Swimming With Sociopaths

I once worked at a job where the person in charge was a textbook sociopath.

Intelligent sociopaths are artists in their own right. They have the capacity to understand human emotions at some tainted level and are smarter than many of the people with whom they spar. To someone of this ilk people are stupid. Their experience backs this up, they know how to win. They are often more successful, more popular, and certainly more feared than those sheep could ever dare to imagine, and things are only getting started.

Things were going well but somewhere along the line they got offended, or embarrassed, or lied to, and it was game-on. Good Sociopaths are thorough and on point and so things went on happily for a few years until people got comfortable, and then it was party time. The business was thriving because sociopaths with skills make very good managers, who just happen to lack empathy and are therefore incapable of caring when other people are hurt and incapable of sufficiently sucking up (and  they enjoyed every minute of it). It’s called making the hard call and damn it, they were capable. The very skill sets that make this person a seasoned predator are all too often the very same passions that successful companies are born and raised on. Sociopaths will commit everything, unrelenting and determined, if they really want something or want to make some poor victim pay because they accidentally cut them off in traffic or didn’t compliment their new hairdo or small-penis truck. People who fail to live up to expectations, and no one does, don’t deserve a break because they are all lazy, or all incompetent, or both. Weak people are going to be exploited, why would they allow this to happen to themselves if they had any self-respect in the first place? Leave your personal life at home and stop being weak. Swim with the sharks or just lie down and be prey.

They didn’t want it to come to this, but it did. They tried to be reasonable but you wouldn’t listen and please don’t ask for forgiveness, you brought this on yourself. The data doesn’t lie and sociopaths are adept at using information, when it seems to bend in their favour, as a weapon of mass destruction. No tears, or at least real ones, no regrets. Never any regrets.

As any web search will tell you, people who are sociopaths and psychopaths lack empathy. They really are different maladies, but for our purposes we’re just going to talk about them as one thing because they share common characteristics on one level. Sociopaths use relationships and people to achieve their ends, which for some reason always gets dark in the end and involves hurting people who are idealistic (stupid) enough to hope for the best in others. These predators are often good at knowing where to stick a knife while whispering sweet nothings in your ear. They gaslight. They are often sexy. They make promises you think they will keep but in the end it was probably your fault all along. They see no need to retreat. Your feelings are inconsequential and your grovelling only makes them enjoy the process more. Loser. I know because I conducted several studies with a recent sociopath who visibly grew stronger, the weaker I appeared to become. I pretended to grovel and there was absolutely no sign of empathy. I slumped into my chair and let my voice quiver and appealed to their reason and their pity. What pity. Reasoning with them only confirmed their suspicions. I’m not going to tell you the details because I know at least three people who may be reading who could potentially believe I was talking about them. You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.

It is a common misconception that psychopaths are somehow more intelligent than the average person. While this is demonstrably not true, it may be more accurate to say that sociopaths and psychopaths are often more focused. They may, in fact, be brilliant when it comes to certain details that promote their agenda and fulfill their need for a dopamine rush at your expense. They have undoubtedly, after all, exerted significant energy studying how to do what they do, while you were busy having a normal life and being ridiculously empathetic and sincere like a chump. Often street-wise and adept at manipulation, predators zone in on certain aspects of reality which serve their greater need to prove to the world that they are smarter, better, faster. (Sounds like the opening to The Six Million Dollar Man). They are often successful in business, and it is estimated that as high as 20% of high-level movers and shakers are psychopaths (I know I’m using those words interchangeably, but this is largely because popular literature has reckoned them as equivalents. They aren’t). The heights of narcissism for this group would be astronomically high, very very high. It is little wonder, than, that corporations and titans of industry are sometimes portrayed as cold or unfeeling or driven by bureaucracy at the expense of humanity (this is absolutely accurate). Even if these percentages are inflated, a mere 10% would still be a staggering number.

You know who you are. But what you couldn’t realize in your unbridled arrogance was that I was faking it as well. There was a script, we took notes, and you performed admirably. Thank you for your contribution to this article.

And because there is absolutely no way to win against a narcissist-in-charge we all walked away to better times and healthier vistas while you continue to wallow in your miserable and petty life.

The best part is, you still think you won.

A Letter To A Friend

I have spent some time thinking about you lately. I know, that sounds so creepy.

You told me that you have lost some faith in the process and life is not working out for you, right now. I can hear you talking and sometimes there are silences because I am absorbing the weight of your despair. You carry a very heavy burden, and have been for a while. This has been a long drought.

At this point in the journey counseling rarely helps in any tangible way. I think a person gets beaten up for so long that, like in any prize fight, eventually you are so punch-drunk that it’s impossible to stand up straight; and it seems like you will never stand tall again. I get that. Counseling is hard enough to believe in when things are going your way.

There is a cardinal rule in counseling that, as a therapist, you never make it about you. Good counselors don’t abscond with the pain and diminish the journey of those who are suffering. But this is a letter and I’m not charging you for this session. So I will be ever so brief when I contend that I know a little about what it feels like to be suicidal, and I’m familiar with years of gut-wrenching pain. In a very unfortunate way, many of us can relate to this living death, and this is a club that no one wants to join. Welcome to our team, we suck.

There are lessons in life that you only learn in hell. As cliché as this may sound, it is oft repeated because it also happens to be very true for oh so many of us. You are visiting the living death, and I can only imagine how soul crushing that must be. In your particular case, there was no life-killing death or disease, just the relentless grind of the ordinary, and the profanity of a world that kills our dreams. Someone hurt you very bad, all those years ago, and some kinds of scars don’t go away without mountains of therapy. Those of us who have been neglected, or bore physical or mental “deformities”, those who were bullied or beaten or raped, that stuff is very real and it will wreck your life if you don’t take this very seriously. But enough preaching.

Don’t give up. Nothing I can say to you is going to help right now, but there is one thing I do know for sure. If you stick this out you are going to be wiser. This is meaning of life stuff. You believe that this life is going to go on forever and that’s normal. Virtually no one really understands where the journey is going to end when it has been months and years of failure and broken promises.

Sometimes, when I listen to the stories all day long, I get caught up in the hopelessness. There have been times in our sessions when your frustration and hurt washes over me, and I get just a glimpse of what it must feel like to live in your reality. I have literally watched hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who have been punched in the throat and are convinced that their problems are terminal, and are tempted to give up. Hell, many of us give up all the time.

I have known others in this journey who have spent years, and I mean years, struggling to cope with a reality they never dreamed possible. Lives of loss and loneliness and the fear that their lives don’t matter and they will die, forgotten.

Don’t give up. Someday is coming, it’s just probably going to take years longer than you have been promised or believe. Longer than anyone imagines. I told something this morning that it could take years to move beyond some mental health challenges. Keep reading and thinking and arguing with me, I can take it. I do this job because I firmly believe it is possible to create a different future, and I watched my father systematically do so as I was growing up. The people in my family believe that the future is not set because my orphaned parent fought against all odds and fixed his shitty reality. Some lessons only come with time and sometimes it isn’t time, quite yet. Most of us don’t have an inspirational orphan story to keep us going when we have only known failure all our lives. How can you embrace a future you believe only exists in movies and for other people.

Reminds me of that quote, “passing on what you didn’t learn”.

What I Learned Today From A Grade-Six Kid

Dawn and I have started going to elementary schools.

Professionals have been coming to high schools for years in order to scare the crap out of kids with stories of reefer madness and meth-mouth. A part of my life is consumed with crack pipes and Fentanyl overdoses and I get to be the one who now is commissioned to inflict that on your kids. If you read here often you can imagine how that went down. This was not your mother’s “Don’t do drugs!” and we never mentioned “just say no”. I live in the real world.

It is only in this year, 2015, that the world around here is waking up to the sick reality that drug and alcohol education, as well as impulse control in general, needs to be taught to kids in Grade 6 and 7. Unfortunately they really need to be taught in Grade 4 but we’ll get there eventually; right when we need to be in Grade 2.

So here we were, hanging out with forty or better Grade 6 and 7’s on this hot afternoon. We did our thing and the kids seemed to gel with the experience. This doesn’t always happen; you should have seen the 2 pm class last week. On this particular occasion, however, there were numerous great questions and a few brilliant comments. One little guy was among the keeners; and when he opened his mouth that one time, it was pure genius.

I didn’t know that if you call 911 and ask to order a pizza they will respond with, “Are you in trouble?” They have been trained to negotiate the strange and the sublime. If you call and whisper, “Hi Steve, this is Scott” they will calmly inquire, “Are you in trouble?”. You can begin to understand why. If you are a wife who is trying to escape getting your ass kicked for the hundredth time, it may not be convenient when your husband comes in the room while you are trying to call the police. It is going to take them 20 minutes to get there and you only have one jaw. It is brilliant in its simplicity.

That little kid taught me something today. You may have known this all your life and think I’ve been raised in a cabbage patch; but for some reason I was never given this information.

I just thought you should know.

My Anger, Myself

Living with someone who is always angry can be one of the most difficult relationship entanglements one could endure. Few problems in this life have as immediate and devastating an impact as anger. If rage is your thing you are probably hell to live with. Just saying.

As pedestrian as it may sound, I often compare anger to an orgasm. There is a point of no return and the house can burn down, you are going to finish. I have witnessed angry persons spewing hate while screaming with astonishingly high degrees of emotion and intentionality. Most angry people feel better after they have “gotten it out”. They have just ejaculated their negative energy and mental health problems on everyone around them and it’s time for a nap. I have written about this before, and graphic this may be, but I’ve known many angry people. Anger is often violent and it’s far easier for the object of wrath to check out than try to match that energy. Some people are much too emotionally invested in obviously trivial matters. You get insanely pissed about tomatoes and I’m not committed enough to vegetables to ruin our relationship over root veg, but apparently you are. Yes I know it’s technically a fruit but as David Mitchell says, don’t get me started. If you put it in a fruit salad it’s a fruit. Next thing you know someone is going to tell me that cucumbers are a fruit. Maddening, but I just remembered that I don’t care about that kind of thing anymore. Mostly.

It is very difficult for me to exaggerate how important it is to deal with unrealistic anger. If you are a person who is easily angered and would admit, after a few shots of tequila, that you might have an “anger issue”, than as a therapist I want to encourage you not to beat yourself up or give up hope. Rage is an extremely palpable emotion that slams you with all manner of intense brain chemicals. 01_BERAGE_2298426aAnger is intoxicating, orgasmic. There is an instant and physical reward for such emotions and as an added bonus you get to feel like a real badass. Angry people win arguments and get what they want, at least right now. Cut me off in traffic and I’ll follow you home and wave a chainsaw at your children, or something like that.

There are a few people I would like to talk with about their anger but they are scary when they get mad. We owe it to ourselves to be brutally honest and recognize that life really really really isn’t fair and it’s not my job to go Punisher on that moron who didn’t wait at the 4-way stop.

If you are living life with someone who is angry, the bad news is there is very little you can do about it. You can never love enough or give enough or sacrifice enough to fix that cancer in someone else. Chances are, living with someone with this issue has changed how you cope or even who you are becoming. The angry person is always willing to take the argument beyond where you are comfortable.  The only recourse that gives lasting results is fixing myself first, until that person can no longer drive me crazy or they die from an aneurysm they so justly deserve.

This always sounds like bad news when we first hear it. We want that other person to change, they are the problem. There is no way you can cope with them as they are. They literally have to win every argument. They are willing to hurt me in places where people who love us should never wander. It is impossible to cope with what is going on around me right now… I hear the words almost every day.

You might be right. There is no way you will ever be able to cope until you do it on purpose. I’ve counselled hundreds of couples and I know the smell of abuse when I hear it. Fear is a powerful emotion as well. For some reason where there is anger, there is usually fear not far behind. Why else would she stay with him or he with her after what that person has done? Fear. Anger is a very useful tool if you wish to control. Violence has always worked, for a while. That’s what that outburst was, when you consider the options. Angry people seem violent, in spite of their constant protestations to the contrary. Screaming is violent control-seeking and is never ok unless you are yelling at a puck or a racist.

I have recorded couples fighting and most are clearly shocked when they watch themselves give in to anger and blow their load on someone else. It happens almost every time; they will turn in their chair and ask their partner, “Am I really like that?”

“Do you really think of me as a violent person?” Pretty much, but none of us are going to tell you, it’s just not worth the fight. See how that works there?

Spouses of angry people are often passive-agressive, or struggle with anxiety or depression or cutting or fatalism. They are often the sweetest among us, those who find their fulfillment in giving everything to a man or a woman that they believed charming and passionate. Passion is a wonderful thing when they are amorous, it’s another thing altogether when they get mad. Violent people tend to be attracted to nice people who will take it and tell their friends, “He just had a really stressful week” for the four-hundredth time.

If you know that you struggle with anger in an unhealthy way, it’s completely appropriate to talk to someone. Tell your partner and family that you acknowledge you have an issue and wish to do something about it. Don’t shut this down; don’t miss out on the good stuff because you can’t free yourself from this impulse-control issue. I do not seek to make light of this problem, quite the contrary. We all need help, from time to time. Anger is nothing more or less than one of the dysfunctional coping mechanisms many of us learn in childhood, or in our first marriage, in order to help us cope with a crazy and dangerous world. We have done the best we knew how but it is important to keep morphing. The more I learn the more light I am given. This is a critical psychological principle which most people will never understand. We must not stay ignorant, or broken, or miserable. Yes I acknowledge that there are times when such thinking not only seems foolish, it feels dangerous. It is in those times, when I was convinced that the situation was hopeless, that I learned the most. I was stronger than I imagined.

If you are living with someone who is angry, you are not alone. Many of us are seeking to understand the sheer magnitude of our addiction to coping mechanisms which have not worked in years. I need to stop trying to change my partner and learn to invest more diligently in my own reality and the need to unlearn my past.

I hate that I can only change myself, but I no longer live in Narnia.

How Do I Let Go?

I am asked this question all the time. How do I leave? How do I stand up for myself? How do I lower my expectations of this person? How do learn to be happy in the mess that is my life right now? How do I let go of the grief or the expectations or the unrealistic dreams? How do I forgive? How do I move on?

It’s a question as old as time. Letting go is something that I only learned through pain, and it wasn’t worth it. How do you let go of hopes and loves and connection? How do you let go of a dream?

No one wants to hear that it takes years and tears. We want to believe there is something we can do which will move the process forward, when we haven’t even accepted the real situation. In counselling we call this, magical thinking. We all believe in magical thinking, every once in a while. We want to believe if we rub our lucky rock we will win the lottery. Some of us believe the universe is punishing us, for some reason. If you wish upon a star your dream comes true. If I just want it hard enough… well then maybe I can pretend I don’t have anxiety anymore, or depression, or trauma. Maybe Oprah has a guest celebrity that will fix you. Magical thinking is when you believe that if you think hard enough you can move that coin with your mind. Or change your life with a gimmick. We all want change and we want it yesterday.
In counselling this kind of stuff takes a long time. The process you can probably guess – I begin to work through my own insecurities and the sick reasons I can’t move forward, including letting go of my need to stay stuck, my need for approval, my fear of the pain. We talk about lowering expectations and about assessing our relationships in the harsh light of objectivity. Once we understand the “why”, the “how” usually works itself out. It’s about acceptance and time and grief. Like most things, attitude changes everything. Once I change what I want, it’s easier to stop coping mechanisms I no longer need or desire. And that’s the key, though a very hard one to actually learn. How do I learn to change what I want (if I don’t want to)?
self-confidenceWhen you are in a situation that isn’t working I often recommend starting with the DBT concept of “Radical Acceptance“. I learn to see my situation for what it really is, no bullshit, no excuses, no insecurities, no lies or illusions or fake expectations. I usually need help from my counsellor/friend for that. It’s hard to be objective from the inside.
I pitched this article to my friend Lori, a fellow blogger and friend in the real world. We had been talking about sideways solutions, as I call them. Sideways Solutions are all about looking at things differently, through a new lens. I’m speaking at a gig next month about this very thing. I call the talk, “Going Rogue”. Simply put, I have long been fascinated by The Trickster in folklore and have endeavoured to incorporate that outside-the-box thinking in life. Apple, the most financially valuable commodity on earth, sold billions with the moniker, “Think Different”. I believe in going at things sideways. Creativity usually takes me where logic fails to go. Lori reminded me of this earlier today.
Letting go rarely involves telling your story again and again. It’s difficult, when our lives are ruined, not to fixate on the problems. Stress is consuming, so is debt or relational problems or chronic pain. When you are low there is a temptation to employ those Cognitive Distortions we talk about so very much. We are focused on the problem, overwhelmed. We make decisions based on emotion. We become trapped in a verbal and emotional feedback loop. We say the word “but” more than we probably should. We pretend everything is going to magically work out.
There are times when moving beyond is really about moving beyond. We need to focus on something, anything, rather than our grief or anger or pain or disappointment. We become outward focussed again. We begin to spend less time replaying the tapes. This last part is very important because there comes a point in the journey when you need to write new stories. I know you cannot let go of that thing, I couldn’t either. Ask anyone who knows me, they can tell you. Been there, done that, spilled hot sauce on the t-shirt. I wore my brokenness like a badge of honour. I was determined to go down with the ship.
Sideways solutions don’t feel natural. It’s normal to lay on the couch and feel hopeless. It’s completely normal, when you are depressed or grieving or (insert personal hell here), to lack motivation and get winded walking to the fridge. Many counsellors will tell you that in order to get “better” you will need discipline. I have a difficult time with this when I’m happy, let alone depressed. That’s why, when clients describe how stuck they feel or alone or hopeless I often talk about going to college. My pop is 76 and in university. The aforementioned Lori has become an art historian, and a bard, and a bunch of other things that she discovered at university. I like to talk about Europe, and philosophy, and science, and history. You might feel a great deal better from studying neurochemistry than you ever would taking an SSRI. Sideways solutions. I couldn’t stop crying once – so I started to listen to audiobooks. You should see my collection. That may not float your boat but it saved my life more than any counselling ever did. Some people garden. Shirley makes amazing quilts. Some of my other friends have become soul coaches or knitters or experts in the hippie arts.
As we say in the business, “too much head time is bad time”. If you cannot turn off those voices in your head maybe you need to go about it sideways.

The Weatherman

Joseph Stalin had only one real job before going into revolution as an occupation. He was a weatherman. He also had smallpox. And a webbed foot. And one arm shorter than the other because of an accident with a horse. His dad was an alcoholic, a peasant. As a psychology guy I find these seemingly random facts incredibly interesting.

Nature and nurture.

There is no way to be certain but it may have made a difference that the defender of the largest geographic region in the world during the nazi attack called Barbarossa was intimately familiar with geography and weather. The nazis were ultimately stymied by the cossack winter. Was that a coincidence? What impact did his pockmarked face have on his bad attitude? What was it like growing up as a Georgian peasant at the end of the 19th Century Russia? Did growing up in poverty influence his decisions? How was he moulded?

Chances are, you can’t really escape your past. I look like my father, I have his hands. My kids are just better looking versions of me, poor slobs. There are scars, outside and some deep down. You have been imprinted by your past, by your culture, biology, and family systems.

Hitler attacked late. In the famous account we now know that at the last moment he decided to detour over to Hungary and flex his muscles a little. As a Canadian I can appreciate how short summer can be. The timelines were incredibly tight. Hitler had to have Moscow by winter. He was a few weeks late. The German soldiers had not come prepared for the Russian winter. Timing is everything when it comes to the weather. A weatherman would know that.

We may never fully understand the influence of seemingly insignificant detours in our lives. You chose one school or another and it changed everything. You met one person who transformed your future. You were born to particular people with specific dysfunction. You learned certain coping mechanisms in certain ways from certain people. The person I have become has been no accident, in spite of it happening by accident. We all carry the impressions from our little piece of crazy.

One of the reasons that this stuff takes so long to master must be because we have spent a lifetime being imprinted by our surroundings. The jury may occasionally be out, with regard to the biological impact that your forebearers  have had on you, but one thing is certain – nurture may have more to do with your life than nature. There are specific and significant mechanisms that interact when you live in an environment such as yours. There are entire branches of psychology dedicated solely to this, family and cultural systems theory and therapy. It is impossible to understate the impact living in such dysfunction could have upon a vulnerable and developing psyche. You are what you eat. And who you love. And where you live. And how you are hurt. Chances are there are also a bunch of other influences, whether apparent or not.

10885501_10152888523605049_5123057925881569940_nI am a Williams. That probably means nothing to you, but my family has created a mythos around our heritage that is taught to subsequent generations. This Christmas my parents bought everyone around me a T-shirt with “Be calm and let Williams handle it”, even the still-to-be-born Williams affectionately referred to as “Jellybean” (he/she received a onesie). If you are a little child in my world whose name ends with Williams you have undoubtedly been reminded how awesome and lucky you are; just because you are a member of this elite and ofttimes condescending tribe. My kids think that to be a Williams is a big deal. Generations of winners. It’s all a lie.

I mentioned recently that my family were/are peasants. Our history floats on a river of alcohol and impulse-control problems. My dad is an orphan. My mom, as a child, probably never met a teetotaller. I come from hard stock, unforgiving and obstinate… and talkative. Many had very large noses. Serfs.

This history touches my life every day. I have acquaintances who are one or two generations further removed from their peasant ancestors. That fact alone has a massive impact on every aspect of my life. There is not, and never were, the merchant assets to pass down to the next generation. This led, inevitably, to fewer options and a far greater likelihood of generational poverty. Williams’s don’t go to college, or at least they didn’t. There was no tradition nor cultural expectation with regard to education. My family simply did not go to college, we went to war. I am honoured to report that my father, at 76, is in university… again. I received my high school diploma before he did.

These are not insignificant cultural markers. How you grew up, and who you grew up with, affects everything from finances to self-esteem, where and how you live, who you date, how you raise your kids, how you self-medicate, how often you travel, your values and spirituality and intelligence and ability to cope. Further exposure to experience or abuse melds the psyche in early childhood, and sometimes much later. If your parents broke up, this will impact your everything. If you were/are abused, if you make poor relational choices (for the aforementioned reasons), if you grew up around violence or addiction or a passive-aggressive parent or three-ply toilet paper, everything factors in.

A man who earned his living by predicting tomorrow’s weather probably did not get confused when the snow started to fly in early October. His troops were cold weather fighters who used the land and the cold (and the biggest secret peasant army hidden east of the Urals that the world has ever known) to defeat the undefatigable Third Reich. Stalin knew hardship. The Nazis were almost in Moscow and all seemed lost, but Stalin did not leave – why? He was depressed but he was a Georgian peasant who had risen to the top by killing every single person (and their family) who stood in his way. The boy who had been teased for his scars and his bum arm wasn’t laying down for anyone. Some people have wounds that have defined them, shaped them.

Who I am, and where I come from, is so fundamentally important that it’s almost embarrassing to discuss. Yet time and again we are resurprised by our foibles and cannot understand why we act the way we do. We date the same kind of person over and over. We continue to experience the same difficulty with relationships, or finishing projects, or hoarding, or painting the kitchen every other month. For some, anger has become our constant companion. Others have identified themselves as broken for so long it is impossible to imagine a world wherein wholeness is even an option. Understanding the role our history has played in our dysfunction is crucial to healing. As the man said, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This oft-quoted line has been liberally applied, but I believe it can apply here.

There is a possibility that you may not be as nuts as you think you are. Perhaps it really is your parents fault! Whatever the truth, it’s important to find out. Learning is how we wrestle this pig to the ground. Again.

One last story.

When I was 29, I woke up one morning and realized that I had been having a repeating nightmare. I could remember it being a little different, years ago, but wasn’t sure how. In the dream I was always chased by two guys who grabbed me and threw me into a white van. I believe the van was once brown but it changed colour, I have no idea why.

That day it dawned on me that I had been having a version of this dream since childhood. I decided to look a little deeper. Over a period of time I was able to trace the dream back to when I was 9 or 10 years old. So the question was, why?

Pinocchio.

I am old enough that I believe that I saw Pinocchio, probably on a Sunday night, and probably while watching The Wonderful World Of Disney. I remembered how frightened I had been when the slimy Fox and the Cat (or whatever they were I’m too lazy to Wikipedia it) grabbed Pinocchio and threw him into the cart with the donkey boys. Could it be?

I never had the dream again. It could be that, once I realized why I was having this nightmare my subconscious was able to move on. It might be that I’m more brain damaged than I think. Either way, I’m all good.

I know it sounds like I am suggesting that if you can trace back your abuse to a specific time then you would miraculously “get over it”. If you’ve been here before you know that’s not my thing. This story is an anomaly. I find it interesting, however, because of the power of such narratives. There is a connection between our thoughts, motives, history, and mental health. Quitting cocaine is a great step but chances are that isn’t your complete problem. Your life is your problem.

There seems to be a real correlation between how much I know about this stuff and how fast I move forward. The more I learn, the faster I run.

Creeps

Last night my wife and I surfed Netflix enough until, like most of us, we gave up and watched the documentary on Lance Armstrong – something far outside my comfort zone. I am not ordinarily a fan of movie stars and supermodels, and to be honest probably wouldn’t get out of my chair if one came to the house. The documentary was, however, interesting to watch unfold. I could tell, relatively early, that he was lying his ass off. I do this for a living and my counseling hat was pinging like mad. He wasn’t even very good at it, and it suddenly struck me why so many people were so unsurprised when the poop finally hit the fan. I turned to my wife to pontificate about micro-expressions but it became abundantly clear that she was way ahead of me. She was pinging too, albeit perhaps on a somewhat more subconscious level. She described him as a creep.

That word comes up often in my line of work.

Time and again, perhaps because of my dual worlds of addiction and counselling, women describe men as “creepy”. We have all known a few females, as well, who kind of “freak me out”. We are prone to believe that this is something that has no foundation in evidence-based realities; but we may be wrong. Upon further probing, people who have been creeped out inevitably describe surprisingly similar feelings. There are facial ticks that are registering. Certain intonations strike them as “off”. There are fewer contractions and often more confrontation. People who have “their radar on” may not know why, but they definitely know who. I have invested some time endeavouring to calm any personal boundary issues, and I heavily monitor my space and posture for this exact reason. I rarely hug, and never very close. If you visit me in my micro-office we will take opposite corners. I have spent too much time learning from women to not find myself hyper-vigilant in this regard.

I believe creeps are real. Many are described using terms like “narcissist” and “psychopath”, though usually by wives who are not qualified to diagnose and are deemed too emotionally involved. They are, therefore, often misregarded (I made that up). In my experience, more women than men have this sensitivity to the creep factor, perhaps many more.

I continue to be resurprised when I am in the presence of a “creep”. They seem to lack basic self-awareness. They often describe themselves as “smooth” and popular with the ladies. Often they actually are, and sometimes for very nefarious reasons. By way of example, there are those who are strongly attracted to narcissists. Something in the seeker’s psyche is broken and seeks fulfillment in controlling, and often very physical, relationships. Part of counselling often includes addressing a client’s choosing mechanism, and many people have had to address their attraction to dysfunction in an office very much like mine. Many of us, myself included, are prone to make the same relational mistakes over and over, for very psychological reasons.

Many clients and friends have included a crap detector in their emotional toolbox. There are people out there, for reasons that escape most of us, who glean satisfaction through manipulating and controlling the people closest to them. Such individuals are often highly charming, though indubitably self-serving and emotionally unhealthy. To use the internet word of the month, people like this always obfuscate our lives (I know you’ll Google that) and inevitably leave a wake of hurt and unresolved trauma.

I advise clients that if someone is too charming, too slick, or too nice, it’s probably too good to be true. Dating is an exercise in lying to each other and we all know that on one level. Your charmer’s ex probably wasn’t as bat-shit crazy as you have been told. We have a tendency to want to believe in the fairy tale ending, often at the expense of real world objectivity. I don’t care who he/she is, they have significant issues. You can disagree with me all you wish, but chances are I’ll be proven right. I do not enjoy winning that argument, perhaps I’m just a bit tainted from sitting in an office talking about pain everyday. That is highly possible.

Women Aren’t Equal?

It has been hard for me admit to myself, in a vocation swarming with quality woman, that a female could still feel unequal in 2014. There is a joke we tell of how it’s ok to be anything except a middle-class white guy. All my bosses are women. My wife’s a woman and she is perfectly capable of handling me if she chooses. I usually hang around with women. Women aren’t equal?

There are a ton of things to write about here but I like looking at the weird stuff. It may not surprise you to learn that men, by the mean, have difficulty understanding, on an emotional level, what it feels like to be just shy of five-feet tall. I’m 6 feet plus 2, I have a black belt so that I can be blissfully misinformed. I grew up with lots going on and excelled with a ball in my hands (shut up Cory). I have no idea what it would be like to have a partner who can beat the crap out of me on a whim. My wife could take me, I’m not allowed to hit girls. My mother will hurt me. My father would be disappointed, a man in his 70’s whom every woman loves. I dare you to take the challenge.

I have never known physical violence that I didn’t initiate or deserve.

So when I tell you that I am only now beginning to understand, I ask you to excuse my large frame of mind. The sheer volume of fear I have listened to has begun to ring true. I learn slow. Of course I know this stuff intellectually, I can read. But I am still partly a man, and most of us have difficulty with emotional intelligence when it comes to this kind of stuff.

So many women who live with fear every day of their lives. I could never really understand, as a younger man, why women were afraid to walk alone. I love walking alone. It’s zen, baby. So when you told me the first few hundred times, it sounded a bit ridiculous. I’m not excusing what was. I’m the tallest one in my family. I hang around with ninjas. I’m a white male who plays with weapons.

To all my patient female friends who have not given up on me, you win. It was a good fight, figuratively speaking, but I might be getting a taste. I am constantly amazed at the burden others can carry, and fear has to be one of the worst emotions with which to run a tab. The anxiety, the depression, the trauma, it may not be biological. Imagine you have emotional Fibromyalgia. Everything hurts and it doesn’t make sense and everyone is a potential problem. People with Fibromyalgia live in a body that is constantly in varying states of shock.

Some people live in that state, on an emotional level as well. I have heard the stories. She ran into the McDonalds only to find the two sketchy males in hoodies were only 11 or 12. The right makeup to wear if you have a bruise. What mood is walking through the front door tonight? I always believed that my home was my safe place. What if it isn’t? Any counsellor can tell you that living in that heightened state of tension releases chemicals all over your body. Things change in your core. Things are released in your brain… and in your mind. You learn words like cortisol and neurochemistry. The diet can take a hit. You no longer sleep through the night. The motor is already running and you haven’t even had coffee yet.

Here’s Wikipedia: Cognitive conditions, including memory and attention dysfunctions, as well as depression, are commonly associated with elevated cortisol,[9] and may be early indicators of exogenous or endogenous Cushing’s. Patients frequently suffer various psychological disturbances, ranging from euphoria to psychosisDepression and anxiety are also common.

Cortisol is a good thing that can become a very bad thing. Other things happen neurologically that are not in your best interests. The words self, medicating, and behaviours, are used one after another in the same sentence. Fear can do that to a person, to an emotionally vulnerable person. Let’s be honest, most of us are emotionally vulnerable. You know how this sentence ends. Weight gain or loss, body image, self-esteem, problems with relationships, fear, anxiety, the whole toolbox from hell.

This is the kind of stuff people like me hear all day, every day. It’s not an isolated incident and if you can relate to any of this I will remind you that there are hundreds out there. Thousands. Millions. You have been saying it for years and you are absolutely right. Everyone does have mental health issues. We didn’t know this because there was a time, not so very long ago, when talking about this thing of ours was not really popular. People who went to see a counsellor were somehow “less”. Well baby, it’s now 2014 and daddy’s got a new pair of pants. It’s all good, all of a sudden.

I have become firmly convinced that each and every one of us needs some help, sometimes. It is the human experience. I do not think I could do this without a great deal of help from a couple of people who walk life right beside me. I have at least two other worlds of friends from different hats I have chosen to wear. I need those people very, very much. But I digress.

What does it feel like to be small? I walk around blissfully ignorant of the war that women feel everyday in every part of the world. Or am I wrong? Here’s the thing – this is a blog. It’s not in my book yet so it doesn’t have to be a finished product. Could this be true?

Like I said, I’m recent to this. Time for class. Talk to me.

Sometime

“Courage is not something you have, it’s something you earn.”

the_blitzMalcolm Gladwell tells the story of the bombing of London in World War Two. The Germans called it the “blitzkrieg” or just the Blitz“In the years leading up to the Second World War, the British government was worried. If, in the event of war, the German Air Force launched a major air offensive against London, the British military command believed that there was nothing they could do to stop it. Basil Liddell Hart, one of the foremost military theorists of the day, estimated that in the first week of any German attack, London could see a quarter of a million civilian deaths and injuries. Winston Churchill described London as “the greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous, fat, valuable cow, tied up to attract the beast of prey.” He predicted that the city would be so helpless in the face of attack that between three and four million Londoners would flee to the countryside.

In 1937, on the eve of the war, the British military command issued a report with the direst prediction of all: a sustained German bombing attack would leave six hundred thousand dead and 1.2 million wounded and create mass panic in the streets. People would refuse to go to work. Industrial production would grind to a halt. The army would be useless against the Germans because it would be preoccupied with keeping order among the millions of panicked civilians. The country’s planners briefly considered building a massive network of underground bomb shelters across London, but they abandoned the plan out of a fear that if they did, the people who took refuge there would never come out. They set up several psychiatric hospitals just outside the city limits to handle what they expected would be a flood of psychological casualties. “There is every chance,” the report stated, “that this could cost us the war.”
David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell

The government was sure that the residents of London would be shell-shocked. Everyone knew that it would be only a matter of time before Britain was boarded. Everyone was wrong. For a lot of reasons that Gladwell illustrates, people in London in World War Two gave ‘the finger’ to the Nazis and shrugged it off.

The experts are often wrong. That psychiatrist who diagnosed you might not have had a clue what was really going on. Those meds may work for some people but that does not mean they work for you. Research is changing so fast that none of us can keep up, and I do this all day. Sometimes the people we trust to know the answer are googling it while you are waiting in their office (This is, in point of fact… a fact).

The experts believed that the people would be afraid. It turned out that when people survive a bombing they begin to feel invincible, and in the end the Germans only managed to make a strong country into a very pissed-off enemy. That was one of the lessons of the story, I suppose. They were not afraid, they were afraid of being afraid. In counselling we call that catastrophizing. What was the worst that could happen if the Germans came? What if we lose? Making a mountain out of a mole hill. Come on, you know what I mean. The people who should know were convinced that the Blitz would be the beginning of the end. It turned out to be the end of the beginning. Everyone underestimated the RAF, and never have so few given so much for so many, or so the story goes. Churchill stood alone against the world, a ragged bulldog who just wouldn’t lie down. The worst didn’t happen. Not even close. And that is why history is cool.

Sometimes, often, I care way too much about crap that shouldn’t matter. I get sucked in to the drama and forget to reach for my Wisdom Rock. It’s hard to be Zen when the kids are screaming. But hear me here: It’s not about last time, it’s about sometime. Sometime you will get better than this. Sometime things will be different. ‘Sometime’ is not a cognitive distortion. Sometimes this stuff works. Sometimes. We call that hope, and without it you’re pretty much screwed.

There are moments when catastrophizing does WAY more harm than good. It can take me places where I have a hard time coping. I know there is that statistic somewhere that can prove me right, the one about how most of what we are afraid of never really happens. You know the one. But let’s be honest, it’s not about who is right and who is hurt. It has to be about me.

Try that on for size. It’s even hard to write. It has to be about me. I am no good to anyone if I am not strong. People count on me. I do this for a living and it gets inside me, infects me, for better and worse. What good am I to my wife, my kids, my partners, if I am emotionally wrecked? This is a hard lesson for a Canadian to learn. It feels selfish to my prairie ear.

Many of us are afraid of the unknown. The “what-if’s” have happened more than once. What the Germans didn’t understand, and what we all tend to forget, is that you cannot break a spirit that gets stronger every time you bomb. The Brits were prepared to gas the Germans on their own beaches, if pushed. You do not piss off the British Empire. They are stronger than they let on.

Sometimes you just have to endure and learn.  It’s not about last time, it’s about sometime. You cannot be beaten if you learn every time you are hit. You will win in the end. I have to believe that because I’ve seen it happen literally hundreds of time. I’ve felt what it feels like to be “ok” and I want more of that. A bunch more.

You can do it. You are, like the fairytale, stronger than you know. Courage is not something you have. Courage is something you learn. Malcolm is, in the end, right as rain. You’ll have it when you need it if you practice what you have learned. That isn’t rocket science but this stuff is hard and it is important. It needs to stop being “hurt enough I have to” and start becoming about “learning enough I want to”. Getting better is about learning – I will die on that hill, if necessary. You can’t get better if you aren’t getting smarter about your own particular piece of crazy. We’ve argued about this before. I get paid to research and I listen to audiobooks like a drug addict, what can you do?

I know, it’s a sweet gig.

Cue the cheesy ending – “You’re bigger than you know”.

Injustice And The Third Way

It isn’t fair and I don’t like that. On some level, most of us have had to face the harsh reality that doesn’t feel fair. But is it?

No. There is no Pixar ending.

Sitting in the old counselling office one rainy day this truth began to open up wider for me. I began to see threads, real or imagined, in many of the stories of pain and trauma that funnelled their way through my door and sometimes my life. It may be that this cognitive distortion, this need for life to “make sense”, has been responsible for a larger slice of misery than at least I ever imagined.

The stories are similar. Depression or anxiety brought on by trauma or heartbreak with a sense of cruel incongruity. We have been wronged and something needs to be put right. We simply cannot accept that there is no payback. It’s so… unfair.

As the good book says, and I proceed to steal and compare myself, albeit tongue-in-cheek, to the great Apostle Paul, “I do not come to you as one who has attained. Nonetheless I press on.” Like you I wonder why good people seem to suffer and total jerks continue to prosper. She left and it hurt and she never came back. I know that feeling. It’s bad. He died without ever getting his “just desserts”. Some of those Nazis escaped to Argentina and lived off the rewards of their raping and pillaging and genocide. As I consumed Martin Davidson’s book, The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering My Grandfather’s Secret Past, it was apparent that the author never was able to see his grandfather pay for his heinous crimes. There is no glass slipper ending. Gru doesn’t really adopt the cute little girls – they get thrown into the social welfare system and spend their childhood in Foster Care. They became sexually active early. Chances are they have issues with addiction and end up marrying poorly. That’s the real world and it is many things, but it is not fair.

But here’s the problem. I am DNA’d to believe in fairness. I cannot seem to get it through my dense skull that reality cares very little about my sense of injustice. It is up to me alone to move forward, and it’s very, very, hard. Years.

There are three ways, I think. There is the way I want, the way I don’t want… and the way I don’t know yet.

I have a friend, a real friend who I see in the real world, who has been working on her stuff for years. Not too long ago she came to me and uttered, “Five years. It’s been five years and I’m still not fixed.” It was heartbreaking, because she is a rock star.

As I wrote in my last post, some people go through things that are beyond coping. There isn’t a toolbox in the world that prepares you for the loss of a child. As I’ve said even recently, you get a free pass for that. I would go crazy. I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would be ok if I lost one of my kids. It’s simply not reasonable to imagine, yet in ways that are beyond my meagre understanding, some people keep going.

I just finished rereading Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants. He’s a storyteller. I like stories. In that book he points again and again to average people who, when faced with insurmountable odds, found a third way. He doesn’t call it that, but he seems to understand. Mennonites who have learned that vengeance sometimes creates more pain than it heals, even when your baby is defiled. Huguenots who stood up to the scariest dictatorship we have known and said, “We have Jews, come and get them”. Poor people and zealots and losers who came to understand that they have only one life; and the need for justice was ruining what little they had left.

There is the way I want, the way I don’t want… and the way I don’t know yet.

Five years of reading, learning, letting go, and moving forward against impossible odds. No one comes to a counsellor to sign up for that program. Most of us who are in process would happily abandon it at any time for a magic pill or a glass of good tequila.

Like most of us, it started with a broken toolbox of coping mechanisms. Imprints from childhood and generations of dysfunction, broken promises and unfulfilled expectations. Death had robbed her of a piece of her life. Choices. No role models who were not also broken. That ugliness inside. So much pain and hurt it was overwhelming. Some of you have been there… are there.

It’s hard to believe that you might be a success story. There is no pink cloud, no happy ending, no days of bliss without Xanax. But on some deep levels, people can fundamentally change. She still reads everyday because, if nothing else, she has learned that there are no shortcuts to wisdom. She needed to get started. There were days and months and years when it didn’t seem that there would ever be a good day again, but she was wrong. She knows that now. I don’t talk to her like a counsellor anymore, we just exchange information, sometimes everyday. There has to be a good reason to work this hard or I couldn’t live with myself and do what I do for a living. I’ve seen too many people find a third way to believe that my life is hopeless anymore. There must be a way from where you are to where you need to be or I quit.

Here’s the last thing I’ll say about this here. I didn’t have a clue what the third way was for years. I thought, many times, that I had this covered, but I was very wrong. I knew what I knew and I was willing to die for the cause, but the cause was flawed. No one could tell me that because I was right.

But one day I realized I wasn’t. Letting go of what I knew to be fact was exceedingly difficult.

Realizing that I had to work on this stuff every day for the rest of my life was at first disheartening, then exciting. It sure didn’t start out “exciting”. It was horrible. How do you stop believing what you have known to be true all your life? How do you “fake it until you make it” when you feel like you are lying to yourself? How do you hope again when you have been proven wrong in hundreds of ways?

Those are very good questions and this isn’t Sunday School and we have to figure this out for ourselves (with a little help). I can’t give you a slick closing sentence to make you or I feel any better. As I have often been counselled, I need to be relentless in my desire for change. There is only one game in town.

Misconceptions About Addiction

Canada’s poster-boy is in the news again. Rob Ford “graduated” from a treatment center and is back on center-stage, larger than life (literally). Like most people fresh out of rehab he is full of quick clichés, intended to cast blame and potentially excuse his past behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, I am truly hopeful that this will help him sort out his life but the inconvenient truth is that such efforts rarely produce lasting change without ongoing counseling and accountability. Ford claims that he will see a professional “for the rest of my life” but based on past behaviours this seems unlikely. I am not seeking to be fatalistic, I just happen to have worked at an amazing Addictions Services Centre for years and have watched a few thousand people work through their own addiction issues.

Quitting addiction is tough. It can literally rewire your brain chemistry while damaging your frontal cortex of the brain:
“Fortunately, the brain also has a built-in override system, the frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that makes a person moral, humane, social and altruistic – in a word, civilized. But the frontal cortex needs regular nurturing. If it’s long-silenced because of abused circuitry, if a person becomes a devotee of the pleasure-pathway, then the civilizing circuits decay.” (from the above article)

You can begin to see the problems. One of the greatest misconceptions about addiction is that anyone can just stop, once and for all. Another is that by quitting your drug of choice you have solved the problem. I remember vividly meeting a pharmacist who was dipping into the opiates at work and mandated to get help. He came to me and proudly announced that he was “no longer addicted”. I asked him why his lips were so puffy. It looked like a Botox appointment gone wrong. He admitted that he had taken to chewing sunflower seeds when he felt cravings. He was eating approximately 5 bags of spits a day. You can see this all the time. One person stops using heroin and instead smokes cannabis from morning til night. Technically they have stopped using, well you can see where I am going with this. Others engage in high-risk behaviours, or masturbate 8 times/day, or play World of Warcraft incessantly. While these are good harm-reduction strategies they do not address the problem.

Stopping addiction is difficult. We are tempted to address the symptom (the drug or habit) while ignoring the root causes. Most people initially begin overusing substances because they are self-medicating their life. Six months into recovery they wonder why they are still craving. It may be that they are craving their medicine. We have taken away the one medication that seemed to work and replaced it with… nothing.

Another misconception that people often have is that certain substances or activities, marijuana for example, are not “addictive”. This is a woeful misunderstanding of the deeper dynamics of addiction. Addiction is not really about alcohol or drugs. You can be addicted to shoes, or porn, or The Real Housewives of Vancouver, if that floats your boat. Addiction is primarily about what happens on a chemical and neurological level. Some people are addicted to dopamine, not drugs. Anything can be addictive because it’s not about the thing, it’s about the response on a chemical level. Certain drugs are, however, “more addictive” than others. Many people report that the very first time they used cocaine they couldn’t get enough. Anyone who has ever struggled with cocaine addiction can tell you that they were addicted to “more”. For some of us there is never enough cocaine. Those same people may feel bloated after two pints of beer and have no difficulty stopping. Put a line of coke in front of them, conversely, and watch them drool.

This is the problem with complete abstinence-based programs. They cherry-pick which chemicals are “bad” while allowing adherents to drink 40 cups of coffee a day and smoke 3 packs of smokes. They do not understand the devious and subtle nature of addiction. Most clinicians agree that substituting one drug for another is an effective harm-reduction strategy. That is why it is important to address ones addictive tendency, not just the crack problem. Addicts often cycle in and out of addictions – Tylenol 1’s or 3’s, Methadone, sleep aids, orgasms, overdoing it at the gym or church, etc. They are taught to deal with the drug, but not their broken life and propensity to make poor choices, again and again. That is why addiction groups strongly advise against romantic engagements for the first year of recovery. Addicts like substituting one addiction for another. Certain addictions are socially acceptable, though still very harmful.

There is also a pervading idea in the world of recovery that addiction must always be attached to abstinence… forever. I can still remember an 18 year old I spoke with who had just been to a recovery event and learned that, in spite of his addiction to pills and his disdain for overdrinking, he must abstain from alcohol for the rest of his life. For the rest of his life. He had no issues with alcohol at all but he was despondent that because of an issue with Oxycontin he would now be condemned to teetotalling the rest of his days. The thought was overwhelming. We talked.

While it may seem that I am disagreeing with myself at some junction I would like to point out the meta-narrative once again. Addiction is about excess in areas we cannot seem to control and which do something to us on a neurological and chemical level to ruin our lives or cause us to act in ways we are not proud of. There is no substantive proof that an adolescent who struggles with opiates will have difficulty with drinking. Some will yell that it is all the same, as I have seemed to indicate. It is, and it isn’t. Many who struggle seems to become addicted to everything. Others do not. I can give dozens of examples of people who are alcoholics who can take prescription medication with no ill effects. Many people who have difficulty with prescription abuse have absolutely no desire to drink to excess. While it is tempting to paint everyone with the same brush, this simply does not hold up in the real world.

Another misconception about addiction is about methodology. AA groups believe in what is called “the disease model”. Rob Ford was obviously at a program that was 12-step based. This philosophy believes that addiction is a terminal disease and there is no escape from it’s clutches. It is important to note that not all addiction research supports this belief (I can just imagine how many emails I am going to get accusing me of slamming AA). I love Alcoholics Anonymous and believe that it can be an effective model for sobriety. Unlike AA fanatics, however, I do not believe that this is the only road to Mecca. I believe is pragmatism – whatever works for you. Methodologies are not sacred but some are better than others.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction on any level get help. I cannot express enough how profoundly destructive this life can be. Addiction may, in fact, be the 21st Century plague. Recovery takes an incredible amount of humility, accountability, and hope. Talk to someone. Finding out the real story behind this important struggle may just save a life. Love someone enough to be honest, even if that someone is you.

Things can change. I wish Mr. Ford all the best.

 

 

Waiting for Change

Waiting-chorus-string-quartet-pianoAnd waiting.

I remember hearing the song, “Waiting On The World To Change” and thinking, that’s not going to happen anytime soon! Things tend to get worse before they get better, or so the maxim goes. What I have found is that things get ridiculously old before they change. Most of us spend day after day, month after month, even year after year desperately praying for change, until things slowly move. And we’re talking slowly. I don’t have any recollection of when I got out of my all-pervading, soul-stealing, life-draining, ‘who gives a crap about anyone or anything’ depression. There was no “ah ha!” moment, no prayer meeting that turned the corner, no epiphany, no medication, no counselling appointment that finally turned the tide. No conversation seemed to help at the time, though later it was obvious looking back that small change was beginning.

I remember, when I was grieving, going to see a really terrible religious counsellor. I went religious because I could get it cheaper. Mistake. Some religious counsellors are undoubtedly fabulous, but they never met this guy. I should have saved the money and bought a milkshake. NOTHING he said helped. But then again, nothing anyone could say at that point made much of a difference. He was extra pathetic inasmuch as he couldn’t keep confidences and literally ratted me out, exacerbating the situation exponentially. Long story short… he sucked. Sadly, many counsellors do. They go into this occupation to save the world and somehow fix their own dysfunction. They are rarely successful. By way of example, hundreds of addicts I have worked with, and we’re talking hundreds, are convinced six weeks into sobriety that they want to be a drug and alcohol counsellor, or work with youth. People love love love theoretically working with youth… until they work with one and realize that adults actually listen, most youth in counselling have no longer than five minutes of attention span (thank you every adolescent male for the stimulating conversation), and adults won’t attempt to give you a wedgie during your coffee time or fart out loud and blame you at Starbucks. These are, of course, only theoretical examples and I’m not really upset with that little puke who blamed me at the coffee shop I frequent almost daily by yelling and holding his nose, pointing and gagging. Completely theoretical.

Anyway… what were we talking about? Oh right, depression. Happy times.

Coming out the other side of depression seems to take forever. By the time someone lands in my office to actually deal with such things they usually are so far gone it can take months just to talk them into getting up in the morning. I never start by asking a depressed person to do much of anything. The key problem with depression, as I oft recite, is the lack of motivation. The number one thing you need to get out of depression is… motivation. So how do you get motivated to get motivated? Certainly not by going to a doctor who prescribes an hour or walking, journaling, or going out socially on dates. Such goals are laughable, in the beginning. Unfortunately doctors are left to diagnose and prescribe such maladies on a daily basis, while having little understanding of psychology or mental health in general. It simply isn’t really covered all that much in medical school. But again I digress.

I cannot point to a day when I felt better because there wasn’t one. Coming back from the living dead took years of reading and crying and praying and talking and talking and talking… and not a little bit of drinking, much to my chagrin. I don’t recommend taking a depressant for depression. It’s similar to smoking pot for your anxiety – short-term gain, long-term pain. Doctors recommend that too!

It is the same with trauma, anxiety, and much of the mental health spectrum. There is no fad diet or cleansing that really can make you whole again; no magic pill or medication that will solve your problems. Some of us desperately need to be medicated, but with an understanding that medication alone is rarely sufficient. What really needs to happen is time. Time to move beyond the raw beginning. Time to let all that good stuff you are learning congeal and begin to take effect. Healing takes time. Real healing always does.

I tell this to patients all the time. Even with the best counsellor change rarely happens overnight. I find, and this is not even remotely scientific, that my clients usually take about three months of intense therapy before stuff starts to vibrate. Six months to a couple of years to deal with trauma, or anxiety, or serious depression. Sorry to say but a combination of co-morbidities could require longer than that. Some of us know this, though it’s counselling suicide to speak of it out loud. “Short term interventions” that we were all teethed on in college are only relatively short, when compared with how long it takes to not get better. Consider then, if you will, that most extended health plans cover 5 or 6 counselling sessions. So why aren’t you better yet?

Depression is not necessarily a terminal illness. Neither is anxiety or trauma. What is true, is that they are not easy to overcome. It took me years, and I still bear the scars even today.

Waiting.

 

 

Forgive and Forget?

Probably not.

Many of us have talked to someone about our painful past. Most likely you have heard the advice, “you can forgive (with help) but you probably will never forget’. This is generally good advice and is given when people ask, “how am I supposed to forget what he/she has done?” In cases of violence against persons, hurt, or abuse, unfortunately forgetting is rarely an option. Even years of intense counselling cannot erase some memories. Anyone who says otherwise is probably selling something.

But what about forgiving? We have all been taught in church or school or by a guardian that we need to forgive those who have harmed us. There are a plethora of stories of individuals who have chosen to forgive the person who has murdered a family member, or done egregious harm. Let me make this perfectly clear so there is no misunderstanding of where I am headed with this. In my experience this is the EXCEPTION, not the rule. Most of us in similar situations spend our entire lives seeking to work through such pain. There is counseling and prayer and screaming and tears and more counseling. We are taught to move forward, and many of us do. It takes time and tears and work to loosen the grip such experiences have had on our lives.

Most of us have been taught that moving forward is primarily a matter of forgiveness. This is not always good advice. Telling a patient that he or she must eventually forgive their rapist, for example, is overwhelming and inconceivable at the beginning of the journey. It may be possible for some to eventually forgive after working through much of the pain, but is this the only option?

Let me suggest a third option (as opposed to bitterness or forgiveness). Many of us will never be able to fully forgive those who have injured us. Common wisdom dictates, therefore, that we will never “truly be able to move forward.” As a result, even with counseling or prayer or whatever floats your boat, we remain in bondage to that trauma for the rest of our lives. This often has catastrophic ramifications. Untreated trauma can lead to all manner of mental health issues from depression to hoarding to constantly painting our front room, to being unable to commit to a healthy relationship, or have an orgasm, or cope with catastrophic shame and pain. “Trauma trumps all” as the saying goes and leaving it untreated is often a prescription for a haunted life.

So what is the answer?

Over the years I have worked through hurtful memories with hundreds, even thousands of people. We are taught in school that tools such as Exposure Therapy help clients to deal with such issues. Clients are often encouraged to tell their stories over and over again until they can do so without the emotional discharge. There is some wisdom in this, in spite of the fact that Exposure Therapy no longer enjoys the popularity it once did. What is good about such methodologies is that contained within is a nugget of dynamic truth.

Here’s what I often tell clients. Sometimes moving forward is more about boredom than forgiveness. Let me put this another way – Let’s deal with you story until it bores you (figuratively speaking). Let’s work through your stuff until you learn enough, hurt enough, think and feel enough, that the tragic parts of your story lose their power… until one day you realize that you want to talk about something else.

And therein, as the bard said, lies the rub. There is real power in teaching your heart to listen more to your head. Most of us are a raging bundle of hormones and emotion and tend to make decisions and have opinions based on how it “feels”. Therapy will help you gain perspective. The real message of counselling is, “change your mind and your ass will follow”. You are hurt. It often becomes virtually impossible to see beyond the pain. I often tell clients, “when you are really hurting it can feel like you are insane. You think and do things that are born out of that pain and it is almost impossible to be objective. You may not understand, in such times, what is the best for you. You may not care. Movement involves wrestling with the demons until you are able to loosen the emotional hold such memories can have on you. Until your story becomes less interesting to you. Until you are able to push ahead without being ambushed by the pain. It still hurts, but you are on the move.”

You Make Me So Angry

You Make Me So Angry.

As a counselor I often face the daunting task of helping people see that no one else can make them angry. No one else can make them sad. No one else, short of a disaster, can dictate my attitude at all. If I get angry, that’s my problem. I may think it’s someone else’s fault, but it’s still my problem. I am in control of me. So technically, you never make me angry.

We live in a society that has somehow enshrined in it’s mores the belief that it’s ok to yell. We grew up with yelling, we were taught yelling; and when my kids drive me insane or my wife gets snarky yelling is an acceptable option.

It’s time for a moratorium on yelling. When you consider it critically and objectively, yelling is an act of violence. I am exerting my will, forcing another to concede. When you are yelled at you probably feel somewhat violated. That may be because you were violated.

There is something cathartic, orgasmic about yelling. People who scream at others feel that sense of release. There is a subtle yet profound joyous release. You can kind of get off on yelling… Yelling is great for anxiety and frustration – just get it all out.

And then leave it on me.

Anger is about handing your pain and frustration to someone else. There is a significant sense of entitlement. There is a degree of selfishness, of lack of impulse control. Yelling is an act of weakness, not strength. It is also an act of violence. An act of control. We have all done it, from time to time but it’s time to look for other ways to deal with our frustration. Learn mindfulness, practice STOPP Therapy, breathe, go to a counselor, read about anger.

People learn in counseling that yelling is a very dysfunctional coping mechanism. They are apt to tell me they can’t help it. Or it’s not their fault. It’s just the way their family is and they grew up fine.

In the 12 Step program they are keen on wanting you to know that the first step to fixing a problem is recognizing that you do, in point of fact, have a problem.

Now you know.

 

 

the voice within me

I have a second voice, deep inside, that I listen to. I’m not dissociative, not paranoid or delusional, but he’s still there.

He tells me things are going to be alright. He invites me to play.

Do you remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon when Bugs had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other? The cartoon centered around the epic battle of two voices, each wishing to be heard.

You’ve seen movies where the star has an evil side, a dark voiced alter ego that is always ready to tell you what he wants you to know.

There is a voice in my ear, a friend deep inside.

Anyone who has had an addiction can tell you about that voice, that stranger, that friend.

Miss a meal, and he shows up. Stop smoking. Quit the Percocets. Stop playing with yourself.  Delete your video game. Stop letting yourself get angry.

Feel him?

When people find I work part-time in the addictions field, people who haven’t struggled with a public addiction, they ask me, “Why doesn’t he/she just quit?” They have never felt the pull of that addictive voice. It’s palpable. It’s consuming. It has a personality. It is alive.

I have worked very hard to recognize that voice inside my head. He speaks to me, more often than I would like to admit; telling me to get high, or take a shortcut, or do something cheap and immediate. He sounds a lot like me, but he’s quieter, and sleezier, and looks like a cross between Rumpulstilskin and that dude who played Satan on Constantine. He dresses better than me, has better hair, and is evil.

I have personified that part of my personality because it helps me to call upon religious and cinematic symbols to put a face and a feeling on that part of myself I am not proud of. I know what it is like to stop using drugs and have that bastard tell me all day long that there is a simple solution to my pain and the sweat and the tears. I know the sound of his voice like I know my own.

Chances are you have a voice inside of you as well. We all have that part of us which wants to take the easy route, eat all the candy, see naked bodies, and do whatever feels right at the time. I’m coming to realize that learning how to recognize this old friend is perhaps the meaning of life.

We are friends, my little Scott and I. We have been together for far too long to just go our separate ways. Besides, I still need him. He tells me to leap when I want to crawl. He’s the one who got me to skydive all those times. He reminds me to still be alive, in a world of deadness. I still need him, though I am learning to understand what he says. He still scares me, but he no longer always wins.

 

Coping Mechanisms

coping

We all have them.

We have adopted ways to deal with the reality that we are stuck in. Very young we may have realized it was better to keep our emotions to ourself than it was to get hurt by an abusive mother. Some of us had to get angry to get our way. Checking out during sex was a way to endure something we did not enjoy. Maybe you cry and pout until you get your way. Perhaps you believe you should never show weakness. You might use sarcasm and humour to evade being honest or vulnerable. Feeling sorry for yourself has been a way of feeling better about yourself. Passive-aggressive behaviour really does work.

No matter what coping mechanisms you use they have probably worked for you in the past. Checking out during sex or an argument or a compliment really did help keep you from being hurt. Anger really did help you get what you needed, once upon a time.

The problem with coping mechanisms is that they were formed many many years ago, as a response to trauma or terror. You probably developed your fear of confrontation when you were three or four years old. No doubt you formed your skewed version of the opposite sex when you were a child or in puberty. The ways you interact sexually were learned before you really had any idea what sex was all about. Your perception of your father or mother was forming as you were learning to walk. You based your entire belief system, back then, on your immature and basically stupid beliefs about life, love, reality, and the meaning of life that you developed when you were a dumb kid. Twenty years later you can still hear the kids on the school yard calling you fat, or ugly, or stupid, or all of the above. That seven-year old’s hurtful comment about your weight still affects you today. Amazing, isn’t it?

It may be time to look seriously at some of the coping mechanisms you have been using for years. It may be time to come to grips with the fact that you have been feeling bad about yourself for thirty years based on the opinions of a bunch of cruel elementary school brats, or a dad who was an alcoholic and still isn’t a real person. Yelling may have been a necessary skill in your home growing up but it isn’t working for you anymore and it’s time to let it go. Perhaps it’s time to say goodbye to that voice that you know that keeps telling you that you are stupid, or ugly, or worthless. That person’s opinion isn’t worth a damn thing and you know that intellectually. Refusing to let people in has worked in the past but it’s holding you back now. I know you said that you would never trust again but at the time you were very wounded and your emotional tank was tapped.

At the end of the day it often comes down to Einstein and his crazy-haired definition of insanity – doing the same thing and expecting different results. That’s it, isn’t it. Destructive coping mechanisms have long since stopped working but we continue to think that we have to listen to their insipid voices. You can rebuild trust, or confidence, or hope. You can move forward.

It’s just really hard and takes more time than we want. It is, however, incredibly worth it.

Drug Myths

excellent article from Cracked.com

Natural Drugs Aren’t As Bad For You!

The Myth:

This one you’ve heard from your hippie friends: “Don’t believe ‘The Man’ when he says all recreational drugs are bad for you! What I’m giving you are but plants and mushrooms that grow from Mother Earth herself! It’s far better to put something natural into your body than some chemical that came out of a factory!”

The Reality:

Let’s start with the obvious: A substance being “natural” means precisely squat in terms of its potential risks and benefits. For example, opium, which is squirted straight out of a poppy, is a highly addictive narcotic that can easily kill you dead if you overdo it. Check out this chart comparing all the drugs the popular kids are doing nowadays:

Drugs on the lower left are safer, while ones to the upper right are dangerous-er. Note that everyone’s favorite natural drug, marijuana, is just about on par with perhaps the very definition of a synthetic drug — LSD — in terms of lethality, while being higher up the dependence ladder. And hey, check out alcohol up there playing alongside cocaine and morphine and heroin like he thinks he’s one of the big kids or something. At the risk of causing you to fall into a PowerPoint-induced catatonic state, here’s another chart for you to take a gander at:

This one’s the result of a study led by neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt to rank drugs in terms of the harm they cause to their users and others. While the vegan-friendly mushroom is at the bottom of the list, it’s not so far behind Ecstasy and acid, both puked out of some laboratory beaker somewhere. Pot and tobacco are up there near the top mingling with Walter White’s favorite synthetic drug, and hey, look at that: Alcohol takes the very top spot. It probably seems like we’re bullying poor little booze at this point, but we contend that he’s asking for it.

So just because a drug is natural, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any safer — sometimes, it’s quite the opposite. We mentioned above that the poster child of synthetic drugs, LSD, can cause its users to go on psychotic rampages if they’re predisposed to them. Do you know which other drug can do that? If you guessed the poster child of all-natural drugs, marijuana, give yourself one (Acapulco) gold star.