Happy Wednesday

I know it’s not Wednesday, unless you are actually reading this on a Wednesday. In which case, happy Wednesday!

I have a different story about Wednesdays.

I talk to a fair amount of people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or World of Warcraft, or porn, or masturbation, or shoes (and you know who you are), or Real Housewives of Vancouver. For most people in my line of work the actual addiction itself is almost secondary for much of our discussion. What the recent literature is saying is that what is really important is that weird stuff happening on a neurological and emotional level way way deep.

It is a fairly good bet that the reason you said yes to that rail or joint or seventh glass of wine on Saturday night had much less to do with your lack of willpower than you might think. Perhaps the cards were far more stacked against you than you ever imagined. So let’s talk about Wednesday.

You have been trying to skip a weekend for months. We talked about the problem and it’s becoming more and more about bingeing. Time to “take a weekend off” to prove to yourself that you are not a drug addict or alcoholic or whatever personally destructive name tag you want to wear.

There is a huge elephant in the room that no one wants to really talk about. The binge probably actually started on about Wednesday. Maybe it was on Wednesday that the thought first entered your mind. You know how it went. All you said to yourself was, “O crap, the weekend is coming!”. That was all. Harmless, right? Wrong.

I have heard several clinicians and university nerds talk about this. Apparently there is much more going on just under the surface than most of us realize. What if thinking about using actually gave me a little hit of happy goodness? Turns out it probably does.

Most of us have heard of adrenaline or dopamine or serotonin. Here’s a story. Yes that seems very random. Have you ever seen that cheesy commercial “This Is Your Brain On Drugs”? You know, the one that makes you want to eat eggs. Cocaine addicts, lots of cocaine addicts, have reported to me that commercials like that actually make their mouths water, and not for eggs.

Why do you think that is? If you’ve ever had an extended encounter with cocaine you will know there is a very specific and pronounced taste to that white powder. Users will often rub it on their gums to numb the surface of their skin, just for kicks. You taste every line, every puff. It is a very sensory experience. Ten years later a person who was once addicted to cocaine finds her mouth-watering during a story about a weekend binge. A wedding celebration has brought back some bad thinking about drinking. Apparently when Johnny started fixating on the weekend some of the good stuff was released in his brain and an association is made. More thoughts can equal more goodies and by the time John gets in his car on Friday night to drive to his dealer’s house he’s pretty much toast. Many addicts report that during the ride over they often berate themselves for being weak, yet again. Many promise themselves they will never do this again, or at least get help. At this point it’s just a game you play every time you disappoint yourself. This is familiar territory. You keep your foot on the gas pedal because you are, in a very real sense, already high.

The science on addiction is changing. Clinicians and front-line workers are incredibly open to new information and are much more willing to speak about dangerous subjects than we once were. Addiction humbles people. The carnage of broken lives that my colleagues in the addictions field and I have witnessed changes a person. I respect the drug more than I used to.

Today my colleague  Dawn and I spoke with some amazing parents who were absolutely frightened by the prospect of their teenager’s exposure to drugs in their local high school. They should be. At the end of the day there was a real sense that those parents needed to become better informed. Information really can be powerful. Knowing that I am vulnerable earlier cannot but help me when I find myself hungry, angry, lonely or tired (HALT). Knowing I am vulnerable can literally be half or more of the battle.

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.

Failure Is Not An Option!

Yes it is. It always is. You can play around with the semantics and argue about splitting hairs but this fact will still shake itself out – we fail. Call it what you want but it will still feel the same. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of self-talk. It’s just that I’m a bigger fan of emotional honesty.

At the risk of sounding religious I would have to admit that my failures have been “legion”. Many. I have not succeeded multiple times in my life. I had an amazing organic restaurant for some time, The Bad Dog Grill. I have started several businesses and have always believed in seizing opportunities, even a few long-shots. Not all worked and some have come and gone. Even starting a blog most of us secretly hoped we will be discovered, or at least quoted in one of those cheesy quotation pages. I average just over 80 69 visitors a day. Millions are not hanging on my every word, regardless of what my mom might think. Been discovered yet?

Like many of us, when I started a WordPress blog, I wondered how long it would be before I would be featured on “Freshly Pressed”. The answer is forever. Most of us will never be discovered, in spite of our childhood dreams and aspirations. This doesn’t fly well with contemporary positive-thinking gurus, who are adamant that our ‘attitude determines our altitude’. I have had a love-hate relationship with possibility-thinking and can appreciate it’s finer points. Changing your attitude, changing how you think, is probably the single most important thing you can do to transform your life. I have spent my entire adulthood seeking to understand the power of such transformations and wholly endorse any efforts to help us move forward. There is, however, a darker side to the positive-thinking gospel. Gurus like tall, tanned, rich and gregarious Tony Robbins make us believe that anything is possible if we only want it bad enough. Tony is wrong, though well-intended. Some things you will never be able to achieve, no matter how much you want it. You may never reach your childhood dream of becoming a dump truck or an astronaut. You probably won’t ever get that audition to be in Michael Jackson’s entourage. Wait a few years, though, and you might get to hang out with Justin Bieber if you commit a felony or are desperate for friends. Believing that you will succeed if you just want it bad enough is an important, though limited, commodity. People in my field endeavour to deal with reality, even when that reality is uncomfortable.

Sadly, everything is not possible. Someone struggling to survive in Sudan or Mogadishu will never be accepted to Harvard, no matter how many times they wish upon a star. We are limited by our intelligence, our looks, our income, but most importantly by our contacts. You may be only seven steps removed from Kevin Bacon but that is far enough away that you will have difficulty getting him to read your resume. Malcolm Gladwell has made buckets of cash helping us understand that even the month you were born in may affect your chances to play in the NHL. He reminds us brilliantly in several of his very readable books that the myth of the “self-made man” (sorry ladies but according to the misogynistic cliché you don’t qualify) is just that, a myth. Very few famous people got that way without an amazing endorsement. Every single one of them got breaks that you probably won’t get, even if you hold your breath and stomp your feet. It is no coincidence that Drew Barrymore or Nicolas Cage just happened to be spawned by famous parents. Millions of us silently chuckled when Bush told the media that being from that famous family didn’t help him in his rise to power. Seriously? The fact that he was from a multi-millionaire family that ruled the strongest country on the planet in no way gave him an advantage… Say what you want but it really is who you know, not just what you know. It has only been with the onset of the internet, where the playing field has been altered somewhat, that a few of the masses have gotten their message out.

In my files I have, from an earlier time, exercises for clients called “Affirmation Sheets”. Every counsellor that has been around for a few years has brushed up against them from time to time. Apparently there must have been a time in my life when I handed these out, though I cannot recall exactly when. They say things like “you are awesome!”, “you can do it”, and “anything is possible if you want it bad enough!”. I’m truly sorry if I ever made you read one of these. The problem is that they are simplistic in their understanding of life. People who believe such things are either pre-trauma or a product of bad teaching. We are all led to believe in such fairy-tales, we desperately want to. We are bombarded daily by messages convincing us that we are only one sudden discovery away from being adored. Sell this, buy a lottery ticket, grab this latest scheme, reach for the stars.

I do a lot of work as a motivational speaker and you can just imagine how weird that is. It is difficult for me to write this article because everything inside of me wants to scream “yes you can!” I completely believe that.

I love what Augustine said, “Love God and do whatever you want” (he was a bishop). The question he followed with was, “so what do you want?” His assertion was that if one truly loved god his wants would align with god’s (sorry, another old boys club) and therefore “doing whatever you want” would fundamentally change. That’s good psychology. Change your mind and your butt will follow…

The same philosophy can apply to what we are discussing here. I don’t need to believe in the actually impossible in order to believe in the seemingly impossible. These days my “Affirmation Sheets” say things like, “you’re doing the best you can in a difficult circumstance” and “hang in there, you can do this” more than “you’re going to be a rock star!”. I have had to lower my expectations of life again, just a bit. This is, of course, the secret to a reasonably happy life – lowering my expectations. Many would disagree with this sentiment but I have found that the fewer unrealistic expectations I carry into any relationship or situation, the more content I find myself. For example – in my marriage. The fewer expectations I have of Annette the less she will fail me. It’s simple arithmetic. My goal is to not need her at all, just want. I figure the more whole I become, and subsequently the less emotionally needy, the better husband, better friend, better person I will become.

Put that in your pipe…

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.

 

 

Being Different

For much of my life I was proud of the fact that I was a little different. Chances are you know what I mean. Many of us feel like outsiders, a part but not really a part.

For a very long time I have been working on a book about being different. Years ago, when I started writing, I simultaneously began talking with people about feeling like a misfit toy, and people responded. What began to emerge was a collection of stories – stories about feeling like an outsider. I heard testimonies to lives spent in the margins. The more I talked to people the more I began to realize that most of us, a vast majority of us, feel like we are walking alone. Pretty girls, buff guys, super nerds, intellectuals, introverts, extroverts, soccer moms and college profs, everyone I talked to believed they were aliens in an alien land.

Some of us fit in better than others. Some of us are truly marginal personalities and stick out more. I no longer believe, though, that I have a corner on feeling dispossessed. For whatever reason, more and more of us are feeling alone in a sea of Facebook friends.

This feeling of “disconnection” pervades society. Week after week I listen to a parade of good people complain of feeling like no one truly understands them. They are often prone to fits of mild depression, of hyper-vigilence, or living with a mind that never shuts down. Many of us are secretly quite broken, in spite of our multiple attempts to believe in change just one more time. We are a generation of emotional children, trying to grow up. We had no good teachers and have had to make this up as we went along. We have created a new world, and one in which many of us are trying to find our way. Men learning how to feel, others discovering their sexuality, their identity, and their particular weirdness. Women finding their voice, couples waking up to the reality that they struggle to understand each other, a world connecting more by finding less intimacy. We have never been so social or so utterly alone. Many of us have few close friends. Strangers in a strange land.

I am still surprised by how many people understand what I am writing about on a personal level. And in some screwed up way that makes a tiny bit of difference, when I think about it. It’s more pleasant to be by ourself, together. Perhaps once we see someone else in a Guy Fawkes mask it begins to dawn on us that perhaps we are not completely alone.

 

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.

Wireless Weekends

I am wired. And unless you have recently emerged from your bomb shelter, chances are you are as well. Cell phone. Check. Laptop. Check. IPad, IPod, another laptop, desktop, work desktop, Wii, Xbox, Roku, really crappy laptop, satellite radio. Check and check. TV’s and technologies everywhere I look. Check. It’s time for a break. I commented to a friend today that I am not sure cell phones and the internet have really added much to my life. As a therapist I see a frightening array of what I have started calling our cultural ADHD behaviours, behaviours that didn’t seem as prevalent even a few years ago. My youngest son used to read, and paint, and create. Now he would play his Xbox 16 hours a day if we let him. If I make him stop he looks around like a wounded and confused zombie. He has lost his ability to entertain himself. If it’s not the Xbox it’s the laptop or a smart phone. He doesn’t seem to understand that they are the same damn thing. The television now seems innocuous for some reason. I have found myself saying to him, “why don’t you watch some TV?” It seems like it was only a few years ago that I was telling him not to watch the boob tube; now it’s the healthy sounding alternative. What happened? I can tap my credit card now because it takes too long to put in a password. I am frustrated if the internet is slow (remember dial-up?). The automated teller takes forever. Cultural ADHD… I was in Hawaii recently for only a few hours when people were Facebooking me asking for pictures. I’M ON VACATION! People get upset if I don’t immediately return their text, email or Facebook message. I have come to loathe FaceTime. Surfing the web has become work. People can get in touch with me 24 hours a day, no matter where I am. It’s time to go kayaking. This summer I’m calling it “wireless weekends”. I am going to turn off the two cell phones I have, stay off Facebook – heck I’m going to stay off the computer all together. No texting, no surfing, no electronics… except a bit of television because I’m not Amish. It’s beyond time for a change. Years ago, when I went on vacation or left for a conference everyone understood I would be out of touch for a while. No one texted me an hour later to find out if I arrived safely or had any friggen pictures yet. Time for a blast into the past. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Luddite. I love technology, love it. I used to be a I.T. guy. I own a complete sound system for my band. I have five or six computers, but enough is enough. Time for a break. Ever considered how you and yours are affected by technology? I have no solid data on this but it seems, in my little part of the world, that we are becoming less and less able to sit still. I cannot remember the last time my sixteen year old sat out in the sunshine without some electronic device. People have stopped reading books. Clients appear more and more frantic, more stressed, more impatient, and less happy. I sometimes wonder if the growth in technology has really made our world a better place. My world has become a more frantic place filled with text messages and phone calls and Facebook updates. Maybe I am an Luddite. Tomorrow I will say goodbye to my MacBook Pro and hello to my kayak. See you again on Monday.

Summer Zen

Slalom Water Skiing

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

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

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

Feel the rhythm. Feel the rhyme.

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

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

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

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

Welcome to summer.

Forgive and Forget?

Probably not.

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

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

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

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

So what is the answer?

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

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

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

Goalies and Gatekeepers

Quotation-Khalil-Gibran-suffering-strength-Meetville-Quotes-194823I have never been very good at being a goalie. It has gotten me in trouble all my life.

There is something to be said for encouragement. I have always tried to be that cheerleader, even when someone didn’t believe in themselves. I’m not saying this to brag, I often suck at life. It has always been my heart’s desire to help people see the future and believe in hope, idealistic dreams, dragons and heroes.

There have been times in my life when I have been commissioned to be the keeper of the flame. I have led organizations – some successfully, others were flaming balls of amazing failure. I grew up with parents who believed in me, but few others. I was the mouthy kid, the highly energetic kid before we knew about things like ADHD, and way before it was trendy to talk about. I had grandparents who I saw far too often who were soul-destroying alcoholics who demeaned us children and belittled our dreams and aspirations. That has molded me, somehow, into the person I am today. I can’t abide dream-killers. I am an idealist though I have much evidence to the contrary. This all sounds somewhat self-indulgent but as a Canadian I must remind you that I have faults a-plenty, just ask anyone. I have people who hate me. I know people who firmly believe I am going to hell. I’m human, like you.

You can do it. I have to believe that or I wouldn’t know how to live. I don’t really know if you can become a millionaire or get that jetski you have been dreaming about but I am firmly convinced that anyone can be whole, can find the meaning of life, can make a difference. I have to believe that.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that most of us will not live up to our potential. As I have written many times on this blog, emotional/mental/spiritual health is not a given and often requires more effort than many of us can give. We are also not taught about this stuff anywhere growing up so most of us have had to stumble around, looking for band-aids and triage kits. Most advice is, frankly, bad advice. Like any profession the worlds of psychology and religion are replete with superstars trying to tell you how to live your life. Most of them are, unfortunately, very wrong. Get happy quick solutions and fad remedies don’t tend to work in the long run. In the long run we need to run a great deal longer than we thought we would have to. Most people end up as “realists”, pessimists too afraid to admit they might be negative.

Idealists get beaten by life. Even with a multi-billion dollar movie industry spewing out feel good cartoons and love stories we still cannot convince most people to believe in the improbably after they hit 35.

We thought we could find Mr. Right and we were wrong. We believed that we would reach all our childhood dreams and we fell short. What now.

My dad is back in college. At 75 he has decided to go to university to study children’s literature. He wants to write kid’s books. You see what I am spawned from? What chance did I have? Most people are preparing to buy their burial suit at that age and he’s starting the slow route on a four year degree. I like my pop.

Most childhood dreams belong in our childhood. You may not, in point of fact, grow up to be a princess or a firetruck. As Robert Frost pointed out, “Two roads diverge in a wood…”. Life is almost like that. As I grow older I can choose to bring that trauma, that pain, the dreams dashed and the people who have hurt me… or I can choose to live in a world of children’s books and magic. I am prone to become too analytical, too rational. This has often kept me from allowing myself to believe in mystery. The older I get the more I seek hope in the midst of truth.

I suck at goalkeeping. I still want to score.

Spring Is In The Air

“Change is needed, change is good”. Vaughn

Time to change it up a bit. I took a different job this week, one which a family member termed a “demotion”, but by choice.

I was tired of my life. Tired of sitting still all day. Tired of the grind, the relentless wheel of need that has no end. I knew I was getting this way months ago, but I didn’t do anything about it. I could have. I was going to. This week.

I quit my major part-time job. Well actually not really. Another position came up, outreach, and someone asked me to apply. Thank you someone. You know how it is, you don’t realize how badly you were doing until you look back. I realize now that I was coasting, coasting while doing a few other amazing things. But even those other amazing things couldn’t compete with the grind.

So here I sit in a new office, in a trailer, at a local First Nation Office. The people are amazing and the office is awesome. Tomorrow I hang out with teens at a unique high school for those who can’t handle the norm. Wednesday I will gratefully sit back in my counseling chair to help out for a day because Thursday is my day – I’ll find something to do. Friday I’m at the Laser Clinic and private practice, after seeing my two babies of course. Life just got mixed up.

I am a big believer in mixing stuff up. I have an entire life of variety and all I had to do to get that was to give up any hope of dying with a nice boat. Others do it better but I have a habit of getting bored, just when things get secure. My wife tells everyone I have ADHD but I’m the counselor and I’m firmly convinced that I don’t want that diagnosis. But then again, I’m bored now so let’s move on.

Change is good. It reminds us that we are alive. Change brings back our creative passions and exposes us to experiences. When this happens I like to call that “living”. Sometimes I can go weeks without really living, just getting by. I have no idea if I am going to like this decision, but there is no turning back without repercussions. I like that, in theory.

The chairs in this little corner office are very retro cool, and I have no idea what color they are. In my ear I can hear several creative females in my life-giving me “the look” before condescending to tell me the color is sea-foam hippy sweat or some such. They remind me of the talking chairs in Alice in Wonderland or The Beauty and the Beast or Sons of Anarchy, I get them mixed up.  It may all seem strange but soon, like anything and anyone, it becomes normal, regular. I’ll worry about that some other time. Today I’m just happy that it’s sunny out, I’m off to meet a Chief, and my sea-foam hippy chair mixes nicely with the 1978 carpet and the trailer paneling. I’m content.