You Had A Bad Day

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Shane…

 

The Price of Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Creeps

Last night my wife and I surfed Netflix enough until, like most of us, we gave up and watched the documentary on Lance Armstrong – something far outside my comfort zone. I am not ordinarily a fan of movie stars and supermodels, and to be honest probably wouldn’t get out of my chair if one came to the house. The documentary was, however, interesting to watch unfold. I could tell, relatively early, that he was lying his ass off. I do this for a living and my counseling hat was pinging like mad. He wasn’t even very good at it, and it suddenly struck me why so many people were so unsurprised when the poop finally hit the fan. I turned to my wife to pontificate about micro-expressions but it became abundantly clear that she was way ahead of me. She was pinging too, albeit perhaps on a somewhat more subconscious level. She described him as a creep.

That word comes up often in my line of work.

Time and again, perhaps because of my dual worlds of addiction and counselling, women describe men as “creepy”. We have all known a few females, as well, who kind of “freak me out”. We are prone to believe that this is something that has no foundation in evidence-based realities; but we may be wrong. Upon further probing, people who have been creeped out inevitably describe surprisingly similar feelings. There are facial ticks that are registering. Certain intonations strike them as “off”. There are fewer contractions and often more confrontation. People who have “their radar on” may not know why, but they definitely know who. I have invested some time endeavouring to calm any personal boundary issues, and I heavily monitor my space and posture for this exact reason. I rarely hug, and never very close. If you visit me in my micro-office we will take opposite corners. I have spent too much time learning from women to not find myself hyper-vigilant in this regard.

I believe creeps are real. Many are described using terms like “narcissist” and “psychopath”, though usually by wives who are not qualified to diagnose and are deemed too emotionally involved. They are, therefore, often misregarded (I made that up). In my experience, more women than men have this sensitivity to the creep factor, perhaps many more.

I continue to be resurprised when I am in the presence of a “creep”. They seem to lack basic self-awareness. They often describe themselves as “smooth” and popular with the ladies. Often they actually are, and sometimes for very nefarious reasons. By way of example, there are those who are strongly attracted to narcissists. Something in the seeker’s psyche is broken and seeks fulfillment in controlling, and often very physical, relationships. Part of counselling often includes addressing a client’s choosing mechanism, and many people have had to address their attraction to dysfunction in an office very much like mine. Many of us, myself included, are prone to make the same relational mistakes over and over, for very psychological reasons.

Many clients and friends have included a crap detector in their emotional toolbox. There are people out there, for reasons that escape most of us, who glean satisfaction through manipulating and controlling the people closest to them. Such individuals are often highly charming, though indubitably self-serving and emotionally unhealthy. To use the internet word of the month, people like this always obfuscate our lives (I know you’ll Google that) and inevitably leave a wake of hurt and unresolved trauma.

I advise clients that if someone is too charming, too slick, or too nice, it’s probably too good to be true. Dating is an exercise in lying to each other and we all know that on one level. Your charmer’s ex probably wasn’t as bat-shit crazy as you have been told. We have a tendency to want to believe in the fairy tale ending, often at the expense of real world objectivity. I don’t care who he/she is, they have significant issues. You can disagree with me all you wish, but chances are I’ll be proven right. I do not enjoy winning that argument, perhaps I’m just a bit tainted from sitting in an office talking about pain everyday. That is highly possible.

Women Aren’t Equal?

It has been hard for me admit to myself, in a vocation swarming with quality woman, that a female could still feel unequal in 2014. There is a joke we tell of how it’s ok to be anything except a middle-class white guy. All my bosses are women. My wife’s a woman and she is perfectly capable of handling me if she chooses. I usually hang around with women. Women aren’t equal?

There are a ton of things to write about here but I like looking at the weird stuff. It may not surprise you to learn that men, by the mean, have difficulty understanding, on an emotional level, what it feels like to be just shy of five-feet tall. I’m 6 feet plus 2, I have a black belt so that I can be blissfully misinformed. I grew up with lots going on and excelled with a ball in my hands (shut up Cory). I have no idea what it would be like to have a partner who can beat the crap out of me on a whim. My wife could take me, I’m not allowed to hit girls. My mother will hurt me. My father would be disappointed, a man in his 70’s whom every woman loves. I dare you to take the challenge.

I have never known physical violence that I didn’t initiate or deserve.

So when I tell you that I am only now beginning to understand, I ask you to excuse my large frame of mind. The sheer volume of fear I have listened to has begun to ring true. I learn slow. Of course I know this stuff intellectually, I can read. But I am still partly a man, and most of us have difficulty with emotional intelligence when it comes to this kind of stuff.

So many women who live with fear every day of their lives. I could never really understand, as a younger man, why women were afraid to walk alone. I love walking alone. It’s zen, baby. So when you told me the first few hundred times, it sounded a bit ridiculous. I’m not excusing what was. I’m the tallest one in my family. I hang around with ninjas. I’m a white male who plays with weapons.

To all my patient female friends who have not given up on me, you win. It was a good fight, figuratively speaking, but I might be getting a taste. I am constantly amazed at the burden others can carry, and fear has to be one of the worst emotions with which to run a tab. The anxiety, the depression, the trauma, it may not be biological. Imagine you have emotional Fibromyalgia. Everything hurts and it doesn’t make sense and everyone is a potential problem. People with Fibromyalgia live in a body that is constantly in varying states of shock.

Some people live in that state, on an emotional level as well. I have heard the stories. She ran into the McDonalds only to find the two sketchy males in hoodies were only 11 or 12. The right makeup to wear if you have a bruise. What mood is walking through the front door tonight? I always believed that my home was my safe place. What if it isn’t? Any counsellor can tell you that living in that heightened state of tension releases chemicals all over your body. Things change in your core. Things are released in your brain… and in your mind. You learn words like cortisol and neurochemistry. The diet can take a hit. You no longer sleep through the night. The motor is already running and you haven’t even had coffee yet.

Here’s Wikipedia: Cognitive conditions, including memory and attention dysfunctions, as well as depression, are commonly associated with elevated cortisol,[9] and may be early indicators of exogenous or endogenous Cushing’s. Patients frequently suffer various psychological disturbances, ranging from euphoria to psychosisDepression and anxiety are also common.

Cortisol is a good thing that can become a very bad thing. Other things happen neurologically that are not in your best interests. The words self, medicating, and behaviours, are used one after another in the same sentence. Fear can do that to a person, to an emotionally vulnerable person. Let’s be honest, most of us are emotionally vulnerable. You know how this sentence ends. Weight gain or loss, body image, self-esteem, problems with relationships, fear, anxiety, the whole toolbox from hell.

This is the kind of stuff people like me hear all day, every day. It’s not an isolated incident and if you can relate to any of this I will remind you that there are hundreds out there. Thousands. Millions. You have been saying it for years and you are absolutely right. Everyone does have mental health issues. We didn’t know this because there was a time, not so very long ago, when talking about this thing of ours was not really popular. People who went to see a counsellor were somehow “less”. Well baby, it’s now 2014 and daddy’s got a new pair of pants. It’s all good, all of a sudden.

I have become firmly convinced that each and every one of us needs some help, sometimes. It is the human experience. I do not think I could do this without a great deal of help from a couple of people who walk life right beside me. I have at least two other worlds of friends from different hats I have chosen to wear. I need those people very, very much. But I digress.

What does it feel like to be small? I walk around blissfully ignorant of the war that women feel everyday in every part of the world. Or am I wrong? Here’s the thing – this is a blog. It’s not in my book yet so it doesn’t have to be a finished product. Could this be true?

Like I said, I’m recent to this. Time for class. Talk to me.

Sometime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know, it’s a sweet gig.

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

My Teacher

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague some time ago. We talked about the cost of trying to make a difference. It was a very cool hour. We weren’t rock stars, we were just talking about philosophy.

Both of us had been hurt, trying to try. Giving a damn seems to cost more than the advertising brochures promised. Caring forces you to give up some of your dreams of glory. You know exactly what I mean, don’t you? I’m not a hero, that is abundantly clear if you read anything I write. That ego stuff has nothing to do with what I’m writing at this moment with my counsellor hat on. I’m at work right now and “at home” Scott is hours away. And I’m a guy.

In the hard light of reality I know that I am allowed to admit that most of us really do want to make a difference. When my life is erupting and my family is cray cray I can forget that I am, at heart, an idealist. That’s easy to forget when you have scars. It’s hard to accept that caring for other people usually hurts us. I am still a kid at heart.

Any measure of wellness that I feel now I learned the hard way. I’m not as good at this as I like to portray in public. Most of us aren’t. And one of the worst lessons I have had to learn is that most of the real wins, the authentic difference, came after you have been hurt really bad. I am not confident that I learned much when everything was going my way. Pain teaches me.

That really sucks.

ADHD And The Power Of Being An Outsider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps he has ADHD.

More On Invasive Thoughts

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

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

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

Passing On What We Didn’t Learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s To You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wisdom Rock

I have a wisdom stone that I carry in my front pocket. Just a cheap knockoff with the word “wisdom” engraved on the surface. It once was rough, now it is smooth. That is the point – it once was rough.

The pursuit of wisdom for others, and myself, has emerged as something that I apparently care very much about. Lately it feels like my cup cannot be filled, and I get paid to study. As I have spoken and written about elsewhere, this past five years, time spent counselling full-time, has become one of the most important “swerves” in my life. I sometimes regret that this did not happen earlier, though I understand cognitively that timing is everything. Apparently this is my time to grow up. It has taken much longer than I imagined, and along the way I truly believed that I was wise beyond my years. Turns out I was wrong. Self-awareness is a merciless thing and seems to come, at least in my direction, at a terrible price. Growing, but not yet grown up.

I rub the rock. It reminds me of what is important to me when I am so easily distracted. It is a simple therapeutic trick, an exercise I teach clients. The rock is a visual, physical, and psychological tool to recalibrate my focus. It has also become a spiritual tool; I have infused meaning into possessing it. I need all the help I can get.

I have also been reading sports psychology lately. I work with an amazing martial art called Excel Martial Arts, serving as a sort of philosophical and psychological advisor, as weird as that sounds. People call me “Sir” there. It makes my wife laugh. Yes, she keeps me grounded. One of the things they do at Sun Hang Do is an oft mimicked sort of salute with the right hand in a fist, enclosed by the left hand, symbolizing power and control. It is a natural focus point for starting a “pattern” or a maneuver in formal martial arts training. I teach students to put a little ink dot right at the middle of that hand gesture, clearly visible when you start and then throughout their practice. Whenever that hand flashes in front of the face they have a clear and visible reminder. The dot acts like a wisdom stone. Every time I see that little black dot it reminds me to do something – in my case to take a deep breath. Deep breathing forces the heart to slow down and gives me the time I need to slow down and think, or not think, or whatever.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. As I write this I am listening to a “brain massage” that you can find on YouTube. I don’t know if it really works but it sounds nice and relaxes me… so in point of fact it does. On the way home I will listen to Blink for the third or fourth time because I love Malcolm Gladwell and his crazy hair. Audiobooks saved my life once and I am paying a debt to myself every time I strap on the phones. Gladwell isn’t heavy and he is a great storyteller. I may have a bath later because I can lock the door. I will read for three or four minutes before I fall asleep tonight. Tomorrow morning its back to Blink, but only after I read a few minutes of my toilet book. You probably shouldn’t handle that book much.

Self-care rarely happens by accident. It may not sound like it from this article but I am actually very busy, just like you. We have a bucket of responsibilities and no time for anything. Too bad. Make it work. I drive and listen. Some of us colour, others watch documentaries or Breaking Bad or paint walls. It doesn’t matter if it’s quality time or pooping time, self-care cannot be optional and I ignore it at my peril. There is no one that will take care of me if I refuse to take care of myself.

After all, what good is it if I help the world but lose my heart?

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.

Misconceptions About Addiction

Canada’s poster-boy is in the news again. Rob Ford “graduated” from a treatment center and is back on center-stage, larger than life (literally). Like most people fresh out of rehab he is full of quick clichés, intended to cast blame and potentially excuse his past behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, I am truly hopeful that this will help him sort out his life but the inconvenient truth is that such efforts rarely produce lasting change without ongoing counseling and accountability. Ford claims that he will see a professional “for the rest of my life” but based on past behaviours this seems unlikely. I am not seeking to be fatalistic, I just happen to have worked at an amazing Addictions Services Centre for years and have watched a few thousand people work through their own addiction issues.

Quitting addiction is tough. It can literally rewire your brain chemistry while damaging your frontal cortex of the brain:
“Fortunately, the brain also has a built-in override system, the frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that makes a person moral, humane, social and altruistic – in a word, civilized. But the frontal cortex needs regular nurturing. If it’s long-silenced because of abused circuitry, if a person becomes a devotee of the pleasure-pathway, then the civilizing circuits decay.” (from the above article)

You can begin to see the problems. One of the greatest misconceptions about addiction is that anyone can just stop, once and for all. Another is that by quitting your drug of choice you have solved the problem. I remember vividly meeting a pharmacist who was dipping into the opiates at work and mandated to get help. He came to me and proudly announced that he was “no longer addicted”. I asked him why his lips were so puffy. It looked like a Botox appointment gone wrong. He admitted that he had taken to chewing sunflower seeds when he felt cravings. He was eating approximately 5 bags of spits a day. You can see this all the time. One person stops using heroin and instead smokes cannabis from morning til night. Technically they have stopped using, well you can see where I am going with this. Others engage in high-risk behaviours, or masturbate 8 times/day, or play World of Warcraft incessantly. While these are good harm-reduction strategies they do not address the problem.

Stopping addiction is difficult. We are tempted to address the symptom (the drug or habit) while ignoring the root causes. Most people initially begin overusing substances because they are self-medicating their life. Six months into recovery they wonder why they are still craving. It may be that they are craving their medicine. We have taken away the one medication that seemed to work and replaced it with… nothing.

Another misconception that people often have is that certain substances or activities, marijuana for example, are not “addictive”. This is a woeful misunderstanding of the deeper dynamics of addiction. Addiction is not really about alcohol or drugs. You can be addicted to shoes, or porn, or The Real Housewives of Vancouver, if that floats your boat. Addiction is primarily about what happens on a chemical and neurological level. Some people are addicted to dopamine, not drugs. Anything can be addictive because it’s not about the thing, it’s about the response on a chemical level. Certain drugs are, however, “more addictive” than others. Many people report that the very first time they used cocaine they couldn’t get enough. Anyone who has ever struggled with cocaine addiction can tell you that they were addicted to “more”. For some of us there is never enough cocaine. Those same people may feel bloated after two pints of beer and have no difficulty stopping. Put a line of coke in front of them, conversely, and watch them drool.

This is the problem with complete abstinence-based programs. They cherry-pick which chemicals are “bad” while allowing adherents to drink 40 cups of coffee a day and smoke 3 packs of smokes. They do not understand the devious and subtle nature of addiction. Most clinicians agree that substituting one drug for another is an effective harm-reduction strategy. That is why it is important to address ones addictive tendency, not just the crack problem. Addicts often cycle in and out of addictions – Tylenol 1’s or 3’s, Methadone, sleep aids, orgasms, overdoing it at the gym or church, etc. They are taught to deal with the drug, but not their broken life and propensity to make poor choices, again and again. That is why addiction groups strongly advise against romantic engagements for the first year of recovery. Addicts like substituting one addiction for another. Certain addictions are socially acceptable, though still very harmful.

There is also a pervading idea in the world of recovery that addiction must always be attached to abstinence… forever. I can still remember an 18 year old I spoke with who had just been to a recovery event and learned that, in spite of his addiction to pills and his disdain for overdrinking, he must abstain from alcohol for the rest of his life. For the rest of his life. He had no issues with alcohol at all but he was despondent that because of an issue with Oxycontin he would now be condemned to teetotalling the rest of his days. The thought was overwhelming. We talked.

While it may seem that I am disagreeing with myself at some junction I would like to point out the meta-narrative once again. Addiction is about excess in areas we cannot seem to control and which do something to us on a neurological and chemical level to ruin our lives or cause us to act in ways we are not proud of. There is no substantive proof that an adolescent who struggles with opiates will have difficulty with drinking. Some will yell that it is all the same, as I have seemed to indicate. It is, and it isn’t. Many who struggle seems to become addicted to everything. Others do not. I can give dozens of examples of people who are alcoholics who can take prescription medication with no ill effects. Many people who have difficulty with prescription abuse have absolutely no desire to drink to excess. While it is tempting to paint everyone with the same brush, this simply does not hold up in the real world.

Another misconception about addiction is about methodology. AA groups believe in what is called “the disease model”. Rob Ford was obviously at a program that was 12-step based. This philosophy believes that addiction is a terminal disease and there is no escape from it’s clutches. It is important to note that not all addiction research supports this belief (I can just imagine how many emails I am going to get accusing me of slamming AA). I love Alcoholics Anonymous and believe that it can be an effective model for sobriety. Unlike AA fanatics, however, I do not believe that this is the only road to Mecca. I believe is pragmatism – whatever works for you. Methodologies are not sacred but some are better than others.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction on any level get help. I cannot express enough how profoundly destructive this life can be. Addiction may, in fact, be the 21st Century plague. Recovery takes an incredible amount of humility, accountability, and hope. Talk to someone. Finding out the real story behind this important struggle may just save a life. Love someone enough to be honest, even if that someone is you.

Things can change. I wish Mr. Ford all the best.

 

 

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.