-sex divorce that psychotherapists and other divorce professionals must understand. These differences include same-sex couples’ lack of familiarity with the legalities of divorce, the homophobic culture that provides varying degrees of support for the marriage or understanding of the factors existing in same-sex divorce, along with added pressure from both outside and inside the LGBT community.

The Massachusetts high court ruling in November 2003, which allowed same-sex couples to marry beginning in May of 2004, was a landmark decision that took the GLBT community by surprise. Despite all their work fighting for civil rights, few GLBT activists expected the expansion of our civil rights to include legal marriage. The passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 had explicitly defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman for the purposes of federal law. At the time, the passage of that act felt for many in our community like large, rusty nails in the collective GLBT civil rights coffin.

The idea of having our relationships sanctioned by law was so unexpected, such a never-in-our-lifetime-feeling, that many people leapt to make their relationships legal, in order to take advantage of what they feared would be their only chance to protect their families. Some couples have reported feeling that, thrust into getting married to protect what limited benefits they were being offered, they didn’t really understand the long-term ramifications of being legally married. Some have even told of being audited because their taxes were not understood by the IRS. Other couples faced loss of their health benefits after passage of the bill, and felt they had no choice but to marry.

Same-sex couples aren’t the only ones unfamiliar with their new status. Many lawyers in Boston are refusing to take on same-sex divorce cases because the law is so untested and is even more problematic because same-sex marriages are not federally recognized. From a legal standpoint, this makes our divorces even messier than those of heterosexual couples. As Joyce Kaufmann, a Boston-area lawyer, has pointed out, divorce is one of the benefits of marriage. On top of the complex legalities of same-sex divorce, few of us have had time to catch up with the steep and complex emotional learning curve of such a benefit.

Divorcing same-sex clients often feel like they are walking on the crunching egg-shells of a legal system unprepared for same-sex marriage, let alone same-sex divorce. Kali Munro, an online therapist living in Canada says, “I find that heterosexual couples are more likely to have known other people who have divorced, what their rights were, how finances were handled, what to do, etc., whereas lesbian and gay couples are new to the legal and financial implications of marriage and don't always know their options. I've heard some lesbian couples say that they can't divorce, despite their great unhappiness, because their finances are shared and they don't see a way out of it. This adds even more strain to an already strained relationship.”

Making the decision to end a relationship is a difficult and painful one, a decision that few couples make lightly regardless of sexual orientation. Research has shown that most divorcing couples face a complex emotional salad of confusion, shame, embarrassment, uncertainty, sadness and a profound feeling of personal failure. Bear in mind that this research was carried out using divorcing heterosexual couples as the basis for the research, against the backdrop of a culture and society that promotes, supports and protects their marriages. The same situation does not pertain for same-sex couples whose relationships may have been vilified and discounted by homophobic opposition. Same-sex clients contemplating divorce, in turning to their therapists for emotional support and guidance, may find clinicians who are unaware of the particular complexities of same-sex divorce, including issues that may be concealed beneath layers of shame, humiliation, and internalized homophobia.

Same-sex relationships suffer from bad press and a host of inaccurate, homophobic myths. We have been told that our relationships aren’t “real”, that they don’t last, and have even been equated with bestiality (Thank you, Huckabee!) Joe Kort, psychotherapist and author, says that in his clinical practice he has found that same-sex clients who are in the process of divorcing “are afraid to tell family and friends for similar reasons that heterosexual couples have but, in addition, their divorce is like confirmation that heterosexism is correct and that gay relationships are doomed to fail.” None of us wants to provide fodder to anti-same-sex marriage individuals and right-wing organizations who will point to divorcing same-sex couples as evidence that we aren’t “real” couples. But, as Kali Munro points out, “How odd that anyone would even try to point to divorce in the lesbian and gay community as proof that those marriages were never 'real' when we all know about the divorce statistics in the heterosexual community!”

Same-sex couples with children choose to marry for some of the same reasons as heterosexual couples. Additionally, they want to give as much protection to their children and their own vulnerable relationship as possible by taking advantage of their ability to legally marry in Massachusetts. I spoke recently with a lesbian mother who is going through a divorce and agreed to talk with me on condition that she remains anonymous. She said that she and her partner had been together for many years before they married and her experience in her family of origin was, “You feel like an outsider when you're not married.” For this lesbian mother, having children legitimized her marriage, because her parents saw themselves as having a formal role, that of grandparents.

Regrettably, not all same-sex couples are so lucky. For some couples, some of the emotional issues that arise from dealing with a homophobic culture are further amplified by marriage and then heightened further by a subsequent divorce. A couple who saw me for therapy told me that both their families had consistently treated their fifteen-year relationship as completely unimportant and invalid, even after their legal marriage, and, now, with their impending divorce, as if that too was “invisible.” One of the partners commented that it was clear to her that her parents hadn’t recognized either her marriage or her divorce as important as they did that of one of her siblings, despite the fact that my client’s grief at the ending of her relationship was as profound as anyone experiencing the end of a marriage. While her sibling had been showered with financial and emotional support, she said her parents refused to bring up the subject of their divorce and had even changed the topic of conversation on several occasions. Some of the work we did in therapy involved validating for this couple that their deeply-felt feelings of sadness, loss, fear and humiliation were real, and nothing to gloss over, despite their families’ insistence on treating them disrespectfully and not hiding their disapproval and judgment of them and their relationship. It’s not easy work.

Many divorcing same-sex couples also report feeling pressure from within the GLBT community. The additional burden of feeling like a poster child for same-sex marriage creates an added and sometimes overwhelming feeling of pressure. These couples are struggling with feeling as if they let down their community. Joe Winn, LICSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in Arlington, Massachusetts, reports that among clients going through same-sex divorce he has noticed clients “who refuse to address the intensity of their divorce - minimizing their feelings, minimizing their loss and mourning - which I have been attributing to trying to avoid the shame and sense of failure that comes with loss.” Winn reports that he has seen in some of his clients a re-emergence of internalized homophobia and a developmental regression of their lesbian or gay identity. Other therapists report clients talking about their deep feelings of embarrassment and humiliation and, in some cases, confessing that they dread telling their heterosexual friends and relatives even more than same-sex friends. It’s not only the homophobic response from families of origin and society that same-sex couples fear. As Joe Kort remarks, “Others have been judged negatively by their friends who tell them they should not have gotten tangled up with a legal system to begin with, something that straight couples would not necessarily say to one another about marriage.”

Elizabeth Zelvin, psychotherapist and mystery author, points out that therapists need to be mindful not only of the ways in which same-sex couples are the same or different, but the fact that some same-sex clients may be less willing to reveal relationship issues in therapy. The same issues that are at play in larger society for divorcing same-sex couples may also play out in their relationship with their therapist. For example, if the therapist is heterosexual, the client may be concerned about misunderstanding or homophobia from the therapist. If the therapist is lesbian or gay, the same issue of “letting down our team” may surface for the client. Feelings of shame about divorce may make them less likely to talk about their relationship issues.

Therapists have been dealing with relationship break-ups forever. Now, they must deal with the ramifications of same-sex legal marriage and legal divorce. In order to provide useful support to their clients, psychotherapists and other divorce professionals must recognize the particular issues inherent in same-sex divorce, including lack of familiarity with the legalities of divorce, the homophobic culture that provides varying degrees of support for the marriage or support, and pressure from inside and outside the LGBT community. By being mindful of and addressing the complex interplay of these legal, emotional and social issues, psychotherapists and other divorce professionals will be able to assist same-sex couples who find themselves in this previously uncharted territory.

(With thanks to Joe Kort, Kali Munro, Elizabeth Zelvin and Joe Winn for their clinical input and ideas.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Learning about Peak Oil and Your Emotional Response


This article appeared in the Washington Post today, November 19th, 2007. It contains some of the arguments, theories and controversies surrounding Peak Oil. You might ask what this has to do with you and your emotional life. Let's go one step further. "What does this have to do with therapy or psychotherapy?" you might ask. My answer is "a great deal." Our lives do not exist in a vacuum - they are dramatically affected by the world we live in and very definitely affected by economic and environmental forces. Your world and mine will be increasingly effected by declining fossil fuel production. One example? How much less money do you have in your bank account as a result of the recent hike in gasoline prices at your local gas station? This increase in oil prices will begin shortly to affect everything - the price of food in the supermarket, the cost of home goods and supplies, the cost of clothing....all these require transportation to ship them to stores, and transportation costs will be affected by increased oil prices. These are all passed along to consumers in the form of increased pricing in stores.

Along with this financial impact comes a corresponding emotional response. If you read it, how did you feel as you took in the information in the article? Does the information feel like it's nothing to do with you? Does it feel like somebody else's problem? Does the topic feel too overwhelming to think about? Do you find yourself reluctant to read it? Feel that you can't take the information in? Distracted? Bored? Upset? If you are able to think about the issues, how does thinking about Peak Oil change any of the future and possible life plans you had?

This is the best site for good descriptions of the emotional responses that are possible when starting to think about Peak Oil. I'll be interested to hear what YOUR responses are, and I will be shortly posting a blog on the challenges facing Peak Oil aware psychotherapists when working with clients who have not yet considered the impact that declining fossil fuel production will have on their lives.

(With thanks to my friend, Mary McClintock, for sending me this article)

Oil Officials See Limit Looming On Production
November 19, 2007; Page A1

A growing number of oil-industry chieftains are endorsing an idea long deemed fringe: The world is approaching a practical limit to the number of barrels of crude oil that can be pumped every day.

Some predict that, despite the world's fast-growing thirst for oil, producers could hit that ceiling as soon as 2012. This rough limit -- which two senior industry officials recently pegged at about 100 million barrels a day -- is well short of global demand projections over the next few decades. Current production is about 85 million barrels a day.

The world certainly won't run out of oil any time soon. And plenty of energy experts expect sky-high prices to hasten the development of alternative fuels and improve energy efficiency. But evidence is mounting that crude-oil production may plateau before those innovations arrive on a large scale. That could set the stage for a period marked by energy shortages, high prices and bare-knuckled competition for fuel.

The current debate represents a significant twist on an older, often-derided notion known as the peak-oil theory. Traditional peak-oil theorists, many of whom are industry outsiders or retired geologists, have argued that global oil production will soon peak and enter an irreversible decline because nearly half the available oil in the world has been pumped. They've been proved wrong so often that their theory has become debased.

The new adherents -- who range from senior Western oil-company executives to current and former officials of the major world exporting countries -- don't believe the global oil tank is at the half-empty point. But they share the belief that a global production ceiling is coming for other reasons: restricted access to oil fields, spiraling costs and increasingly complex oil-field geology. This will create a global production plateau, not a peak, they contend, with oil output remaining relatively constant rather than rising or falling.

The emergence of a production ceiling would mark a monumental shift in the energy world. Oil production has averaged a 2.3% annual growth rate since 1965, according to statistics compiled by British oil giant BP PLC. This expanding pool of oil, most of it priced cheaply by today's standards, fueled the post-World War II global economic expansion.

On Oct. 31, Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of French oil company Total SA, jolted attendees at a London conference by openly labeling production forecasts of the International Energy Agency, the sober-minded energy watchdog for industrialized nations, as unrealistic. The IEA projects production will grow to between 102.3 million and 120 million barrels a day by 2030. Mr. de Margerie said production by 2030 of even 100 million barrels a day will be "difficult."

Speaking Clearly

This is "the view of those who like to speak clearly, honestly, and [are] not just trying to please people," he bluntly declared. The French executive said many existing oil fields are being depleted at rates that will damage their geologic structures, which will limit future output more than most people allow. What's more, some nations endowed with large untapped pools of oil are generating so much revenue from their current production that they feel they don't need to further develop their fields, thus putting another cap on output.

Earlier this month, James Mulva, the chief executive of ConocoPhillips, echoed those conclusions in a speech at a Wall Street conference: "I don't think we are going to see the supply going over 100 million barrels a day.... Where is all that going to come from?" He questioned whether the industry has enough support services and people to execute projects to add that much oil production.

Even some officials from member states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which has long insisted on its ability to supply the world with fuel for decades hence, are breaking ranks and forecasting limits. The chairman of Libya National Oil Corp. said at the same London conference the world will have difficulty producing more than 100 million barrels a day.

A former head of exploration and production at Saudi Arabia's national oil company, Sadad Ibrahim Al Husseini, has also gone public with doubts. He said in London last month that he didn't believe there were enough engineers or equipment to ramp up production fast enough to keep up with the thirsty global economy. What's more, he said, new discoveries are tending to be smaller and more complex to develop.


Many leaders of the industry still dismiss the idea that there is reason to worry. "I am no subscriber to the theory that oil supplies have already peaked," said BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, earlier this month in a speech in Houston.

Exxon Mobil Corp. Chief Executive Rex Tillerson has said that if companies had better access to the world's oil reserves, production would increase and prices would go down. "Sufficient hydrocarbon resources exist to play their role in meeting this growing global demand, if industry is allowed to access them," he said in a speech this month. If access were granted, Exxon Mobil believes the industry would be able to raise fuel production to meet demand in 2030 of 116 million barrels a day.

The oil industry has long been beset by doom-and-gloom scenarios, which so far haven't panned out. "The entire oil industry in the late 1970s was convinced the price [of oil] would be $100 by 1990 and we would need huge oil shale mines" to exploit oil locked away tightly in rock, says Michael C. Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research Inc. Of course, that didn't happen, as discoveries ushered in new eras of low-priced oil in the mid-1980s through the late 1990s.

U.S. government experts are optimistic -- to a point. The Energy Information Administration, the data arm of the Energy Department, forecasts world oil production will hit 118 million barrels a day by 2030. But the agency warns that its prediction might not pan out if resource-rich nations such as Venezuela and Iraq don't invest enough in their operations.

"We know that the world is not running out of energy resources, but nonetheless, above-ground risks like resource nationalism, limited access and infrastructure constraints may make it feel like peak oil just the same, by limiting production to something far less than what is required," said Clay Sell, deputy secretary of energy, in a speech in October. Resource nationalism refers to tightening state control of oil fields to achieve political aims, often by restricting outsiders' ability to develop the oil for world markets.

'Undulating Plateau'

Two or three years ago, it was far more common for oil analysts and officials to trumpet the potential of new technology to harvest more oil. In a report last year, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a prominent adviser to energy companies, made the comforting prediction that oil production could reach 110 million barrels a day by 2015, and "more than meet any reasonable high growth rate demand scenario we can envisage" up to that date. Because of progress being made in extracting oil through new methods, CERA said it found "no evidence" there would be a peak in oil flows "any time soon." In a later report, CERA said world oil production won't peak before 2030 and that even when it does, production will resemble an "undulating plateau" for one or more decades before declining gradually.

Oil companies have seen several years of bull-market prices, and thus of trying to produce more. This has given their executives a better sense of what is and isn't possible.

One limit: Many people think most of the world's giant fields already have been discovered. By 1970, oil-industry explorers had discovered 10 giants that could each produce more than 600,000 barrels a day, according to Matt Simmons, chairman of energy investment banking firm Simmons & Co. International. Exploration in the next 20 years, to 1990, yielded only two. Since 1990, despite billions in new spending, the industry has found only one field with the potential to top 500,000 barrels a day, Kazakhstan's Kashagan field in the Caspian Sea. And Mr. Simmons notes it is proving expensive and difficult to extract.

Big strikes are still possible. This month, Petróleo Brasileiro SA announced a deep-water find off Brazil's Atlantic coast that appears to be the largest discovery since Kashagan.

But some of the most promising geological formations are in locations that are inhospitable, for reasons of geography or, especially, politics and strife. Output from Iraq's rich fields is unlikely to grow much until security improves and outside investment returns. The future of Iranian and Nigerian production is likewise clouded by geopolitical and local instability.

Labor and construction bottlenecks also are making it difficult to develop proven fields. One of the largest obstacles is the booming commodity markets themselves: The prices of raw materials used in oil-field platforms and equipment has escalated. And during the years of low or moderate oil prices in the 1980s and 1990s, companies didn't develop enough geologists and other skilled workers to supply today's needs. "Years of underinvestment in new talent have led to a limited and aging pool of skilled workers," noted Andrew Gould, the CEO of oil-service giant Schlumberger Ltd., last month.

High oil prices have also led to steep cost inflation for drilling rigs and other equipment. Costs have soared so much that the industry is falling behind in the investment needed to sate expected future demand. To meet demand forecasts of 90 million barrels of oil a day in 2010, the industry needed to have spent $350 billion on drilling and producing in 2005, argues Larry G. Chorn, chief economist of Platts, the energy and commodities-information division of McGraw-Hill Cos. But the International Energy Agency estimates that spending on oil-field production in 2005 came to only about $225 billion, he says.

A failure to spend enough in the past few years "may have already put the industry behind the spending curve," Mr. Chorn says. As a result, he predicts "temporary shortages over several years, causing debilitating price spikes."

Compounding the problem: Most of the world's biggest fields are aging, and production at them is declining rapidly. So, just to keep global production at current levels, the industry needs to add new production of at least four million daily barrels, every year. That need is roughly five times the daily production of Alaska, with its big Prudhoe Bay field -- and it doesn't assume any demand growth at all.

Rate of Decline

Mr. Simmons scoffs at estimates that production from proven fields will decline only 4.5% a year. He thinks a more realistic rate of decline is 8% to 10% a year, especially because modern technology actually succeeds in depleting fields faster.

If he's right, the industry needs to add new daily production of at least eight million barrels -- 10 times current Alaskan production -- just to stay even.

Mr. Simmons thinks the world needs to shift its energy focus from climate change to more immediate concerns. "Peak oil is likely already a crisis that we don't know about. At the furthest out, it will be a crisis in 2008 to 2012. Global warming, if real, will not be a problem for 50 to 100 years," he says.

Oil executives who believe a production ceiling is coming are making plans to stay relevant in a world where oil production is constrained.

Mr. de Margerie said at Total's annual meeting this spring that the company was "looking into" nuclear-industry investments and had hired nuclear experts to help make strategic decisions. ConocoPhillips recently said it was considering building a commercial-scale plant to turn plentiful U.S. coal into natural gas.

Soaring energy prices have breathed new life into projects targeting "nonconventional" oil, such as that trapped in sand or shale. But these sources can't be tapped nearly as quickly or inexpensively as the big oil finds of the past.

Vivid Example

Canada's massive oil-sands deposits, which hold the largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia's, offer a vivid example. They contain an estimated 180 billion barrels of oil. But after years of intensive development and tens of billions of dollars of investments, the sands are producing only a little more than 1.1 million barrels of crude a day. That's projected to reach three million a day by 2015. The oil deposits are so heavy that companies must either mine them or slowly steam them underground to get the oil to flow out of the sand.

Randy Udall, co-founder of the U.S. chapter of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, has written that these unconventional oil supplies are like having $100 million in the bank, but "being forbidden to withdraw more than $100,000 per year. You are rich, sort of."

As these uncertainties mount, there is growing hope that Saudi Arabia, which has about 20% of the world's oil reserves, would ride to the rescue if needed. Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, has embarked on an ambitious plan to increase its daily production by 30%, or three million barrels, early next decade, and thus reclaim the title of top producer from Russia. But Mr. Al Husseini, the former Saudi oil executive, now an independent consultant, said others aren't doing as much, leaving the world entirely dependent on Saudi Arabia to provide extra capacity.

"Everyone thinks that Saudi Arabia will pull us out of this mess. Saudi Arabia is doing all it can," he says in an interview. "But what it is doing, in the long run, won't be enough."

Write to Russell Gold at russell.gold@wsj.com and Ann Davis at ann.davis@wsj.com