One Bite At A Time

How do you swallow an elephant? One bite at a time.
Old Fable

This week I spoke with one of you about eating elephants. It seems more and more apparent, at least in my small part of the village, that at some point in any journey worth taking you are going to feel overwhelmed. The 20th Century has redefined the art of being busy. Remember when you thought you had no time in the 20th Century? Amateurs. The onset of the biggest culture shift since the Reformation is redefining who you are and what pounds into your head, 14 or 16 hours a day. The noise, noise, noise; the Grinch was right. Text messaging and Facebook and your constant web companions are literally rewiring you on a neurological level, and few of us have wondered to what degree the virtual world could transform world culture and what effect that will have on your brain and your psyche and your family in generations to come. I told someone today that the single worst mistake I made in my parenting was buying my youngest an Xbox. He used to play outside. He owns a bike. A good snowboarder. Too bad so many of our kids would prefer to stay at home and molt into the furniture if we let them.

Last week my son, my dad, and I took an eco-tour via sailboat to the Marietas Islands  Bird Sanctuary with Pegaso Charters, the coolest dudes you will ever meet. We spent an entire day on a classic sailboat and it was absolute nirvana. It will change your life. Eight-and-a-half hours of warm ocean swells, weird and cool facts about the local ecosystem, snorkeling and lounging at a private park beach; way out in the ocean. I wanted to go again the next day. I love to sail. For six hours I stood, back against the thinnest of insulated cables, dancing with the ocean. At first it is difficult to find your sea legs, though this passes quickly. For a time you hold on to the cabling and feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme. Later you begin to let go and move with the music.

Two people spent much of the day texting. What is happening to us?

Sailing is a very holy experience for me. Years ago my friend Julie had a sailboat in her family and we got to steer the 34 footer across the Vancouver Bay area. This was different. We were headed somewhere, a point in the horizon aboard a vessel with dimensions similar to Ragnar’s and Leif’s Viking galleys, 500 years before Columbus hired a better publicist. It is almost immediately apparent, aboard that beautiful sailboat, how sailors and fisherpersons and Vikings wrote about becoming one with the ocean. My daughter-in-laws family is filled with tugboat captains, they know what I mean. Swaying with the ocean for hours at a time is a deeply religious experience if you choose to pay attention. My geek friends know what I am talking about. Thinking about philosophy or being one with the great vastness of the ocean is very zen when you are catching the wind in those lily-white sails.

But I digress.

Life is very complicated if you look at it, all at once. If you are negotiating a tough present or future, if you struggle to feel like you give a damn, if you wonder if you will die alone, this world  can sometimes be too much to bear. Remember when we were talking about how overwhelming you life was? The only way to deal with that noise is to begin at the beginning. Days aboard sailboats are few and far between, and it is very easy to fall out of sync with the ocean. Problems seem enormous when we are tired out and fond of losing, when we feel like losers or when the situation is going on and on and on and there is no relief in sight.

One bite at a time. Parents ask me everyday how they can get through to that child who is lost, or consistently high, or struggling with body issues, or depression, or anxiety. When your baby is doing cocaine you want an action plan. It’s tempting to storm into that room and put that kid on an episode of Intervention, but that isn’t the real world and it isn’t going to work unless your kid is Amish. It’s time to listen to your counselor.

You need to sleep and eat something made of fruit. This may not be sexy but when lives fall apart people lose 24 pounds and go bat-crap crazy. I remember nights of absolute insanity, like really made-for-tv weird kind of stuff. You are going to be no good to anyone if you are freaking crazy. I know you need to tell me the story, one more time, again and again. I get that you want the world to change in one day and your spouse to know you have really really changed for good, but I’m not the one who is barking at the moon. Becoming a Jedi is about consistency, not climaxes. People who figure themselves out have spent thousands of hours living the program, one day at a time, one argument or heartache or anxious experience at a time. Everyone wants a golden ticket but complex psychological change takes years.

Start by taking better care of yourself. You are definitely worth it. Learn the tools you will need to cope with your spinning thoughts. Practice what you preach. Watch Midnight in Paris or The Razor’s Edge (1984) or the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I know it’s cheesy but that’s kind of the point. If what you are doing is not taking you there, than all a guy like me can tell you is to switch game plans. You have been programmed by our chemistry and our family and those stupid 80’s sitcoms like Three’s Company. Literally the entire planet is trying to convince you of something, and chances are your childhood didn’t prepare you for the crushing relentlessness of real life. If the horse is dead get off of it, don’t try to ride faster, or however that cliché goes. Counselor types constantly harp on self-care for a reason, and that reason is usually that  you aren’t doing it enough.

Most of us experience times when we really have no idea what to do. You cannot force that kid to stop smoking weed but you may be able to get them to talk to someone about their anxiety or why they need to self-medicate their crappy lives. A decent counselor can provide you with a few dozen strategies that you will inherently already know, but cannot think of, when your life is screaming in your ear. The journey to wholeness is a series of little life hacks and the discipline to keep working on this crap long after it stops being fun. STOPP Therapy and Neil Gaiman horror poems and obscure foreign movies. Dozens and dozens of cheesy tools that sound like they were created by a seven-year-old. Thousands of conversations and failed attempts and tiny victories.

A Letter To A Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness Exercises: And Now For Your Virtual Vacation

My good friend Lori is a great writer and has started taking virtual vacations. This is a great mindfulness exercise for anyone who needs a break from the rain or the snow or the office. Ever wanted to go to England but don’t have the time or money? Just sit back and let Lori be your tour guide.

For years I have introduced clients to Neil Gaiman’s five-minute and twenty-three second walk through fantasy land called, “Instructions”. A Buddhist may encourage you to listen to a rock grow. Some people go tanning. Many of us have a go-to song for when we are feeling low or pouty. I’ve recently reconnected with my 12-year-old self who likes doing “Dot To Dots”. Some of us go fishing or take a nap or watch that channel with video cameras at places on the planet where people are having way more fun than you are right now. The vehicle doesn’t really matter, it’s the journey and the destination which counts. Continue reading “Mindfulness Exercises: And Now For Your Virtual Vacation”

I’m Sorry I’ve Been Absent So Here’s A Rant

One of my best friends, intelligent and knowledgeable when it comes to psychological stuff, went to the doctor today. Something serious happened in her family and this has obviously affected her in very real ways. We have talked about her life for years. All I asked was for the doctor to prescribe something for anxiety. She has a history of anxiety. I know her extremely well, we’ve known each other close to 20 years. We talk literally every day. Just give her the damn meds. Continue reading “I’m Sorry I’ve Been Absent So Here’s A Rant”

Empty Space

My wife and I had an argument. It took me some time to realize that I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. I know I’m a man and that is typically how we define normal, but his was different. I mean, I understood the words, even in proper order, but I couldn’t understand why she was so into this thing. Looking back, Scott was incredibly confused but didn’t know it because, work with me here, I was confused. Continue reading “Empty Space”

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

How Do I Let Go?

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

 

Sometime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know, it’s a sweet gig.

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

ADHD And The Power Of Being An Outsider

Weird fact. Many many people I know who are ADHD and ADD get “hyper” after they take Melatonin. Some can drink coffee and then nap. I have noticed a trend lately, in the stories I hear; and I find this mildly interesting. I guess I could look deeper into this but… squirrel!

In my ‘D&A’ world (drug and alcohol) I have known several hyper people who like ‘down’ as opposed to ‘up’. Heroin is a down. Chill. Cocaine is not a down. You can solve all the world’s problems in twenty minutes when you are high on coke but the next morning your careful notes may not make sense (true story). Some of us like both. Some of us are just stoners. There is a feeling that comes with that revving down of the motor. Some people self-medicate so that they can be like the rest of us are all the time.

I have no research to support this but, when I think about my love for storytelling, it makes for an interesting tale. Some of us have self-diagnosed ourselves with ADHD long before anyone suggested tests. Some of us were wrong.

But here’s the interesting thing. Some of us were right. In a world of slowed cameras and boring lineups we knew we didn’t fit in. And a few of those who knew they were different lacked something call practical intelligence.

Practical intelligence is not the same as intellectual intelligence. Many of us are intellectually bright but still have difficulty fitting in. Practical intelligence is not the same as emotional intelligence, either. Ask any twenty year old female who chooses to date a twenty year old male and they can tell you about emotional intelligence, even if they don’t know the technical verbiage. Emotional maturity is the capacity for wisdom, the understanding of the emotional context in life. People who are emotionally intelligent are often described as “discerning” or “intuitive”. You know who you are. As I have written elsewhere, often girls develop emotional maturity faster than boys, especially heterosexual boys, for a variety of reasons. Chief among them are the way that boys and girls learn to communicate, and the importance of feelings. Younger generations of men understand this better than the yuppies, but we are still a fair ways behind.

Practical intelligence is something much different. It is the capacity to understand how the culture operates and then operate effectively within that culture. We call it “playing well with others”. Several people I know who feel they are ADHD admit to struggling with the confines and rules of the passive majority. They don’t always understand why the passive-aggressive people with “middle of the bubble” personalities who know how to sound boring seem to go further than we think they should. Some of my clients complain that they shouldn’t have to try to fit in, that society is “dumb” or “complacent” or just plain bullshit. It’s not that they can’t fit in, it’s that they won’t. It’s not that they won’t fit in, it’s that they can’t.

Some of you know of what I am speaking. You may have difficulty playing well with others. Popularity may have escaped you, in spite of relatively good looks or even a stunning charm. Some are prone to say whatever they feel, ofttimes disregarding the feelings of others. Maybe they have greater difficulty with impulse control, or addictions, or just “being nice”. They don’t suffer fools. I don’t know if this is really a “thing” but I have heard the stories. Many, many, stories. The sheer volume of the story has impressed itself upon my subconscious. I seem to hear this tale over and over again, year in and year out. It may not be a “thing” but it’s a “thing” around here.

I say this with a level of confidence because I too have struggled with practical intelligence. I was listening to a book some time ago and the author mentioned this issue in a new way. I have known of this concept for decades but did not apply it to my own story. I have a certain lack of practical intelligence. That is difficult to write because, by the main, I like to consider myself fairly intelligent and intuitive. I have know for years that I have difficulty being “normal” or whatever vanilla word works. I know several of you are probably lining up to question my definition of normal, but you know what I mean.

A few among us have never been able to fully integrate into the dominant culture and they occasionally come from tragedy or poverty or a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

My own story is familiar. My father was an orphan. My grandparents were alcoholics. My family was exposed to addiction. We did not come from wealth or security or education. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school and I am a middle child of two parents. I am not endeavouring to become even more self-absorbed, none of this is my story – it’s only my history.

I grew up in a safe place, everything else was gravy.

My ancestors were not privileged, and had to fight to steal a piece of the Canadian Dream. My father was opening, and often running, a local gas station by the time he was 14. After joining the military he would often borrow a military “flip” back to Toronto from the prairies (think almost half of the second largest country on the planet) in order to open the garage and work the weekend. Who would fly thousands of miles to work for minimum wage? My ancestors were tough, and they were poor. They were not promised the untold wealth of even the middle-class. They were not like me, they had to earn it. They knew how to drink and they knew how to fight but they could never figure out how to work the system. Practical intelligence.

I grew up with cable television. We were the first people on our block to watch Love Boat. I have never known poverty because my father made sure that I grew up in a world where he held three jobs so that I could have one, and an educated one. No one told me about college because it had never been a part of the equation. I stumbled-in by accident. My parents sacrificed so that I would qualify for student loans and never understand what it was like to go hungry. Some of those lessons leaked into my life.

There are times when we are shaped by our world more than by our biology. Ancestors who could not flourish have traumatized value systems and coping mechanisms. Certain social graces were not learned. They have not “flourished” yet. They never grew up understanding wealth or education or leisure. Generations of oppression teaches lessons that can become of a part of your fabric. Poverty and injustice leave scars. I’m not suggesting my ancestors experienced anything akin to what our African-American brothers and sisters have endured. I’m simply saying that many of us were not the Real Housewives Of Vancouver. But this is not my story, only my history. The moral of the story is that many of us were peasants. We came from hard stock that was not in touch with their feelings. Our ancestors served in wars as cannon fodder, never calling the shots but usually storming hills. Cutlas fodder. Roman fodder. You may believe that you were a concubine to Caesar in a past life, but chances are you were probably digging ditches.

Just ask the African-American in Mississippi or the openly gay man in Steinback, Manitoba. Ask the sons and grandsons of those who fled the potato famine in Britain or came to this country on a boat from the Far East. For some, the new worlds only promised empty stomachs and unrealized dreams. For them, the colonies did not turn out to be the land of milk and honey, just more minimum wage jobs.

Some of us figured it out better than others. Someone has to stop the cycle. My dad and mom decided it would be them.

Certain heritages are closer to the earth are still working out the kinks. Among this demographic you often find the one who will not share his toys. Or maybe, just maybe, he knows how to run a service station.

Perhaps he has ADHD.

More On Invasive Thoughts

Great article from Psychology Today on invasive thoughts. Here’s a taste:

  • Your job review is scheduled in two days and, in passing, your boss says, “Well, we’ll certainly have a lot to talk about.” You try to put what he said out of your mind—what did he mean by that?—but it keeps coming back, and now you’re a nervous wreck.
  • You’re sitting in the airport, ready to board, and thoughts of every plane crash you’ve ever read about keep barging into your head. You try to shake them off, reminding yourself that plane travel is safer than driving a car, but it doesn’t work.
  • You’re going to the doctor next week to have that mark on your thigh looked at and you think it’s probably nothing, but worst-case scenarios float into your head 24/7 and distracting yourself doesn’t work. Why is that?

The answer is what Daniel Wegner calls “the ironic monitoring process”—your brain actually searches for whatever thought or emotion the individual is trying to suppress. Yes, your brain is actually nagging you…

Passing On What We Didn’t Learn

My father was an orphan. He grew up with a brother, little supervision, and almost no “life lessons” from a parental figure. His relatives were racist, religious bigots.

My mother is one of three girls. She came from a long line of alcohol and cigarettes, empties and ignorance.

Neither one of my parents really inherited much of worth from their forebearers . My grandmother, by her own admission, hated me. Eventually, as the years progressed, she learned to hate others as well. By most accounts she was a nasty piece of work. My grandfather drank beer for breakfast and filled his work thermos with scotch, in order to cope. He was, according to legend, a very bright man. Very sad. He taught me how many cases of Canadian beer fit in the back of a Buick. Marketable skills…

Parenting is a ridiculous proposition, when it comes down to it. Take a person or two, give them limited skills, make them young and inexperienced. Toss in a boot-full of low-income and sleepless nights and worry. As the kids grow older offer them few real tools and then take their kids and throw them into the meat grinder called “school”. Enter drugs. Enter peer pressure and poor self-esteem and pimples and loss. Welcome to the real world.

Recently, a good friend from a difficult background told me that he felt it was his job to “pass on what he wasn’t given”. He was attempting to raise children with values and ethics to which he had never been exposed. Like my own parents, he was trying to pass on lessons he had never learned. It was time to break the cycle of abuse and dysfunction.

Many of us can relate to the story of my parents. We were also not given the right tools and mentors. We watched while parents punched and swore, or had relatives who were abusive or neglectful, ignorant or narrow-minded. No one taught us how to grow up, much less help a child do the same. We never learned how to think in high school. School also never prepared us for real world finances, or communicating with our partner, or how to deal with stress, depression, or the grinding monotony of life. There was nothing on addiction, or the meaning of life, or how to develop impulse control. But hey, thanks for the calculus skills that I use practically every day in the real world…

Most of the stuff we talk about in counselling I never learned in a school setting. There have not been many lights for parents whose children are defiant, or mixed up, or broken. Sure there have been many books written, but somehow reading yet another book by a successful author doesn’t help as much as the book jacket promised. No one else is there when your child tells you to “go to hell” or comes home with a broken heart. If we are honest, most of us will admit that we don’t even have it yet worked out. How can we teach what we never learned?

There was a time in my life when I thought counselling was stupid. Weak people went to see a shrink, people who couldn’t handle the real world. I was an idiot. Parenting… living… in the 21st Century is insanely complex and confusing. The world is going through a historical “swerve” and even in our lifetimes things have changed so much some of us still think a moustache is cool. Methodologies that have worked for centuries are no longer relevant. Many of our hand-holds are being stripped away.

Take, by way of example, the challenges that the modern man goes through. Even while writing that sentence my hands started to automatically backpaddle and include the ladies. I have been conditioned by society to demean the average male for a myriad of reasons. When I was young we were supposed to be The Terminator. We would have kicked the crap out of Legolas, or those vampires that sparkle. Real men didn’t eat quiche. Manicures… well don’t even get me started. Men who were not “macho” enough were ridiculed. My friends who are gay report that they never even considered “coming out” for fear of actual physical violence. Verbal and emotional abuse was assumed. Just when we figured out the strong, silent type we were told we had to be sensitive. Sensitive? Some people do not understand what a profound mental shift that was for many men. Now give that guy a boy of his own to raise and sit back and watch the fun.

I no longer think counselling is stupid. Few of us are adequately prepared to face the complex situational and emotional dynamics of our present realities. And sometimes… it’s just helpful to have someone look at you across the room and confirm that you aren’t crazy. Every day I try to help patients look at life a little more realistically. They, in turn, teach me profound lessons about myself. Life is hard enough with help. Going it alone cannot be good. I am simply too ignorant of too much to assume I can adequately cope with this complicated thing called “reality”.

Keep going. Keep learning. Someone once said that change comes when we “hurt enough we have to, or learn enough we want to”. Personally, I prefer the second option. I’ve learned enough in pain. I’m tired of figuring everything out the hard way. The next lessons can come from wise sages and wounded prophets, life champions and scarred doyens. It is for this reason, as well as the sheer pleasure of it, that I strap on the headphones and listen to audiobooks day after day after day. Some of my friends actually read real books. Ten of my clients and friends have decided to go back to college, some in their forties and fifties. As I write these words I am laying in bed with my Macbook, one foot on my Nook and several good books in the night table. I am building my new library across the hall. I am not saying this to brag. As I have often pointed out in this website, there is just so much I have yet to learn.

I have to be honest with you, it’s much easier to grow if you read. Or fake read, like I often do. The more I learn the faster I grow. Some of us need to be creative because reading does not come naturally to us. You can start by changing the kinds of television programs you watch. Google your own mental health issues and include phrases like “cbt for anxiety” or depression, or a passive-aggressive spouse, or impulse control, or whatever. It’s like the old Canadian Participaction commercial, “Don’t just think about it, do it, do it, do it”. “Like” Psychology Today’s Facebook page and get their daily article feed. Go to other feeds as well. I personally use Facebook more as of a daily reader than a tool to find out whether or not my fake friends are at Walmart. Learners get better faster – that’s just the way it works. I am coming to believe that there are few shortcuts, only lessons I can choose to learn.

Pass on what you weren’t taught… because you taught yourself. No one is going to do this for me.

Here’s To You

It happened last night. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it takes my breath away. Those invasive thoughts.

Lying in bed they rolled over me like a wave. One thought led to another and then I was consumed. I couldn’t stop myself from “going there”, couldn’t keep the steaming pile of shit from pouring in and taking down. It went on forever.

At the end of it, and literally the end, I got out of bed and went into the kitchen. Then it was over. Moving, changing, going into the light was enough to break that pattern of thoughts, thank God. It doesn’t always work but last night it did, and I’m thankful.

It only happens to me a few times a year. I have clients and friends who deal with this rush of hell every day. I cannot imagine the strength it would take to get up each day and do it all over again. I’m not that strong. Some of these people are. They have learned to cope. You know who you are and my hat is off to you. I’m humbled by your courage.

The tools work. They’ve been tested by fire and I can tell you first hand that there are people who are more familiar with some of the toolbox and are having a measure of success. I have seen some of my clients and friends come through things that I could have never survived. In this office I have learned that I simply cannot stay in that emotional hell or it is going to take me out. Wise sages have written words that have helped me, and probably you as well. I’ve listened to victims and I’ve listened to survivors, and I learn from the survivors. Just the way it is.

So on that ‘night of nights’, and in times when I deal with other, less intense, dysfunctions; I continue to work the program. The Wisdom Rock, the brain massage, recognizing cognitive distortions, practicing STOPP Therapy, WWSD, faith, mindfulness, taking my argument breaks to breathe and breathe and breathe until I calm down. My mantras, the crap detector, the stuff I learned from Family Systems Therapy and motivational interviewing, the self-talk, the distraction techniques, dozens and dozens of cheesy tricks that keep me from losing my mind. Like most of us I forget more than I remember, often not recognizing the danger signs until finally the wisdom of retrospect magically kicks in.

I don’t really have a “Plan B” that doesn’t involve self-medication.