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.

Timing

There is a great deal of philosophy in psychology. I don’t profess to be an expert at either but it feels like I am finally starting to wake up. I have come to believe that some changes are about timing, about distance, about learning. I watch clients go through this process all the time; and hopefully some of this yummy goodness has rubbed off on me along the way. I don’t do this job for the money, just ask my wife.

I get paid to be a full-time student of life. I can research to my heart’s content, as long as some of my paperwork is done. I watch the drama, the comedies and the tragedies, unfold before my eyes. Some of you know what I am talking about. I absolutely love my job. Back to our story. I have been learning recently about the events in our lives that change us. Books have been written about what I call “the event”. I have an article 80% done by that very name; I just can’t seem to end the story. Now it will probably end up being called “The Event (Redux)”. Briefly put, there are some events which are so catastrophic in their ramifications that they rip the fabric of our lives forever. These “events” have a permanent effect on our lives, our hearts, and our attitudes. They are game-changers. More later.

Our part of the story has to do with timing. As someone says somewhere, “timing is everything”. I was speaking with a friend lately about this very thing. We talked about our “events” and the ways in which life has turned out differently then we imagined. Not everyone has one, I’m sure. This isn’t something you would need to feel regret over. It’s not like a tattoo of your 14-year-old girlfriend. Some people’s lives probably go by quite swimmingly, I simply do not know too many of these. I think I know a few. This is a good thing. “Events” are rarely, in my experience, good things. I know a few people who know a few people who won the lottery, but I never will. I guess that could be a game-changer I would like to embrace. Won’t happen in the real world though.

I’ve written about this briefly in the past. I don’t want to talk about ‘the event’ right now. I want to talk about another ‘mini-event’. One day things started to change. It took years and rivers of tears and pain and pain and pain. We aren’t fooling around here. People who know what it feels like to be clinically insane. People who actually believed suicide was the best option. Lives that have been broken. You know, the big stuff. Let’s move on. Things began to change. Since that time I have come to understand that the journey back into some light was more about accumulation than about one-time events. The road back was way, way longer for most of us than we believed we could bear. It seems impossible not to be profoundly affected by the knockout punches. I often hear people say, “There are lessons I’ve learned in this process that I would never have learned otherwise. Still, it wasn’t worth it.” That seems like a reasonable assessment to me.

I have known many people who have chosen to define their lives in terms of ‘the event’. This is not the time for speaking about the potential for dysfunction here, let’s look at this from a different lens. There are those people who see these events as such deal-breakers that a very real part of them died or was altered on that day. Life is before the incident (BI) and after the incident (AI). There would be a me that thought his life was one thing (BI), only to find out it became something altogether different (AI). If you don’t think people can change… you’ll see (AI). Don’t get me wrong, not all people change for the better. These things scar you, is all (AI).

As Santayana reminds us, don’t forget the things you learned there. It may not have been worth it, but that doesn’t mean it cannot transform your life. Busy people forget to read psychology, or counseling stuff, or philosophy. We get so profoundly caught up in our crazy lives that we tend to repeat cycles without learning anything of profundity while we were in the Freak Show. Some of us remember promises that we made ourselves when we were broken; promises we made to God or our spouse or our future. I get paid to remind you of that crap. I personally recommend to my clients that they take a few months every year, for the rest of their lives, and come back for a visit for a month or three. I may get paid to research, but most of us don’t. I mean that in the most empathetic terms I can conjure. Life is nuts here too. I talk about this stuff every day and I forget. A few months a year to keep things on track cannot be a bad idea. Just think about it.

I want to dedicate this article to a bunch of you I work with who inspire me not to give up. Your capacity to triumph in suffering humbles me. I have no idea if I could endure what you are going through, I only know my story. Timing is everything. One day you’ll walk in the room and I, or someone like me, will look at you and ask if anything has changed. You look marginally better. There will probably not be any “ah ha!” moment wherein you suddenly realize your problem and phone Joel Osteen. I truly hope there is, but I never had one. Somehow, in spite of the agony, you were able to build just enough momentum, get the right meds, start eating differently and get off the couch. And it really sucks, but I couldn’t fake myself healthy.

I told someone this week, “This may not be bullet-proof but it seems like, for many people, you just have to ride that ‘wave from hell’ for a while before it starts to cool down”. I could be wrong, I often am, but shooting from the hip I would say that I have not been able to do much for many of my clients for a seriously long time… at first. Either I’m really bad at this or something is trending. Maybe a little of both. In my little office I could feel heart-broken if I thought too often about how long it really takes for qualitative and quantitative change to happen in a life. We don’t talk to clients about this very much but sometimes my job is more about the process than the results on a weekly basis. A few of you have spent years in counseling and groups before there was significant change, and then it wasn’t all good change either. Sometimes I feel like an emotional air freshener until some of the intensity wears down. There goes my buzz…

I have some friends I’d like to introduce some day, even though they are all so very shy. They are mostly women, with a few males scattered in the mix, who could tell you their story. A few have done so already on this site. They make my job super cool. I first met some of them many years ago and they are warriors, every one of these crazy, courageous people. Some have significant mental health issues, huge personal stuff, and usually a lot of grief somewhere. There were so many issues we basically threw darts and waded in. You think I helped you, but you did 99% of the work and I had a great time hanging out with you and getting paid. These friends are the reason I can write so confidently – I watch people who overcame insurmountable odds and refused to quit and somehow, after a very long time, there was a bit of hope. And let me tell you, in the beginning – they would be the last people in the world to tell you they could do have survived and moved on… I might have just had an “ah ha” moment.

You rock.
I have a very cool job.

check out this related article – The Speedo

WWSD

This is what works for me.

The longer I do this the more I am coming to understand how utterly subjective, downright lacking in perspective, I become when I am offended, hurt, or angry. It is finally dawning on my psyche that I can be quite immature or wounded or driven by impulse… sometimes. If I am having a dispute with my good wife and I hear something the wrong (or occasionally right) way, I can become very hurt. In these occasions, by way of example, it is almost impossible for me to think clearly and objectively, free from unhealthy emotion. Or at least it was.

This doesn’t always work and may not work for you. I try to start with a disclaimer so you’ll be nicer to me if the idea is stupid.

I have come to realize that I actually two people. By day I am mild-mannered counselor guy, able to remain unfettered and relatively objective and serene. People tell me the wildest stuff and Counselor Scott is fine with all of it. It’s my job.

Something interesting happens on my drive home, however. By the time I’m there I’m Normal Scott, who can be hurt and angered and pushed. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe I turn into a raging psycho. I am happy to report that I have an awesome home-life, most of the time. It hasn’t always been that way, but generally things are good. I simply realize that I’m much more emotionally invested in that life and the amazing people who make that life worth living. I pay bills in that life. I manage (with an enormous amount of help) a home and all the day-to-day crap that comes with not making quite enough money to really live like the selfish world-travelling pig I secretly long to be. I have a partner who walks that road with me, and she’s a woman. Yup I said it. I’m not disparaging women at all and I defy to you prove it based on this blog, but she’s still not a guy. I happen to be a guy. We make sense to us. Ninety-percent or better of my clients may be women but I’m still a dumb dude at heart who would rather watch Sons of Anarchy than talk about my feelings. I like liquorice a lot too, though I have no idea why that is relevant. I really do. And Creme Brule. Still not relevant.

Here’s what works for me… sometimes. I have begun changing the way I process my personal woundedness and frustration. It doesn’t work all the time, and frankly seems inane on occasion, but I am finding that it does offer a measure of help, every now and then. I ask myself how the “work me”, Counselor Scott, would respond to this situation. I have taught this to a few clients and though it’s a little creepy asking yourself what Scott would think but whatever works, right?

Counselor Scott doesn’t get “wounded”. He is psychoanalyzing your situation. He doesn’t take things personally, most of the time. His default is acceptance, psychology, and understanding. That person is not Normal Scott. Normal Scott is, well, normal. If, however, I can somehow make that mindfulness switch, right in the middle of a problem, the results are often much more functional and positive. The secret is to let Counselor Scott react instead of Normal Scott. What would that Scott do? Quite a trick. You might want to use another name, even your own if that is helpful. Don’t want to creep your life, after all.

That’s one of the many cheesy things I teach clients. In counseling we do this as a mindfulness exercise in an attempt to get “outside my own head” and analyze a situation without all the emotional baggage.

Try it sometime; who knows?

 

 

71% (Or… Beating the Mental Health Odds)

In my ongoing quest to possess the world’s largest private collection of audiobooks, I am reading/listening to an amazing book called Rock Breaks Scissors.

The book is a meandering collection of scientific beauties that most of us have never heard about. How to use science to win the lottery, or at cards, or when betting on tennis, football, baseball, and especially soccer. This book is part of a genre of popular science books written to beguile the amateur. I read as many as I can get my hands on. I have names if you want in.

So let’s learn something new about soccer.

In this little known study scientists studied soccer penalty kicks between the years 1994 and 2010 during the FIFA World Cup. What they found was incredible. Scientists have studied professional soccer goalies and found that when their team is trailing they will choose to jump to their right side 71% of the time. That is a huge statistic for a game built on seconds and millimetres. It only takes 1/5 of a second for a kicker to put a ball in the net and it is statistically impossible for a goalie to know which way the kicker will kick. Or is it?

If you knew which way the goalie would jump, seven out of ten times you were faced with a penalty kick while your team had the advantage, this would be statistically important information to have. Science tells us (and here’s where they start to suck you in to their cult) that because of millennia of conditioning and probable biological predisposition, humans will look to the right when confronted with a precarious situation requiring their attention. You look to the right first when you enter unfamiliar room, for example. Test yourself if you can somehow not prejudice the experiment because now you know what is supposed to happen.

All this is to say that knowing this information may win you games. If your team plays forty games and has, say, 40 penalty kicks a year, occasionally you would be facing a goalkeeper who is wondering which corner you will pick. This may not be a frequent occurrence but consider also that in most soccer leagues there is the occasional infamous “shoot-out” where you can have up to ten penalty kicks in a single match. Knowing this information could mean three or four goals. And in soccer, 3 or 4 goals is everything.

Knowing the statistical likelihood of anything will vastly increase your ability to make good decisions. Suppose I were to tell you that 80% of people with depression got better after one year of good counselling (this is a theoretical question only). Most people who suffer with depression would surely put in this time, right? After all, 80% is a very high number and you have at least a decent shot at transforming your life.

I’m not so sure.

I have seen hundreds and hundreds of people who were only months away from radical transformation, but were simply unwilling or believed they were unable to do what needed to be done. Most mental health issues, for example, can be much better managed with a modicum of effort. Most people still do not put in the time.

Therein lies the nugget of hope. Good things come to those who don’t give up. I have had a front-row seat to many hundreds of changed lives. To a person every one of them undoubtedly told me at some point that things would never change. I have listened to them describe in great detail the impossibilities they were forced to endure. Every one wanted to give up, sometimes every day. Most though I was lying when I said that they could be whole. They were the ones who didn’t quit.

I have known more than a few people who have spent time in prison. Talking with them while they were doing time was often very difficult. I could not convince them that one day they would be free. While you are in the trenches all you can imagine is the war. It is only looking back that they believed things could change.

There was a time I believed I would always be broken. I instinctively knew I would always carry that backpack of pain. It defined me. It absorbed me. I would never be well. I could not understand how other people could go on with their lives as if nothing had happened. I cried every hour of every day. Every hour of every bloody day. Usually much much more.

Then one day I didn’t anymore. One day I had a good day. One day I didn’t feel sorry for myself. It started with a few minutes, then a few more. Little by little. Digging yourself out of depression, or anxiety, or trauma can be unimaginably hard. Some of us can barely get out of bed. People who struggle with mental health or addictions, past traumas or abuse must spend hours and years doing and thinking things that are uncomfortable, difficult to endure, and incredibly demanding of us emotionally and relationally. It is far easier to self-medicate, check out, or get bitter.

Like many of us I still bear the scars of that time. Other scars too.

Emotion

“Emotion is taking me over” The Bee Gees/Destiny’s Child

 “If I seem insensitive to what you’re going through, Captain, understand – it’s the way I am.” Commander Spock

Anyone old enough to have seen the original Star Trek, or young enough to have seen the recent version, knows that one of the significant sub-plots to the series involved Spock coming to grips with his half-human side, his emotional side. Like all of us, I’ve spent my life trying to figure out such things myself. We are emotional beings, even if some of us are less prone to show it off. No one teaches us how to become emotionally intelligent or even how to control ourselves when the adult world tears us a new one. Most of us come to adulthood with no idea how to grow up, if we are honest with ourselves. We struggle to keep control of emotions so powerful we wonder if we will ever find peace inside this freakshow we call our subconscious.

“I can’t stop my brain from thinking!”
Yes you can. It’s ridiculously hard but not impossible. It’s seems easier for men to do. I can turn to the wall right now and think about nothing. I know… weird. But it’s the truth.

It seems much harder to do, however, when one is stressed, or under pressure, or overwhelmed, afraid, despondent or depressed. Anxious people have a hell of a time trying to get their thoughts under control. Some of us wake up pinging and don’t come down until bed. With such a constant barrage of information, anxiety and catastrophizing it is no wonder most of us have always believed that it was not possible to get things under control. Or so we’ve been told.

“I can’t control my emotions!”
Actually you can. Anyone can. Like most things in life that matter it’s a learned skill that, one more time, anyone can learn. Impulse control is far more difficult if you are emotional by nature, but still attainable. Wait a minute, how did we suddenly start talking about impulse control? Weren’t we discussing emotional regulation?

Yes.

Emotional self-control is an impulse issue. Anyone who has endeavoured to get their anger under control, for example, knows the incredible pressure to react when we believe we are threatened or demeaned. Angry people are among the most difficult to treat because their automatic responses are so immediate and violent. Yes violent. Yelling is an act of intimidation and violence. So is condescension and belittling. Anger is often really about control, about bullying. Angry people usually have no idea how violent they really do appear. Learning emotional self-regulation in this instance is not only necessary, it is transformational. If you struggle with anger, or if you are always afraid, if you cannot help being pessimistic or negative, if you are becoming bitter or depressed, you owe it to yourself to get a handle on this stuff. It will literally change your life.

“Why is everyone making me so emotional!”
Most of you already know the answer to this one. I have known for decades that no one else can make me angry if I don’t let them. I have preached the gospel of self-autonomy for years. I believe religiously that I am in charge of my own emotions and attitudes, but…

People really do piss us off. And hurt us. And demean and abuse us. Learning to remain who I really want to be in these situations requires a massive level of self-talk and personal emotional therapy. Being at peace in the midst of the battle is maybe the hardest and most amazing thing anyone can achieve. I plan on getting there someday.

Rejection

We’ve all felt it. I felt it again very recently. One would think that inasmuch as I do mental health for a living I would be beyond such things, but alas. Rejection is, obviously, very personal. It’s hard to blow off because it is ultimately about a perceived flaw in our character, or a shortcoming, or a failure. Someone has chosen to treat us as “less” – usually someone we care about or whose opinion apparently matters. People have an uncanny way of finding what hurts us, don’t they? Most of us are intimately familiar with rejection. We have experienced it all our lives. We were the fat kid, or the ugly kid, the mouthy brat or the wallflower. Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me. What tool wrote that? What kind of an emotional child could actually believe that “names will never hurt me”. I understand the cliché, it speaks to that part in each of us that feels strong enough to not let disparaging comments hurt us. How is that working out for you so far? iuI once got hit in the face with a big rock, thrown by a much older teenager while I was riding my Pursuit 5 bike. It was a very cool bike when I was ten… but that’s another story. The scar healed and there is no longer any physical trace of the injury. Some of my emotional scars didn’t heal quite so well. Being told by my grandmother that I was “useless and nobody will ever love me”. Rejection by the love of my life, so many years ago. You have your list and we could get them out and compare. Sticks and stones… Part of wisdom is understanding that some of those voices from our past (and not so distant past) need to be dealt with and put to rest. I often do such exercises with patients – working through those horrific childhood memories until they are bored enough or healthy enough, have learned enough and cried enough, to move forward. Some of us are still haunted by messages we heard in early childhood. We were picked on at school by other children, called names, labelled and abused. “Have you ever met a five-year old?” I will say to them. “Do you know how stupid little children are? Would you believe them today if they came up to you and insulted you?” Of course not. Children are morons and their opinions about my self-worth are meaningless. But still the voices carry. Some of us were rejected by an abusive parent or lover. We understand cognitively that their opinions of us are less than stellar, and subsequently less than reliable. We wouldn’t  believe a word out of their mouths, but we have. Their criticisms still bite, in spite of such an unreliable source. We are hard-wired to believe the worst, especially when the worst is about us. If you don’t believe me, do this little experiment. Think of a stressful, negative, frustrating situation you are dealing with. Spend ten minutes thinking about all the possible issues. How did things end? If you have an amygdala chances are you started catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is a great psychological word because you don’t ever need to explain it (much). It’s making a mountain out of a molehill. Few of us have the wherewithal to argue ourselves happy in a bad situation. We naturally think of all the worst-case scenarios. We think of ourselves as “realists”, when in all likelihood many are pessimists who simply cannot fathom labelling themselves something so negative. Catastrophizing is the minds natural response to stress and fear. Some of us are professionals. I wish I could end this article with a snazzy little anecdote and tell you that there will be people who will get you and not reject your love. I don’t actually know that to be true. What I have come to understand is that the more healthy I am, the better my self-esteem gets, the more I learn to accept and even appreciate myself, the less that kind of stuff hurts in the long-run. A healthy Scott is quicker able to put things in perspective, better suited to not catastrophize or feel like my world is coming apart. A healthy Scott knows that chocolate and kayaking and sunshine and self-talk can sooth, a little at a time. I have a brain injury. A few years ago I had a grand mal seizure and stopped breathing. It happens sometimes to people for no obvious reason, but I was very fortunate that this happened at the doctor’s office where I worked. I had two of the best docs I know ramming in an airway and giving me emergency triage within seconds. It undoubtedly saved my life. I have written about this before if you care to look. It has radically changed my existence, but interestingly enough not all for the bad. I have lost a great deal of my memory, which is bad. I have a difficult time staying angry or remembering slights, which is very good. It has given me the gift of forgetfulness. And the curse. I still remember things, although to a much lesser degree. I still remember the day my best friend showed up at my door and told me he didn’t want to be my friend anymore because I wasn’t spiritual enough, or at least that is how I remember it. Smaller hurts, though, I cannot recall. This, at least, was a blessing in disguise. On a related note: If you have some of my books or DVD’s I still want them back. I will look surprised when you return them but whoever has my signed Churchill book or my War of 1812 coin, you’re stealing from a mentally disabled person! But as usual I digress. I wish you peace and contentment in a world that is designed to hurt you; in a society that preys on its weak and slanders the broken. The best thing you can do for yourself is become free and strong. The only real armour against rejection is personal wholeness. And a really thick milkshake.

Waiting for Change

Waiting-chorus-string-quartet-pianoAnd waiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting.

 

 

Innocence

howbigisyourbraveI like doing groups. Usually, at the beginning, I dread losing another night of my week for something that resembles work. I wonder why I volunteered again. Here we go… again.

But something happens after a few weeks. People begin to open up. The group starts to jelly. Friendships are born and confidences given. One by one the participants let us into their pain, their dysfunction, and their beauty. I begin to count the weeks differently – now I’m counting down the days until the group is over. I’m not sure what will happen, this time. What if we decide it shouldn’t end?

One of the groups I created, that I do from time to time, it called “Welcome to Normie Land”. I hold it at the Addictions Centre where I spend some of my week, usually for a room full of people who are living in transitional housing, trying to swim their way back to what they once lost. They are good people, wounded people. I walk well with this part of the population, having spent most of my adult life working with the poor, the oppressed, the addicted. The lowly. They are my people now, for better or worse. But back to the story…

She had been coming to groups where I work for over a year, a long time to be in transition. She had a hungry mind and loved to talk about neurochemistry, among other things. I loved hanging out with her.

In one part particular group, while we were talking about relationships, she began talking about her new romantic interest. With eyes twinkling she sheepishly admitted that she was struggling with dating ‘clean and sober’. She was embarrassed. Without her “buffer” she had depended on for so many years to deaden the emotions she was suddenly shy, emotional, even “girly” around one particular cute guy at church. She went on and on about how mortified she had been after letting her emotions get the best of her whenever he was around. She told the group that she felt like a loser. As she continued speaking I couldn’t help it, I blurted out, “That’s so amazing. That’s absolutely wonderful!”

What I had realized, what nearly everyone in the room except for this person knew, was how amazingly alive she sounded. She was falling in love, living in a storybook, most likely for the first time in her life. What years of abuse and pain had taken, time had begun to restore. A return to innocence.

That’s what can happen, if you want it bad enough and the stars manage to align. One of the greatest perks in my job is the front row seat I get when people discover who they really are. Every once in a while someone wakes up, having hurt enough and striven enough, won and lost and gotten up again. After what seems like years and years, change comes to those who don’t quit. Actually, those who have probably quit a hundred times and still are in the fight. Over a matter of weeks I watch things radically change, from the way you dress to what you now believe. You have done what you said you would never do, you have moved on. It was impossible those many days ago, unimaginable. You laughed when I suggested that things could be different. I remember but it’s ok, everyone seems to in the beginning.

And that’s the good news at the end of the fairy tale, or is it at the beginning? I was always a firm believer that good things happened to other people. Then I grew up a little. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get better, but I did. Much slower than I thought, but it did. People who are reborn know that when your parts go back together again they fit differently, somehow. You are changed and you know it. Happiness means something different now than it once did. You have finally said goodbye to your emotional youth, though not without a fight.

But it’s not really a fairytale, is it? I hope. Normal people who don’t look good under florescent lights can relate to this story. Even the almost happy ending. Don’t give up, it always seems impossible at the beginning. Even if that beginning is the sixtieth beginning. And while we’re talking about it I give you permission to let go of some of the shame and guilt. Seriously, haven’t you done enough penance? Sure you screwed it up, welcome to the real world. I keep screwing it up and I get paid to know this stuff. Time after time clients complain that they constantly fail. They have broken self-esteem. Some people even stop coming to see me because they are so embarrassed that they screwed up again. Please, don’t think like that. It doesn’t matter if you fell down again. Don’t listen to the critics, especially if you are one of them. When people come to me and sheepishly confess that they are abysmal losers all I ask is, “So what lessons have you learned?”. No guilt, no shaming. I might be an idiot but even I know that you have beaten yourself up enough.

I learned that I was usually more vulnerable that I wanted to admit. I realized that my issue was a lot stronger than I wanted to believe and I needed to respect my opponent. I finally learned that each and every one of my failures taught me something about myself that I needed to know. And one day, that last day, I walked away. I don’t why it was that time but I must have been ready. And many, many of us can testify that they finally healed.

Summer Zen

Slalom Water Skiing

I went water skiing last summer with a few of my closest, nearest friends. We have a spot on the other end of Alouette Lake and my buddy Rod brought his ski boat for entertainment and transportation. Nathan surfed in the wake, Martin learned to wake board, and the old timers pulled out the slalom ski.

Slaloming is very zen for me. For just a few minutes every other year-or-so I can con my way on to the back of a boat and feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme. It is perhaps my best moment. Skydiving once gave me that charge but one day, as I was falling backwards at 125 mph through a pillowy cloud, I realized I was a single-parent and I was bored. The thrill wasn’t worth the risk, in the end. To this day when I look up at the clouds I see them as only a skydiver can. I look and I am still falling through the sky on that stormy, stormy night. As I feel the wind in my face and turn to the magnificent Nimbus cloud I glance to my left and there is my father, co-pilot in a cockpit racing me to the earth, nose to the ground. I see him seeing me and that moment is imprinted in my mind forever. In that moment.

Water skiing didn’t come easy to me. It seemed like it took years of begging to learn how to slalom well. Huge rooster tails, clockwork rhythm, sapped my strength and threatened to slam me into the water at every turn. I have tried other things behind a rope (I have a newspaper clipping of me in the air, parachute unfurled, being dragged down the frozen Snye River by my buddy Ferguson and his truck). There is one legend about Scott Williams that reads that once, while on Kalamalka Lake near Kelowna, I was completely submerged while still trying to get up on one ski. Apparently there was only a ripple on the surface, I was totally under. I seem to remember deciding at one point in my submarine dive that I should probably point my ski up, back towards the surface. Like the Hunt For Red October I finally came charging out of the abyss, a mighty destroyer careening through the waves..

Feel the rhythm. Feel the rhyme.

Getting good at anything takes time and rhythm. Change comes to those who are persistent, who refuse to quit and put in the time. Change takes time so put it in. I can always find lots of reasons to throw in the towel. Persistence is a mind game, pure and simple. You will be tempted to feel sorry for yourself, go ahead but then stop… defeated. You will lose sight of the goal at some point. Dust yourself off and get back on the tennis court. The task sometimes feels insurmountable but keep making those gross protein shakes if that floats your boat.

How is your rhythm? Still racing around and stressed? What is really important for you to do this week? Is whatever is bothering you worth so much head time? Are you happy with your life, right now?

I’m learning to play bass. As Bob, my guru teacher told me, bass is about locking in with the drummer. It’s about finding the pocket and feeling the rhythm. Never mind the sweaty freaks playing guitar and drop into the groove. Be cool. That’s pretty good advice for life. Sometimes I get so busy being busy I forget to lock in, I forget to groove. I forget to feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme. The screaming urgencies of life suck the life out of me, and probably out of you. As I told a friend today, there is no end to the misery if I let it lock me in.

Trust_bass_shirtDon’t forget to be cool. Don’t fight the waves; strap on that slalom ski and feel the tug. Slice through those waves, if only for a few minutes. In skiing, as in life, it’s about learning to ride the wave, not submarine through it. It’s about finding the pocket.

Welcome to summer.

Forgive and Forget?

Probably not.

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

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

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

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

So what is the answer?

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

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

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

How Long Can This Take?

It’s very sad. I have watched it happen for years but it continues to haunt me, just a little bit. She quit. She had been coming for just over two months and she was frustrated. The change that she was promised has not happened and probably never will. Something inside of her suspected this would happen but she thought she owed it to herself to at least give counseling “a shot”. Two and a half months.

So close.

I’m very weird. When I want to unwind I love to strap on my ear buds and listen to cosmology or physics or history. Atoms fascinate me. So does the universe. Like most of us who endured Physics in high school I learned that Physics is boring; and the only people who became physicists were the kind of people who would never have to worry about things like having a girlfriend or being popular. Physics was cylinders and math and radiuses..es. Bill Bryson was the guy who introduced me to this alternate reality. There was a book I once read about a journalist who was on an airplane flight and he realized that he didn’t know why the airplane was in the air, didn’t know anything about geography or science or the stars so wrote a book about a bunch of cool things I had never really taken the time to appreciate. I can’t remember the name of that book but if anyone has read it, let me know.

It was Bill Bryson’s book “A Short History Of Nearly Everything” that really rocked my world. I have read it cover to cover four times and will probably destroy it when I eventually read it again and again. Bryson helped me imagine 10,000 billion billion stars. He wrote about how on the very smallest level, far tinier than atoms, the basis of life is music. I am naturally a storyteller and this book has provided hours of fodder. It has helped me understand how precarious and unlikely life is, while showing me that there could possibly be a million worlds that could support intelligent life, though probably nothing like us for many reasons that I have learned from books like this. I met people like Michio Kaku and actually read Hawking. I am listening to “The Magic Of Reality” by Richard Dawkins but he is bitter and is killing my fascination with the magic of reality so I may listen to the original BBC radio dramas of Sherlock Holmes next to cleanse my palate.

So what do trilobites and neutrons and anxiety have to do with each other? I almost forgot… quitting.

I never took that second Physics class that Bryson talks about, the one that introduced you to real physics – the universe, the atom, the amazing. I was stuck with the volume of a cylinder and boredom and the pledge to never read physics again the rest of my life, so help me God. So close.

Apparently the next year you were introduced to the meaning of life, the beginnings of the universe and the mysteries of existence, so all-in-all I probably didn’t miss much.

I have mentioned in other articles here, here, and here that most people do not really change, especially if they are dealing with anxiety or trauma, because change is very hard and takes a long time. We have been sold the lies that promise to transform us with little or no effort. We are in love with shortcuts and our brain in neurochemically wired from an amygdala level on up for novelty. Many of us have also helped evolution along through our excessive use of drugs or alcohol, maybe our parents drank a bit when we were in the womb, perhaps we have inherited the douche bag gene, etc. Whatever the situation you can bet your 1984 Klondike Days Commemorative Coin Collection that you won’t be over your mental health issues in two months… or six months… or probably a year or two. It just takes however long it takes. There is no epiphany day for most of us. After three months of intense introspection (literally a few weeks after she quit) most people begin to notice something happening, though they are hard-pressed to describe it or even understand what “it” is.

We meet and something about you is different. Maybe you decided to go for a walk this week after ten years of depression and guilt because your psychiatrist, who never took the time to meet you, told you that you needed to walk for an hour, every day. What an idiot. Don’t even get me started…

Don’t quit. You only have one shot at this and contrary to what I really, really really want I probably won’t find a time machine so that I can go back to high school with all I know now and rule! Being free of those demons that haunt us is something that must be earned, and comes at a terrible price for some. All I can say is, I know personally that it is worth any price. I’m not there yet, but to paraphrase Martin, I can see the mountain top.

Some of you know what i mean.

Experimenting With Deductive Reasoning

I watch a lot of Sherlock Holmes. No one is as good as Basil Rathbone, no matter what you might think. I can see him clearly in my mind’s eye, which is amazing when you consider I cannot imagine the faces of some of my relatives. Cumberbatch may be second, his latest take outstanding and entirely believable (as long as you don’t mention the utterly ridiculous plot twists in the last episode. An assassin? Seriously? Moriarty?). Watson’s wife notwithstanding (although I love her as an actor and it’s cool that they are married in real life), I have endeavored to incorporate Sherlock’s love of deductive reasoning more and more into my life (Don’t even get me started on Iron Man’s version with the dude from the movie about Stalingrad).

Years ago watching Lie To Me led to a fascination with John Gottman’s techniques, even enrolling in the online version of his facial recognition course and reading his magnum opus (dry). The power of television.

Back to my experiment with deductive reasoning. I work part-time at an addictions center (www.alouetteaddictions.org) and on any given day you can find a needle or sterile water container, maybe a rubber tie or a cooker, in our very parking lot. I have mentioned this to other colleagues who have, without exception, been surprised because they have never noticed anything amiss. This is interesting inasmuch as there are often several of these discards within feet of their cars. Several.

One day I had a banana on the way to work. When I got to my regular parking spot I found myself in a quandary. It was icky and I didn’t feel like carrying it to the front door, unlocking the door, doing the stairs and hallway, unlocking my door, etc. I am, by nature, a lazy person.

Fully intending on grabbing it later I slid the banana under the driver’s seat car door and under the car. I would simply grab it once I sat in the car at the end of the day. My car (1985 300zx) is a very low riding vehicle and it would be as simple as reaching my long arms under the car. I forgot.

About a week later I noticed a dark brown old banana peel that looked as if it had been there for six months. And it dawned on me.

Recently I have gotten into the habit of eating a banana for breakfast on the way to work almost every day. Every morning I am faced with a dilemma. Then I thought of Sherlock. He loves to say, “you look John, but you do not see”.

How long would it take, at a rate of a banana a day, for people to notice that the parking lot was filling up with bananas? They don’t tend to notice a tiny syringe but surely, within a few days, someone would mention in my hearing that there is a preponderance of bananas where no bananas should be. A week at most?

It’s March 18 today. It seemed only appropriate to begin the experiment at the beginning of the month. I can look out of my window and clearly see…. 11 bananas. The others are out there, they have become a more integrated part of the landscape and are not as easily detectable from the second floor.

18 bananas.

I promised myself, back on day two, that I would shovel up every single banana. The task now seems a little daunting. Within a few days I will have over 20 bananas to scrape up and it is going to be noticeable. People will want to ask me why I am shoveling up 38  bananas won’t they?

Look but don’t see.

(UPDATE: I just asked a co-worker, shrugging as I pondered, “Have you noticed that banana peel in the parking lot?”
“What banana peel?”)

From time to time my clients hook up with new partners. Never do this if you are seeing a counselor. Ever. We will make you miserable. I often tell clients that counseling, if it is really working, totally sucks. Counseling rips open your life and exposes stuff that you have tried to keep away from for decades. The very coping skills that have worked for you all your life are the very things we will take from you. You are not in my office for a good time and I spend a lot of money on Kleenex. It is one thing to look at your inner life – your emotions and motives and hurts and private junk – it’s another thing altogether to really see what is going on.

So why would I pick on you for dating someone? Most of us who have a history of making poor relational decisions will continue to make poor decisions until someone stops us. We do not naturally understand our dysfunction and are prone to make the same mistakes, time after time after time. Unfortunately there is no roadmap for life and no one taught us how to understand this stuff. I am finally, at my old age, figuring a few things out… someday. We may learn eventually and we call this “experience”. My job is to help you have less experience.

20140318_160239Tomorrow will be banana number 19. It’s actually already here, sitting beside me as I write. We are down to a few bananas at home and I did not want to have to go to the grocery store after work so that I could continue my precious experiment tomorrow. I am counting on the fact that everyone else in our household likes bananas and Annette will go get more before I have to get my lazy butt off the couch. I try to be an equal partner, but this is science and I need to preserve my strength for the investigation.

Bore Me To Life

I have spoken with a lot of people about trauma. It’s kind of my job. Rarely a day goes by without hearing about someone’s life taking a tragic detour, of heartache and ruined families and ruined lives. That’s pretty much what we call “a week day” around here. I love it and I hate it.

Most of us know a little something about trauma. We’ve seen enough and heard enough to believe that people who have deep-seated resentments need to “get it out”. Pain breeds bitterness and bitterness breeds an ugly and petty life. Just get it out.

I used to think that “getting it out” meant that we had to go over every little ugly detail, line by line, over and over again. We called it Exposure Therapy, we called it CBT. We called it a lot of things. Over and over and over.

There may be something to that, though maybe something different from what was initially intended. Talking does, for reasons that often even escape me, help. This is not even a controversial truth. Everyone, with the possible exception of a few Scientologists out there, understands that counseling can have value.

Quite a bit of this is really about boredom.

The jury may be out on whether or not rehashing your childhood “until you can let go of it” is even possible. What I do know is that if we talk about this stuff long enough you are going to grow tired of rehashing it over and over. Eventually I am going to wear you down until you care about that issue – 1% less. With time the emotional death-grip that this hurt has on you begins to loosen, very very slowly. With time the details seems to matter a little less. Talking about something you have spent your life trying to ignore helps to loosen up the vice. There is insight and perspective, arguments and pain. One day you realize you haven’t grieved in a few days and you know that you are learning to walk again.

Time heals, sometimes.

Working through your issues and coming through to the other side is less about techniques and more about showing up. If you find a counselor that doesn’t suck and are willing to put in the effort, anything is possible. It may take a lot longer than you first imagined but it is always, always worth it. You have only one life, and I don’t know about you but I do not wish to spend that life broken.

Maybe moving forward begins with some of us walking into a counselor’s office and saying, “bore me to life”.

The Great Perhaps

I’m tired of pessimism. It is the world I live in. It is the state of things around my chunk of the party. I have often said that by the time people get to be about 40 they have seen enough pain, been abused and slandered enough, that it’s hard to be an optimist anymore. Most of us have more than enough reason to be pissed off.

My dad is an optimist. It would be fair to say that he is “the optimist”. If you got in a car accident and lost a leg he would encourage you and remind you how much cheaper it’s going to be only having to buy one shoe. That’s my Pop. They don’t call him “Happy Howie” for nothing.

Annette likes to talk about how, no matter what news you give my dad, he somehow makes it sound like a good thing. He recently released his memoirs and named the book ever so aptly, “Life is Great. And It’s Getting Better”. My kids hold him in near-mythical awe. When I recently told one of my sons that I was buying my dad’s old CRV he turned to me with a straight face and said, “You’re so lucky, Grandpa sat in that seat.” It does not suck to be my old man.

I want to get better, getting old. So mature and wise that I think I understand the meaning of life. And cool. Someday I hope to be cool again. I think I’ll wear a fedora everywhere and put on suits again. And flirt with younger women. Give out sage advice with a wink. Have my first mint julep. Spend some time in California with my two buddies who live there. I’m going to float on a small boat in a hot place with the woman I love.

I go to seek the great “perhaps”. Perhaps the next part of our lives can be the best part. Perhaps this time we can deal with it and let it go. Perhaps there will be more time for good friends and food, more moments lying on the grass in the sun and swinging little children. And laughter.

One of the surest signs that a person is working through their depression, for example, is the renewal of hope. One day they come into my office and don’t talk the way they did in our previous appointments. They walked a bit more, talked a bit more, and felt a few more somethings. I am constantly surprised when this happens, and it happens around this office quite often. We can never identify the “when” and rarely even the “why”. It just happens. Hope can do that to a person. Allowing yourself to think about a different and happy future is one of the first – and always one of the most important – steps in any recovery.

Perhaps.

 

500

Five hundred. … 500 fights, that’s the number I figured when I was a kid. 500 street fights and you could consider yourself a legitimate tough guy. You need them for experience. To develop leather skin. So I got started. Of course along the way you stop thinking about being tough and all that. It stops being the point. You get past the silliness of it all. But then, after, you realize that’s what you are.
Taylor Reese (Vin Diesel) Knockaround Guys

It takes time to be good at anything of value. Working on my black belt, a few years ago, it became apparent that I was going to have to practice, practice, practice. Sure I could have bought one on the internet for twenty bucks, but somehow that just wasn’t the same. The sense of accomplishment, the joy of achievement, cannot be purchased for a few dollars. Recently I decided to work on my PhD in Psychology and, looking at the requirements, was immediately intimidated by the process. Again, for a few dollars I could lie about the accomplishment and get one online, but again…

Growth, real growth, takes time and pain. There are lessons you can only learn in battle, being shot at. The lessons I have learned have usually come through struggle and sweat, and sometimes tears.

I often write about the reasons why counseling usually doesn’t work. In case you haven’t read any of these posts it boils down to the fact that counseling is really hard, change is super tough, and it takes practice.

It takes a ton of practice.

I am fond of telling clients information that they already know, but have never practiced. As I find myself constantly saying, “I have seven years of post-secondary education so that I can tell you stuff that you can Google.” It’s true. Going to a counselor is usually an exercise in the obvious. I hope I have a few insights that my clients haven’t thought of, but most counseling tips are obvious – learn to live in the moment (mindfulness), practice stopping your racing thoughts, understand the systems that are shaping you, attack your cognitive distortions… that kind of stuff.

Most of you know this stuff. You could teach this stuff. The issue isn’t knowledge, the issue is practice.

It takes hundreds and hundreds of attempts before most of the concepts you learn in counseling “kick in”. Often people will come see me for a few months and realize that nothing has really changed. They become frustrated by the lack of movement, in spite of their hours of showing up. It is hard to understand, when you are frustrated and hurting, that you may be just on the cusp of something amazing, something that is in the process of happening. When you are in the midst of the battle it’s hard to see anything but bullets.

Counseling works. Don’t ask me why, but it does. I’ve seen it transform seemingly impossible situations. I’ve witnessed people who had all but given up find hope and healing. The problem is, it’s slow. It has taken years to get where you are and it may take years to dig yourself out. That’s the real truth, no sugar added.

Don’t give up. You have only one precious life and no one else is going to fix it for you. You know that. I know that.

So I got started.

Be Brave

I ran across this drug commercial a few days ago and it reminded me that each one of us, in spite of our challenges and insecurities, can make a difference.

No one knows your failures and shortcomings as much as you do. You don’t need someone pointing out your cellulite, or your balding pate, or the fact that you put your foot in your mouth. No one needs to remind you that you are not perfect. I often ask people, “If ten people tell you that you are beautiful and one person tells you that you are ugly, which one will you remember?” The answer is the same for all of us. We are a generation of people who wonder if we matter, wonder if anyone would love us if they really knew who we are. Many of us feel unremarkable and worry that we will never change the world, or even our little piece of it.

I have tried to do many remarkable things in my life, and usually failed. It is tempting, therefore, to think that we are somehow inadequate, or flawed, or “less”. No one is lining up to tell you that you are spectacular. There are all kinds of people who will remind you of your ugliness, or lack. Don’t believe them.

It has taken me most of my life to understand that I am worth it. I have never been famous (cable TV in Fort McMurray doesn’t count as famous), and will probably never be rich or on the cover of Time magazine. As a society we make a big deal about the pretty people who get handed movie contracts because of their photoshopped looks, or those who can hit a puck or a ball through a net or a hoop. Culture makes a big deal about someone who can sing, but not about those who can sing but don’t know anyone who will give them a recording contract. We tend to honor the rich, the connected; those lucky enough to be born into the right family with the right breaks.

This video is dedicated to the little people – to those who make a difference all the time even though no one is rolling the camera. Every one of us can change our world. Every one of us can make a difference in the lives of someone, even if no one else notices.

I have people who have changed my life and chances are you do as well. When I die I hope someone will say of me, “At least he tried. At least he tried to help someone, to give hope, to live sacrificially, to change his world.”

Fear keeps us from trying crazy and magical things. From attempting glorious failures and amazing screw-ups. So much of life is boring and mundane. I don’t know about you but living my life to make a living and pay a mortgage is not enough for me.

At least we tried…

Gratitude

She came in for needle exchange, “for a friend”. It was her first time here so I took the basic information. It was her 50th birthday today. The only gift I could offer was coffee.

Here’s the thing – she had no idea it was her birthday. October 3, 1963. She was turning 50, a milestone birthday. A time to gather your friends and have a few laughs and toast to a life well spent. She was at an addictions centre picking up needles and paraphernalia. There were no surprise parties for Shannon, no balloons and cake; only an alley somewhere and a needle full of hate.

Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to be where I am, doing what I am, with whom I am. I forget that, in spite of still having no jet ski, I am so incredibly blessed I can not even fully understand how much. I have a home and a family and dreams. Shannon has nothing and probably no hope at all.

Once in a while it’s good to remember that just being born in my situation is winning the lottery.

 

Desperate For Approval

Anyone who works in the mental health industry can tell you that almost everyone struggles with crippling self-esteem for some of their life.

It is an epidemic.

We are a generation that cannot love ourselves and are intimately aware of our shortcomings. You don’t really need to tell me my faults; I have spent much more time fixated on them than you have. I know my personality quirks, some of you have pointed them out time and again. I know that I have issues, I really do. Chances are that you are keenly aware of your foibles as well.

I’m losing my hair. Actually I have been losing my hair for most of my adult life but for some reason the process has been ridiculously slow, for which I am somewhat grateful. Every now and then someone will delight in pointing out this fact to me – like I haven’t spent hours squinting in the mirror bemoaning my fate. I like to turn to them and exclaim, “I am? I did not know that!”. I turn around, pretending to try to look at the back of my head and mumble, “Are you sure?” This usually shuts them up, at least until the next time. Some of you know what I am talking about – you have weight issues, or a mole, or some physical issue you aren’t proud of. SInce you were young people have commented on your mole. Kids made fun of you. Someone has called you ‘fatty’ or ‘four-eyes’, or ugly or short or whatever. Apparently you did not know you were fat – it was awful nice of them to let you know.

I used to have a female acquaintance who seemed to derive great joy from pointing out my physical shortcomings; she thought it was hilarious. I, however, found it less than amusing. At the time I was struggling with how I looked and her cruel attempts at humour only entrenched the insecurities I already had. To this day if someone compliments me on my looks I am prone to be dismissive and blow them off. My wife, who understands me better than most, is apt to say, “shut up and take the compliment”. She’s good for me… and a redhead. I have a few other friends who know me enough to see beneath my overt confidence and realize that, like most of us, I am prone to feel bad about myself.

Growing up I was taught by an unforgiving society that any attempt at self-promotion was called “arrogance”. Telling others you were awesome was an unforgivable sin and punishable by derision and scorn. Adults told me, told you, not to brag because bragging about yourself was very, very wrong. Be humble, I was taught. People who talk about themselves are egomaniacs.

I have learned a little about ego and narcissism since those days.

“Liking yourself” is usually not a sign of an insecure and arrogant person. People who are ok with who they are do not need the approval of others and are usually not fixated with gleaning the approval of others. Self-confidence is a very good thing, when authentic. Appreciating your skills and personality, even loving yourself, is a very good thing. It’s time for someone to say it – it’s important to like who you are.

It’s time to make peace with you.

I am keenly aware that I will probably never be perfect. I am fairly certain that I am not going to be an underwear model anytime soon (hold on to that visual image…). Chances are I am never going to be famous. I might even turn out to be a bald old man some day. I’m trying to be good with that.

As I have often said on this blog, the opposite of poor self-esteem is not good self-esteem. The opposite of poor self-esteem is self-acceptance. Learning to like and appreciate who you are is perhaps the meaning of life or at least the beginning of wisdom. There is nothing you can do about your shape, beyond cosmetic changes. Most of you are going to gradually lose the fight with gravity, the older you get. You may never be rich or famous or popular.

Are you ever going to be ok with that?

There is no magic formula for poor self-esteem. There is no way you can suddenly think you are awesome when you have spent a lifetime loathing who you are. Healing begins with putting away the microscope and the unrealistic expectations. You don’t need to pretend you are something you can never be. Making peace with your shortcomings has nothing to do with thinking you are beautiful or perfect or brilliant. It has everything to do with putting down your weapons of self-destruction and refusing to let yourself fixate on what is missing. Like most things in life it’s about changing how you think, not how you look.