The Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irregardless

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

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

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

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

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

Other People Have It Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waking Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jedi Mind Tricks

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

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

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

You want to do everything. Remember fun?

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

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

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

I want to be a Jedi.

 

The Measuring Stick

Am I crazy?

Many people who come to see a counsellor eventually get around to a version of this question. We are cognizant of the fact that we are trapped in our own little bubble. Most of us wonder if we are getting better – or more precisely, if we are getting better right. What if we are fooling ourselves? What if your mother-in-law is actually correct? How far down the rabbit hole have I actually fallen?

People like to measure their success. If only there was a Crazy Scale (there are several) that I could gauge myself against. This may be born out of the unspoken frustration we feel because we don’t feel like we are getting better. How is anyone supposed to know when they are fixed?

You could ask a professional, but chances are they have no real idea of how you are doing. If all else fails you could put it out there to your Facebook friends, even if those posts look needy and pathetic. Please, someone tell me I’m awesome! Probably not.

A little better than I was a year ago. That’s the only measuring stick that matters.

I really believe that. It’s not a competition, though if it was, I want to win. The only marker to which I can compare myself is myself. It doesn’t matter how my friends are doing, or my parents, or ultimately even my family or ex-spouse. Wholeness is about momentum more than it is about a random target on the wall to which my in-laws think I should strive. Who cares if you do not measure up to someone else’s standard of success; people are fickle children. What matters is whether or not I continue to fight the fight, continue to get up on days that suck, and keep practicing this crap (in spite of the fact that it isn’t working right now). It’s like the oft-stolen cliché says, “I may not be where I want to be, but thank God I’m not where I was”.

who-is-awesomeIt’s hard to admit to oneself that the race never ends. The journey towards wisdom and wholeness is not measured in terms of attainment, only degree. Every life is a series of disappointments and wins, setbacks and problems. Some people may get through life unscathed, though not around here. I have a responsibility to myself to be more me than I have ever been, not more you (as scary as that may seem to some). Comparing myself to others rarely leads to wisdom; although it can be fun to take a shot at someone not coping as well as we are. A better me is probably the only goal that ultimately matters. I have to live with me the rest of my life. A better me is a better husband, better dad or granddad, better friend and human. Everybody wins.

A little better than a year ago may not sell many motivational posters but it just might be a standard I can work towards.

So how are you doing?

Racing Thoughts

The apple.

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

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

(what follows is a generalization)

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

There I just did it again.

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

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

Wikipedia

Even Wikipedia is hedging it’s bets…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need an apple.

Resilience

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

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

A little at a time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why I am not Charlie

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

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

a paper bird

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

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

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The Weatherman

Joseph Stalin had only one real job before going into revolution as an occupation. He was a weatherman. He also had smallpox. And a webbed foot. And one arm shorter than the other because of an accident with a horse. His dad was an alcoholic, a peasant. As a psychology guy I find these seemingly random facts incredibly interesting.

Nature and nurture.

There is no way to be certain but it may have made a difference that the defender of the largest geographic region in the world during the nazi attack called Barbarossa was intimately familiar with geography and weather. The nazis were ultimately stymied by the cossack winter. Was that a coincidence? What impact did his pockmarked face have on his bad attitude? What was it like growing up as a Georgian peasant at the end of the 19th Century Russia? Did growing up in poverty influence his decisions? How was he moulded?

Chances are, you can’t really escape your past. I look like my father, I have his hands. My kids are just better looking versions of me, poor slobs. There are scars, outside and some deep down. You have been imprinted by your past, by your culture, biology, and family systems.

Hitler attacked late. In the famous account we now know that at the last moment he decided to detour over to Hungary and flex his muscles a little. As a Canadian I can appreciate how short summer can be. The timelines were incredibly tight. Hitler had to have Moscow by winter. He was a few weeks late. The German soldiers had not come prepared for the Russian winter. Timing is everything when it comes to the weather. A weatherman would know that.

We may never fully understand the influence of seemingly insignificant detours in our lives. You chose one school or another and it changed everything. You met one person who transformed your future. You were born to particular people with specific dysfunction. You learned certain coping mechanisms in certain ways from certain people. The person I have become has been no accident, in spite of it happening by accident. We all carry the impressions from our little piece of crazy.

One of the reasons that this stuff takes so long to master must be because we have spent a lifetime being imprinted by our surroundings. The jury may occasionally be out, with regard to the biological impact that your forebearers  have had on you, but one thing is certain – nurture may have more to do with your life than nature. There are specific and significant mechanisms that interact when you live in an environment such as yours. There are entire branches of psychology dedicated solely to this, family and cultural systems theory and therapy. It is impossible to understate the impact living in such dysfunction could have upon a vulnerable and developing psyche. You are what you eat. And who you love. And where you live. And how you are hurt. Chances are there are also a bunch of other influences, whether apparent or not.

10885501_10152888523605049_5123057925881569940_nI am a Williams. That probably means nothing to you, but my family has created a mythos around our heritage that is taught to subsequent generations. This Christmas my parents bought everyone around me a T-shirt with “Be calm and let Williams handle it”, even the still-to-be-born Williams affectionately referred to as “Jellybean” (he/she received a onesie). If you are a little child in my world whose name ends with Williams you have undoubtedly been reminded how awesome and lucky you are; just because you are a member of this elite and ofttimes condescending tribe. My kids think that to be a Williams is a big deal. Generations of winners. It’s all a lie.

I mentioned recently that my family were/are peasants. Our history floats on a river of alcohol and impulse-control problems. My dad is an orphan. My mom, as a child, probably never met a teetotaller. I come from hard stock, unforgiving and obstinate… and talkative. Many had very large noses. Serfs.

This history touches my life every day. I have acquaintances who are one or two generations further removed from their peasant ancestors. That fact alone has a massive impact on every aspect of my life. There is not, and never were, the merchant assets to pass down to the next generation. This led, inevitably, to fewer options and a far greater likelihood of generational poverty. Williams’s don’t go to college, or at least they didn’t. There was no tradition nor cultural expectation with regard to education. My family simply did not go to college, we went to war. I am honoured to report that my father, at 76, is in university… again. I received my high school diploma before he did.

These are not insignificant cultural markers. How you grew up, and who you grew up with, affects everything from finances to self-esteem, where and how you live, who you date, how you raise your kids, how you self-medicate, how often you travel, your values and spirituality and intelligence and ability to cope. Further exposure to experience or abuse melds the psyche in early childhood, and sometimes much later. If your parents broke up, this will impact your everything. If you were/are abused, if you make poor relational choices (for the aforementioned reasons), if you grew up around violence or addiction or a passive-aggressive parent or three-ply toilet paper, everything factors in.

A man who earned his living by predicting tomorrow’s weather probably did not get confused when the snow started to fly in early October. His troops were cold weather fighters who used the land and the cold (and the biggest secret peasant army hidden east of the Urals that the world has ever known) to defeat the undefatigable Third Reich. Stalin knew hardship. The Nazis were almost in Moscow and all seemed lost, but Stalin did not leave – why? He was depressed but he was a Georgian peasant who had risen to the top by killing every single person (and their family) who stood in his way. The boy who had been teased for his scars and his bum arm wasn’t laying down for anyone. Some people have wounds that have defined them, shaped them.

Who I am, and where I come from, is so fundamentally important that it’s almost embarrassing to discuss. Yet time and again we are resurprised by our foibles and cannot understand why we act the way we do. We date the same kind of person over and over. We continue to experience the same difficulty with relationships, or finishing projects, or hoarding, or painting the kitchen every other month. For some, anger has become our constant companion. Others have identified themselves as broken for so long it is impossible to imagine a world wherein wholeness is even an option. Understanding the role our history has played in our dysfunction is crucial to healing. As the man said, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This oft-quoted line has been liberally applied, but I believe it can apply here.

There is a possibility that you may not be as nuts as you think you are. Perhaps it really is your parents fault! Whatever the truth, it’s important to find out. Learning is how we wrestle this pig to the ground. Again.

One last story.

When I was 29, I woke up one morning and realized that I had been having a repeating nightmare. I could remember it being a little different, years ago, but wasn’t sure how. In the dream I was always chased by two guys who grabbed me and threw me into a white van. I believe the van was once brown but it changed colour, I have no idea why.

That day it dawned on me that I had been having a version of this dream since childhood. I decided to look a little deeper. Over a period of time I was able to trace the dream back to when I was 9 or 10 years old. So the question was, why?

Pinocchio.

I am old enough that I believe that I saw Pinocchio, probably on a Sunday night, and probably while watching The Wonderful World Of Disney. I remembered how frightened I had been when the slimy Fox and the Cat (or whatever they were I’m too lazy to Wikipedia it) grabbed Pinocchio and threw him into the cart with the donkey boys. Could it be?

I never had the dream again. It could be that, once I realized why I was having this nightmare my subconscious was able to move on. It might be that I’m more brain damaged than I think. Either way, I’m all good.

I know it sounds like I am suggesting that if you can trace back your abuse to a specific time then you would miraculously “get over it”. If you’ve been here before you know that’s not my thing. This story is an anomaly. I find it interesting, however, because of the power of such narratives. There is a connection between our thoughts, motives, history, and mental health. Quitting cocaine is a great step but chances are that isn’t your complete problem. Your life is your problem.

There seems to be a real correlation between how much I know about this stuff and how fast I move forward. The more I learn, the faster I run.

Timing2

Why didn’t I do this earlier?

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

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

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

Welcome to the process.

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

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

Any takers?

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

You Had A Bad Day

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Shane…

 

Exiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Price of Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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…

This Is My Toolbox

This is for you. You know who you are.

I talk a great deal in counseling about “the toolbox”. It is a psychological construct that many of us are familiar with. Talking about a toolbox is trendy now, and for good reason. Knowing what it is and how to effectively use the toolbox can be a powerful metaphor. One woman I work with told me that the toolbox doesn’t work for her. She has a sewing kit. The actual metaphor isn’t important, working it very much is.

And so, in deference to the few who have asked, I’ll tell you about my personal toolbox. Sharing this, for some reason, feels like a very intimate confession. This is not your toolbox, but it is mine. Welcome to my particular version of psychological weirdness.
My toolbox is, in point of fact, an actual toolbox. Years ago, I once owned a rusty, red toolbox, with a single removable tray. I could never pull the thing apart without one corner getting stuck, and in my mind’s eye it is still that same old cranky, rusty, piece of crap. I use a version of the Loci System to stock this thing, this imaginary tool chest in my head. I complement this technique with various memory systems because I have a brain injury. There, I said it.

There are only four tools in the tray, a wrench, a yellow screwdriver, my wisdom rock, and a respirator. The second layer, the bottom of the toolbox, holds a toy black chair and a clown mask. Eventually I will replace the wrench and the screwdriver with more literal interpretations, but this works for now.

On that day when we met, I wasn’t thinking about toolboxes or wrenches. We were just having coffee when she casually hurt me with her words. They were spoken innocently enough, but they were anything but innocuous. She meant to hurt me, to teach me. Condescension is one of my buttons, stemming from my childhood. “Tuning me in” strikes me somewhere deep and dark. I am working on it.

I often forget to employ the toolbox. In the wave of emotions (anger or pain or embarrassment or a little of each) I can be caught up in the surge and forget that I am “Counselor Scott”. I forget to ask myself WWSD. I am overcome… sometimes.

I have been using the toolbox for a while now and it still only works when I remember. The methodology is still inherently flawed, and I am also researching and endeavouring to shore up that whole “forgetting” thing when I’m upset and the emotion rolls in like rain. I’ll let you know when I figure that piece out.

Back to the toolbox. I have worked very hard to recognize the rush of ugly, and approximately 50% of the time I now remember to reach for the box. I open the toolbox in my mind. I can see the clasp, one of those silver ones with a metal loop on the top; and I open it.

There is the wrench. The wrench reminds me to recognize the cognitive distortions that are raping and pillaging my brain right that moment. I don’t know why it’s a wrench – this is probably because when I started doing this thing I was much too literal about a ‘toolbox’. I am thinking of changing it to a bunny, but that’s another article. As I reach out in my mind’s eye to grab the wrench I am reminded that I am probably not completely objective right now. Maybe I am catastrophizing or taking this conversation far too personally. Perhaps I am employing “all or nothing” thinking or emotional reasoning. I often use emotional reasoning because I am hurt. Holding the wrench forces me to think rationally. If that doesn’t work I can always hit you with the wrench, so it’s all good.

There is a yellow screwdriver, don’t ask me why. The screwdriver reminds me to employ STOPP Therapy. I should probably just substitute a STOPP Therapy cue card that I give to clients… duh. STOPP therapy has saved my life. I am proficient at STOPP therapy and if I can remember, this is usually as far as I need to go in the box. If I am still not able to deescalate myself , the respirator reminds me to breathe. Two weeks ago at the movie theatre I had to breathe 7 times before I could calm myself down. Apparently I still have some growing up to do. I carry the wisdom rock as a grounding tool. Sometimes it helps.

If I have to pull out the tray I know I’m in trouble.

The bottom layer of the toolbox contains a toy black chair and a clown mask. We are getting serious now. The toy chair is an exact replica of the chair I am sitting in as I write this – my counseling chair, rips and all. It is a not-so-subtle reminder that I need to put on my “Counselor Scott” hat. Yes I built in the redundancy because I am not that smart and need more than one cue. The clown mask… well the clown mask is more controversial and I hesitate to put it in writing. Let’s just say this memory cue reminds me that people have issues and I need to remember that ofttimes the anger or resentment I am getting from someone may not be a reflection of me. We all have mental health issues. Let’s leave that at that.

I am profoundly aware of how cheesy such tools can appear to the uninitiated or critical. But here’s the rub – when I am in crisis I usually do not have time to be profound. I need something quick and simple. Just like me.

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.