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.

 

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.

 

Women Aren’t Equal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.