Some People Are Finished Products

I like to tell people who I come from a family of hillbillies. It’s not true but I to never let the truth get in the way of a good story. What is true is that I come from generations of humble peasants, usually of the military persuasion. We didn’t lead in war, we probably dug latrines. There was no family money to inherit. My kin were never afraid to pick a fight or yell at their spouses.

I was raised that you won’t just die for your family, you would kill for your family (and I’m a pacifist). I remember hearing a preacher tell that story about the bus driver whose breaks were out, and there were only two options. One road would drive over your son, the other a group of strangers. Apparently ditching it was not an option, which makes me wonder as to the veracity of the tale but what can you do. He sacrificed his son and that was what God was supposed to be like if he was in the transportation industry.

This is undoubtedly an urban legend if for no other reason than that most parents would kill the strangers.

I would mow down a city before I would sacrifice my child. I’m not admitting I’m a psychopath, I’m just saying your chances, in a strictly mathematical sense, are not good. There are three toddlers in my family that I would storm the gates of hell to protect. I have a few close friends who are my family by choice. Friends will help you move, good friends will help you move a body, or so the joke goes. Chances are a few of you know how I feel. Loyalty and familial love are not character traits for which one must ordinarily apologize.

We all have a mental list of the people for whom we would storm the castle. My friends, and by friends I do not mean the mass of acquaintances with whom I have a peripheral relationship, are those who have been tried by fire but refuse to walk away. Friends are those few I love and will protect, if I am able. Friends and family give my life meaning, even if more than a few of them are absolutely bat-crap crazy.

My tribe, because I live in what I like to call the real world, come in three categories: those who enrich my life, those who are neutral, and those lovelies who are emotional succubus, the vampires who take away my will to live. I love them, but a few of them could use Cipralex with a tequila chaser. Three kinds of friends; three types of people when you pause to think about it.

I am endeavouring to become keenly aware when I begin to weigh down the hearts of those I care about the most. It is much easier to live a life of self-absorbed pedantry so I may continue to take selflies and be easily offended. No one really gives a damn about my medical problems, if I have to bring it up. If you talk for twenty minutes and do not say one thing that makes someone smile, unless you are in crisis you may just be a negative person. There is no right way to tell someone they are a negative person so few people recognize this particular character trait. Other people know but usually no one is talking. I am becoming aware of my own propensity to complain and it is something I may have to address in myself.

We all have times in our lives when we desperately need to get help carrying that burden. I am here for you and you have been there for me. There was a time in my life when if it wasn’t for a few people like Susan and Steve and a handful of others, I might have taken my own life (I cannot put any more names for fear of missing someone). Persons slept on my couch for a couple of weeks at a time. People fed me and looked out for me. When everyone else walked out a few of you walked in. You know who you are, really. I would never disparage reaching out. That is literally my day job. This article is not about that.

I have spent several months conducting an informal survey of people in my life that are finished products. without their knowledge questions have been asked and unknown interviews given. I have little fear of offending them here because they would have no impetus to read my blog about psychological and emotional health. They don’t talk about philosophy, they argue about it. They don’t grow.

By labelling someone a finished product (I can freely admit I could be wrong) I mean that, for whatever reason, there are those individuals in my world who have decided that they are not going to change anymore. They believe the exact same things they have seemingly always believed and they are done. Some immerse themselves in popular culture and drop-kick their brains out the window. Others become consumed by their children or fashion or menial politics or sports and stay dumb. I can’t help you with dumb, it’s often terminal.

I can’t help you with dumb, it’s often terminal

Finished products are difficult to live with. Many wives or husbands sit in my office and admit that even if we come up with a jim-dandy plan of attack for their marriage their spouse will never seriously engage in the process. This is the session in counselling when I begin to subliminally prepare you for the eventual death of your relationship, even if you do stay together. Few relationships can survive when one partner is trying to become wise while the other is in love with their boat or  shoes or hobby or daytime television. I do not need my spouse to be my intellectual equal but I do need that person to still try at life. Nothing is harder to watch than a partner who has given up or thinks learning is dumb. I can put up with almost anything if I know you’re trying.

One further thing. I don’t want to be sick forever. My mental illnesses should probably not be an inheritance to my children. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad, quite the opposite. The good news is that if nothing else, the more we know the faster we grow. I just said something cheesy. I’m deadly serious about this topic because people who are reading, unceasingly engaging in meaningful activities, diligent about moving forward, these individuals always get better faster and move into wisdom. That has to be worth it. I still want to be a Jedi.

Happy birthday Albert Einstein, may we never give up the quest for a grand and unified theory.

Apparently I’m An X-Men

I’m like Wolverine except without the muscles, the talent, the looks and the pokey knuckles. And only in a tonsils way (that’s obviously a real word). Oh, and I can not be killed.

I don’t believe in Karma or fate but I’m not actually stupid enough to announce to both my readers (you see what I did there) and the Interweb that I cannot really be killed. I may not believe in Karma but I don’t want to piss her off, even if I know superstition is dumb. As the philosopher Homer (Simpson) once cried, “Jesus Allah Buddha save me!” Just covering my bases.

Here’s where I’m headed: Many years ago I had my tonsils out. Fast forward a decade or two and I had my tonsils out, again. There are medical records to confirm this but this isn’t rage journalism so I don’t have to provide transcripts. It is true; and very weird. I am almost certain I have tonsils right now.

The few readers who visit here may not have noticed, but I didn’t write for a few weeks. I do this when writing begins to bore me (this is, after all, my hobby) from time to time, so there is nothing remarkable in such a break. On this occasion, however, I had a martial arts fight with my table saw, obviously believing that my black belt skills would stack well against a 20-year-old piece of crap I purchased at Canadian Tire. I was wrong. The table saw really only has one good move, but it is a doozy. I’m almost certain ‘doozy’ is a word. We sparred briefly and I lost, in a fairly substantial way. I give the table saw’s performance ‘one and a half thumbs up’. I am also, as a super awesome side bonus, now intimately familiar with how tendons are supposed to work. I won the Silver Medal for the match.

My thumb appears to be, at least in part, growing back. I haven’t attempted this with any major organs or parts but based on my extensive and definitive research thus far – I should be able to cut anything off and it should rejuvenate. I am not a scientist but I’ve been 100% spot-on thus far. I have not tested this hypothesis but my wife told me the insurance company would have paid me substantial money had I not been such a pansy and done a decent and thorough job. No one likes a half-assed effort. After getting off the phone with my office manager Annette actually said, “Slam some Oxy’s, I’m warming up the table saw!”

So here at home I sit, watching daytime television and practicing my superpower. Why couldn’t I get invisibility? If this doesn’t happen faster I may need to find a radioactive spider. I hate waiting. I consider the ‘tap’ option for paying with my credit card perhaps one of the greatest inventions, ever. I am literally too lazy to put in my pin number. I am not, therefore, amazing at waiting.

One of the recurring themes on this website is clearly my fixation with the misconceptions people have when it comes to personal change and growth. Automated Tellers now take too long. There is a good chance that this is not your only internet window open right now. Three people have texted me in the past three minutes and I’m old and have few friends, or so I once thought. We seem to be on our phones all the time.

There is evidence to suggest that our growing dependence on instant technology is fundamentally changing us on a neurological level. This makes a certain degree of sense if you are a geek like me and think about it behaviourally. I have already changed the channel on my television three times while writing this article (although to be fair I am typing with one hand while attempting to soak the other in saline and daytime television is of the devil). Everyone now knows that we are undoubtedly, at least in part, a product of our history and culture. It is not necessary to exaggerate or even debate this issue, it is an established fact.

The vast array of bombarding technologies and choices are influencing you right now. I do not remember having to compulsively text everyone while engaging in Facebook and Google chats, email and internet searches all day, every day. Texting has emerged as a significant behavioural issue, if not a neurochemical one. Millions literally put their lives at risk so that they may chat about meaningless drivel LOL, LMAO. I never used to talk with so many people, every stinking day. I am vastly more social than I have ever been… or am I? We want it now,  We want it faster, better, more instant, more, more. I want to be able to get ahold of you all the time and be offended if you do not respond to my text for more than ten minutes. In a recent study people admitted they would rather lose their wallet than their phone. That’s bizarre considering how little actual phoning most of us really do. (I kind of lied, the study was done way back in 2009, which is significant when you consider how hard my phone sucked back then)

telephone-gonflable-geant_2.jpgTechnological bionomics needs to be something with which philosophers seriously contend; as we continue to integrate technology into our hard wiring. There are, without a doubt, ramifications for a humanity that carries around a personal computer which screams at them constantly through text messaging and the various other social networking tools. (I was tempted to list actual a few popular ones including emailing, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; but I knew I would read this article again in five years and exclaim, “Facebook? Did we really still use Facebook way back then? What is emailing?”)

So ya, I may be an X-Man, albeit a minor warrior in the fight against Magneto. I just get hurt easily and take 6 weeks to heal, so I should probably let the chick with white hair go first. At the end of the day it may serve me well to unplug myself just a little bit more; in keeping with pretty much everyone’s New Years Resolution to get outside more, or exercise more, or pretty much do anything that earns me a sun tan. As they say (not exactly), it’s easy to talk the talk, but get the heck outside and walk the walk.

You Feel Me?

My friend Lori the art nerd, that’s her legal name, has to critique another student’s play. I would stink at that. As a psychology geek I would be all like, “but there’s too much criticism in the world already and I have no idea what kind of hell this person has gone through. How old is she, 30? That means she’s a senior student. Good for her! But wait a minute. A senior student, what went wrong? Why is she back at school now. Some bastard broke her heart! Good for her! How can I criticize Cheryl, she’s a hero!”

You probably don’t really need someone like me to remind you of your problems. You know your problems. You didn’t just pay me to tell you what is obvious to you, did you? You have a bead on your problems, what is missing are solutions.

Or am I wrong?

Granted, someone like me gets paid to help you look through another lens. Trust me on this one, you want that. I tell people who are going through something like grief or depression, addiction or anxiety, that they should think of themselves as insane. You heard me. Screen Shot 2012-09-18 at 12.19.55 PMWe simply need to put some heavy limits on our application of the word. When you are depressed you cannot think rationally because your frontal cortex is getting slammed by three greasy hippies on cocaine driving a Vega (I especially like the mini wagon with fake wood) spraying warm tapioca from your primal and basically cray cray brain. I like to impress readers with my technical know-how.

When things were bad in my hemisphere I am completely certain that I was absolutely and coldly nuts, much of the time. I was so entirely broken that it framed every decision in my life. Some of you know of what I speak. So yes, I was a little insane, thank you very much. Probably a great deal more than a little. You would never want someone in that mindset to walk your pet, let alone make decisions of any import. In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have remortgaged the house twice because I “didn’t give a damn”. You feel me?

(What does that mean, anyway, “you feel me?”. I would, frankly, prefer that very few people actually “feel me” so I guess I should say, “please stay appropriately behind the yellow line and I’ll greet you with a firm hand shake”)

It’s easy to wear our failures like a hairshirt. If you want a list of my shortcomings just ask me. Either I figured it out or it was driven into me a few hundred thousand times. Pointing out your obvious flaw may make you think I’m Kreskin, but chances are it will simply reinforce how useless you already feel. Thanks for that, best friend! I know I have problems, I made them.

relaxing-on-beachHey listen. You’re coping the best you know how, right now. Most of us live our whole lives never living up to our own expectations, much less everybody else’s. Sometimes you need to be a little easier on yourself. You are on a journey and you are making this up as you go along. Few of us figure this out at the same rate. Life is profoundly more complex than the poster promised. I am virtually a full-time student and I am keenly aware how stupid I was only a few years ago. Will I say that again in five years?

Wisdom takes time, unfortunately. No one gets a free pass and that means no one. My goal is to figure this out in my current decade and it is taking far longer than any of us imagined. We can only do the best we can with the light we have right now. That’s as good as it can get, short of a scholarship to Cambridge. What is important is to play the hand given me well and eat as much candy as I can. If you need a kick in the butt feel free with my compliments, but don’t forget to eat some kitkatKitKat ice cream and listen to a comedy. I just watched Trevor Noah: African-American on Netflix and finally learned how to correctly pronounce Zebra (it sounds like Debra).

I can be hard on myself tomorrow.

Selfish Lovers

*warning – Adult Content*

I talk with clients about sex all the time. It’s a cool job. You cannot live in my world very long without someone telling you the juicy bits. People who wonder if I can keep a secret assume I hear an average amount of gossip, and they would be wrong. I get paid to listen to your secrets. I gave up finding happiness through selling you out a long time ago.

It’s usually uncomfortable to tell me your story, at first. We have been conditioned to feel ashamed of our private functions, if not a little embarrassed. When it comes to sex, it is easy to feel like you are dirty, or kinky, or just different. This week, slightly tongue-in-cheek, news agencies released the stats on average penis length (5.17 inches). Reports called attention to the stigma around even having such conversations. It may sound disgusting but every boy has measured. Someone should have said it. We are products of repression.

It won’t as too much of a surprise to you that, looking out from my chair, there are a lot of problems in the bedroom. I hear the lists everyday, and it can be fun to be a fly on the wall of my office. You would be surprised how many couples, for example, don’t feel sexually compatible. That is a heavy thing to admit to a stranger. Lots of couples have issues with technique and I get paid to research that kind of stuff. Many people have plumbing problems, use your dirty imagination. Lubrication and miscommunication and a lack of vacations add to the discomfort. Couples often have a great deal of difficulty telling each other that this “doesn’t feel nice” because there is usually so much “water-under-the-bridge” and feelings are easily wounded.

Here’s one for free. No one taught me how to satisfy a woman except my occasional exposure to pornography. Talk about what you like, it can be a huge turn-on. I love learning.

Selfishness is largely a Math issue. When I critically analyze my Giddy-Up time, what percentage of my efforts go into helping my partner feel loved? Then subtract my selfishness. Disregard anything that is potentially selfish but mutually enjoyable. The Math works the other way as well. Do you feel loved? Safe? Living with selfishness can be a prison sentence. It can become difficult to remain emotionally healthy while living life with someone consumed with their personal satisfaction.

Now add the intriguing little tidbit that some of us find our sense of self-worth through helping other people. Those people attract selfishness and narcissism like catnip. I’m not saying it’s your fault, just the reverse. This does not negate the fact that predators seek out the vulnerable and if you live to serve others they are going to use that to use you. The spouses of narcissists, psycho or sociopaths, of the raging and the ragingly selfish, are some of the nicest people I have ever met. It says something of a society when selflessness becomes a liability.

Selfishness can be a much larger issue than just a problem with Mattress Polka. Many of us know the sting of life with a selfish and miserable spouse, or the narcissist, or the Drama Queen or King. It always seems to be about them, and not just in the bedroom. Some narcissists are great lovers, but for all the wrong reasons. Use your imagination. Living with someone who is self-absorbed is maddening.

g5MPb2BFlEC468oFxKvOWQGYFlZmJKvPED33WBpqoB5a7kF4OVMUSjzQywJzbY6bI wish I could tell you there is a fairytale ending, but I would be lying. Convincing someone to live more unselfishly, someone who has spent their entire life developing a value system with only their photo in the room, is an affront to their reality. The only solution that works begins and ends with me. That’s a hard pill to swallow. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to change you but it won’t work. I hate that but the article isn’t over yet.

There is a mighty hope that we tend to forget in the drama.We can become more and more whole. As Victor viktor-frankl-quote-those-who-have-a-why-to-live-can-bear-with-almost-2Frankl and others have illustrated far better than I, no one can take away your ability to grow. That is very deep once you get yourself around it. Even in the most abusive of scenarios (and I’ve heard at least as many stories as you), some people learn to hope in spite of it all. I have to believe that anyone can learn, one minuscule step at a time. I have known that soul-crushing despair and wish for death but somehow, over years and years, things have changed. No, it wasn’t worth it, but life has a way of changing my paradigm whether I feel like it or not.

Then the day arrives when we talk about your dysfunction. We need to learn about next time. As the man said, if I keeping doing things the same way I can expect the same results. Most of us believe we learn from our mistakes. Most of us are wrong. It’s shocking, isn’t it, that both your current guy and your ex both like the History Channel? Huh. You’ve come from the bottom but it may happen again. Some of that hurt didn’t just float away. We have all learned entirely screwed up coping mechanisms, unless your parents were perfect, as mine are (Hi Dad). I have long whined that we graduate into adulthood with little or no emotional skills. I didn’t understand my feelings, much less my history, my dysfunction, and my unresolved issues. We were just big and dumb kids, more firmly convinced than ever of our own moral and intellectual certitude.

But that’s another article. I want to conclude by encouraging all of us, myself included, to keep looking after our mental health, and not just with gluten and working out. I work in an industry where everyday people spend thousands of dollars fighting off the end; but who give little or no thought to the only thing that really matters, my inside. And not just your bowel problems. We are all getting uglier, deal with it. But don’t forget to work on the stuff that will define and dictate the rest of your existence.

You may not prevent decay, but we all need to fight Stupid.

One Good Book

I graduated from my high school with little problem and I had never read a book. I remember picture books about dinosaurs and a few Young Readers books and I was done. The library had plenty of Coles Notes for any book ever assigned in class. In the real world I had sports and sunshine and adventures, who had time for a book?

The book was “The Bourne Identity”, a cheesy pulp fiction genre piece. I was enraptured. It took me to a place I had never been before, and I have never looked back. I was, by now, in my twenties and already married.

I was telling this story to my son Benjamin one day and he turned to me and said, “Dad, that happened to me. It was the Hunger Games.” For my oldest, Nathan, it was “The Chronicles of Prydain”. One good book was all it took to make three literary primates into lifelong learners. All three of us now work in literate fields. Two of us write. All have been to university. Before that one good book I never considered anything beyond the world of blue-collar jobs and meniality. Neither of my parents had graduated from high school. I’m from peasant stock.

We go for breakfast and discuss history and cosmology. I am blessed. My youngest, Matthew, reads like a madman. He knows more about World War Two history than his teacher. We talk about Leningrad. My life is normal too, this is just something I stumbled into.

My father watched the discussion and then wanted in. At 76 he is back in university. I believe in the power of literacy, and not just as opposed to illiteracy. Some people cannot read but many more choose not to read. This is a form of illiteracy that few talk about. Electronic culture continues to fundamentally alter how we think, where we spend our time, and how we communicate. The numbers of people who do not read are legion.

I am pitching this to a literacy group and you are reading the pitch. As a clinician I witness the effects of this illiteracy every day. Mental health is strongly tied to one’s capacity to receive and implement information which is often complex and unfamiliar. Without regular positive input from people smarter than I am I may just be damning myself to a life of unrealized potential. In a multi-sensory world of shortening sound bytes, fewer and fewer people are reading works of substance.

The story of my family is not our story alone. The solution to this acquired illiteracy lies in awareness and education, like so many things. The difference here is, winning is so easy. Books are addictive and like all addictions you only need a few to be hooked. Most of us come in the door through trash novels, but that’s ok, those things are fun. Nothing is more pleasant than a great story in your ear buds on a sunny day. Just get people in the door, then give them a few good books. We need to get books back into people’s lives in a world spinning out of control. Books with pretty colours, electronic books, audio and picture books. I think I would call it One Good Book and interview my kids. Or your kids. Or whatever. Christmas presents, birthday gifts and dates to the library, stir in a play and a concert. Go to Belgium.

That first book led to other and better books and a different way of thinking about the world. I will always be grateful to Jason Bourne, that super spy, ninja, special forces, amnesiac. That was one good book.

So what book was it for you?

The Golden Ticket

There is a huge reward for all the work, I just can’t explain it to you yet. I lied all those times, there is a Golden Ticket, you just can’t have it. The Golden Ticket is curiosity. The reward is wisdom. This is an example of something called Philosophical Psychoanalysis.

For many of us, coming to the place in our life when we again embrace wonder is difficult and arduous. It usually comes from pain and loss, though not exclusively. It may happen in a person’s second-half of life and often after a divorce or death or mental health tremor. For one of my closest friends it just became, out of a lifetime of anxiety and self-medicating and living on the emotional fringe. Many of us end up there, feeling misunderstood or lonely or like a freak. I often ask clients at the beginning of this period of rediscovery, “Do you remember fun?” Look around you – few of us seem to be Jedi’s.

We talked for five years. We are still talking, but it’s different now. I don’t have as much to teach her as I once did. She is as motivated, more motivated, than I am. We talk about books and art and history, philosophy and psychology and politics. The subjects are as varied as the universe. Oh ya, we often talk about the universe as well.

If you come see me professionally I will ask you if you read. You cannot remain my client if you do not read. I’m sorry but I don’t have the time. That sounds arrogant and I don’t mean to be condescending. The simple truth is, it’s too hard to do this without continuous input; and if you aren’t filling the tank on a regular basis you are screwed. It may not be books but it should be a source that is teaching you. That glass of wine after work may help you wind down but won’t take you where you want to go. Good tequila, on the other hand… (thanks Kim!).

I gave her A Brief History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. She read about cognitive behavioural therapy and The Wisdom of Psychopaths. Paul Ekman. The Tipping Point and Heretics and Heroes. The Hunger Games. Buddha’s Brain. She learned how to place a deadly serious psychological game from the mockingjay (Real Or Not Real?). Michio Kaku. The Renaissance. Augustus and Genghis Khan. The list was endless.

“Getting better” may be more about wisdom  than anything else. The Twelve Step people are very correct – the wisdom to know the difference. Understanding the meaning and context for my life is probably the best and surest route to emotional wholeness. Don’t take this wrong, it is as Art Williams says, I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy – I’m telling you it is going to be worth it.

She doesn’t have as much time to be depressed anymore. She has, in her fifties, four university classes to get unrealistic marks in. Her little-o-bit of self-diagnosed OCD means that every morning the Byzantine Empire comes pounding in, not her anxiety and regular panic attacks. It is all about wisdom. It is all about curiosity.

Here’s a little secret to happiness – learning is a drug. Many of us are, however, only recreational users and merrily go about our lives, most days frantically absorbed in our petty existence. I mean no disrespect, I’m a professional at petty.

Einstein-talent-curiosityWe were talking and she suggested that I make up a Required Reading List. It would be the strangest list imaginable – physics, neuropsychology, science fiction (don’t get me started on Ursula K. Le Guin), obscure movies like The Razor’s Edge (Bill Murray version) and obscure books like The Myth of Certainty. Hundreds and hundreds of books. and graphic novels, movies, comedians and philosophers.

Then one day she wasn’t depressed anymore. That was years ago now. She’s going to be an art historian. The Golden Ticket is the narcotic effect of such momentum, this wonderful gift called curiosity. The more I learn, the more I thirst. The larger my understanding becomes the more I comprehend how ridiculously little I know. I am baffled by the certainty of zealots; I’ve been doing this for thirty years and I still see “through a glass darkly”. In my meagre experience I’ve found that learning about the big stuff, the thoughts that bring healing or hope or meaning, these occupations birth a feeling of awe deep within me. Wonder intoxicates. Times in seclusion become precious and thinking about your upcoming art trips to Berlin and Italy make you smile. She is not wealthy but she is passionately curious.  This week she discovered, really understood, the history of Constantinople. She’s writing a philosophical play for one of her classes. That need to spin her neurological wheels is slowly becoming an asset. Perhaps some of this is about making peace with the person who is Scott or Liz or Steve or (insert name here) and not running from who I am. It’s also a bit about timing. It’s hard to be smart with three or four rugrats incessantly baying for your attention. You people have a harder job, though perhaps more dire.

If nothing else, it won’t be boring.

She gave me a few books this week from a series called Mrs. Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. It’s a wonderful tome for “young readers” so I could understand it. The tale is a mix of the X-Men for kids and fairy-tale magic. The moral of the story (for me, thus far) is to embrace your pain and turn it into a weapon. We want to run from our personal truths even though we know this will not work. Wholeness comes with something I have been preaching lately called radical acceptance. As I stop fighting my story and begin to look for grooves in which to surf, the demons from my past become a part of a powerful narrative. I relearned that today from a child’s book.

I have thousands of audiobooks and I’m not exaggerating, as some of my patient clients can attest. What started out as a distraction eventually became a passion, and it isn’t hard to read anymore. The problem is what to read, in a world of a million choices and limited time. This month I’m promoting Brain Pickings, a wonderful and profoundly insightful act of love from one smart individual.

And pick up Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, it’s a great read at any age.

The Triceratops

I was given a small piece of a backbone recently by a new friend. The backbone of a Triceratops. Wicked. You can see the marrow, or so I choose to think. It looks like a bone, a 68 million-year-old bone. For an amateur history enthusiast, this is very cool. I am becoming more of a geek all the time.

History is something I care very much about. It has been, along with a few other diversions, one of the passions of my adult life. I endeavour to read history almost every day. One of the reasons I love this so much is because it teaches me lessons that others have had to learn the hard way. The other reason is because I fancy myself a bit of a storyteller and I can mine history forever. There are literally millions of great stories I have not heard yet. Billions. Many are lost to antiquity and most, the vast majority, were never remembered in the first place. Life is story.

When Brian Williams got incinerated by the media recently for embellishing on his war correspondence I understood what he was doing. I try to never let the absolute truth ruin a great story. I still tell a few stories I know are not true, simply because they are amazing. I will often even start with, “This story is not true.” I don’t care, I’m interested in hearing a story, this isn’t church. Williams is guilty of losing himself in his own story. He forgot that he was supposed to report on the action, not be the action. He has told that story so many times he probably could convince himself that it’s probably half-true. I’ve done that. Once, while on a whitewater canoe trip with The No Tan-line Annual (NTLA) crew, my canoeing partner Don Hand caught a huge lake trout on a lake called Trout Lake. I told that story so many times I started to believe I was the one who caught the fish. I still prefer to tell it my way.

Stories have enriched my life in ways I cannot begin to fathom. By now anyone who reads this rag knows that I am a strong proponent of audiobooks. I have gone on record, many times, alleging that audiobooks may have saved my life. Every day, many times a day, I lose myself in a story. I have a tiny hint of ADHD in my psyche and audiobooks keep me placid and awake. They keep my mind from going places that it should never go. When I used to cry every day audiobooks gave me a break from the grief. See, I can’t stop preaching about audiobooks.

Where were we? Oh right, the Triceratops. Looking at that horn connects me with something far bigger than myself. That’s why I collect old books and newspapers and coins. Touching those French Francs from the 18th Century gives me a deep sense of connectedness with the bigger story. Yesterday, while on Lori’s blog, I looked at a picture of Napoleon’s gloves. That makes him alive to me, somehow.

I have a deep connection with my own story as well. Even with my memory I can feel a connection with my past. I can enter again into 15-year-old Scott. I can remember how it felt to paddle into that secret bird sanctuary on the Clearwater River. If I think hard enough I can develop a sense of mindfulness with my younger me and see how he felt and what he believed. Sitting here, I can connect with Scott on stage at the Clarke Theatre in 1999. He was ridiculously naive and immature but I can also see his heart and I know the truth. Try that on yourself, sometime soon. Get in that chair or that bed and spend 15 minutes intentionally going back. Remember how she felt that day, you know the one. I did this mindfulness exercise just before I started this article and it is powerful once you figure it out. Try it six times before you give it up. I learn new things about myself every time I wander.

There is a profound wisdom to be found in your own story if you allow yourself to look at it in a more objective fashion. The more you can develop a third-person relationship with your past, the more you can learn. As I recently wrote about, it’s again about radical acceptance. Radical acceptance of the truth about my personal journey. I desperately want to whitewash my own immaturity but that takes away, profoundly, from the story. As Kant said, you have two worlds. There is the world as you wish it to be and the world as it really is. It’s like a bad remake of The Matrix and it’s true. My failure to cope often defines the story. My ability to accept my own part in the dysfunction is crucial if you want to learn the truth. You were there too. Don’t worry, I’m not blame-shifting. It really may not have been your fault but we aren’t talking about blame. I have learned to deal with life in certain ways and some of these are dysfunctional. It may have been as a result of abuse or just because that’s the way things turned out with your particular strange porridge of DNA and family weirdos. The story is, after all, about me.

As Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember (learn from) the past are condemned to repeat it”.

 

The Wall

“… they were not really afraid. They were just afraid of being afraid.”
― Malcolm GladwellDavid and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

People have asked me what it feels like. I have hesitated to answer, largely because I am only now coming to understand what has been going on inside my head. I have struggled to articulate how I ‘feel’ ever since the first neurologist asked me, “so what’s the problem?”

This is not a subject I wish to spend even a modicum of time thinking about so I shall endeavour to satisfy that question once and for all; if for no other reason than I will be able to send an email link the next time one of my friends asks, “So what do you mean by brain injury?”

I am not entirely sure why I am even writing this article. It reeks of self-indulgence and Oh someone please tell me I’m awesome passive-aggression. I loathe this tone of desperation.

I must confess, however, that I often have little direction as I start to write about a certain topic. Like some 360+ other articles on this blog, most of my thoughts develop as I think out loud, on paper. This one ended up being about my screwed-up brain. Nothing is out-of-bounds, so let’s pry a little. It is no accident that I spend so much of my professional life researching things like neurons and dendrites and dopamine and brain stuff. I regularly endeavour to analyze my own malady, just for kicks and giggles. Still, letting you watch the process is a disclosure I am not entirely comfortable with. I’ve edited this 29 times.

This is dedicated to all of you out there with concentration problems, short-term memory loss or impairment; and to those who just feel like they are going crazy every once in a while.

Apparently a certain percentage of the population, those who shall henceforth be known as my homies (I know, rad right?), have suffered from some sort of mental or physical malady which has fundamentally changed them as a person. I have mentioned before, albeit ever so briefly, that I had a Tonic-clonic seizure. We used to call it a “Grand mal”. Millions of people will have only one in their lifetime, or so I have been informed by a neurologist with an accent. Have more than one seizure and they want to label you an epileptic and scrutinize your driver’s license. If you google Tonic-clonic you will read that most seizures, if they are of average intensity and under 20 minutes in length, leave no lasting neurological effect. I was Jonesing for more than 20 minutes. A lot of nasty things happened in that time; I have written briefly of this in the past. I kicked a doctor in the head.

People who have chronic pain, for example, know what it is like when people forget you are broken. I look fine. I talk good enough to confuse a neurologist. I’ve always had a crappy short-term memory so what’s the big deal?

It is like hitting a memory wall, sometimes a few times a day. This must be what temporary amnesia feels like. Without any warning whatsoever I can completely drop a thought or memory. I know I had the memory, I just cannot seem to find it right now. We could be at coffee and I will forget who your wife is. I can completely forget that we met. You can ask me about an appointment we have arranged and I will not remember we talked. I have no memory of that huge martial arts event that I MC’d. I had no idea I was at the afterparty.

It’s not personal, and as much as it pains me to say it, not even an authentic personality flaw. My Fibromyalgia patient who sleeps 14 hours a day does not do this because she is inherently lazy, quite the reverse. She is not a flawed personality; she has an illness. Imagine, if only for a moment, walking into your ‘mind palace’ and all of a sudden the door is slammed in your face. You know something is wrong but for some reason you can’t remember. You cannot remember why you were supposed to remember what you cannot remember. Sometimes you have to think for a minute to recall where you are. That would suck…

I cannot remember what I need to remember. Usually I cannot remember why I was supposed to remember what I cannot remember. I can miss a period of time, or so they tell me. I’m in a bad remake of Memento. Am I memento-okay-so-what-am-i-doing-im-chasing-this-guy-nope-hes-chasingchasing him or is he chasing me? If we wait 10 minutes the information may magically appear, although from which direction I have no idea. My first day back at work, after being in the hospital, I could not remember any of my clients. I do better with people I am close to, but I offer no guarantees. Things have vastly improved since that day, not so many years ago, but some scarring remains.

My wife tells me I’m “different”, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t mean in a good way.

Like many of us, I have learned to cope. I use memory tricks like Linking and the Loci System that anyone can learn in 10 minutes. I keep a phone calendar with my wife. Friends who know me will remind me, gently, of what we discussed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an invalid and this does not happen all the time. I can go days, even weeks, with few issues. The freaky part is the lack of regularity, along with a few hundred other reasons.

A doctor offered to help me go on disability. I help people get on disability every week and I inherently knew that this was not to be a part of my journey, at least not unless things get much worse. I am too busy, too engaged. I help run an organization or two. I speak a lot. I consult. I have no desire to denigrate those who have had to go down that road; the truth is that my issue is simply not bad enough to warrant such an option. Many of my clients deal with problems that would stagger my imagination. My issue is not the kind of thing that keeps you home; it’s the kind of thing that can only scare the crap out of you if you let it.

This is a mind game, in every sense of the word. I am incredibly lucky to have grown up in a good home and so do not have some of the fear that others have had to feel. I never worried about being raped, or abandoned, or homeless. Many of my patients are the way they are because of horrific memories that have altered their lives. worrying-twainMy family had cable. Unfortunately, however, that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with insecurity or fear. Everyone is afraid, sometimes. Everyone wonders if people would like them if they really knew them. We all wanted to be popular. It’s very natural to be a little afraid of death, or dying, or disease, or the fact that a couple of times a week an asteroid screams by the earth, close enough to notice. We have ISIL and terrorism and relatives who are psychotic and the fear of getting old alone. Wondering if I’ll forget where I am, or even who I am, could probably keep a guy awake at night, if he let it. In counselling that is referred to as catastrophizing and we are neurologically hardwired to go there. You can quote that line about 85 or 90% of things you worry about don’t come true but most of us cannot stop our imaginations from running down dark streets where we should not tread.

Fear does funny things to a person. It can sneak up on you when you least expect it. You can believe you have it beaten, only to find out it was waiting for you in the places you least expected. I find it interesting, the ways we describe those places – cold, dark, stone, death, barren. Theologians call it “the dark night of the soul”. Dr. Seuss called it “the waiting place”. Scrooge confronts his grave on a pale winter day. Fear always seems to be in the snow or in the rain. Decay does not seem to like the sun.

Fear eats a person up, if we let it. It shows up in something you may have heard of called anxiety. Childhood trauma or neglect can plant the seeds of fear. Someone who didn’t know if dad or mom would come home sober, someone who knew what it meant to run and hide, that person learns fear. This may help to explain why so many trauma survivors are control freaks, by their own definition. When you are raised in a scary world that is beyond your control you grow up looking for ways to control your uncontrollable life. Some trauma survivors are hoarders and when you think about it on a psychological level, that makes a level of sense. It might be reasonable to conjecture that growing up in a world of violation and loss could lead to a desire to grab onto life and hold on. Other trauma survivors have difficulty finishing projects, or committing to monogamy, or struggle with addictions more than their friends at the PTA.

Some of us found fear as an adult, at the hands of another. There are many ways to be afraid of the dark.

I am learning to slow down when I get to the wall. There is an immanent fear of panic that must be immediately mediated and wrenched aside. Time to breathe, time to think. Recalibrate. Relax. Return. It’s not rocket science and I taught this to myself because I get paid to think about weird stuff. It doesn’t work all the time, I’m half an idiot and that’s the good half. Once again, there are things in our lives over which we have little control. It is up to me how I will respond.

We can do nothing to mitigate the events when someone we love dies, or our health hits the crapper, or we lose our job. I can wish upon a star all I want but that isn’t going to change what is inevitable. You may not want to accept the fact that you have a problem but it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Reality seems to care not a tinker’s dam whether or not I am ready; I can only learn to surf.

It’s easy to be afraid. I’m a professional. I love what Gladwell says in David and Goliath, “Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”

I sort of get that. Like most of us, I have spent most of my life trying to predict which way the wind will blow, only to find out that life rarely turns out the way we thought it should. No one is going to give us a magic pill so I may as well try to make the best of this and learn to leverage my stupidity so that I can get someone else to do all the heavy-lifting.

Irregardless

…is not really a word. If you look it up on Wikipedia someone spits at you as you read the definition. Regardless, or irregardless, it is a powerful idea. Most of us like to live our lives responding to our world. It is tempting to drink the koolaid and let your dysfunctional world dictate the directions for dying of bitterness. Other people make us mad. It’s their fault I am this way.

“In spite of” is a very powerful saying. In spite of chronic pain, in spite of horrific abuse, in spite of a lack of parenting, or too much cocaine, or a mother-in-law from hell. In spite of all that, you did it anyway. Irregardless of the cost (I have no idea how to use this word in a sentence). Many have overcome immense trials and have strangled out a life in spite of. I am firmly convinced that we need to celebrate this, to brag about this so much more. There is nothing unhealthy in taking a few minutes to acknowledge the truth that you accomplished something which took an immense effort. Many have experienced moments when they prayed for death, or more likely for the death of someone else. You made it – survived. You are hereby given permission to crow. Brilliant.

It’s interesting, if you think about things in the same weird ways I do (god forbid), how often my in spite of has actually turned out to be my because of. Most of us have realized by now that it is exactly those experiences that we would not wish on our worst enemy which have defined and taught us. There have been situations in my life which have forced truth upon me precisely because of the misfortune, or the pain, or the lack of, or whatever. It is one of the truths of humanity that we are often defined by the hurt, not the happy. Adversity has burned in lessons about fairness and hardship and attitude that sitting by the ocean never will. I have come to the end of my rope and realized that I am still alive. You probably have as well. I had to be much broken before some lessons started to sink in. My capacity for self-delusion is epic and should be a marketable skill. At every point in my life I believed I was more self-aware than my friends. At every point I was unquestionably wrong. None of us realizes the depth of our own self-deception for a long time, often a lifetime.

Irregardless of the scars we choose to make our own lives. In spite of abuse, or neglect, even those other things that shall not be named, some people find hope. For some of you there is a freedom that only comes with completely losing your shit. You know how bad it can get, and that lesson I cannot teach you. Some wisdom is not for sale, it must be earned.

I am not sure, as I write this, that we can learn to be thankful for some of the tragedy in our journey. Most of us have a few demons that we will not learn to like, no matter how many Margaritas we consume. Some things become a part of our story, even if it isn’t a good part. What I am learning is that sometimes, eventually, a few of the nightmares lose their teeth and we can begin to see how we have become stronger… irregardless.

Other People Have It Worse

“and to keep me humble there was given to me a thorn in the flesh”   The Bible

I’m no prophet, I think we can all agree on that. I’m not even convinced that I was “given” anything, it’s just that the verse works well with where we are headed. That’s all. No one is claiming to be Tom Cruise here.

For many of us, myself included, there are one or two things that have a tendency to hold us back from having a full life. I have a buggered knee that constantly reminds me that I am not allowed to run anymore. Or do martial arts anymore. I do it anyway and I pay. Frustrating, but really only a nuisance if I keep my head around it. Many, many people have it worse, we tell ourselves.

That particular coping mechanism, “many have it worse”, is a two-edged sword, actually. It is certainly accurate, in the logistical sense of the verbiage, many indeed have it worse. Stop complaining about little things. Appreciate what you have. Do it anyways. All those cheesy statements that we all use to get things done and keep moving forward. There is value in remembering the blessings, as they are dubbed. This is a very important psychological tool.

Occasionally, those coping mechanisms which have worked for so long have, in truth, exacted their own little emotional revenge. This is one of those statements. Humility and appreciation are foundational to good mental health. The problem is, and you probably know where I am headed, this statement can also be a reminder of how pathetic I have become. Quit feeling sorry for yourself. What I tell myself is that my particular problem is petty. It is not important, really, and I need to ignore it because I am being selfish. That’s a hard pill to swallow.

It is easy to diminish our own issues. We convince ourselves that to take time away from the many people who count on us, in order to work on our own issues or grieve or pray or cry or sleep, is selfish. Self care is selfish, although we don’t say it like that. We are too busy, too stressed, too involved and around too many whiny problems to really have time or emotional energy to go for a walk in the woods. Who has energy to walk?

In psychology we call this a cognitive distortion. Many who read this blog have come across this phrase before. Learning about cognitive distortions is probably one of the most important things you can do when seeking to become a real person. We are surrounded and obsessed with our distorted ways of thinking about life. This is not an occasional detour, every one of us uses cognitive distortions literally every day. Catastrophizing, All or Nothing Thinking, Emotional Reasoning, Should Statements, Over Generalizing, Filtering, Fairness, Blaming, the list goes on. I do this stuff all the time.

Here’s another one, a more personalized one: Other people have it worse. This may, in point of fact, be technically true, but it only tells part of the story. Contemporary journalism often does this, pulling out the letter of the law but completely missing the spirit, the story, the truth. Knowing other people have worse problems doesn’t always help me emotionally manage my grief and pain. I need to come to grips with the enormity of the issue, not diminish my own mental health issues.

This stuff is important – for me – and that is not selfishness, quite the contrary. No one knows what I am going through but me. No one understands my part of the picture. No one knows how I am really handling this life, no one but me. I must realize that there is no merit in blaming my relatives, that eventually becomes a cognitive distortion and keeps me from being honest with myself. There is no value in bitterness; I am the one eventually consumed. Damning my ex to hell may feel good for a moment, but it can affect my emotional wellbeing for a lifetime. That kind of stuff affects my grandchildren, it becomes generational. While we may be obviously linked genetically to those who came before us, their attitudes and cornucopia of craziness can be passed down as well. I simply cannot allow that to happen, if I am able.

So I have learned from people smarter than me that “other people have it worse” doesn’t always help because I am not other people. I am condemned or blessed with this one life and at the end of the day I’m not really responsible for your stuff. I need to figure out how to heal my stuff and hopefully some of that will bubble over into your life, and yours to mine. The dog didn’t eat my paper and I wasn’t holding it for a friend – this is my life and it doesn’t matter if other people have it worse.

Weird, it still feels arrogant writing that. They have programmed us very deep.

Waking Up

When we talked today I didn’t say anything, but you have become amazing. I remember when we first starting hanging out. You were, quite frankly, a mess (and you knew it). You’ve come a long way, baby, even though it rarely feels like it.

I couldn’t explain this to you back then because you weren’t really awake yet. I don’t mean that in a condescending way. You were swimming in shit and emotionally distraught. Things seemed to be crashing every other day. That was then. Along the way you managed to rev down, somehow. You started thinking in ways that lead to a conversation and somewhere along the way you stopped being “messed up”. You would never admit it, but it was getting better.

Many people describe this time in their lives as waking up. People I know who have experienced this understand when they meet others who are heading in similar directions. I know of several adults who, in their 40’s, 50’s and 70’s are headed back to university, often studying the impractical humanities. Others change so drastically that they are forced to redefine the rules for life and happiness. Marriages break up. You begin to understand how counselling can really suck, but you don’t want to stop. People change careers. There are often questions about faith and death and what is beyond. Some people fall in love with learning. I find I need to write. I’m fairly confident that it is less about the way you find yourself and more about the why.

For most of us, pain helped to reframe our world. We have spoken of “the event”, that time in your life that has forced you to change the way you feel about life. Divorce can do that. Death can, obviously. Many of us define our lives as life before The Event and life since. You probably know what I am talking about. As the cheesy song says, “waking up is hard to do”.

If I have gleaned any wisdom from the pain, any insight from the hurt and the brokenness, it has still not been worth it. This isn’t Disney and I don’t get paid to blow sunshine up your backside and most of us realize, often too late to matter, that personal growth and that whole contentment thing must come at a terrible price. So few individuals seem to live in that atmosphere. Usually we kill those people.

I have written before of the famous quote that I usually butcher when I say it, “better a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.” Or something like that. That maxim is, unfortunately, complete crap. It is far better to be a satisfied pig, if the goal in life is to find a level of bliss. A much more realistic maxim comes from the bible, of all places. In Ecclesiastes 1:18 it says, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” One translation puts it this way, “The more you know, the more you hurt”.

It’s not politically correct to talk about such things in a world of pap psychology books on wholeness and the new and super-duper you. Thousands of years ago someone realized that understanding so much more does not necessarily make you life your life any better. The sheer magnitude of the pain and inequality in humanity alone can shipwreck the sensitive soul. Giving up the good life to go and live a “life that matters” sounds really great at church group but it’s a very difficult way to live your life. People who want to make a difference usually don’t end up with houses on the beach and a boat on the dock. Many have no retirement plans and will have to work until they die. Sometimes being the wisest person in the room is a very lonely ride.

I’m not trying to clean your chimney (I have no idea what that means) but being honest about the real world is a necessary and important part of learning to grow up. It may not be as comfortable a life as you had hoped, but self-awareness and knowledge and ‘meaning of life stuff’ matters. Waking up is hard to do.

I am still committed to the journey. It seems like every year or so I look back and realize how stupid I once was, how stupid I probably am right at this moment. That may be why, as I have been writing a book about psychology for real life, even for marginal people, I find it difficult to finish the ending. The story is not written yet and most of us are still (just) discovering who we are again, for the umpteenth time.

Jedi Mind Tricks

I see several people who suffer with Fibromyalgia. I used to work, for some time, at the Fibromyalgia Clinic. I have done intake for hundreds of persons with chronic pain, MS, FM, CFS, OA, TMJ, IBS and a bunch of other initials that only mean something if you happen to have that issue. I am not saying this to brag, it’s simply a matter of exposure. Chronic health problems suck. I have learned words like myofascial pain, and trigger points, and pacing. Ah, pacing.

People with Fibromyalgia are usually fairly lousy at pacing themselves. I say this with the greatest respect and am only parroting what virtually all of my FM patients are saying. The scenario goes something like this.

You had a good day. That has become a problem. Many people who find life difficult are occasionally surprised when the sun shines, figuratively speaking. People who suffer from depression, or heartache or chronic pain only get a glimmer of sunshine once in a while and it’s tempting to want to crow. I get that. It was sunny and warm in January these past few days and it’s shocking how much it affects my attitude, and I’m not really that sick. When you get a break in the clouds you probably want to gobble up that “to do” list and go for a jog and a massage. Don’t do it.

You want to do everything. Remember fun?

There is a possibility that we may be wired up for excess. A vast majority of the population would admit to struggling with impulse control issues, among other signs of ‘right here right now’. Don’t you just love the way you can tap your credit card now and the transaction is even shorter? So what if it’s less secure, the tapping feeds my ADHD. I love it.

I find it hard not to want to do everything and experience everything life has to offer. I absolutely adore short cuts and something for nothing. Most of us do, if we’re honest. Pacing is more than regulating my schedule, it has something to do with learning to self-regulate. That skill is one which does not come naturally to most of us. I have known people who seem to have that piece together but I still want a Dairy Queen Kit Kat Blizzard.

Learning to say no to that need to satiate every appetite is not something that is always satisfying to practice. Who ever wanted their goal in life to be devoid of fun? There are, however, increasing benefits to pursuing self-mastery. While you will probably never master your disaster, I have talked to many who light up as they describe how they have changed, and in very amazing ways. Learning to control this mess that is called Scott may have benefits beyond the lessening of the voices in my head.

I want to be a Jedi.

 

Racing Thoughts

The apple.

When I was in the midst of the manure, and sometimes even today, I have to get up and get an apple. It was always late at night. The demons usually visit when it gets dark. A Gala apple. So sweet it bites back.

You see, when things got bad, and they got very very bad, I could not shut my brain off. I often tease my female clients that they are cursed. I’m not talking about religion and I’m not mentioning your period, I’m talking about your big, glorious brains. I have often asked my wife, “what is it like in there?” She thinks all the time. All the time. I can’t imagine the hell that would be.

(what follows is a generalization)

In my experience, so you know this is super sciencey, women’s brains are far different from mine. While it is true I have a brain injury, I can clearly (as clear as I ever am) still remember being able to stop thinking. There, I said it. I have asked many different groups of people, men and women, a few questions that seem to indicate that most of the men in my life can literally turn to the wall and shut off for a few seconds. Imagine that, ladies. That is the reason television is the drug of choice for so many men. I am barely awake when I watch television. My wife can ask me a question (and why are you talking during the program?) and I can feel myself shake off the lethargy and reemerge into the waking world. I can stop thinking.

There I just did it again.

In counseling we talk about racing thoughts. Racing thoughts are… well you really don’t need an explanation now, do you? There were bad years when I could not shut down. I know now that my brain was acting on a more primal level than it should be as I write this article. My amygdala was pounding, my higher-end reasoning was drowned out in the waves and waves of pain. You know what I’m talking about.

In addition to size, other differences between men and women exist with regards to the amygdala. Subjects’ amygdala activation was observed when watching a horror film. The results of the study showed a different lateralization of the amygdala in men and women. Enhanced memory for the film was related to enhanced activity of the left, but not the right, amygdala in women, whereas it was related to enhanced activity of the right, but not the left, amygdala in men. One study found evidence that on average, women tend to retain stronger memories for emotional events than men. The right amygdala is also linked with taking action as well as being linked to negative emotions, which may help explain why males tend to respond to emotionally stressful stimuli physically. The left amygdala allows for the recall of details, but it also results in more thought rather than action in response to emotionally stressful stimuli, which may explain the absence of physical response in women.

Wikipedia

Even Wikipedia is hedging it’s bets…

amygdalaSome of us feel this way if we get cut off in traffic, or our spouse demeans us, or someone says something insensitive. Many of us have started down this road just by reading the news. Words like terrorism, or ISIS, or violence, are very powerful and can start your brain in a direction where all bad things tread. We emotionally react “without thinking”. Have you ever said that? I don’t know what happened, I just reacted. I did that without thinking. Amygdala. Limbic System. Throw those around at the next party you go to… nerd. (Technically my wife calls me a geek, but it’s in the same family. Any nerd would know that).

Basal Ganglia. I say it with a slight drawl on ganglia.

Contrary to the tone of this piece (it’s Monday), racing thoughts are no joke.

So I went to kitchen and grabbed an apple. It was hard to get out of bed, it’s warmy in there. I didn’t even need to pee – I like to work efficiently when the room is cold. I could lay in bed and wrestle with my thoughts forever but in that position I could not win. The physical act of getting up, of distracting myself with a sugary snack (that woke me up), pulls me methodically away from that inner battle. It takes me just over two minutes to eat an apple.

I’m not even remotely suggesting you should start eating apples in the middle of the night. You should have a Kit Kat. Counsellor’s orders.

By now you know where I am headed. There are times when I cannot remain in my head and win this battle. There are moments when we need to employ what we know, to battle what we fear. I put the apple in my cheesy toolbox, along with my chair, and my rock, my STOPP therapy, and a few other tools that occasionally work. This is not deep, but it does work.

There is no value in letting my thoughts run wild. I have heard those who believe that we should not seek to damper our emotions, that we should “feel our feelings”. While this is often good advice, it may not serve us well if we are feeling suicidal, for example. There are times when I need to shut the engine down, if for no other reason than I cannot continue to maintain this level of engagement.

There was a time when we believed that practice made perfect. We believed that we needed to “fight the good fight” and engage those thoughts, in order to develop our emotional muscles. We now understand that this is not necessarily the case. I possess only a limited number of “no’s” in my repertoire. Exposing myself to temptation does not develop resilience.

The more I say no to the cocaine, the more it takes out of me. This is not universally known. We have believed that the more I say no, the more I develop the capacity to resist. Research, unfortunately, does not support this premise. The actual truth is – the more I say no the more likely I am to say yes next time you ask. I only possess a limited storehouse of good intentions. If you are an alcoholic, being around booze does not make you stronger. In point of fact it makes you much weaker.

It serves no purpose when I let myself “go there”. There is no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, just frustration and failure. Learning to stop the freight train is a skill that doesn’t come by accident, it takes practice.

I need an apple.

Resilience

Psychological resilience is defined as an individual’s ability to properly adapt to stress and adversity. Stress and adversity can come in the shape of family or relationship problems, health problems, or workplace and financial stressors, among others.
Wikipedia

“Little by little one travels far” (Spanish saying stolen by Tolkien)

A little at a time.

Almost every day someone, somewhere, asks me the same question. When? When is this going to change? When am I going to find relief? When am I going to win at something?

Lately I have been fond of dispelling misconceptions about psychology and counselling. I have written about the desire we all have to get the “magic pill”. We are saturated by the many distortions and cheap sales jobs by internet gurus and self-help magicians promising quick fixes and miracle drugs. So many placebo remedies and sugar pills, unrealistic claims and bad science. Such bad advise, often from some really lousy professionals, highly paid but misinformed.

One of the topics that gets a great deal of airplay around here is the idea of time. Few of us begin to take a serious look at our lives thinking that this will take years or decades. There is within all of us, I’m convinced, that desire to seek out the simple and quick, even at the expense of the good and the right. I love shortcuts. I absolutely adore reaping a reward with little or no effort. It’s one of my favourite things, to be honest. Easy solutions that are fun are also greatly appreciated.

Most non-profit counselling services offer what is deemed in the industry as a “brief intervention”, usually maxing out at around 12 sessions. It is believed that cognitive-behavioural therapies will produce results in around 12 sessions or 3 months. I have seen evidence of this change literally hundreds of times and the experts are absolutely right – many of us begin to see change in about 3 months, give or take a year…

At issue is what we define as change. I have witnessed many clients and friends change in 3 months, though I would be hard-pressed to identify quantitative evidence of permanent and definitive difference. Many of us have spent years and decades getting this screwed up and we are professionals, I’ve seen our work. If you have been struggling with anxiety for forty years and some idiot with a badge tells you that he/she can fix you in 6 sessions, chances are they have a carnival ride for you to try. You have not put in the requisite time to neurologically/emotionally/psychologically and spiritually change on a fundamental level. Brief interventions only work if your issue is timely, or leads to something not so brief after all.

i-have-no-special-talents-i-am-only-passionately-curious-albert-einstein-quote-1024x682You don’t need to see a professional, necessarily, but I do recommend that you spend a significant portion of your future learning. Read or listen to audiobooks. Turn your Facebook news feed into a glorious reader – I get feeds from Ancient Origins and Brain Pickings and BBC History and Psychology Today and a dozen more, some of which are in keeping with what I do professionally, others because I want to develop my curiosity. I have unsubscribed most of the people who bore me and now it has become a treasure trove of wonder. Einstein is right, as usual.

So here’s the rub – little by little. I’m often wrong, but it seems to me that most change comes in a dream. I tend to become without fanfare or even notice. One day I realize that something has changed, inside of me. That’s it, that’s the epiphany. I was hoping for bright lights and a cheesecake but it seems that little by little, we move forward if we want to. It is the accumulation that counts, not the parade. Momentum seems to be important and momentum takes… well… momentum. I’m a poet.

So I read and I write and I learn and try to become a Jedi – science and philosophy and psychology and faith and history and any cool story on my feeder. Little by little, counsellors tell us, we begin to build something called resilience as we learn how to put our lives together and turn down the emotional volume that keeps screaming into my ears. We learn to lower our expectations, again. We learn to call bullshit on our personal cognitive distortions and the lies to which we are so passionately invested. (Yes that is a link to an article about herpes). We learn new skills, new perspectives, and new coping mechanisms. We unlearn the sick ways we have long trusted to keep us alive but unhealthy. This is not a short process and I am not there yet, though some of you may be. I am constantly resurprised by my own stupidity and immaturity. It’s embarrassing how childish I can become, if pushed.

So we press on. As we often say, unless I start getting high again I really cannot imagine a Plan B.

 

Why I am not Charlie

A perspective is something we can learn from, in spite of our differing opinions or values. By understanding different pictures of the same stories we enrich our understanding and ultimately, that brings wisdom. This is not a political forum and any attempts to hijack for stuff that isn’t interesting won’t make the cut. Neither is it a forum to discuss sexuality outside of psychological constructs (no moralizing). So, with that in mind, here’s a cool article from a smart person that stops us in our tracks and asks us some hard questions about our intentions and our intentions.

How do philosophers, sociologists, theologians and psychologists think about things like the horrific situation that unfolded this week in Paris? We can learn from a few of the smart people who do this for a living, even if we don’t agree with everything they share…

a paper bird

imagesThere is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it.  Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.

To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not…

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Timing2

Why didn’t I do this earlier?

I feel like a child who is only now beginning to understand how to think. When I was twenty I knew everything. At thirty I knew that I had been a moron when I was twenty. At forty I started to grow up. Here I am again, a kid in a candy store; cognizant of my own tiny intellect.

Why didn’t I do this earlier? Chances are, that was not possible. The stars have aligned, to steal a metaphor, at this particular time. I would like to believe that I could always understand what I now know to be self-evident. The reality is, however, that I was a bit of an idiot for most of my younger life. There were moments of clarity, but these were usually skewed by rushes of immaturity and fragile ego.

I hadn’t hurt enough yet. I hadn’t been broken.
I still believed that everything happened for a reason and that life was fair. Those were difficult coping mechanisms to bid farewell. I am learning lessons that I can only now begin to understand. So why didn’t I learn earlier? Maybe the question should be, why am I learning this now?

Welcome to the process.

I am a strong advocate of timing. There are many times in the counselling room, however, when mentioning this may get me fired. This is due to the unfortunate, though accurate, fact that many things cannot be processed until time has passed. You simply are not ready to move on yet, for example. There have been times in the counselling room when I have longed to simply say, “there really is nothing you can do about that today, you just have to endure”. It takes time to work through depression. It takes time to grieve. You can see where this is headed. As a counsellor sometimes it is my job to sit with you through this, in spite of knowing that this may take some time.

I remember the week my life fell apart. I have spoken of this before but it bears repeating. A doctor told me that it would be two years, but that I would be fine. He was wrong and a poor therapist. There are experiences that take decades to fully comprehend and deal with. The news that no one wants to hear on their first appointment here is, “this is going to take years”. That is one hell of an advertisement for counselling, “come every week and this is going to take years. And, oh ya, it’s really really going to suck and you actually have no freaking clue how bad this can get before it gets better”.

Any takers?

There are no billboard ads for this. Many of us have complex comorbidities that have taken years to perfect and which are deeply entrenched in our childhood. There has been sex or violence or slander or pain on a level that you rarely talk about. I am firmly convinced that I need to work on my mental health for the rest of my life.

You Had A Bad Day

The race is not always to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor satisfaction to the wise,
Nor riches to the smart,
Nor grace to the learned.
Sooner or later bad luck hits us all.  Ecclesiastes 9:11

You had a bad day. Chances are, you’ve had more than a few. We all have. Sometimes I just crumble under the weight of stuff and responsibility and stress and money and traffic and things my friends are going through and insomnia and the grind and more stuff. Sometimes I’m not as tough as I pretend to be on the internet.

The text message goes something like this: “Can you believe ______________ did that again? I don’t think I can take it anymore! Things are never going to change and things are not getting better (like you promised). How much longer can this go on?” I average, if I am honest, a few of those messages a day – life seems to be hard for many people.

So I tell clients to take a few deep breaths. Now might be a good time to try that. Take a step back. Mindfulness. I open my toolbox of tricks and get to work. I am learning how to understand the emotions charging through my system. I have a wisdom rock. I try to change my perspective. More breathing. I need a plan.

The best time to prepare, we all know, is before the battle, not during it. It goes without saying, almost, that I should prepare for bad days. This seems like a no-brainer, we would never take a driving test without preparing. We would not want to take a university test without studying first. Why is it, then, that so many of us keep getting ambushed by our daily lives?

Here’s Shane…

 

Exiles

This week, in a moment of personal abandon, I took myself (alone to a matinée, no less) to see “The Imitation Game” starring flavor of the year, Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s a great movie to see without your wife in case your eyes leak.

I find that I strongly identify with the metaphor of the exile. I strongly connect with the outsider who does not find redemption. There is a self-indulgent piece of my software that thinks it can understand the story of the brilliant mess. This may not be for any so obvious desire as to feel justified in one’s own dysfunction. I realize I often indulge my egoism and believe myself “different” but that isn’t the whole story here. Perhaps there is a piece in many of us that finds truth is such feelings of aloneness. Some of us have learned to play the game better than others, though we still struggle to fit in with what someone somewhere describes as “normal”.

Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine. (from The Imitation Game)

Many of us feel that we live in a world that only partly understands us; and we are not always good at understanding that world. Throughout history there have been the stories of the exiled, the loner, the stranger, the anti-hero, the classic underachiever who finally finds their way – only to be ultimately disappointed. You see this in the all-consuming rush to be unique, to define ourselves by clothing or ink or motorcycles or grooming as something beyond the ordinary. The minutia of the daily grind has only served to exacerbate this emptiness.

I am certainly not a man struggling not to be sterilized because of a lifestyle choice, misunderstood by the whole world – a world he knew he had played a major part in saving. Alan Turing experienced life on a level I could never imagine, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch as a man obviously struggling with what was until recently regarded as Aspergers. There is no solid evidence to support such a diagnosis but it made for an intriguing tale of a misfit who saved the world. Turing is usually described as a genius and arguably one of the most influential men that most people had not heard about until this week.

The work of Bletchley Park is the stuff of legend among most of the history geeks I hang around with. The operation involved thousands of individuals at it’s zenith, and they are credited with saving perhaps as many as fourteen million souls, perhaps more. Turing went on to be convicted of being a homosexual and chemically castrated. He poisoned himself, a lonely and broken man for whom the world was an unwelcoming whore. The hero who chose the right over the easy and was punished for it in the end. A powerful narrative, timeless.

This offends our sense of fairness, once again. We speak of this often around here but it continues to haunt my life. Turing should have had his Hollywood ending, clicked his ruby slippers, and been honored as the amazing juggernaut that he was. Such was, indeed, not to be the case. There are many times when doing the right thing only adds misery to our lives, in spite of the fairytale endings that others get, but we never do. Sometimes the rich get richer and bad things do happen to good people and no one ever stops by to apologize. Bad people do not always, or even usually, get their “just desserts”. It is one thing to accept this intellectually, it is another thing altogether to accept this on an emotional level.

Bitterness. That is the reward for those of us who cannot learn to cope with this unpleasant reality. Exiles often wonder when it will be their turn. Sometimes that turn does not come in ways we think are fair.

It is a sad movie, and becomes even sadder when you get to the parking lot and google Alan Turing. I knew the outcome going in, though still managed to feel bad for this eccentric and misunderstood man. Walking to the car we want to believe that somehow, and in some way, people like Turing get what they deserve. Not in this life.

Learning to let go of that expectation for my life has been difficult. We desperately want to believe that people will eventually understand our particular mad genius. Alan Turing is testimony to the fact that for many of us, there is no rainbow and ticket home from Oz. Your mother may appreciate your uniqueness, but chances are that society cares very little what your mother thinks. It’s one thing to know you are unique. It’s another thing altogether for the world to stand up and notice. That sucks.

I don’t want to end on a low note. In counselling we learn that the trip towards wisdom has a little tiny bit to do with, as the 12 Step people say, learning to live “life on life’s terms”. That is mindfulness. That is psychology and philosophy and faith. As I endeavour to embrace the waves of stress and disappointment and then allow them to pass through me, I am learning to lower my expectations of life and those around me. This is, because of my limited understanding, always going to be a “here but not yet” experience. Most revelations are, in my experience.

I am an exile, and chance are you are as well. We are all alone, misunderstood, and insecure. The sooner I accept who I really am, not just who I wish I was, the faster I will move forward. I have to believe that.

One final thought. There is a piece of my ego that is tied up with the idea of being an exile. Many who have been told they were less, or different, or ugly or slow or whatever sick tag you want to wear. Sometimes we learn to cope by embracing that wound and wearing it like a badge of honour. There is some value in that, I’m not here to deny it’s efficacy. I have also learned, however, that it is easy to turn that label into a point of pride. It’s hard to let go of something that defines us. There are those who have allowed that brokenness to define them. To keep them broken.

Growth is about forward momentum, not momentary successes. Allowing myself to change my expectations of those weird normies around me is a step. So is accepting the fact that I’m a bit of a weirdo, too. But that’s another story.

 

The Price of Ignorance

In the fifties and sixties Dr. Benjamin Spock changed the way parents thought about their kids. He believed that children had rights, were individuals, and as such deserved to be treated with respect. Growing up I heard him described in varying terms, usually something along the vein of “pinko” or “hippy”. He is perhaps best known as the man who changed parenting styles and worked with the liberal-left seeking political and familial reform. He was considered an icon for parenting and permissiveness and he may just have caused the death of tens of thousands of babies.

Spock, with relatively no scientific data to support his seemingly offhanded comments, advised parents to place their babies on their stomachs for sleep. Here’s the Wikipedia:

Spock advocated that infants should not be placed on their back when sleeping, commenting in his 1958 edition that “if [an infant] vomits, he’s more likely to choke on the vomitus.” This advice was extremely influential on health-care providers, with nearly unanimous support through to the 1990s. Later empirical studies, however, found that there is a significantly increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) associated with infants sleeping on their abdomens. Advocates of evidence-based medicine have used this as an example of the importance of basing health-care recommendations on statistical evidence, with one researcher estimating that as many as 50,000 infant deaths in Europe, Australia, and the US could have been prevented had this advice been altered by 1970, when such evidence became available.

At the time, no one understood what the effects of placing children on their stomachs would be. Spock was not qualified to give this advice and shows us, yet again, the price of ignorance.

You will probably never see a movie about the great scientist, Thomas Midgley, unless he is the bad guy. In the 1920’s Midgley orchestrated the further introduction of chlorofluorocarbons for business application. Midgely’s work would eventually contribute to the destruction of the Ozone Layer. His work to introduce leaded gasoline would poison thousands, and further destroy the environment. It had all seemed like such a good idea at the time. He was, after all, a brilliant and dedicated scientist. He is remembered as a man who “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.” And not in a good way.

You may never destroy the North Pole or the Ozone Layer, but chances are that our ignorance plays an significant role in our dysfunction. We employ things called “coping mechanisms” (I know you know this) and cognitive distortions to deal with the stress and trauma that has been meted out in our direction. We have childish and often highly erroneous ways of thinking about ourself and others, which keeps us in emotional bondage. We are convinced that we know how things really are, in spite of sometimes overwhelming evidence. Going to counselling is basically an exercise in addressing and dealing with my screwed up ways of thinking and doing life. Anyone who believes that they know exactly what is wrong with them and how to fix it has probably never been in my office.

There is a price for ignorance. Our inability to become like water and embrace mindfulness and resilience is a major source of our dysfunction. It takes time to, in the words of Immanuel Kant, understand the difference between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds we all live in. We catastrophize and listen to the screaming noise of our Amygdala. We come from a long line of weirdos (nature) and have learned a very specific and messed-up set of life skills (nurture). People hurt us and break our heart. We are moulded by our experiences and have learned to do life in distorted and misguided ways. Well at least I have.

By now you can probably understand what the article is driving towards. We cannot change our past, and most people are not willing to do the incredible amount of hard work that is required to move forward. Wholeness, whatever that means, requires learning and pain. Self-destruction is free and you can reach your goals from your Xbox.

Learning is not optional. Many of us have heard of the 10,000 Hour Principle. The 10,000 hours idea basically states that it takes approximately this long in order to master anything. Many of the greatest painters, greatest composers, whom we have always believed to be “gifted”; may have been so, but most of their best stuff still took years to produce.

I will never spend 10,000 hours in the gym. You might. I no longer seek physical mastery. I seek spiritual, emotional, psychological wisdom. That is my journey, though I still need to keep training. So, with this in mind, I endeavor to read (mostly listen to, but I get to count that because that’s a rule I made up) at least 1–books a year. You will never see me without ear buds on, outside the gym. Friends often tease me about that very thing. I dare you to test that theory. I am not saying this to brag, I just know the math. This concept is, obviously, not infallible and prone to caricature.

If I want to be a spiritual master, according to this principle I need 10,000 hours of practice. If I want to be a psychological master, same arithmetic. This gives me a goal to strive towards, and I need that. This is why I read, or at least fake read. This is why we study or go back to university in our forties and fifties. This is why people keep going to counselling, long after they are finished with their crisis. This is why people study philosophy, and faith, astronomy and quantum physics. Like you, I seek wisdom.