Grabbing The Wrong Handholds

They made me watch CSI, Ginger Version. I don’t even know what the real name is but it’s the one with the redhead guy who tries so very hard to sound like the coach from Rocky. My youngest Matthew and I are forced to endure this for an hour and there has literally not been one line of dialogue that anyone would say in the real world. At first we didn’t understand. It slowly dawned on us that the acting isn’t getting any better. Not one person has used normal inflection or words that, when put together in a stringy thing called a sentence, would actually be spoken by a human who is not on a show about super cops who don’t know how to talk like normal people. It vaguely reminds me of when I did acid except the walls aren’t moving… yet.

I can see them speaking but nothing makes sense. Don’t get me wrong, a ferret could follow the dialogue. It’s just that the dialogue is so incredibly vapid, so devoid of reality and voiced by such poor actors who all believe they are on Die Hard, except it’s less realistic than those Christmas plays you have to endure when your kid is in grade five. No one can stop squinting and the dude who just said, “Have you considered the weather?” sounded like he was attempting to take a burrito dump. Not a single person had a spontaneous thought and the lighting is off and the dialogue feels like it was written by that weird kid who wore a cape to grade six and sat beside you in Socials. I keep looking around to see if people are laughing. My son Matt is laughing. So proud.

The real Shakespeare famously penned, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. These players couldn’t act their way out of a wet paper nutsack. Rock stars and wrestlers and models can become actors so you know there is real art involved. And don’t give me your “but there are some very talented actors”. So what. I know some incredibly talented welders who can fix my CR-V. Actors are massively overpaid to do a job that everyone wants because they get treated like royalty and get to buy islands and large phallic boats. It says a great deal about our culture that people line up in their thousands to catch a glimpse of these botox clowns, inbred royals, and idiots on CSI who make twenty times the money I ever will. Honestly, models can do it. What the hell. We have given our allegiance to actors playing gurus and trusted in Bill Cosby to be our television dad. Some of us honestly believe that the top 1% gives a rat’s ass about the struggles you are going through because they can’t remember, or never knew, what it was like to be an ordinary bloke. They live fictional lives.

A few of you know what it is like to take LSD (remember Purple Microdot?). I work in the addictions field while doing several other things during my week and in over 12 years of doing Intake I have never met an addict who identified Acid as their drug of choice. You can get seriously messed up for only a few dollars, but still it is rare to talk to anyone who thinks this is a good idea every day of the week. Hallucinogens allow you to step outside your own body and observe yourself from a very surreal and often screwed up perspective. This family of drug use has become increasingly popular, yet again, among predominantly younger adults who read somewhere on the Internet that you could eat mushrooms and become a philosopher. There is some interesting research with hallucinogens, especially in the psychological arena, but you rarely read that “Kierkegaard got totally wasted on shrooms and wrote Fear and Trembling”. Many of us solved the world’s problems on cocaine but couldn’t read the chicken scratch when we woke up later that same day. That is literally a true story. I was so sure.

And a bad trip on Acid will scar you forever.

Contrary to what the internet is telling you, you are probably not going to find the meaning of life if you do MDMA, although you might like everyone for a few hours. The 21st Century is far more complicated and fraught with information that is completely new in the history of primates. Coping skills which have worked for millennia are suddenly obsolete. Even as recently as the Dark Ages hundreds of years could pass for our ancestors with little discernable change. Most humans grew up, lived and died within a few kilometers and went to bed when it got dark. There was no constant bombardment of new and confusing data unless you were being chased across the highlands by the bloody British. More than half a millenia separated Attila and Genghis but they still killed people from the back of a horse with relatively the same range of weapons. Just think how much the world has changed since World War Two, or even the early Sixties. You have had more world shaking cultural changes in your lifetime than people would have seen in hundreds, even thousands of years. I haven’t even mentioned the Internet, perhaps the biggest game-changer since the Enlightenment. Sometimes I become so entangled in the sheer absurdity of our existence that it’s tempting to feel like I’m in a bad episode of CSI Miami. Nevermind, they’re all bad. My parents lived in homes where you had to throw coal into the fire every morning. My son, who still lives at home part-time, loses his mind if I turn off the Internet at 11 p.m. Our ancestors could keep the living crap out of us without breaking a sweat. 21st Century problems in a world moving so fast that no one has a clue what the answer is or how we are going to deal with our growing cultural addiction to stimulus and response and Instagram.

Few of us trust our local churches to provide solutions for life and you can’t trust the government anymore because they really are spying on you. The Catholic Church is in freefall. Google and Facebook are actually messing with your mind, and I’m not talking in some groovy metaphysical way. They are literally reprogramming your brain. Your phone is apparently tracking you even when Location Services is turned off. Institutions that we have trusted for millennia have let us down and it feels like we are losing our handholds.

Our worlds are filled with information and most of that data is mindless drivel. Is coffee good for me or bad for me this month, I can’t remember. Is Pluto a planet again? Was that dude from Making of a Murderer guilty or not? Is gluten still the Antichrist? We can no longer trust our grade 11 math class to make sense of this augmented reality, and after what seemed like twenty years of enlightenment and walls falling and peace treaties, the world is suddenly scary again and full of regimes with small penises and very large guns. We’re in a pissing contest with our neighbour country over milk. Seriously, milk. How do we make sense of it all?

How do you end an article like this? Oh ya, I remember now.

Handholds.

Any rockclimber can tell you that running up an indoor climbing wall has very little in common with climbing an actual mountain or rock face. In the real world there are few perfectly formed nubits to grab every 2.5 feet. Rock faces are often wet, smooth, filled with vegetation or bird crap. So much bird crap. There are often no obvious routes and the ones that appear straight and narrow consistently prove to be unclimbable. In the real world the handholds are far less exact, less climate-controlled, and less exhilaratingly obvious. It’s incredibly easy to lose your way in this world.

You need to be reading. I’m not screwing around anymore so listen because I’m not making this up as I go along and any counselor worth their bread will tell you that if you aren’t growing then you’re going backwards. For years I’ve told clients they need to read and study and take their emotional growth much more seriously, and the numbers of people who actually listen to this obvious advice is underwhelming and tragic. If you absolutely refuse to write then watch documentaries that are outside your comfort zone and subscribe to some mental health podcasts. Cooking shows and escapist novels don’t count unless you are actually going to make the friggen recipes. Oprah and Deepak and Tony Robbins are not really philosophers, in spite of their witting aphorisms, and can only take you so far. They are paid millions to peddle philosophic pablum and that’s fine, but it’s not really the same as studying your life. Don’t get me started on Oprah Winfrey.

We don’t have the luxury anymore of putting this stuff off until it’s too late. If you think you will just grow out of your anxiety or chronic depression or immaturity or naïveté you are literally the definition of that word. By the time people are adults we have a shitbarge of pain collecting in our subconscious and if you don’t do something about it, and I mean it, dammit, you are going to fall miles short of your potential. I’m talking about you Mr. Anger Problem. Deal with that stuff because you are ejaculating your attitude all over the rest of us and using anger to bully people. You passive-aggressives need to talk to someone who can hold you accountable for all that bullshit you are spreading. Just tell me what you want, for the love of god. I know you aren’t mad, you’re just disappointed that everyone seems to let you down but have you ever stopped to consider that being passive-aggressive is dysfunctional and everyone around you knows what you’re trying to do? Most of us can smell a PA a mile off and we talk about you behind your back. Use your words. Are you easily offended? The rest of us are on egg shells around you because we don’t know if or when you are going to pout and make a scene. Is that really how you want people to think of you?

If you are one of those people that constantly needs others to feel sorry for you, then I actually feel sorry for you. Grow the hell up. You have a hole in your heart that you are trying to stuff full with sad Facebook and IG posts that tell us you’re having a bad day (sad emoji) specifically so that we will all tell you that you’re awesome and we believe in you. Believe in yourself, you’re better than this. See someone and talk about your incessant need for approval because that crap is handcuffing your life.

Anger, passive-aggressive behaviour, taking offence, acting pathetic, they’re all about power and control. These dysfunctional handholds keep us immature and miserable. These are learned coping mechanisms that you developed when you were a kid or after an abusive relationship and they may have worked at one time but they are handholds that are holding you back. Wouldn’t you rather be happy?

We all need better handholds. If you spend your whole life trying to be pretty and petty you are going to end up dumb and bitter. Don’t be dumb. Spend 3 years working on your anxiety every day. Don’t lie down and give in. Get serious about your anger problem and get control of your emotions. Work on that crappy impulse control until you can win. Seriously. This stuff is very hard and the percentage of people who die happy is lower than we want to admit. You are worth it. Say it. I am worth it.

Stop trusting in other people to make you happy, Scott. Stop being decimated when our cultural icons turn out to be rapists. Everyone is going to let you down, that’s called life. Everyone is petty and selfish and a little bit broken so get over it. You’re right, people are stupid. Some people think the actors on CSI can act. Don’t be one of those people, pick up a book or listen to an audiobook or an intelligent podcast or documentary and learn a little psychology. Talk to someone about philosophy. Don’t be dumb.

I don’t care what you say, CSI sucks.

 

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.

 

My Anger, Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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