Inner Monologue

I have voices inside my head. Not the kind where you take medications, the other one. The voice we all have, the whisper telling you to go pee right now. That constant inner conversation rattling around inside every head. Well, not all the time, I’m a guy.

There was a time in my life when my inner monologue was much more insane. Anyone who has ever gone off the deep end can tell you, things can get very scary inside that dysfunctional brain of yours. The constant feeling of tension , the weird thoughts, the nattering stressful boredom sometimes makes you nuts. Sorry to get technical there. You may become so engrossed in the internal soap opera it’s virtually impossible to remain objective. Scary thing is, it’s all so… rational.

Only it isn’t.

Did I say it was a monologue? Maybe it is more accurate to describe the experience as a wave mixed with an emotional rush; broken words and feelings all tumbling towards the unknown. I pitched this idea to one of my editors, Lori, and here’s how she responded:

I’m thinking about the movie Constantine. Cynical chain-smoking John Constantine, the weird androgynous Gabriel ~ and how Constantine went down to hell to find that girl who’d committed suicide at the psych ward. That place of monologue or trauma is a lot like hell. Constantine was loosely based on a comic called HellBlazer. I think once we know that ‘place’ we can never unknow it. Kind of like how once we become awake, we can never become asleep again. But knowing it, I think this makes it so we understand the depth of its agony. I think that’s maybe why you counsel and I feel like I need to ‘go there’ with people. I’m drawing some possibly unconnected analogy to the movie, but it makes me feel better about it all. Hell blazers.

That’s why she’s one of my editors.

The quote says it this way, “If there wasn’t a hell we would invent one”.

Here’s Lori again.

I think it’s almost reductionist to call it trauma or cognitive distortion or monologue. It’s a ‘place’. A virtual rendering of hell. In some way if I can look at it as a place, I can leave it as well as revisit it. And if I have a hell blazing friend, they can remind me it’s an imaginary place and not a reality.

Immanuel Kant spoke of dueling alternate realities. There is the world as I perceive it, and the world as it really is. They are different. Right now you may be worrying about something completely irrational. You may even know it’s cray cray but continue to worry, nonetheless. What if that worst-case scenario thingy happened? We all are young enough to believe in the worst. Very bad things can happen to very good people. Maybe that person really doesn’t like you.

There’s the rub, as they say. A lifetime of experiences, often bad ones, disappointment and heartache and pain and unrequited love and low-fat products which went to your hips have convinced most of us that we need to micromanage our internal head space and believe the madness pouring through our defences and threatening to invite us to start cutting or drinking or checking out, one more time. Lori was absolutely right – there are times when we need to be reminded that this is a fantasy and you need to wake up.

She stole my ending. And if I have a hell blazing friend, they can remind me it’s an imaginary place and not a reality. I aspire to be that person, when I am able. Chances are this is something you could also get behind. We all need someone who can take our hand when we lose our way. Thanks Steve.

Perhaps there was a time when people could bear this load alone. I am fascinated by the strength and the sheer badassness of those who served this country in war, often many years ago. The man who could survive the soaked hell-traps in the trenches of The Great War. People long dead who simply would not lie down in front of oppression and hate. Frightened teenagers who cried “We shall overcome, someday”. Children crawling through the jungles in the name of a cause they neither understood nor cared anything about. Countless women in history who were raped and decided to continue living. I am not that person.

I desperately want to be that person.

When you are crazy it doesn’t hurt to have someone in your life who is further along the journey or is in possession of knowledge they need to teach you. I have those people in my life and this is the primary reason I am so passionate about learning. Some of us need to figure this out and if it isn’t me than it sure as hell better be you.

This is going to hurt but you should probably do it anyway. Give someone permission to call you on your crap. Take the time or pay the money or scam a priest if you need to, but just do it. I cannot tell you the numbers of people who have walked through the doors I haunt. We have six counselors working today and they are all very busy. It’s trendy to have a shrink so come on, you hipster.

There are periods in our life when we no longer possess enough information to make an informed choice about something very pressing and stressful. It is at these times when some of your friends come to see me, just to punch something that doesn’t punch back. I may as well be air-freshener (and if you know me you have probably heard me refer to myself as exactly that), you just need a place to unpack a lot of poop.

Lose long enough and it becomes impossible to think clearly; when your reality is someone’s definition of purgatory. Most of us just roll with the punches and pray that our Lottery Ticket will hit big.

That may be living but that is not a life.

Talk to someone. Those who are humble enough to be taught will usually find their way.

Lori: I read a good thing, I think it was on Psychology Today. They asked people about their fondest childhood memories, and invariably they were stories about screw ups. The listeners would smile knowingly and they’d all have a good laugh and share war stories afterwards. But people really valued others who would point out where they went off.

In retrospect of course.

Change The World

“The true measurement of a person’s worth isn’t what they say they believe in, but what they do in defense of those beliefs,” he said. “If you’re not acting on your beliefs, then they probably aren’t real.”
Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

Edward Snowden changed the world, and like most revolutionaries, the machine is trying to kill him. Believe what you want about Mr. Ed, his revelation was a game-changer. I’m on holidays (because we sometimes call it that in Canada) and right now I’m looking at the lake and watching Terminal F. This is a documentary about the events around the events of Snowden’s recent life. As far as documentaries go, it’s less biased than the mainstream, and less sympathetic than my virtual friends who live in the world of anonymity would appreciate. I study subjects like cultural engineering and the other side of the web and cybersecurity for the same reason I look at most things – everything is so incredibly interesting.

One day nerds will look back on 2013 and have conferences about how the world changed that spring. They will talk about the world of 9/11 and the cultural precursors to what went on; the decline of the nuclear family, the end of religion as a cultural force, the wars and the unrest and Anonymous and the growth and power of the virtual insurgency. After literally the entire history of humanity a fifteen-year-old kid from Nairobi suddenly has a voice and a forum and potentially a gun, if she learns how to use Bitcoin. And everytime she turns on her computer or texts a friend that information is recorded by people who may not have her best interests and freedoms at heart. What are you willing to give up to live in a safe world? Are you willing to give up your freedom? These are very important and complex questions.

No one knows how this is going to shake out, but several intelligent people are fairly adamant that Snowden may have just stopped 1984. It’s entirely possible that a 29-year-old computer geek singlehandedly changed the course of human history and stopped A Brave New World. It’s every cheesy youth dystopian movie you watched in 2014. Phrases like “surveillance state” started popping up on YouTube and on Frontline. The journalists who broke the story did not work for The National Enquirer, they worked at The Guardian, a real voice that wins Pulitzers.

Edward Snowden may just be the most valuable person in the world.

Snowden smells more like a brilliant Gavrilo Princip than a rich politician. He is normal, not beautiful, maybe even an idealist. Like Gavrilo he may have changed the course of human history forever, this time with a few SD cards instead of a gun or sword or bow. Many of us are convinced that there were some very disturbing things going on in cyberspace, and I’m not talking about buying cocaine at Silk Road. We are finding out that people were watching, developing programs and advertising and spyware and it was beginning to look like those conspiracy freaks weren’t as off as we all assumed they were. With Stephen Hawking now prophesying the invasion of our robot overlords, things just got freaking weird. Terminator weird.

Not everyone thinks Edward Snowden is a messiah, however. Many people who wear blue suits and red ties believe he has put us all at risk. It is a scary world, and anyone who has ever stumbled on the Deep Web can attest that there are evil and vindictive people out there, and many of them have a platform. The internet is a potential nightmare and someone needs to stand up for what has been right for so very long. You won’t be a raging liberal after someone rapes your wife in the name of some cause they joined online. Stop screwing around. Spooks in Washington and Ottawa and redneck politicians want this man dead because he has shown all their cards to the bad people and that is bad enough; but now the Proles are waking up. It’s all bizarre and apocalyptic and even the American government freely admits that Snowden’s documents were completely legit. Strange.

Edward Snowden was subcontracted to the NSA, arguably one of the most sophisticated surveillance and intelligence networks in the world. Such agencies have, probably by their own admission, arisen as a necessary evil to combat very dark forces that will, not in theory, hurt people you love for money or power or a radical cause. This does not seem debatable and has been going on since life was mould. One little nerd brought the surveillance state and many gigantic companies to their knees and changed the world forever, for good or evil, depending on which couch you are sitting in. If you are not up to speed on this issue you owe it to yourself to become educated. This is very important stuff.

This young man is now hiding in Russia, which plays beautifully into the political narrative wherein ES has put American interests at risk and he’s working for the enemy, on purpose or not. Regardless of who is right his name will be in history books, hundreds of years from now. How weird is it if you feel just a little bit jealous?

We all want to be significant and that is not a bad thing. In counseling we talk about this all the time, the systematic devastation and crushing anonymity of this culture and it’s toll on every one of us. Many spend their entire lives looking for something that sticks out, only to die with a yearning sense of almost. I will probably never have the opportunity to engage a planet and chances are you may not either. So now to find out what is left.

We are tempted to lie to ourselves and thereby diminish our hopes; with internal conversations about how unrealistic our champagne wishes were anyway. Every time I give up a dream or lose a little more hope for a meaningful life a little piece of my idealism dies.

I know so many bitter older people. I get that. Gone are the pretty parties and the unquenchable adrenaline. Welcome prostate exams and vaginal dryness. Watching your life slip away while still trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up really sucks. How many times have you wished for another kick at the can because next time you would somehow know all the lessons it has taken us a lifetime to accumulate? The truth is you will not get another kick at any can and I don’t know about you but I do not want to look back at my life and realize I wasted my one chance.

Call it a rationalization if you want but it is important to realize that you do not have to make the cover of Rolling Stone to live a life that matters. You may never be in a history book but you could write your story any time you wish. While you may never be rich and famous, you could invest in a broken life and bring hope to dozens of people if you wanted to. We all choose to succumb to hopelessness, and if you decide you don’t want to be around that is entirely your choice. If you don’t want to step out on the ice quite yet it’s not too late to turn the ship around. Bitterness is a choice. Choosing to be critical of everyone who doesn’t ascribe to your very particular criteria is a choice. Pettiness and negativity and continually talking about your damn sore elbow that no one really cares about is a choice. Fixating on your problems for fifty years is entirely a choice. The desire to one day wake up with a smile and a new dream is also a choice. So is getting up one more time when you struggle to find meaning right now. So is saying no to our raging self-indulgence.

I’m looking around the table and it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to realize that people tend to end up in one of two camps; the old and beautiful and the old and bitchy. There are a million reasons to end up a smoldering hot pocket but at the end of the day no one is going to give a crap why you are still angry about that guy who ruined you fifty years ago. Please don’t think I am diminishing the incessant grind of stress and hurt and disappointment. What I am suggesting is that it is up to me how this plays out.

I will never be Edward Snowden because every one of us is dealt a different hand and mine doesn’t look like it’s going to end up with a Gucci watch. Ed may wind up in a prison cell, this world loves to crucify its prophets. I for one am grateful that he had the courage to do what was right, and the cojones to pull it off. Many people disagree with me and I for one am glad that you have the freedom to tell me off all you want. I have the freedom to not give a damn.

At the end of the day I desperately do not want to become a petty and whiny old man who spends his life complaining about how the kids of today aren’t like when I was a kid. Someone put me out of my misery first. Please. This life is screaming by, and we are all going to be dust before too long; so for the love of God don’t give up.

 

Someday’s Coming

Someday.

I remember a moment captured in time. I was making breakfast at my restaurant, The Bad Dog Grill, and I realized I hated my life. It was 7:30 am and I wanted a beer. If I cut my hand one more time, maybe I can go home today. I just knew I would never get out of that kitchen. Then one day I was.

I have spoken with people in prison, or doing time in a bad relationship, who have been convinced I was wrong. This hell is never going to end. I will never meet someone who loves me. I will never want to live again. I can never move on from this. Then you do, though rarely like on television. We sincerely need to have a conversation some time about what recovery really looks like. God never sent me a thunderbolt and one day I didn’t wake up fixed. It’s gradual and tedious and most of us have no flipping clue what “better” really should look like.

Many of us grow up believing that we are supposed to move beyond, not just move on. Somehow we are supposed to forgive that monster or forget about that loss or magically get normal. Those are wonderful motivational posters but in the real world we usually become scarred by life and I’m not just talking about table saws and missing fingers. Life beats the hell out of many of us and it is going to take a religious event or a Canadian Tire pool full of good tequila for things to feel spanky. It is tempting to pine for the innocence or the waistline or the eyebrows of our youth but, and I hate being the one to tell people this, that ship has sailed, been attacked by Somali pirates and sunk by the North Korean military. You are never going to be who you once were and when you think about it, that may be a very good thing. I know you used to be able to run for miles and jump over fences and turn everyone’s eye but chances are you were way way dumber. Do you really want to be 18 and perky again? Willing to give up all that experience and drink the Koolaid?

When I was younger I was convinced I knew the score, and I was an idiot. Sorry to get all technical on you there. I could not give up what I know now for who I was then. That is difficult to write but it rings true for me.

Someday. Someday things will be different than they are today. Before the steam engine you could be attacked by the Huns in one millenia than the Mongols in another and the tactics would be similar because both armies used horses and bows and arrows. The world was defined for centuries by a single warrior, usually on a mount. The players may have changed but the world hadn’t. Time barely moved. The vast majority of the planet never travelled beyond their district. There was no Wifi. When the Mongols used gunpowder against the Hungarians no one even understood what that sound was, and why is there a hole in me? Generations passed with little noticeable difference.

This is not that time. I cannot promise you much, but it does appear self-evident that this culture is addicted to unstoppable momentum. A woman in a bad marriage is far more apt to leave than she was four hundred years ago. Heck, forty years ago.

It may not get good but it probably won’t stay the same. Fewer of us are willing to put up with monotonous misery anymore. There is no possible way soldiers would sit in trenches today, like they did in World War One, unless there was an Xbox and free Facebook. Two months of sitting in water and rats and dysentery and I don’t know about you but I’d probably go over the hill and let them shoot me, just out of boredom and from the constant itching. I hate itching. It may be possible that we are not the strongest generation that ever lived. Those old 90-year-olds killed people and it still would not serve to piss too many of them off, especially on a cruise when they race their walkers and gave me the evil eye. My grandfather left his family for over four years to drive a gas truck to the Front. Did he even have air conditioning? The times, they are a’changing.

Someday’s coming, for all of us. To quote Mr. Smith, “that is the sound of inevitability”. Your depression may not be terminal and that kid may talk to you again, someday. Someday you will know things that you don’t right now and your situation will change just enough that you will look at life differently. What often looks like “things finally going your way” may have at least something to do with how much you change, and that is the best news I can tell you. Sure you are going through hell, but if you are keeping your head just above the waves you are undoubtedly learning important lessons that you would never understand without going through this Armageddon. You are reading a blog by a therapist, so you are probably wise enough to know you aren’t wise enough yet to handle the whole enchilada. Me too. I desperately hope I am not a finished product.

Overcoming your stuff has more to do with just getting in the ring, than it has to do with winning every round. I can’t tell you how many times I fail at almost everything, and my job is to keep getting up in the morning and giving a damn. That’s me, it may not be you. For people with ADHD just keeping your act together is often hard enough without all the gushy little rewards. The empaths suffer so very much, just being alive. Being the strong one sucks. The person who carries the weight of the world is often crushed. Most of us would self-medicate if we could get away with it, Scot(t)-free. We haven’t even discussed one of my favorite themes – the real world is often boring and relentless and stressful. Stir in a few mental health issues, and a loss or two, and you may be tempted to just give up.

Don’t do it. Someday’s coming. It may be years or it could be today (probably not) but change happens whether we like it or not. This is the one constant in the Twenty-first Century. If you are awake you may have noticed the global village is experiencing the most profound cultural revolution since the Enlightenment. The internet, combined with catastrophic cultural changes, has transformed the world forever. There is no way to put the rabbit back in the hat.

I am not going to launch into a diatribe on how we are all headed to hell in a handbasket. There is plenty of time for that. Lately I’ve wondered if there is not a pot of gold in this electronic GMO rainbow. I can remember, even in my lifetime, when you had to go to a library if you wanted to read about anything. The world was slower and if you are depressed or dealing with impossible situations, slow never feels good.

Hold on. Someday’s still coming. I just wish, sometimes, it would hurry the hell up.

All kids need is a little help, a little hope and someone who believes in them.  
Magic Johnson

A Whole New World

The internet is on fire over this past week’s discovery of a new earth. Stir in the recent news that just might signal the end of Einstein’s E=MC2 and that makes for some very interesting possibilities. We may, in fact, be entering the golden age of physics; a hundred years after Max Planck was told to skip physics and choose maths. Humanity could have a whole new world.

It is very likely, if we could somehow adapt to an ecosystem for which we would probably have no immune systems, to envision two amazing scenarios.

There might be aliens. Humanity begins to realize that Science Fiction has actually been our guide, not science proper. We could meet other potentially intelligent life forms who would undoubtedly have some of the same components we also possess, from an environment which uses the same Periodic Table.

It might be empty. Humanity could throw off this broken world, the world we have broken, and get a fresh start. We could have a colony. If science catches up with Gene Roddenberry, and we learn how to break the light barrier, it’s a whole new deal.

That may not rot your socks off but for some of us this awakens the imagination. C.S. Lewis wrote a trilogy based on this very idea, the opportunity to imagine living somewhere else in the galaxy. Hope. The chance to boldly go where no one has gone before. That blows my mind.

We get a do-over. I’m sure I’ll probably be against this idea after reading more and finding out we’re not supposed to like the idea of polluting another planet and I’m a raging liberal anyways, but right now I’m in the ignorant mist of imagination and I’ve read too much sci-fi.

Many people would never consider stepping into a rocket in order to move away from a world they have known all their lives. Some of us would. The idea of a fresh start is intoxicating. An adventure into something new and different and not nearly so boring as your mundane and ordinary life right now.

I’m at a friend’s house and I can see the lake from this porch. The rain is falling, the first day of wet in months. A parched earth smells like springtime, for the first time this spring. I live and travel in the most beautiful place this side of Germany and I’m sitting in pajamas and it’s 12:33. I just put them on.

When my life fell apart I could never catch a break. Every bloody day was work and toil and hurt and tedium. It took me a while but eventually I learned STOPP Therapy. It’s one of those cheesy tools I teach clients right after I apologize for the fromage. It took me longer than I would admit, but I eventually learned to turn off the noise, if only for 5 minutes. I remember telling myself, “you’re not going to grieve for 5 minutes. You can do five minutes”. I was wrong but I tried it again and then I was right. I started forcing myself to take 5 minutes every day. Then it was 10 minutes and you can see where this is headed. It took forever.

There are times in your crazy when you are going to go postal if you don’t catch a break. I see it every stinking day and it’s a part of the process, and we all go through it when the bottom drops out. No one wants to hear that it’s a part of any process but if you have endured such purgatory you can validate what I am saying. I did not learn this in any school and neither did you. There is no cheesy trick I can teach you for when someone you would die for goes ahead and dies on you. That stuff is called insanity and the goal is to not die.

After you live through that hell for a year or two you can’t take it anymore and you start to get better, even though I really mean four or five years and most of it sucked. There are some things you aren’t even expected to really recover from. I say it here all the time, the death of a kid or a spouse or a marriage, the news that you are terminal or can easily imagine being there, no therapy can fix that for a long time. I don’t hear many therapists saying that. Sorry but I have lied too many times to myself and others, just to fit in. I try to be kind but I don’t get paid to blow sunshine up your ass.

You need to take a break. I’m sick of hearing about how you do not have time and I don’t understand how busy you are. I’m busy too, perhaps the most busy I have ever been. I get it, it’s busy outside. I, quite frankly, no longer care how busy you say you are. You have to do this or you may just lose the only battle in this life that really matters. I’m not talking about who you marry or how you will end it all. I’m thinking about keeping your crap together, moving forward, and becoming a Jedi.

Wisdom, I learned in philosophy, is the biggest game in town. Learning how to negotiate your crazy life is the secret to winning at your crazy life. I know this sounds preachy but you need to understand, I don’t have this fully figured out either. Part of my process is writing about my process. Anyone who reads this blog long enough realizes it’s autobiographical.

This isn’t really about me, it just seems that way when I insert myself into the narrative every now and again. What is important is whether or not we figure out how to live a life that matters, with a few smiles and good jokes along the way. You need to schedule mental breaks or you may just lose it. I know you have no time.

I finished back here on purpose. I’m convinced that people who learn how to carve out a little bit of space for themselves get wiser, faster. Learning is basically growing, in this business, and I’m not talking about surfing mind-numbing entertainment or fixating on media. Many us us don’t take care of our mental health near enough. I need to keep doing things that bring me back to life.

Start with 5 minutes and read a book that matters. Ask me for an audiobook. Buy that special edition of National Geographic. Pick up a travel magazine. Get a sunburn. Buy a Blizzard. Watch a documentary. Sit on the patio with a glass of wine. Right now I’m reading my friend Lori’s book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, just for fun.

A whole new world.

Check Up From The Neck Up

I’m going on vacation today. Right now that seems so far away, in the distant haze of a much later today; but by the time you read this I will be zen.

My wife keeps booking me appointments at the dentist. Like, every year. When I was single I could go forever without going to the dentist but of course I would never admit that in a forum such as this. Apparently people go to the doctor, for no apparent reason, just to check in or check up or whatever it’s called. I go to the doctor when I need something fixed, gouged, or medicated. I happen to break allot so why would I go again just to have him take my blood pressure? They don’t even give out candy at my age. My wife seems to think this will keep me alive longer so I asked her, “what makes you think I want to live longer?” So controlling. Continue reading “Check Up From The Neck Up”

I More I Learn The Less I Know

People ask me how I could believe in an afterlife when I am a huge and daily fan of science; and the reason is, because I want to. Call it cowardice or pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die and I can take it, but know that I have spent my entire adult life studying and I am still such a complete idiot I’m waking up to the fact that I may not be qualified to discount the supernatural, just because it seems ridiculous to my puny ADHD brain. I have, of late, begun to understand how completely little I know about existence. One thing that happens when your drug of choice is learning is that many and varied worlds begin to open up in areas you didn’t even know existed. The more I learn, the less I know.

I had no idea I was this ignorant. There were five or ten ideas I convinced myself I had my head around, and life was predictable. I liked to believe I was an expert at something, but then I started reading and listening to audiobooks. Don’t get me started about audiobooks. It felt as though everyday I was hearing about things I had no idea even existed. Philosophy and history and literature that blew my mind. I started to collect books and didn’t need cocaine. It sounds ridiculous to even write about this without a few shots of tequila, but I had no idea how fascinating String Theory was. My wife may call me a geek but some of that crap is seriously cool. Universes of the very small and books about the profound expanse and majesty of the profoundly large.

How can I dismiss things which may be beyond my capacity for comprehension when I cannot begin to understand something so obvious as the expanse of the universe or the fact that if you move a photon in Boston its partner will know instantaneously in Los Angeles? That may not rot your socks off but it may just disprove Einstein and prove that you can travel faster than the speed of light. Exceeding the speed of light is impossible. Gene Roddenberry was apparently a very smart dude.

Maybe there is a god.

I gave up trying to fit in a long time ago, but one thing you learn when you have 190 gigs of audiobooks is that it is perfectly fine for philosophers and eggheads and earnest seekers to talk about the meaning of life. Many people smoke weed or cut or stay depressed because life can lack meaning; and if someone or something takes away your hope then it’s pretty hard to cope with the day-to-day crap that is foisted upon us endlessly without a reward or a gold watch to look forward to at the end of this god-forsaken grocery line.

At the end of the day it’s important to talk about the end of the day. Philosophy was my first love and like all first loves it’s very hard to shake that first kiss. I have watched clients transform once they had hope and a purpose and a reason to wake up every morning. It always takes far longer than we can imagine, and it doesn’t sound like an inspirational meme on Facebook, but opening your mind to experiences and stories outside of your well-worn mindset can be incredibly enriching.

No one knows, at least at first, when they go insane. I have sat across from dozens and dozens of people who were slowly succumbing to the demented hell they are forced to endure; and you can watch people deteriorate, almost before your eyes. Counselors are paid to help people get better and it is a maddening thing to watch someone who is looking to you for hope begin to unravel. I recently confessed in this forum that I have, because of a once-in-a-lifetime random seizure, been gifted a brain injury which shows up primary through memory loss and brief moments of confusion. It is a fascinating journey to watch yourself learn to deal with this curveball from a clinical perspective. I find the phenomenon interesting enough that I study it… myself. As soon as I know it has happened I journal and think and research exactly how, why, and what just happened. It is almost enjoyable. Almost. But we digress, as usual.

Here’s the thing – it’s very difficult, at first, to know when you are losing it. I have a forthcoming article on this, whenever I feel like finishing it. It takes a while before you know what is happening. Nothing seemed different. It was not as though you suddenly knew your melon was wonky. Life continued on as before until someone or something or somehow it begins to dawn on you that you are not making any sense and that person is looking at you funny and you have absolutely no clue what you were talking about. For those who suffer with such things this can scare the shit out of you if you let it. How do you realize something is wrong when it is your entire reality? Now that is an important question.

Xenu_HomeboyPeople who leave cults have difficulty explaining how they could be so fooled because it happens gradually and in tiny increments. No one stands up on the first day and confesses that you are about to worship an intergalactic warlord named Xenu who imprisoned souls in a mountain in Hawaii. Little by little we have our truths altered until what was once deemed crazy now, for some reason, appears perfectly reasonable. Desirable, even.

Reality is malleable.

So when I think about alternate universes or quantum mechanics or cosmology or god, it has become apparent that I do not yet possess all the information that I will need to prove conclusively that I am meaningless. I am cognizant, as a therapist, how incredibly self-indulgent and subjective that may sound, but I don’t care. I want a cake and I want to eat it too. So there.

I find atheism, like fundamentalism, a tad arrogant. Perhaps I am jealous of someone who is convinced that they possess all the information available about reality and know enough to prove something which has, thus far, not been conclusively rendered. I’m just not that smart.

Bill Bryson (read Bill Bryson) relates the story of the incident wherein Max Plank asked his professor whether he should go into Physics or Mathematics. He was advised to pursue Mathematics because all the great scientific breakthroughs in Physics had already been made. This conversation took place before Einstein even took a job as a patent clerk. Physics was still in its terrible teens and academia was already warming up the funeral durge. To be so sure, this astounds me. Even Christians talk about faith as belief in something you hope for, not necessarily something you never question.

I’m not really interested in a religious debate, those days are long over for me. What interests me is the power of hope and the realization that the pursuit of wisdom can be a powerful part of my toolbox when I am stressed by a life which is long on commitments and short on happy buttons. Change your mind and your butt will follow.

Is there life after death? Few of us live to tell. In this moment perhaps we can at least entertain the possibility that mental health and wisdom may be cousins. Hope and understanding can be profoundly empowering. As that counseling cliché says, “you either hurt enough you have to, or learn enough you want to”.

I’m sick of hurting.

(Creds to the amazing Tony Ortega for that photo)

The Forest Behind My Fence

When I was a kid, living in suburban Winnipeg, there used to be a forest behind my backyard. A land of wonder and adventure. To my 10-year-old eyes it went on forever, or at least as far as a kid would dare venture. If you saw it now, it’s smaller than it once was. My mother is sitting beside me as I write this, visiting from their mountain village paradise. She could only see the back lane through the eyes of an adult; and to someone who was big the back lane was only thirty or thirty-five feet from the neighbour; a man we children imagined was scary and old and didn’t like kids. To a ten-year-old this was Narnia.

When I was a kid my parents, in retrospect, didn’t seem to give a crap about how long I was out or where I was. I spent my childhood watching the creek flood and helping where I could. I rode my Pursuit 5 bicycle and life was pretty good. I know my parents read this blog and wow, you either trusted me way too much or were smoking something; but thanks for the memories! It was a different time.

When I was a kid.

My world got smaller, somehow. Life and hurt and age and experience and bacon have changed me (I consider myself a vegetarian on humanitarian grounds but still eat bacon and sausage if you make me because, come on, it’s sausage and I go to a butcher). Many patients complain that they don’t know how to have fun anymore. I have known parents who dropped off their kids at Grandma’s, on multiple occasions, just so they could go home for an 8 o’clock bedtime. Party on. Raves and benders give way to tantrums and naps, and I’m not talking about the kid.

Remember fun?

It is freaking hot here. You are forced, by the sheer weight of the heat, to slow down. I have a killer tan this summer. Between building a fence with five neighbours (more next week) and drifting away in my beloved Canadian Tire pool, my face is brown.

Summer holidays were once filled with creek water and forest magic and skateboarding behind my bike. Playing touch football on the piece of grass in front of my house in Winnipeg they used to call a boulevard. I knew nothing about abuse or war, stress or broken hearts. It always makes me laugh (sardonically and to myself) when teenagers tell me their life is worse than anything anyone else has ever endured, ever. Just wait muffin, reality is going to be a bitch.

Enjoy the sun. Life is far too infested with commitments and responsibilities and stress and bills and whiny people we love who drain away our will to live. I still believe in summer holidays. Practice mindfulness by sticking your head under the water and relaxing. Allow the presence to envelope you. Buy a kayak or plant some basil, it’s all zen. Drink in the heat and let it warm you up in all the right ways. Have a fruity drink or pay two bucks and creep everyone out at the local outdoor pool when you swim alone. Who cares. Tan those stretch marks or love handles and be free. I have a few little people who should probably go to the water park with Papa soon. You can see where I’m heading.

No one has time for selfish delights, so do it anyway. Sit on your porch under the moon with someone who stimulates you. Take your bag lunch under the tree beside a good coffee shop or a park, and have a picnic. For the love of god, go to a lake. I’m not really trying to tell you what to do and it’s all fun and games but seriously, spoil yourself a bit. Have a banana split. Cheryl, have something that is gluten-free, you hippy.

I’ll be in my Canadian Tire pool.

The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Psalm 23:4

I have seen darkness in people which defies comprehension. We’ve talked about this before. There is a time in many journeys when our lives completely break. Type “swerve” into my search bar to find out more. or “The Event”.

Most of us grew up believing our lives would somehow turn out just fine. The weight of the truth can be devastating, at first. We are shocked when the ugly truths sink in.

Not many people walk through my door because they want to. Reality has punched us in the face and it stings. Few of us imagined we would have a lifelong battle with anxiety or depression or the fact that your Uncle Tom was the tomcat people said he was. A divorce or a death or the death of a dream can take you places your World of Warcraft account never could. Dark places. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

People kill themselves in this place, and call it what you want, but I could make a good argument against the notion that only a coward would take their own life. They aren’t selfish people and they are not necessarily even weak. Every rope has an end.

How could someone let it get so bad? Why would anyone kill themselves over a situation? I’ll tell you how. Come down and play at the other end of the pool for a while and watch your life and everything you value taken from you. Witness your finances and family and friends abandon you, and then tell me how bad things can get. Wait until they take your children. Sane people don’t kill themselves; and that leads invariably to the conclusion that on that day when you tried to jump into the river or overdose or whatever private version of hell you sought to inflict upon yourself, you were kind of batcrap crazy. We don’t call it that anymore but Wikipedia still does:

Insanitycraziness or madness is a spectrum of behaviors characterized by certain abnormal mental or behavioral patterns. Insanity may manifest as violations of societal norms, including a person becoming a danger to themselves or others, though not all such acts are considered insanity. In modern usage, insanity is most commonly encountered as an informal unscientific term denoting mental instability.

Any chance that sounds like someone you know? I was almost expecting my picture to show up beside the definition. Sometimes things get so absolutely beyond our capacity to cope that we crack, just a little bit. I have been to the valley, and anyone who has been there knows what I am talking about. You can take all the psychology you want but that doesn’t mean you will be prepared for the death of a child or the end of a dream. I have stated on multiple occasions that, in my book, if you lose a kid you get a free pass… forever. I don’t know if I could endure that. There are a few things that no bible verse or medication or drunken binge can heal. Some people do move on but they weren’t using any tools I can teach. That stuff is called grace.

I’m not saying you are crazy, I’m saying some of us have undoubtedly camped on Insane Island at least once, and it changes you. I want to validate that. You have learned lessons and endured pain that could and does cripple people for life. When I was in darkness no amount of therapy or Patron could touch me. What did matter was knowing that I was not somehow “less” and it was ok to drownproof in the deep end until I was able to sort shit out.

Don’t believe anyone who diminishes the gravity of the emotional battles you may face. I preach this all the time – this stuff takes years, not months, to flush out and sometimes absolutely nothing changes for a LONG time. I’ve written about his often. If you are bored check out other articles hereherehere, and here.

Fast change is usually bogus change. I cannot tell you the numbers of people who have informed me they quit smoking, drugs, yelling, medicating, and have joined a gym, all in one week. I generally label such radical intentionality a probable failure. You should probably start getting up earlier as well and stop drinking coffee and soft drinks. Throw in a few more broken hopes and live your life damaging your self-esteem as you invariably fail. Loser.

Doing a bunch of crap I didn’t want to do, with little or no motivation, didn’t really work for me. It began, slowly, when I allowed myself to do things I once loved and things I needed to do in order to get better, regardless of how I felt. I’m not even talking about therapy stuff, I’m admitting it can get so bad you can’t even get up to do the things you love. Every day sucked. I wish I could tell you it worked magnificently, but most change came unnoticed and for most of us there was not epiphany or religious experience. I’m not suggesting this isn’t possible, it just didn’t happen to me.

11541183_10204345272140927_242916198_nHere’s the thing – what do you do when you don’t even feel like getting better? It’s too much work. Change is exhausting. It’s like writing a book; great in theory. In reality, writing is often a grind with the added bonus of English 101 and days of editing. All for free.

So how do you get motivated when you aren’t motivated to be more motivated? I ate more candy and less parsnips. No parsnips. I started going to movies and laid in the sunshine and began to read. I listened to hundreds of books, many of them useless, until I cared about something enough to read on purpose. I have publicly stated, on multiple occasions, that I earnestly believe audiobooks saved my life, once a long time ago. I stopped lying to people about being too busy to hang out or talk. It took love and help and self-acceptance, and the capacity to hope once more. Like all of us, I am a work in progress, screwing up and muddling though this. I hope you are as well.

I salute the survivors, the ne’er-do-well and the battered warriors. I know some of you win just by getting up in the morning. You may never get a trophy for endurance but know that you are doing the best you can, right now. I believe the goal is for all of us, on both sides of the desk, to figure out how this life thing is done, before it’s too late. Hang in there, or as my old buddy Chris Anthony used to mock, “keep on truckin’.

(photo props to Brain Pickings)

This Is How I Was Made

Repeat after me, “This is how I was made”.

The word “cosmetics” is said to have a few origins but most believe it came from the Greek word “kosmos”, to make order out of chaos. A brilliant word. Eyeshadow, apparently, is intended to address an issue or enhance a feature. I guess. I’m not even sure what eyeshadow is. Which is the one where you use the Nazi torture device to pull on your eyelids? Reason number 127 why it’s great to be a guy. That peeing standing up thing is like number one through sixty-four. But I digress, as usual.

We all have parts we are not very proud of. If this hasn’t been your experience then just wait a year and get back to me. Gravity works. Even the beautiful people look like crap under fluorescent lights and north of forty. This is, sadly, referred to as reality. There are some things even Botox can’t fix.

I have worked with Fibromyalgia patients for a number of years now. Some of you who read here know me from that world. Fibromyalgia is a fascinating disease. It is literally true that, at least in my small piece of the pie, a majority of doctors still don’t believe in FM. I was once a skeptic; then did Intake for 5 years at a chronic pain clinic.

There are valid reasons why many do not believe in Fibromyalgia. We do not understand completely, and often this becomes a diagnosis of exclusion for many for whom the medical system has failed. There seems to be a myriad of causes and an internet full of “cures” which do not work. But that’s not why I am talking about FM.

I have patients, and some of you know who you are, who still struggle, often after a decade or longer, to even accept that they are sick. There is something insipid about this illness that, at least initially, seems random and normal and most undiagnosed Fibromyalgia patients tend to believe they may be “wimps”. Friends are often quick to point out that they “have pain too but still go to work so what is your excuse?”. In Canada we apologize before and after but it amounts to the same thing.

I cannot tell you the number of times FM patients have whispered to me that they secretly wish they had any other disease, even cancer. I am fully cognizant of how politically incorrect that sounds, but I am not actually advocating this position. I am only telling you what real people say all the time. So the question for the rest of us is, why would anyone wish for cancer?

No one really wants cancer, so a few of us can unbutton our corset a tad and just think about something we may not have considered. Cancer patients have Facebook Rallies and fundraisers and are said to be “courageous” and an “inspiration”. FM clients are often labeled as lazy or whiny or in the throes of a fake illness. I am in no manner seeking to diminish the terror of cancer, I’m just telling you a story. Families rarely understand, and I have watched spouses leave, and there is often a long slide towards immobility, a briefcase full of medications with side effects, and poverty. There are no parades for someone who has chronic fatigue, pain that changes almost daily, a labido that moved to Orlando, and looming mental health issues.

So when someone tells me they aren’t sure they have Fibromyalgia even though someone with a Mercedes told them, you can begin to appreciate how difficult it must be to accept something that no one understands, doctors dismiss as depression, displays symptoms which perpetually change, all with a spouse who is constantly disappointed in you.

You should be able to do more. You should be working or helping or horny or superdad or whatever. Who needs someone else to remind you of your shortcomings when you have the list memorized?

In counseling we come across Should Statements every day. I should be doing something else, right now. You should lose weight and you should go to the gym and you should eat more vegetables and less red meat. That’s super swell but you are still going to get old and die and I will be damned if I am going to go out without eating a few more KitKat Blizzards. Screw broccoli.

Body image is a little slice of that same pie. Umm, pie. But I digress.

I was never the eye-candy. When people who will never be the prom queen hear about the objectification of beautiful people it’s natural to secretly wish that someone would look at us like a piece of meat, as horrible as that may sound. I have had multiple clients admit this horrible secret when no one is there to judge them. Humanity spends billions trying to cover up stretch marks and crows feet and cellulite and baldness and facial hair and that unibrow your sister has going on. On television the hero is always beautiful and Steve Buscemi is never the leading man unless they want someone who is Hollywood ugly.

The only thing worse than constantly getting hit on is never getting hit on.

Most of us feel unappealing, from time to time. I have a growing list of things I do not like about my physical presence and you probably have one as well. I have spent years feeling ashamed of physical characteristics over which I have virtually no control. Time to give up, but not in a bad way.

You should still shower.

Give up the guilt and the pain and the constant need to measure up to standards imposed by Photoshop and duckface selfies. Give up the perpetual micromanagement of a battle you cannot win’ that most of us chase for all the wrong reasons. Antiperspirant, do not give up. You can still love your hair and buy Saxx underwear if you can afford it, that’s not the real issue. It’s not even about body enhancement or hair plugs or spray-on tans which look like you eat too many carrots, even if no one will tell you to your face.

Let’s all repeat together, “This is how I was made”. You can’t change some illnesses, injuries, or flaws. Sure, you can spend the money and do the stuff that makes you feel good about yourself, but perhaps it’s time to recognize that this is only a shell and I need to stop basing my self-worth on whether or not I look good in Lululemons.

I do not.

This is how I was made. I repeat it in my head, “this is how I was made”. I can either deal with this or live my life wishing I someone different. This is psychology, and psychology isn’t about words like “fair” or “should” or “someday”. We don’t learn to “wish upon a star” or base our retirement on winning the lottery. This isn’t about me pretending to have it all together or telling you something you haven’t heard a hundred times. This is about doing it, finally. Many of us have spent our lives caring far too much what random strangers and intellectual car bumpers think of us.

One of the sad truths you observe, sitting in this chair, is that most people do not learn this. It is tempting to hope that one day, when your ship comes in, things will finally line up for you, and the world will make sense, and you will get your much deserved reward.

In counseling we call this bullshit.

I watch people come back, year after year, and nothing has changed and they are still waiting for the world to punch their dance card (I’m not even sure what that means). Dr. Seuss sums it up swimmingly in his classic “Oh The Places You’ll Go”. I have referred to this psychological masterpiece on another occasion but these words continue to haunt:

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come,
or a plane to go
or the mail to come,
or the rain to go

or the phone to ring,
or the snow to snow

or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil,
or a better break

or a string of pearls,
or a pair of pants

or a wig with curls,
or another chance.

Everyone is just waiting.

Everyone is just waiting.

This is the way I am. Tall, balding, aging, deeply flawed, excited, passionate, unpretty, childlike in wonder, and addicted to learning. That (and my Canadian Tire pool) needs to be “enough”. Fibromyalgia or not, beautiful or not, rich or not.

Repeat after me, “This is how I was made”.
Some of my FM clients are shaking their heads “no!”.

Hammer, Meet Nail.

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer,
to treat everything as if it were a nail.
Abraham Maslow

Every week I get to hang out with Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police and feel moderately badass by proxy. It is a strange feeling, when I visit a crime scene, as it dawns on me that I am the only person in the group without body armour and a Glock. Police have an arsenal of weapons, not all of which are deadly. My colleague is a female member who has never had to pull her firearm. She may carry a lethal weapon but she is a master at diffusion, distraction, and de-escalation. Not all members are as adroit as my friend, however.

If your only option is a gun, there is a temptation to pull your weapon and wave it around at a group of teenagers at a pool party. You may have all sorts of issues with tasers but I still prefer taking a few volts to a bullet in the center mass, but that’s just me. The fact that the officer has other tools in her arsenal can KitKat_logo.svgkeep me alive. Give me a baton to the head every time. I do, however, prefer a KitKat.

Though it is usually not referred to in such mechanical terms, counselors quite frequently talk about the hammer. If your ‘go to’ is heroin and your children are destroying your will to live, chances are you will eventually meander your way back to a dealer, in spite of best intentions. If all you have left is anger and yelling, then that’s the hammer you are going to employ when someone pisses you off. I know people who can cry at the drop of a hat, ensuring they never have to honestly address their dysfunction. Those who take offence, persons who run and hide, many who lie or control or freeze. For several reasons too convoluted to discuss here, much of society has a very limited toolbox; and for some of us, there is only a hammer.

I do not want to be your nail.

There are those who struggle with significant anger issues and love to swing their hammer around (I know, it works on two levels but we are pretending to be adults, so get your mind out of the gutter you perv). We all have that one relative who is overly quick to take offence. The chronically bitter, or negative, or just plain bitchy. A few of us find any reason to play the victim.  If all you have is a hammer, as Maslow and others have stated, eventually everything begins to look like a nail. People use anger because it works. Whining works. Controlling can also work, if only for a time. It is shocking how often some people complain. Bitterness will paint your entire worldview. So can chronic depression, or trauma, or a boring and meaningless existence. Time for drastic change. It’s all or nothing. Delete your Facebook page, join the gym and take too many classes. Hammer away. Sure it may be the wrong direction but damn it, we’ll just drive faster. Don’t take crap from anyone. Punch that loser out. Go ahead, make my day.

Hammers are rarely subtle. Even the perceived criticism, fault, or indiscretion is an opportunity to swing away. When one has the most limited of resources (tools) than it is almost certain they will default to what they already know.

One has but to interact with a teenager to validate this hypothesis. When I was in my late teens I knew everything; my world was incredibly finite. Ignorance is its own reward; you get a world you understand and can control. Self-awareness invites a universe infested with chaos, impossible to contain. I did not know what I did not know, so I believed I knew. Now I know.

Teenagers tend to believe they can diagnose the world’s woes solely based on their limited and vastly overrated understanding of the meaning of life. This is just one reason why many teenagers are as stupid as lawn darts. Yes I said that, but you have felt the same way and let’s not pretend a fifteen-year-old is just an adult with pants that will not stay up. It is an unfortunate factoid that we tend to abuse our bodies and minds so completely during a time in our life when we have only a partially connected frontal lobe. Teenagers are brain-damaged in the most literal sense of the word.

Adolescence is also a time of increasing independence and self-determination; the same self-determination which led genius over there to drink rubbing alcohol this past weekend because it said the word “alcohol” on the white part of the label (don’t ask), and no one was going to tell him he couldn’t drink something that could kill him.

But I digress.

It is not just your pimply sixteen-year-old who likes to hammer out his problems. Men often do this in relationships as well. My wife wanted to tell me a story about her messed up day. She asked me for input. I made the mistake, yet again, of believing she actually wanted my brilliant solutions to her problem. I do this for a living and I make that rookie mistake day after day. Hammer, meet nail. Problem solved. You’ll be fine, as long as you pay attention and do exactly what I tell you. Women love it when I say that.

There is something deep inside me that enjoys being in control. I am tempted to believe my own narrative, the one where I convince myself about my need to be right.

Moving forward can mean having to learn new tools, new ways of acting and even reacting. Perhaps there is also a piece in there about letting go of a bit of the intensity that I manufacture to keep my world sane. Like many of us I am endeavouring to let go of tools which have been in my box for years; words like insecurity and grief and immaturity and my need to fit in. From here on it is critical that we develop tools which work, not just ‘used to work’. Anger and grief may have defined your existence but they don’t have to become a terminal illness.

One more thing. Hammers usually find a nail to hit. If I think the world is a horrible place I will probably be proven correct. There are no end to the reasons why I should be bitter, or angry, or depressed. Now is the time when I need to adjust my default mechanisms, my biases, in order to move forward. Anger often works but you may need to redefine what you mean by the word “works”. It may help you win that argument even if you have to destroy someone’s character to do so. Changing my automatic thoughts has proven to be an incredibly difficult challenge. Learning to think differently is ultimately the most powerful, albeit difficult, personal achievement on my radar.

 

The Priest

I was raised Italian Catholic and on church on Sunday. Before I realized that boys could be fun, my goal in life was to become a nun. At some point, our old church minister was traded for a younger model with modern thoughts and long hair. People talked. A lot. I wasn’t there, but one day he had had enough and he delivered a sermon on compassion and understanding then cut his hair off in front of the congregation.
We never saw him again.
I never went to church again.

Courage can come with many faces, many small decisions, many fear filled moments of strength. And sometimes you just get tired of the lies.

He came from a middle-class family, or so it can be imagined. We don’t know who his first love interest was or why he decided to become a priest. These sorts of tales often have a mentor or a spiritual uncle that had taken the cloth. Perhaps he knew uncertainty and desired something secure, complete. We must fill in the back story ourselves; but like many good yarn this isn’t about where you came from, this is about what you did.

Don’t tell me what you can do, show me what you will do.

In his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, author Kevin Dutton relates a conversation he had with a psychopath who refuted the notion that he was somehow more inherently brave than others. He was fearless, a military Seal with a reputation for a daredevil spirit and courage under fire. This patient argued that something cannot be considered an act of  ‘bravery’ if it does not involve fear or any of the other myriad of negative emotions associated with facing certain death. How can you be brave if you have nothing to fear?

For much more than a millennia the pontiff of Rome (and occasionally other places but that’s a history lesson for another day. And yes there was once three popes) held life and death sway over virtually all of the European world and parts further askew. The supplicant must contend with a millenia of ritual, obedience, and unquestioning loyalty. Becoming a priest is a holy thing, superior even to a doctor or lawyer, and only slightly below an end table on Friends.

Priests are made, not born. A young child, virtually a toddler, learns to speak the words and dip and weave in time with the Service. This is a rich culture, and our young friend must have burned with passion for something wondrous, magical, something far bigger than this pitiful existence. Such a calling comes with a price; a life which will never feel the touch of a lover. No children to mourn your passing or keep you company when you are old.

Conformity on a scale unknown to most of society. It is not only the nun who is married to the church, the Bride. Religious Orders are not to be embraced lightly in a subculture with more than 1600 years of practice in weaning out the unworthy, the impenitent, the uncommitted. It can easily be argued that the Church has not always done an adequate job of straining out the deviation, but that is for another time.

So then, what was in his mind on that day when he burned it all to the ground? Why throw it all away to make a point? But alas, this is not really my tale to tell, I heard it from Candace. It is, after all, her story not mine:

I come from small coal mining community in the East Kootenays, Sparwood is a pretty small town. For most of my life, there were maybe about 3500 people in the entire place, most of them Italian Catholic, and first generation Canadians. They were tough, no nonsense people with coal dust and religion deep down engrained in them. Politics were a strong topic of discussion, often loudly, almost with militant enthusiasm.

The church, though, was a different thing. No one spoke badly about the church. That was hallowed ground. So I thought. Catholic nuns ran the only school in town, a big stone mausoleum of a building. I sucked in the religion like coal dust. I wanted to be a nun. I went to Sunday School and church every Sunday. I believed in the sanctity of the church. I was devoted, I as an idealist. I even had the habit. Full gear with the cross at 6 years old. I have the photo to prove it. Crazy stuff!

The minister in town had been around for years. I don’t remember much about him really except that he never really hung around us kids, but always kept an otherworldly distance, enough that I honestly thought he had an in with The Almighty. Some deeper, mysterious connection that the merely mortal would never know. He left town for retirement when I was a young teen, amid talk that he and the church secretary were doing more than typing up the Sunday sermon. I wasn’t entirely naïve, but this was my first experience with any real ’adult’ gossip, let alone about the church. I had been taught to respect my elders, and to mind my own business. Rumours spread quickly in a small town, and while I tried to ignore most of it, I remember feeling a little uncomfortable. I shouldn’t know this, and, even more, how could it be true. My world was black and white. I believed that a priest was supposed to be entirely above those kind of mortal faults. Reality was starting to set in.

Shortly after he left town, a new minister arrived. He was young, energetic, and full of new ideas. And he had long hair. It was the early 70’s. Everyone young had long hair and new ideas. But this was the church. The Catholic Church. In Sparwood. The nuns had only recently changed their habits from the full length semi burka of the old guard to a less modest version that relaxed the tight, white headgear that completely encased the head, and, heaven forbid, allowed a shorter skirt. 

The new minister had a job ahead of him. Things went OK at first, but it wasn’t many months until the rumours began to spread; how this new guy was not what some members of the congregation expected, how his hair was too long, his ideas too at odds with the expected way things should go. I heard them vaguely, and dismissed them as people just getting used to something new. I was young and still naïve enough to think people would eventually get used to new ways and that the bad press would eventually dry up. I was obviously and sadly wrong.

The rumours persisted. In fact, they came with stronger wording, deeper passion than ever. I heard them more and more, as I often spent time with a new youth group the new father had begun as an effort to engage the young people in town. This was a first. It came at an important time for me, as I was a troubled teen, and badly needed a positive, caring example or two. I wasn’t the only one, as there was always a group of us in his home on a weekly basis, playing games and connecting, instead of getting into the trouble that could be easily had even in our small town. I liked this man as a human being. He wasn’t otherworldly. He really connected with his parishioners and I thought he really cared about us kids, beyond teaching doctrine. He really seemed engaged, and truly interested in people, more than almost anyone I had known in the church up to that time. I loved that he was approachable, compassionate, curious and human. I didn’t have to climb his pedestal to talk to him.

This was an entirely new type of priest, and I was excited to be part of this new, accessible church. I was late for mass the day he cut his hair in the pulpit, in front of the entire congregation. I came after the sermon ended. It was a very short mass. I understand that he gave a heartfelt talk on understanding and compassion. Most of all, I remember the congregation milling about outside after it was all over, speaking in hushed tones or not at all, lowered eyes, embarrassment and shame and concern in their voices. It felt like some kind of weird funeral. I was heartbroken. I never saw him again and I have no idea what happened to him after that. His actions may well have cost him his calling. I do know that I stopped going to church entirely.

My bubble had been burst, well and truly. Faith is a funny thing. I had placed faith in people –that they would be good and kind, that the truth would rise in the face of idle gossip. I believed that truth, my truth, would prevail in the end. I now know that these things are never just black and white. Good doesn’t always win over evil, positive over negative. It’s not like the movies. It’s never that easy. In my life, I am a conflicted character. I try to do what’s right, but I know that, often, I only succeed part of the time at best. I know I am flawed and I’m not entirely comfortable with that. I still admire those folks who bravely do the right thing, in spite of the cost.

Honour. I admire that. And, in spite of a decided knack to constantly screw it up, it’s something I still aspire to. And integrity. To try to do my best, even at my worst. I like to think that most of us are like that. But we get screwed up. We forget. We do stuff we don’t admire and often we don’t even see it. This guy, this man, he saw that. As a minister, but even more, as a human being. he chose to step up to the plate and show the rest of us what all those sermons on integrity, honesty, and truth really looked like.

Did his actions really matter? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that minister, whose name I don’t even remember – he left a lasting impression on me as a truly dedicated and real human being, and a genuinely loving and spiritual soul. I admire anyone who can forge a path against the tide, in spite of all it may cost. Those are the people whose actions renew my faith, inspire me, forge the path to the future. Wherever you are, thank you for that. In my eyes, that is truly the earthly and divine all blended into what is the best in all of us. And thank heavens for that.

Amen.

 

 

 

Here’s Your Mulligan

I stumbled into a porn recently. I am keenly aware, at this very second, of how that must sound so please allow me to explain. I was out for coffee with a friend and we decided to sit in the courtyard by a Waves Coffee. Above the courtyard were residences with balconies. On the balcony directly above us is where you are supposed to now engage your imagination. It is remarkable, the acoustics of a suburban courtyard. Loud, even. My friend is much younger than I. Much much. It felt like a nuclear explosion, “Oh look at that cool cloud formation”. Followed next by, “Wow, that cloud formation looks like a carpet coming towards us!”. Followed by screaming, things breaking, wind… silence.

At first nothing registers. Then, slowly at first but increasing in awareness, it begins to dawn on you what it is you are actually listening to. This is followed closely by growing recognition and an icky feeling you cannot quite yet identify. There it comes.

Just like a bad porno itself, our eyes meet, my friend and I, and we both have a seriously messed up expression on our faces. Screams. Things breaking. Wind. But no silence.

There are times in life for which you cannot really plan. I have seen things in the past month, bizarre things. I love my job. As random as that might sound, my life is a series of small adventures broken up by days of boredom and groceries and driving. It is precisely those ‘moments’ which give my life purpose, depth, meaning. So much of my existence is wasted trying to get out of doing things only to realize that it is those precise things I am avoiding which bring richness to the monotony. I may be going out on a limb here but I’ve probably watched enough television to ensure that I’ve milked all the wisdom it deems to spew on me. People text all the bloody time and I text them back. My Facebook is an imagination feeder but it’s still noise, noise, noise. Phone, computer, TV, radio, texting, communicating, noise.

It is time to get in your kayak, and I’ll get in mine. Screw Melanoma, get a tan. Have you ever stuck your entire face in watermelon and if not, when? Last weekend my wife and I got out-of-town because sometimes we forget what it’s like to be friends amongst the noise. I will consider it a personal failure if I don’t get into the water before the end of June. Stop being so old and jump in a puddle before you become a grouchy old fart. No one cares about your medical problems, or mine for that matter. Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows everywhere may be a figment of my imagination but I can buy a lollipop and it’s sunny out, so two out of three ain’t bad.

Here’s the thing. Sometimes you have to say “screw it” to your own mental health issues and crap life. There are days when you have paid enough, suffered enough, confessed enough, and it’s time to go out for a beer with a friend on a patio. I know life sometimes blows and I promise to spend more than sufficient time feeling miserable; but right now it’s sunny out and I’m going to give you a Mulligan. I don’t golf  but I know what the word means. Golfing may be great in theory, but there is enough frustration in my life without screaming bloody murder at a small white ball. I don’t like walking and they won’t let me go off-road with the carts so I quit golfing but I’m keeping the Mulligan.

Everybody deserves a do over, a day off, and a nap. Your problems are going to be waiting for you after you get out of the boat so you needn’t worry, you won’t miss anything. One of the principles that we teach clients in counseling does an excellent job of training my brain to move on, if only for a moment. I will teach it to you now and save you $90, or $275 if you think you need a medical person to confirm what your clinical counselor told you a couple of years ago. Like most counseling techniques this one is cheesy and only works for some people; though for more people than you would think if only we practiced this stuff enough to make anything work in the first place. Just saying.

One of the fundamental counseling tools clinicians teach is a variation on what I will call STOPP Therapy. STOPP Therapy is nothing more than learning how to stop yourself from having an emotional spike such as a panic attack, anxiety, or anger. STOPP Therapy is surprisingly efficacious, in spite of sounding stupid when you practice it. Learning to say “no” to my impulses may come very close to being the meaning of life, if not the primary way to rock at it. Just like listening to an accidental porno (I have probably never written those words before), learning to control my emotions is an insanely gradual process. Wisdom is the meshing of knowledge and experience, you simply cannot grow up without giving yourself time to grow up. This may not be the 10,000 hour rule but I can tell you from experience I was pretty dumb 20 years ago and aging may take many things but it leaves you with experience. And experience, when used correctly, becomes wisdom.

You aren’t alone when you discovered that, after all those years away, you did better in college than you thought you would. Unbeknownst to you, there was still an accumulation of time and learning and experience. Granted, many of us have squandered a bit of that time but what the hell, you’re here now so let’s get going.

Once I know a little more about STOPP Therapy it’s time to move happily on to our project for today, your “screw it” moment.

There was a time when, not so long ago as I would wish, I was very broken. I have written of this before and I’m not feeling self-indulgent so let’s roll along, shall we? In that time of my life it felt impossible to move forward, and even taking a few minutes off from my grief seemed unrealistic. After many many bad days I started to practice what I preached and gave myself permission to take 10 minutes off, then 20, 30, and eventually I went an entire day without crying because I forgot I was in pain. Just 10 minutes off. I would set my clock or microwave or phone. Bliss would last approximately 7 seconds then the nightmare would come knocking and I had to learn to say “no” to myself for 10 stinking minutes. Then 20. With time it got easier but not until I had failed first.

For some of us it is a struggle to control the chaos for 10 minutes or even 10 seconds. We have work to do. For others it’s the constant demands on our time from things we spawned or married or divorced or share life with. We all feel sorry for ourselves and sometimes feeling sorry for yourself is a very healthy thing. Other times not so much. One day I realized that no one really cared about my problems as much as I did; and most people went on their merry way and got a Blizzard, in spite of my life falling apart. Just the way it is. As Kant famously pointed out, there is the way I perceive the world and the way the world really is. For many of us that could include the cold hard understanding that there is a way we want the world to be, and then there is something called reality. The real world does not care if I am the hardest working person I know. It does not care if I burn out.

So one last time, please accept this Mulligan. You’ve definitely earned it. You have permission to take an hour off and go shopping or for coffee or perhaps something stronger. Play Catch with your friends or swing high at the park. I just realized that works on two levels. You may think you don’t have time for self-care but you are profoundly wrong. I’m sorry if that comes off as arrogant but on a philosophical level you can probably admit I’m right.

Screw it, I’m going kayaking. Somebody please tell my wife I was right.

With Love To A Dying Church

I don’t write about religion on this blog. There are many reasons and not all of them are healthy, but I never wanted this to be about church because I have literally been there, done that, and I’m better now. Religion is a topic that divides families and I’m not about that, and I’m too pink to care, and I have other outlets. I rarely delete comments but come at me preaching and no one will ever know you stopped by. Contrary to what some allege, I am absolutely not anti-faith, quite the opposite. Spirituality is essential to mental health and I really just wanted to talk about your Hippocampus and not John 3:16. Don’t worry mom, I’m not going rogue.

I grew up around the Evangelical Movement. I attended boarding school because my local school had no room for me and it was a boom-or-bust oil town; so my parents sacrificed their middle-class savings and I went to the middle of nowhere. Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan may not be the end of the world but you can smell it from there. I remember the first day of grade 10 – we had to go to chapel. I did not know what “chapel” really was, but soon I found out it was Monday Church before class. How quaint, I thought. Then we had to go to church again on Tuesday. You saw the pattern here before I did. Holy Monkeys.

I didn’t come from this. My family went to church whenever my dad had to do the books (he literally missed the service) and he could scrape up the money to bribe us with a Happy Meal. It was a long time ago and Happy Meals were cool so shut up and quit judging me. They had a prize inside, for heaven’s sake (see what I did there?). Oh, and I had a Summer Bible Camp girlfriend. Sorry Connie.

Church came with a Happy Meal. We would stretch out on the pew and have a nap, right there in front of a hundred people. My father would literally put up with anything to get us to a service. My mother didn’t even go, and it took me years to realize that eventually even McDonald’s wasn’t enough to keep most of us in church.

One day I grew up and married into a religious denomination because everyone knows that Christian chicks are hot and I was an adolescent hormone who had to go to Thursday Church. I met some amazing people on the journey and learned what selflessness looked like and tried to play a small part. Everyone seemed to want to change the world.

As a therapist I get to visit many different realities. I am intimately familiar with the nuances of both a crack house and a mansion, occasionally on the same day. People come to Drop-In and tell our counselors things that are unbelievable, but absolutely true. One day last week I heard three horrific stories in a row only to realize it wasn’t yet 10 am. I’m not complaining, my job is rarely work and it turns my crank but it’s staggering, the measure of pain that is in your town.

The world became complicated and my religious friends began to look baffled and overwhelmed. Pastors told me on a regular basis that they “had no idea” how to engage the culture anymore; and when they said this to me it sounded as if they were talking about a foreign country with a different language. Several even had a visceral reaction to their own comments. Words were spoken with grief, not animosity; wonder, not cursing. It must be a horrific thing to feel like an outsider in a world you walk through every day. “In the world, not of it” became for some a mandate to circle the wagons and run from the homosexuals. Churches formed schools, than Starbucks and bookstores and yoga and health foods, and before you knew it you no longer had to talk to pagans at all.

We still need you, church. We need your brashness and your balls, your unswerving and unsuccessful attempts at integrity, your idealism and your faith in humanity. You don’t need to worry, we know you are flawed, but so are we. If only we could put down our weapons and have a beer. Many of the kindest and most loving people in the world are from your camp. The media is wrong, you do have something to bring to the table; but you need to realize that you have become only one voice, a voice easily marginalized when the volume is cranked too high. It is not as scary as you think, out here in the wilderness. Many friends are still asking the hard questions and looking for community and aren’t as angry as they once were. You taught us about hope and faith and happiness and family; and that stuff, when you hear it from someone who actually gives a damn, sticks with a person.

I was giving a talk on Current Drug Trends last week and I offhandedly commented, “There is no war on drugs, we clearly lost.” People who don’t believe that addiction has become a permanent part of our cultural landscape are called Amish. Many of us really really like dopamine and serotonin because they are super yummy and Canadians sometimes do drugs because drugs are awesome, for a while. Being high can be significantly more fun than being sober, especially at work. Many of us smoke pot every single day and then tell our friends that it’s not addictive. The Amish are lovely people with a rich and diverse heritage.

What do drugs have to do with Methodists? Many of my friends in the church are very nervous about having a frank conversation with a society which is often highly medicated and has embraced gay marriage, divorce, premarital sex, pornography, shopping on Sunday, recreational drug use, cheating on taxes, promiscuity, reality television, partial nudity, pluralism, The Long Island Medium, gay marriage, legalized pot, living in “sin”, potty mouth, “worldliness”, abortion, 4/20, yoga, violence and gore, Justin Bieber, and women in stretchy pants that are so tight you can see their bladder. As the world swerves into the Post-Christendom Era it has caught the conservative Christian world with its pants down. I am keenly aware that this can offend but I do this for a hobby and my wife thinks I’m good-looking so I can take it if you can just understand my heart on this.

Our hemisphere is experiencing a seismic shift, yet again.

Many in “the world” are willing to have an authentic conversation and they know you can’t give on a few things because of the Bible but that’s ok, let’s just be real with one another. I can honestly say that I have never had a candid conversation about faith with anyone in the past ten years who was not warm and engaging, with the possible exception of a few faithful.  People love talking about spirituality with anyone who validates their journey and doesn’t tell them what to think. Why is this so hard, church people? People are interested in the conversation, just not the condemnation. Spirituality is incredibly important and when we are easily wounded we shut down the dialogue before it can really bear fruit.

I miss you, the friends of my youth. Some of you were wise and sage counsel and I loved you like a brother or sister. If I could wish for you one thing it would be the gift of not being offended. Priests can’t kill people anymore, so groups who want to get their message of hope across need to figure out how not to pick a fight. Learning to take a little less offence at the obvious blunders and shortcomings of others is probably something from which we could all receive benefit, myself included.

Let’s hang out. I’ll buy you a Happy Meal.

Yeti Socks

I’m wearing them right now. They are grey with a big white yeti and the monogram, “Yeti or not, here I come!” in green. Classy. At a party, not so long ago, we stood in the kitchen and I noticed that virtually everyone were wearing the same old ugly boring white socks with the grey heel and toe. It occurred to me that there are indubitably other options besides suit socks and Superstore whites. I remembered making fun of my nephews at Christmas, they were wearing silly socks. I owe them an apology. Colton, you were right. This article is for you and your weird socks.

A few months ago Target went bankrupt in Canada. They had their ridiculous socks on sale for a month and I bought twelve pair. I have never purchased more than a supermarket 5-pack before so this was a step (get it? step). Red socks with a huge pencil down the outside. Canadian moose in blue and red and brown. A bulldog on a skateboard wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses, smoking a cigar. I defy you to find anything cooler than that, it simply cannot happen. Oh, and they are loud green. You only go around once.

I dress weird for someone who is supposed to be all grown up. I have pierced ears and I let my sons dress me. I have recently acquired a pork-pie hat. I don’t even care what people think anymore. One of the benefits of not being good looking is that you cannot base your self-esteem on your looks or you will eventually take up Fentanyl. I’ve started wearing suit coats with the hat. I dropped into Rex Cox and purchased clothing that had never even seen denim. For some reason I find that I enjoy dressing up, this late in life. When I’m eighty I plan to wear a pork pie hat and dress like a pimp.

Someone recently asked me if I was worried that “people” might think I was having a midlife crisis. My theory has always been that if you are weird all your life than people won’t notice when you have go crazy. My wife has commented, on more than one occasion, that she is worried if I lose my mind that she won’t notice any difference. That’s from the one paid to love me.

There is a great freedom in caring just a little less what everyone thinks about me. Again and again, amidst the noise and the noise and the noise, something whispers “Stop giving such a damn about everything!”. Most of us have lived our entire lives seeking acceptance from people who don’t understand loyalty or selfless love. We have been afraid to offend those whom we now realize were not bulletproof, and a few of them really weren’t even worth all the effort. It really is true, the few who have proven loyal and true don’t need me to impress them; they already know what a tool I am and they are still here.

Many of us have thrown away far too much of our lives trying to live up to the expectations of persons we would never trust alone with our children.

And that’s an important psychological tenet that we all know but few of us really know – we need to stop ruining our few good years to impress people who don’t matter. Most of my closest friends has surfed alongside me for decades without flinching. I can posture and bluff all I want, they can see right through it. If they tell me that I need to address something in my life I try to listen. Everyone else can screw off. If my pal Sue takes me aside and sticks her finger in my chest I do not flinch because she has earned it. Living my life to impress everyone around me is a treadmill to hell to which I am no longer willing to subject myself. Anyone who knows me understands how poorly I have done in this arena at the best of times. I am endeavoring, as are many others on this journey, to live my life for something more than the shallow approval of people who are broken and often incapable of being an authentic friend.

I once heard a preacher say, “When you get to heaven God isn’t going to ask you “why weren’t you more like Billy Graham?”, he’s going to ask you, “Why weren’t you more like you?” I’ll take wisdom from wherever I can find it. My clients consistently struggle with self-care because self-discovery is an undervalued commodity in our culture. We are allergic to selfishness and have canonized a dysfunctional historical narrative, the belief that all selfishness is evil; and become a society of insecure and misunderstood people absorbed by false modesty and an addiction to external confirmation.

If you get nothing else, chew on this. I am no good to the many people who depend on me if I am sick. It is imperative that we understand how awesome a deal this really is, once you get your head around it. I’m ordering you to spoil yourself, take care of yourself. Self-care cannot be optional in a world this crazy and painful. The more I invest in my own holistic health, the better I am as a husband, father, professional, and ultimately authentic person. I absolutely love the idea that my mental health is so important that I must eat more KitKat Bars and spend time kayaking when I should be doing renoes. Can I get an amen?

One more thing. None of us has time. I cannot exaggerate how many people have come into my office and, when challenged to dedicate more time to self-care, have unequivocally informed me that they are not like my other clients. They have kids and soccer and career and money and stress and anxiety and SSRI’s and the constant grind of responsibilities and a life that cannot remember what fun looked like. Blah blah blah. Sit in this chair long enough and it dawns on even the stupidest of us that for some reason most of our lives are far too busy and many of you are one wet toilet seat away from punching a baby. Every single one of us is trying to stay afloat in sea of caca.

Counselors tell you this crap because it isn’t only theory. We get paid to hear 20 or more clients every week tell us the exact same story and so when I tell you to take care of yourself I’m not telling you as ‘friend’ Scott. I get paid to take care of my emotional health and I haven’t figured it all out either but this one thing I know, people who don’t take care of themselves can blame anything they want, but at the end of the day everyone else will move on with their lives. “I have no time” is easily the most frequent excuse, I mean reason, that I hear every week.

It’s a holiday, here in Canada. This morning I woke up in Redmond, Washington where they are already prepping for Memorial day next weekend. So enough with the heavy stuff. As your online therapist for a day I recommend you find a place in the sunshine with a cold drink and a hot book. I plan on making “American Iced Tea” tomorrow in the sun and maybe play Catch. All that noise in your head will be waiting for you when you get home, don’t worry. Mindfulness can mean washing out my kayak tomorrow and putting on the roof racks. I may need a therapeutic Kitkat Blizzard as well.

Doctor’s orders.

Welcome My Little Goldfish

Many were surprised when Microsoft, the people who brought you the digital world you live in, announced this week that they have conducted extensive studies and to virtually no one’s surprise who has been paying attention; we now have a poorer attention span than a goldfish.

The 54-page study sought to understand what impact technology and today’s digital lives are having on attention spans. The researchers collected data from surveys of more than 2,000 Canadians over the age of 18. They played games and interacted online to help scientists determine the impact of smartphones and other digital media on everyday life. Participants’ brain activity was recorded and behaviour was filmed while they interacted with different social media platforms across .

By now you should be at least a little suspicious of media surveys but this particular study has a ring of truth to it. Many of us in the psychology game have been noticing something of this ilk for years. Society in general has become addicted to instant and now. I consider the Tap option on my credit card one of the greatest inventions since the wheel. This week a small vendor made me sign an actual Visa bill and I was almost offended. How quaint. Recently, while at an automated teller the person next to me complained that the little machine that gives you money was taking too long. This reminded me of the brilliant sketch by Louis C.K. called Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy. If you haven’t seen it, it will become a classic. I’m old enough to remember when the first debit card came out. You put your card in and apparently a monkey or one of the staff that no one liked pushed cash out of a window for you. At least that’s what I remember thinking the first time I tried this new technology.

LOUIS C.K.: Yea, because everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy. Like, in my lifetime the changes in the world have been incredible. When I was a kid we had a rotary phone. We had a phone that you had to stand next to, and you had to dial it. Do you know how primitive – you’re making sparks – in a phone. And you actually would hate people with zeros in their numbers because it was more – you’d be like “uh this guy has two zeros in his number, screw that guy, why would I want to-uh!” And then if they called and you weren’t home the phone would just ring lonely by itself. And then if you wanted money you had to go in the bank, when it was open for like three hours.

My in-laws had a “party line”.

It is impossible to foretell the devastating impact technology will have on the future. The global village has changed everything from how often I have to talk to people I thought I ditched twenty years ago to the exacerbation of cultural morality and the decline of religion in the western hemisphere. The internet has literally transformed the world forever. We take for granted technology that would have been considered witchcraft only a few generations ago. Again Louis hits it on the head.

LOUIS C.K.: Well yea ‘cause now we live in an amazing, amazing world and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of just spoiled idiots that don’t care, because this is what people are like now – they’ve got their phone and they’re like “uh! It won’t…” Give it a second! Give – it’s going to space! Can you give it a second to get back from space!? [laughs]

I was on an airplane and there was high-speed internet on the airplane – that’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go “open up your laptop, you can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips – it’s amaz – I’m in an airplane!” And then it breaks down, and they apologize the internet’s not working. The guy next to me goes “phff – this is bulls%$^!” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed ten seconds ago.

Flying is the worst one because people come back from flights and they tell you your story and it’s like a horror story – they act like their flight was like a cattle car in the forties in Germany – that’s how bad they make it sound. They’re like “it was the worst day of my life. First of all, we didn’t board for twenty minutes, and then we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway for forty minutes we had to sit there.” Oh really what happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight you non-contributing zero?! You’re flying! It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going “oh my God! Wow!” You’re flying! You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky!

But it (the seat) doesn’t go back a lot. And it’s not really –

The impact of everything from texting to Facebook to your new Smart TV has yet to be determined. Society must grapple with the psychological, spiritual, and socioeconomic impact of such a monumental swerve in the history of civilization that some day historians will look at the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Nihilism and impact of Two World Wars and then the textbook will open to a chapter on what the world looked like when you were alive. It is impossible to exaggerate how different the world has become from even your grandparents time. It has been an amazing time to be alive.

Unfortunately they will not only write about all the wonderful things you could do with your smart phone. Psychologists will better understand the incredible impact that carrying around a personal computer while texting 150 times a day will have on your neural pathways. Have you not noticed that the world around you seems to have become more frantic? I don’t remember feeling the need to speak with all my friends every day when I was younger. I am uncertain as to what benefit my cell phone and laptop have brought to my life. Here’s what the article said about the conclusions they found:

The team measured their attention levels and activities to view how attention varied by screen, task, content type and structure. The findings revealed human attention span has fallen from an average of 12 seconds in the year 2000 to just eight seconds today.

The decrease was seen across all age groups and genders in the study. Those in the age group of 18 to 34 had a 31% high sustained attention span compared to those age 55 and over at 35%. Meanwhile, males (33%) had a better attention span than females (31%).

Call me a Luddite but there appears to be a correlation between the increasing invasion of technology into our lives and the overwhelming stress that pounds in many of our brains. I tease many of my female clients that it must be scary to have a brain like theirs. Always going, always spinning and thinking, processing and worrying. Many, many of my clients complain that they do not know how to shut their brains down.

I am convinced that learning to wrestle back control of one’s impulses and attention span may well be one of the most important and arduous psychological disciplines that no one is teaching. Most of us are convinced that our brain is out of control and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Most of us are wrong.

Any counselor worth their paycheck can teach you how to stop that runaway train from going off the rails. There are skills, very cheesy skills, that you can practice until the demons are at bay. I’ve been using one method for six years and it works about 40% of the time. By learning one methodology I have been able to decrease my problem 40%. That is a staggering success. I learned it on the internet, in spite of the fact that I am in school and working as a professional counselor full-time. Professionals who tell you that there is nothing you can do about your mental health issue are tools.

The Wolf At The End Of My Lane

I had a wolf. Well, not really; I should back up. There was a huge grey wolf at the end of my drive.

I would see him, I assume it’s a him, every few months. He would suddenly appear in the culvert, at the end of my lane, as I drove by. One day I stopped. One day I got out. The big grey wolf at the end of my lane.

I have never shared this tale before, and I’m not entirely sure why not. Perhaps it is because such a claim is impossible to verify and reeks of hyperbole. It may not have even really been the same wolf. But I know what I remember, and since no money is changing hands and I will never be famous, let me tell you a true story.

Before coming to the Left Coast of Canada I lived in the north, Fort McMurray Alberta, to be precise. It’s a weird place where welders make $150,000 a year and everyone wishes they were somewhere else. I lived on a ranch.

It appears that 25 minutes from the downtown of a northern city is too far for most commuters so we lived on 85 acres, in a beautiful cedar home with 22 feet floor-to-ceiling windows. We paid a little less than the cost of an apartment in town.

People in Fort McMurray buy toys, but I’m not talking about the dirty thought you just had. Snowmobiles and boats for a lake that is only tolerable for six weeks in the summer. Big trucks and expensive trips to the West Edmonton Mall and debt that staggers the imagination. My old town. The thing about toys are, they take up space. I had a ranch and someone needed a place for four horses. I had a barn and a friend wanted a dry place for three snowmobiles, including the keys. Someone else needed a home for a motorcycle, then a minibike, then a tractor, then more and more things with motors. Not bad for the price of a condo.

In the winter I would come home most days and take out one of the snowmobiles for a run, just so it would not rust. I am very considerate that way. I forgot to mention that I lived off a lake, but not near the beach. By January you could drive a Semi on any lake in northern Alberta and have a trucker hoedown with little fear. I loved to surf the powder on the lake at the end of a day listening to people’s problems. I was practicing mindfulness, or at least that’s what I told my wife.

One afternoon after work, as the sun was already beginning to set, I nearly drove into a pack of wolves running across the lake. Though we came from different directions we seemed to be aiming for the same destination. As I neared the pack there was my wolf, staring at me as he ran, not a care in the world. Maybe it was the shock of seeing that very wolf, or maybe it was the meds, but I didn’t drive away that afternoon. Almost naturally I came alongside this group of predators and on that day they let me run with the pack. I slowed, and we ran, and it was… glorious.

Into every life a little karma must fall and on that day someone was looking out for me. I was given a gift and a casual nod and, in spite of the artificial cacophony of the machine, permission to play. I felt something that day – something old. The wolf at the end of the lane knew me. To run with wolves, that is something out of Tolkien or Lloyd Alexander.

I wish I could still run.

It appears my body is breaking down. Years of sports and abuse and frozen pizzas have left their tan lines; and all the colon cleansers in the world can’t stop the march of time. It’s the game everyone gets to lose.

Some of you have been pretty all your life. This was never a cross I was called to bear. People who are good-looking may seem to be getting a better deal on everything because chances are they do. As a general rule pretty people get preferential treatment and tall people make more money; there is science to verify this. Some of you still haven’t yet paid for a drink in a bar but hold on, your time is coming. You are getting uglier. Ya, me too.

As a Canadian I feel compelled to wrap that comment up in a beautiful bow and deliver it to you in a passive-aggressive little pile of bullshit, but I will leave that sentence alone (I deleted the line with “uglier” three times because at heart I really just want you to like me). We are all aging, at varying rates. Television shows seem more and more to feature children who barely shave and yet have somehow had time to learn eight languages, get a black belt in Karate, and a doctorate in neuropsych.

Anyone who reads this drivel knows that I frequently write about philosophy, along with the regular psychology menu. I am currently on the slowtrack to a doctorate in my own particular weird blend of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Existentialism. I was fortunate that in my undergraduate degree I met people like Dave and Dan who delighted in daily jettisoning my preconceptions about virtually everything. They were my educational mentors and I am in their debt. I was given permission to think, and this has had a profound and ofttimes negative impact on my life to this day.

Few of us get healthy by accident. There is simply too much going on in the Twenty-first Century for most of us to stay emotionally well and positive in outlook. The promised future, replete with free-time and pastel jumpsuits, never materialized and most of my friends are stressed out of their minds and one Koolaid spill from taking out the village. Everyone has mental health issues and if you don’t just wait a week.

I have mentioned this before but I find it hard to even listen to a client who isn’t learning. I’ll put that more gently. I cannot think of one client who is really rocking this mental health thing who is not either a student or a reader or a serious life-learner. Last week I spoke at a martial art and ranted, “if you don’t read, you don’t lead”. That may sound narrow-minded or condescending but consider for a moment the world we find ourselves in. We no longer have the luxury of being ignorant about a host of things we never gave a crap about before the internet and media age. For thousands of years people had no idea what was happening and seemed to survive quite swimmingly. Our lives are a bombardment of manic media sources, Facebook and texting and Google and Xbox and our friends informing us that they arrived safely at the Red Lobster on 38th Street like I should give a damn. Our world is complex and dysfunctional and we were not given the tools to understand the how, let alone the why. I honestly have no idea why people who are not learning don’t lose their mind. Some days I wonder if I am too stupid and I do this for a living.

I could be wrong but I know what works for me. I have convinced myself that I want to be smart and I fell back in love with learning, and so have my Jedi friends who put me to shame. My life was once filled with music and noise and traffic. Today I was listening to “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief” on the drive to work. I drove slower than usual because I was on the part where they talk about the Sea Org and I have a sick fascination with cults. I had coffee with a friend this week and as she left she put on her earbuds. She was listening to “The Wisdom of Psychopaths“. I can virtually guarantee you that she is growing and moving forward.

Those who embrace the experience, rock the experience.

Few of us realize, that first month of counseling, that becoming a wise person requires tens of years of work, not weeks. In time the discipline no longer feels like drudgery and you begin to surf a little more consistently. In time this stuff changes your entire world and everyone around you if you let it.

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.

I Don’t Give A Crap

The Princess Bride is, unquestionably, one of my favourite movies. I own the novel. There is something about a magical story, with giants and accents and the Dread Pirate Roberts with which we resonate. A great story can take us to places in our imagination that playing Minecraft simply cannot. Reading matters. My clients have all had the lecture – you don’t read, you don’t grow as fast as you want to. It doesn’t matter how you get your fix, I listen to 90% of my books. What matters is that you are constantly exposing yourself to good ideas.

My wife thinks I actually like Facebook. The truth is, and I’ve written of this in the past, I really do “like” Facebook, in spite of hating Facebook because I want to be a hipster. I have unsubscribed to most of your updates and I really don’t care if you take a selfie on your next trip to Red Robin. My Reader looks nothing like it once did; it’s my daily source for archeology, psychology, philosophy and spirituality and religion and English comedy and Scottish history, Brain Pickings and Cracked and Mental Floss. Most of us on this journey are reading constantly, though some have not yet discovered the thrill of an old book. A surprising number of us start thinking about science, eventually. Some begin to dream about going back to school, though most eventually convince themselves that they are too old or too stupid or too pragmatic. As usual, I digress.

Some times in our lives define us.

My boys and I communicate primarily with media quips and movie quotes; it’s hard to explain if you don’t know what I mean. I was a single dad for the majority of my children’s lives. We had a foosball table, not a dining table. Black couches. As the boys got older, quotes from The Simpsons and Family Guy found their way into many conversations. We began to communicate in prose. We tried to talk like The Boondock Saints and memorized classic children’s literature and Die Hard. People were lost in conversations when the Williams boys were around. Quotes from Descartes and Homer, Simpson. Samurai Pizza Cats and Recess and Roger Miller singing, “Robin Hood and Little John running through the forest”. My guys know history and philosophy, psychology and how to ignite methane. It was the worst time of my life. It was the best time of my life.

I would not wish a life of single-parenting on you, but cannot begin to describe how much I have learned, through it all. My kids are, if I think objectively, way better than your kids. I mean nothing by this, they’re simply amazing young men. We still talk in Simpson’s quotes and share a closeness for which I am daily thankful. We all know that we are so tight because of the tears, not in spite of.

I listen to many speakers in the course of a month or a year. I have my favourites, most of whom are dead. Great speeches, like great comedy, is usually born out of pain. When discussing a preacher or poet or prose-master I am prone to comment, “he hasn’t suffered yet”. There are lessons you can learn only from the dark side. Being a single parent for all the wrong reasons was easily the most difficult and transformational time of my life. There was before The Event and there was after, and this is definitely after. I find it difficult to listen to those who have never bled.

If I’ve learned anything, doing this for a living, it’s that most people suffer far more than they let on. Many have experienced hardship on a level we could never have imagined. People who have been broken have wisdom that others simply don’t have. Some of us have issues as well, to be perfectly honest. Becoming bitter is the easiest thing in the world, north of 40. Many describe themselves as “realists” because they like pink clouds and unicorns. Truth be told, the older I get the easier it becomes to wear my damage like a badge of honour. Being happy becomes something that I have to work on. You may not have noticed but there are some nasty folks out there. Some of us live and love very negative kin. A few of us are a tad more sarcastic than we really need to be.

Most of my readers know I love my old man. If you broke your leg he would convince you that having a cast was the best thing ever! Women feel the love, my dad totally has game. He thinks your zit is charming. You’re beautiful just the way you are, have that bagel. His nickname is Happy Howie. He inspires me to not give up on idealism, on choosing to be happy in spite of all the crap. His life has been anything but easy. Growing up as an orphan, living as an adult while still in middle school, no one handed him anything. Ever. If you visit the Home Hardware in Invermere just stop and listen for his whistle. Everything is wonderful, wonderful.

There are people in my life that cannot seem to stop complaining. Life is difficult for them. I no longer wish to live in that world. Sure Isis may attack or that damn government needs to smarten up, but frankly I am learning not to care quite as much anymore. The research is in and it all points to giving less of a fart about the daily junk that I won’t remember in a week anyway. Most of us spend the majority of our lives stressing about toothpaste and taxes and hoping we won’t die alone. So boring. I no longer care if my neighbour likes my lawn, it’s all crabgrass anyway. I don’t give a f5620a2a175f04d1f254d9ff542541e8tinker’s damn about so many things that used to drive my mania, though I still have a long way to go. I have been challenged to practice this mindfulness exercise, caring less. I need to figure out how to lower my expectations of life.

As my dad always says, “If it doesn’t affect my pension or my grandchildren, I don’t give a crap.” He’s no idiot, my old man.

 

You Suck

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassions, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
– Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

So I was sitting in the tub this past week (cue disturbing visual image) and reading an article about “fun with semi-colons”. I’m not really a tub guy but I had a busted wing and it was either that or stink. If I had a dime for every time I’ve started an article with the line, “so I was sitting in the tub”. I have become a nerd who reads psychology and philosophy and Mental Floss. I can live with that.

My wife walked in the bathroom and upon hearing what I was reading, sardonically announced, “I have never been less attracted to you.” If I had a dime for every time…

Making fun of myself is easy. I have plenty of ammunition. I’m an expert at self-abasing, most of us are. I was birthed in Canada, where false humility is a national preoccupation. Growing up we all believed that self-promotion was sin, and bragging was something you only did if you were an American (it’s not you, it’s us) or hung out with people who had really good hair. In grade ten I had an afro so had little reason to brag. Ok, I was prone to self-promotion and I secretly miss the Fro.

It is common, although often incorrect, to assume that people are arrogant when they brag about themselves. This seems to have little foundation in any real psychology once you exclude the narcissists and the psycho/sociopaths and your Uncle Bert. For the rest of us, isn’t it true that (I got that line from a lawyer who kept putting words in my mouth during a trial I was called to testify as a counsellor at)… Isn’t it true that for most of us we tend to brag because we are actually insecure and generally feel bad about ourselves? I can sense, somewhere deep inside me, that when I lean towards self-promotion I am usually trying to convince myself and others that I am not the secondhand turd that some people believe me to be. I’m just saying, for me.

Insecure people brag. Secure people rarely feel the need. To be candid, the more I learn to accept myself the less my detractors matter. It is a testimony to this problem that at this point in the article I feel obligated to include the detraction, “I don’t mean that in an arrogant way”.

There is a measure of psychological sense to the religious confessional. When clients are trapped in the cycle of emotional self-abuse I often ask them, “Do you feel you have done enough penance yet?” There is something in most of us that is prone to continue the self-blame cycle forever. When will the day come when I have punished myself enough? Shame is a powerful and pervasive sickness that can trap a person and convince them that they do not deserve a rich life. At some point in the journey it is time to say enough is enough, forgive ourselves one day at a time, and scratch a little happiness out of life.

“Your problem is you’re… too busy holding onto your unworthiness.”    Ram Dass

This is not a self-help piece that ends with a parade and hot chocolate, although I highly recommend both with a splash of irish cream. In the real world, it is up to me alone to learn how to move beyond my own insecurities and learn to become comfortable with who I am right at this particular time. I will never be “good enough” until I learn to settle for good enough. Many of us can agree that we are sick and tired of feeling bad about ourselves.

Bragging can be a very healing and affirming thing, when done with someone who is safe and gets it. I have a few friends who really encourage me to feel good about myself. You know who you are and thank you. There is a time and a place for everything, apparently, and when was the last time you really bragged about something that matters to you? We need to be cheerleaders for our friends. In a world that constantly reminds us how we do not measure up we all need someone who is wise enough to give us a chance to crow. Everyday and in every way we are given the message that we do not measure up, we’re too ugly, too fat, or too old, or too whatever. And always not enough – not enough education or maturity, not enough love or health or understanding from a world that appears to take delight when you wipe out and they can get it on tape.

So go ahead, brag a little. You’re pretty awesome.