Inner Monologue

I have voices inside my head. Not the kind where you take medications, the other one. The voice we all have, the whisper telling you to go pee right now. That constant inner conversation rattling around inside every head. Well, not all the time, I’m a guy.

There was a time in my life when my inner monologue was much more insane. Anyone who has ever gone off the deep end can tell you, things can get very scary inside that dysfunctional brain of yours. The constant feeling of tension , the weird thoughts, the nattering stressful boredom sometimes makes you nuts. Sorry to get technical there. You may become so engrossed in the internal soap opera it’s virtually impossible to remain objective. Scary thing is, it’s all so… rational.

Only it isn’t.

Did I say it was a monologue? Maybe it is more accurate to describe the experience as a wave mixed with an emotional rush; broken words and feelings all tumbling towards the unknown. I pitched this idea to one of my editors, Lori, and here’s how she responded:

I’m thinking about the movie Constantine. Cynical chain-smoking John Constantine, the weird androgynous Gabriel ~ and how Constantine went down to hell to find that girl who’d committed suicide at the psych ward. That place of monologue or trauma is a lot like hell. Constantine was loosely based on a comic called HellBlazer. I think once we know that ‘place’ we can never unknow it. Kind of like how once we become awake, we can never become asleep again. But knowing it, I think this makes it so we understand the depth of its agony. I think that’s maybe why you counsel and I feel like I need to ‘go there’ with people. I’m drawing some possibly unconnected analogy to the movie, but it makes me feel better about it all. Hell blazers.

That’s why she’s one of my editors.

The quote says it this way, “If there wasn’t a hell we would invent one”.

Here’s Lori again.

I think it’s almost reductionist to call it trauma or cognitive distortion or monologue. It’s a ‘place’. A virtual rendering of hell. In some way if I can look at it as a place, I can leave it as well as revisit it. And if I have a hell blazing friend, they can remind me it’s an imaginary place and not a reality.

Immanuel Kant spoke of dueling alternate realities. There is the world as I perceive it, and the world as it really is. They are different. Right now you may be worrying about something completely irrational. You may even know it’s cray cray but continue to worry, nonetheless. What if that worst-case scenario thingy happened? We all are young enough to believe in the worst. Very bad things can happen to very good people. Maybe that person really doesn’t like you.

There’s the rub, as they say. A lifetime of experiences, often bad ones, disappointment and heartache and pain and unrequited love and low-fat products which went to your hips have convinced most of us that we need to micromanage our internal head space and believe the madness pouring through our defences and threatening to invite us to start cutting or drinking or checking out, one more time. Lori was absolutely right – there are times when we need to be reminded that this is a fantasy and you need to wake up.

She stole my ending. And if I have a hell blazing friend, they can remind me it’s an imaginary place and not a reality. I aspire to be that person, when I am able. Chances are this is something you could also get behind. We all need someone who can take our hand when we lose our way. Thanks Steve.

Perhaps there was a time when people could bear this load alone. I am fascinated by the strength and the sheer badassness of those who served this country in war, often many years ago. The man who could survive the soaked hell-traps in the trenches of The Great War. People long dead who simply would not lie down in front of oppression and hate. Frightened teenagers who cried “We shall overcome, someday”. Children crawling through the jungles in the name of a cause they neither understood nor cared anything about. Countless women in history who were raped and decided to continue living. I am not that person.

I desperately want to be that person.

When you are crazy it doesn’t hurt to have someone in your life who is further along the journey or is in possession of knowledge they need to teach you. I have those people in my life and this is the primary reason I am so passionate about learning. Some of us need to figure this out and if it isn’t me than it sure as hell better be you.

This is going to hurt but you should probably do it anyway. Give someone permission to call you on your crap. Take the time or pay the money or scam a priest if you need to, but just do it. I cannot tell you the numbers of people who have walked through the doors I haunt. We have six counselors working today and they are all very busy. It’s trendy to have a shrink so come on, you hipster.

There are periods in our life when we no longer possess enough information to make an informed choice about something very pressing and stressful. It is at these times when some of your friends come to see me, just to punch something that doesn’t punch back. I may as well be air-freshener (and if you know me you have probably heard me refer to myself as exactly that), you just need a place to unpack a lot of poop.

Lose long enough and it becomes impossible to think clearly; when your reality is someone’s definition of purgatory. Most of us just roll with the punches and pray that our Lottery Ticket will hit big.

That may be living but that is not a life.

Talk to someone. Those who are humble enough to be taught will usually find their way.

Lori: I read a good thing, I think it was on Psychology Today. They asked people about their fondest childhood memories, and invariably they were stories about screw ups. The listeners would smile knowingly and they’d all have a good laugh and share war stories afterwards. But people really valued others who would point out where they went off.

In retrospect of course.

The Wolf At The End Of My Lane

I had a wolf. Well, not really; I should back up. There was a huge grey wolf at the end of my drive.

I would see him, I assume it’s a him, every few months. He would suddenly appear in the culvert, at the end of my lane, as I drove by. One day I stopped. One day I got out. The big grey wolf at the end of my lane.

I have never shared this tale before, and I’m not entirely sure why not. Perhaps it is because such a claim is impossible to verify and reeks of hyperbole. It may not have even really been the same wolf. But I know what I remember, and since no money is changing hands and I will never be famous, let me tell you a true story.

Before coming to the Left Coast of Canada I lived in the north, Fort McMurray Alberta, to be precise. It’s a weird place where welders make $150,000 a year and everyone wishes they were somewhere else. I lived on a ranch.

It appears that 25 minutes from the downtown of a northern city is too far for most commuters so we lived on 85 acres, in a beautiful cedar home with 22 feet floor-to-ceiling windows. We paid a little less than the cost of an apartment in town.

People in Fort McMurray buy toys, but I’m not talking about the dirty thought you just had. Snowmobiles and boats for a lake that is only tolerable for six weeks in the summer. Big trucks and expensive trips to the West Edmonton Mall and debt that staggers the imagination. My old town. The thing about toys are, they take up space. I had a ranch and someone needed a place for four horses. I had a barn and a friend wanted a dry place for three snowmobiles, including the keys. Someone else needed a home for a motorcycle, then a minibike, then a tractor, then more and more things with motors. Not bad for the price of a condo.

In the winter I would come home most days and take out one of the snowmobiles for a run, just so it would not rust. I am very considerate that way. I forgot to mention that I lived off a lake, but not near the beach. By January you could drive a Semi on any lake in northern Alberta and have a trucker hoedown with little fear. I loved to surf the powder on the lake at the end of a day listening to people’s problems. I was practicing mindfulness, or at least that’s what I told my wife.

One afternoon after work, as the sun was already beginning to set, I nearly drove into a pack of wolves running across the lake. Though we came from different directions we seemed to be aiming for the same destination. As I neared the pack there was my wolf, staring at me as he ran, not a care in the world. Maybe it was the shock of seeing that very wolf, or maybe it was the meds, but I didn’t drive away that afternoon. Almost naturally I came alongside this group of predators and on that day they let me run with the pack. I slowed, and we ran, and it was… glorious.

Into every life a little karma must fall and on that day someone was looking out for me. I was given a gift and a casual nod and, in spite of the artificial cacophony of the machine, permission to play. I felt something that day – something old. The wolf at the end of the lane knew me. To run with wolves, that is something out of Tolkien or Lloyd Alexander.

I wish I could still run.

It appears my body is breaking down. Years of sports and abuse and frozen pizzas have left their tan lines; and all the colon cleansers in the world can’t stop the march of time. It’s the game everyone gets to lose.

Some of you have been pretty all your life. This was never a cross I was called to bear. People who are good-looking may seem to be getting a better deal on everything because chances are they do. As a general rule pretty people get preferential treatment and tall people make more money; there is science to verify this. Some of you still haven’t yet paid for a drink in a bar but hold on, your time is coming. You are getting uglier. Ya, me too.

As a Canadian I feel compelled to wrap that comment up in a beautiful bow and deliver it to you in a passive-aggressive little pile of bullshit, but I will leave that sentence alone (I deleted the line with “uglier” three times because at heart I really just want you to like me). We are all aging, at varying rates. Television shows seem more and more to feature children who barely shave and yet have somehow had time to learn eight languages, get a black belt in Karate, and a doctorate in neuropsych.

Anyone who reads this drivel knows that I frequently write about philosophy, along with the regular psychology menu. I am currently on the slowtrack to a doctorate in my own particular weird blend of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Existentialism. I was fortunate that in my undergraduate degree I met people like Dave and Dan who delighted in daily jettisoning my preconceptions about virtually everything. They were my educational mentors and I am in their debt. I was given permission to think, and this has had a profound and ofttimes negative impact on my life to this day.

Few of us get healthy by accident. There is simply too much going on in the Twenty-first Century for most of us to stay emotionally well and positive in outlook. The promised future, replete with free-time and pastel jumpsuits, never materialized and most of my friends are stressed out of their minds and one Koolaid spill from taking out the village. Everyone has mental health issues and if you don’t just wait a week.

I have mentioned this before but I find it hard to even listen to a client who isn’t learning. I’ll put that more gently. I cannot think of one client who is really rocking this mental health thing who is not either a student or a reader or a serious life-learner. Last week I spoke at a martial art and ranted, “if you don’t read, you don’t lead”. That may sound narrow-minded or condescending but consider for a moment the world we find ourselves in. We no longer have the luxury of being ignorant about a host of things we never gave a crap about before the internet and media age. For thousands of years people had no idea what was happening and seemed to survive quite swimmingly. Our lives are a bombardment of manic media sources, Facebook and texting and Google and Xbox and our friends informing us that they arrived safely at the Red Lobster on 38th Street like I should give a damn. Our world is complex and dysfunctional and we were not given the tools to understand the how, let alone the why. I honestly have no idea why people who are not learning don’t lose their mind. Some days I wonder if I am too stupid and I do this for a living.

I could be wrong but I know what works for me. I have convinced myself that I want to be smart and I fell back in love with learning, and so have my Jedi friends who put me to shame. My life was once filled with music and noise and traffic. Today I was listening to “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief” on the drive to work. I drove slower than usual because I was on the part where they talk about the Sea Org and I have a sick fascination with cults. I had coffee with a friend this week and as she left she put on her earbuds. She was listening to “The Wisdom of Psychopaths“. I can virtually guarantee you that she is growing and moving forward.

Those who embrace the experience, rock the experience.

Few of us realize, that first month of counseling, that becoming a wise person requires tens of years of work, not weeks. In time the discipline no longer feels like drudgery and you begin to surf a little more consistently. In time this stuff changes your entire world and everyone around you if you let it.

The Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Grief

It’s very hard to describe to someone how grief feels. I remember when I was going through my own persistent hell I was taken to a doctor who flippantly told me, “you’ll be fine soon”. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a condescending idiot. Doctors are not trained in counselling and frankly he was talking outside his pay grade. Comments like, “time will heal” and “just move on” are seemingly wonderful platitudes that are, frankly, usually useless or even harmful. No one who is not experiencing your grief has the slightest clue what you are going through. If you have ever been crushed by a failed relationship, dealing with saying goodbye, or working through your private hell, you know what I am talking about.

The longer I do this the more I have come to understand that grief is an oft misunderstood and pervading emotion, that is not confined to the death of a loved one. People grieve for a myriad of reasons, from the death of a dream to the break-up of what “should/could have been”. People can grieve the loss of innocence or a dream, the hurt inflicted by a parent or child, even the loss of a job or a hope for the future.

There are, of course, levels of grief. No one who has lost a child would appreciate this being compared to the loss of a job, by way of example. Some grief is overt, palpable, intense, overwhelming. As far as I’m concerned a parent who loses a child is given a “free pass” in my world for the rest of their life. Some hells are beyond comprehension.

Grief is not just an emotional state or feeling. Sometimes, when the waves come (and many of us describe grief as a “wave”), your body hurts. Exhausted. Finished. Grief can come in crests that are all-consuming. Your world is so consuming that you cannot understand why everyone seems to be able to go about their lives as if nothing has happened. You can’t stop crying, or you can’t start. Your heart races and you wonder if you are going to die. It never seems to end. Bad counsellors have told you that it will get better someday but you know it will never end. It consumes you. It defines you. You begin to wonder if you are insane. You can’t stop hurting, wave after wave after wave. You don’t care if you live. You often wonder about death, your death. Nightmares turn into daymares as each day, each hour and minute, seems to last forever. You are destroyed. Broken. Life has no meaning.

I’m not making this up. There are readers here who tell you that I’m not even remotely exaggerating. Quite the reverse, actually. People die from grief, and some people who survive never really recover. There is nothing that anyone can say that will make a difference today, but that’s ok. Helping someone who is grieving is about “presence”, not snappy advice. In that time that cannot be named there was nothing you could have said to me that would have “snapped me out of it”. Recovery was a series of infinitesimal movements that I probably had no idea were happening. Time and tears and waves and waves. Emptiness. Then one time, for reasons that escape you, you don’t have a horrible day. Maybe you didn’t cry today. Sometimes that is a huge win. Let’s not pretend, however, that you were happy. Happy? Not bloody likely. Little by little life was less horrible, though it seemed to take forever.

There is no magic pill at the end of this tale, no Prince Charming to swoop in and rescue us. There is only coping and learning and surviving in spite of it all. As we always say around here, there are some lessons that are only learned in pain. They still aren’t worth it, usually. Pain may have given me a measure of wisdom, but I still would have preferred to stay stupid and idealistic and unscarred.

Once again, there is more philosophy in psychology than many realize. These conversations bring up questions of mortality, and faith, and fairness. Learning to cope with a life you never wanted, in a world you never imagined, is a harder thing than most of us would have supposed; If we could have imagined it at all. I grew up in a world where right always triumphed in the end and cool guys never looked at explosions, they just walked away looking like Fonzie or Bruce Willis, Arnold and Clint. Real men ate red meat and drank martinis that were shaken and not stirred, for a reason I have yet to appreciate. Learning that life doesn’t end like in the movies is a painful lesson that we learn and relearn.

Maybe wisdom is learning how to live in a world that is unfair, and where everything doesn’t necessarily happen for a reason. Lowering my expectations, one more time. It has helped me a great deal when I realized that life offered me no guarantees, only days. Learning to find contentment in the moment has been an arduous journey. Learning to let go of things that hold me back has been harder still. I am still hoping for success someday.

I am often reminded of the second half of the Serenity Prayer, the line where it says “that I may be reasonably happy in this life”. Reasonably happy.

I might have a shot at that.

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.

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.

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.”

Experimenting With Deductive Reasoning

I watch a lot of Sherlock Holmes. No one is as good as Basil Rathbone, no matter what you might think. I can see him clearly in my mind’s eye, which is amazing when you consider I cannot imagine the faces of some of my relatives. Cumberbatch may be second, his latest take outstanding and entirely believable (as long as you don’t mention the utterly ridiculous plot twists in the last episode. An assassin? Seriously? Moriarty?). Watson’s wife notwithstanding (although I love her as an actor and it’s cool that they are married in real life), I have endeavored to incorporate Sherlock’s love of deductive reasoning more and more into my life (Don’t even get me started on Iron Man’s version with the dude from the movie about Stalingrad).

Years ago watching Lie To Me led to a fascination with John Gottman’s techniques, even enrolling in the online version of his facial recognition course and reading his magnum opus (dry). The power of television.

Back to my experiment with deductive reasoning. I work part-time at an addictions center (www.alouetteaddictions.org) and on any given day you can find a needle or sterile water container, maybe a rubber tie or a cooker, in our very parking lot. I have mentioned this to other colleagues who have, without exception, been surprised because they have never noticed anything amiss. This is interesting inasmuch as there are often several of these discards within feet of their cars. Several.

One day I had a banana on the way to work. When I got to my regular parking spot I found myself in a quandary. It was icky and I didn’t feel like carrying it to the front door, unlocking the door, doing the stairs and hallway, unlocking my door, etc. I am, by nature, a lazy person.

Fully intending on grabbing it later I slid the banana under the driver’s seat car door and under the car. I would simply grab it once I sat in the car at the end of the day. My car (1985 300zx) is a very low riding vehicle and it would be as simple as reaching my long arms under the car. I forgot.

About a week later I noticed a dark brown old banana peel that looked as if it had been there for six months. And it dawned on me.

Recently I have gotten into the habit of eating a banana for breakfast on the way to work almost every day. Every morning I am faced with a dilemma. Then I thought of Sherlock. He loves to say, “you look John, but you do not see”.

How long would it take, at a rate of a banana a day, for people to notice that the parking lot was filling up with bananas? They don’t tend to notice a tiny syringe but surely, within a few days, someone would mention in my hearing that there is a preponderance of bananas where no bananas should be. A week at most?

It’s March 18 today. It seemed only appropriate to begin the experiment at the beginning of the month. I can look out of my window and clearly see…. 11 bananas. The others are out there, they have become a more integrated part of the landscape and are not as easily detectable from the second floor.

18 bananas.

I promised myself, back on day two, that I would shovel up every single banana. The task now seems a little daunting. Within a few days I will have over 20 bananas to scrape up and it is going to be noticeable. People will want to ask me why I am shoveling up 38  bananas won’t they?

Look but don’t see.

(UPDATE: I just asked a co-worker, shrugging as I pondered, “Have you noticed that banana peel in the parking lot?”
“What banana peel?”)

From time to time my clients hook up with new partners. Never do this if you are seeing a counselor. Ever. We will make you miserable. I often tell clients that counseling, if it is really working, totally sucks. Counseling rips open your life and exposes stuff that you have tried to keep away from for decades. The very coping skills that have worked for you all your life are the very things we will take from you. You are not in my office for a good time and I spend a lot of money on Kleenex. It is one thing to look at your inner life – your emotions and motives and hurts and private junk – it’s another thing altogether to really see what is going on.

So why would I pick on you for dating someone? Most of us who have a history of making poor relational decisions will continue to make poor decisions until someone stops us. We do not naturally understand our dysfunction and are prone to make the same mistakes, time after time after time. Unfortunately there is no roadmap for life and no one taught us how to understand this stuff. I am finally, at my old age, figuring a few things out… someday. We may learn eventually and we call this “experience”. My job is to help you have less experience.

20140318_160239Tomorrow will be banana number 19. It’s actually already here, sitting beside me as I write. We are down to a few bananas at home and I did not want to have to go to the grocery store after work so that I could continue my precious experiment tomorrow. I am counting on the fact that everyone else in our household likes bananas and Annette will go get more before I have to get my lazy butt off the couch. I try to be an equal partner, but this is science and I need to preserve my strength for the investigation.

Bore Me To Life

I have spoken with a lot of people about trauma. It’s kind of my job. Rarely a day goes by without hearing about someone’s life taking a tragic detour, of heartache and ruined families and ruined lives. That’s pretty much what we call “a week day” around here. I love it and I hate it.

Most of us know a little something about trauma. We’ve seen enough and heard enough to believe that people who have deep-seated resentments need to “get it out”. Pain breeds bitterness and bitterness breeds an ugly and petty life. Just get it out.

I used to think that “getting it out” meant that we had to go over every little ugly detail, line by line, over and over again. We called it Exposure Therapy, we called it CBT. We called it a lot of things. Over and over and over.

There may be something to that, though maybe something different from what was initially intended. Talking does, for reasons that often even escape me, help. This is not even a controversial truth. Everyone, with the possible exception of a few Scientologists out there, understands that counseling can have value.

Quite a bit of this is really about boredom.

The jury may be out on whether or not rehashing your childhood “until you can let go of it” is even possible. What I do know is that if we talk about this stuff long enough you are going to grow tired of rehashing it over and over. Eventually I am going to wear you down until you care about that issue – 1% less. With time the emotional death-grip that this hurt has on you begins to loosen, very very slowly. With time the details seems to matter a little less. Talking about something you have spent your life trying to ignore helps to loosen up the vice. There is insight and perspective, arguments and pain. One day you realize you haven’t grieved in a few days and you know that you are learning to walk again.

Time heals, sometimes.

Working through your issues and coming through to the other side is less about techniques and more about showing up. If you find a counselor that doesn’t suck and are willing to put in the effort, anything is possible. It may take a lot longer than you first imagined but it is always, always worth it. You have only one life, and I don’t know about you but I do not wish to spend that life broken.

Maybe moving forward begins with some of us walking into a counselor’s office and saying, “bore me to life”.

Jealousy And Obsession

Man thinking on a train journey.

I work a great deal with people who are in the throes of an obsession. It may be a love or a love lost, a new hobby or a destructive coping mechanism. No matter what the cause, obsession can be a powerful and consuming thing. The longer I work with clients the more apparent it becomes that a manic state is in many ways as destructive as a depressed state. Some of that emotional energy I have seen during a relational breakup, for example, is very destructive. Checking your email or Facebook every two minutes, writing out dozens of extensive apology or spite letters, overdoing it at the gym or at the bar or even at your church – manic obsession is not healthy.

Jealousy is a great example of how manic behaviour and thinking can get out of control. It can be insipid, especially if it appears justified. Sometimes we are jealous of another for good reason, at least we think so. This often leads to excessive passive-aggressive behaviour, incredible neediness, controlling and manipulative relationships, and eventual emotional ruin.

I know a little bit about jealousy. There was a time in my life when I was convinced that someone I cared about was attracted to another. The fact that I was eventually proven right actually was worse than if I had been mistaken. Fuel for the fire, so they say.

I have come to realize that most often jealously is actually about me, not the other person. If I am insecure, or envious, if I am needy or convinced that I am unworthy, this has a tendency to exacerbate any legitimate feelings I may possess. Finding out your spouse is enamored with some other guy or girl is bad enough when you are healthy. If you are an emotional train-wreck it can absolutely devastate you and those you are in community with.

Obsession.

Jealousy, like rage or fear, is an exceedingly powerful and consuming emotion. It turns otherwise rational people into psychotic idiots, passive people into tyrants, happy people into pathetic messes. Some of you know what I am talking about. Objective thinking goes right out the window. Like other obsessions jealousy takes up most, if not all, of your head time and thoughts. You start to catastrophize everything, think with your heart and not your head, live in a constant escalated state of pain and anxiety. Jealousy is almost impossible to talk someone down from.

Breathe.

Those racing thoughts are not healthy. Letting yourself dwell on the possibilities only makes you sicker. Trust me, you don’t need to feel all your feelings. You don’t need to process your pain twenty-four hours a day. What you do need is to put the brakes on the insanity and eat some chocolate, get laid, go to a movie, take a nap, or spend some time in prayer or meditation. Find out about mindfulness. Look into distraction. Talk to a doctor about Ativan. Read or listen to a book. Get sleeping pills. Give other people permission to tell you to shut up every now and then. Dwelling constantly on what may or may not be is a great way to go insane. Talk to a professional. Learn STOPP Therapy. Work on those racing and irrational thoughts. Deal with your self-esteem and insecurity and childhood issues. Stop the train wreck.

Realize that no one else can make you happy forever.

Making It Work After Someone Cheats

The Pleasure and the Pain (1963) ...item 2.. M...

Not everyone can do it. I’m not sure I could, to be honest. Many couples choose to stay together after infidelity and I salute them. Remaining together is one thing, trusting ever again is another. So if you are in this situation, what can you do?

Earning trust back is a monumental task requiring an incredible amount of humility from both partners. It takes way longer than people want to admit. I have, however, seen couples who are committed to making things better, in spite of the horror and the obsessive thoughts, jealousy, and pain. Sometimes.

Working as a counselor I have, as you can imagine, my share of marital issues to wade through with people. Nothing comes close to the difficulty of rebuilding trust and safety. Trust and safety – two words that constantly come up when I talk to clients, especially female ones.

People don’t generally understand how devastating infidelity can be. For the partner who has been rejected (yes I said that word) the process can take years, if ever. There are nights and days of obsessing about the “why” of it all, about how they have failed as a lover and a spouse. There are hours and hours of anger and more obsessing. Even being touched by the cheater becomes loaded, and potentially volatile. The spouse who has cheated is often subjected to months and years of the “short leash”. They are forced to phone more often, report in more often, talk to potential attractions much less often. Sometimes there is punishment and condescension, anger and vengeance. The one who is on the short leash usually grows tired of the lack of trust. Why can’t your partner ever seem to move on?

Spouses who cheat, especially men, are prone to verbalize how tired they are of not being trusted. Many will, after some months, flatly refuse to jump through any hoops or even talk about the infidelity… yet again. They are sick of the same tears, the same logic, the same belittling. A surprising number of relationships break up a year or more after the actual incident. Things just won’t seem to go away and both partners are not getting what they need.

If you have been betrayed in this way the first thing you need to understand is that there is no template for how to respond correctly to such a nightmare. It’s so easy for counselors to give out prescriptions for happiness but the sad truth is that most of us are permanently damaged. There can be forgiveness, even reconciliation, but the relationship will change. For some of us leaving is the only emotionally healthy option.

If you or someone you love is tortured by infidelity, either their own or someone else’s, encourage them to talk to a professional. The most important part of moving forward is personal healing, no matter what the outcome. Learning how to process what has happened is the key to healing. Time doesn’t hurt either.

No one really knows what you are going through although some of us can understand that pain. Whether it’s your parents or your partner you owe it to yourself to do everything necessary to be whole again. You’re worth it, in spite of how you may feel right now.

The Truth About Suicide Part Two – The Myth Of The Unforgivable Sin

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of F...

I remember the first time I heard it. I was in, admittedly, a religious meeting, a youth meeting. The speaker asked various small groups around the room to talk about suicide. I was an observer. 

As I walked around the room I heard teens and adults talking about killing themselves. Everyone knew a story about a loved one or friend who had either attempted or committed suicide. Then I heard it.

I did not grow up in an overtly religious home. I had no idea, until that day, that people who committed suicide went directly to hell. I remember much later watching the movie, “Constantine” wherein Keanu Reeves talked of his desire to earn his way back to heaven. He was hell-bound, you see, because he tried to commit suicide. Bizarre. 

A few years after that small group experience I was talking to a bunch of Christian teens and offhandedly scoffed at the suggestion that their relative who committed suicide was automatically condemned to burn in hell for all eternity. As a psychology dude you can imagine what I was thinking. When the parents found out I told their children that suicide was not the unforgivable sin in Christianity, they proceeded to rip me a new one. How dare I tell this to their teens? What if one of them used this information to justify killing themselves. I tried to explain that if fear of hell was the only thing keeping their Emo brat from offing himself than maybe there was another problem that has been wildly overlooked.

It wasn’t even good theology. I have talked to several theology types and no one worth their salt gives any credence to this religious “old wives tale”. The only unforgivable sin, I am told, has nothing to do with this issue at all. The bad theology is based on the misunderstanding that a person who kills themself has no time to “repent” and therefore must go to hell for that sin. By that definition if I lose my temper once or pick my nose wrong just before a deadly traffic accident than I am hooped. Even the most conservative of my religious friends will not allege that, after a legitimate conversion experience, one outstanding blemish will deal you out. Such a belief would be incredibly fear inspiring and virtually impossible to adhere to with any level of confidence. Heaven only as long as you are perfect at the time of your demise – no outstanding sins, no active character flaws, no hidden accounts, no working under the table, no yelling, no little white lies, no swearing (apparently I’m screwed)…

Dealing with the horror of a loved one who has taken their own life is already unimaginable. Holding cognitive distortions that only make things worse (suicide as the unforgivable sin), is truly tragic. You have enough to deal with without some ignorant religious zealot convincing you that your loved one is doomed for a trillion years. If you don’t believe me talk to a pastor about this topic. Chances are he or she might agree with me.

Let’s continue to address the misconceptions around this most tragic act of madness and pain.

The Truth About Suicide

Most of us will probably be touched by a suicide in our lifetime. In a world that fancies itself evolved, suicide remains a leading cause of premature death and is more popular today than ever before. There are groups and chat rooms dedicated to the promotion of suicide and it is not uncommon to hear of suicide pacts and self-inflicted copycat deaths. Some cultures create cultural myths and mores which promote, even glorify, the suicide act. Rock stars do it all the time.

There is so much misinformation and misunderstanding around suicide that it is difficult to know where to begin. I regularly meet clients and patients who have been devastated by the suicide of a loved one and subject themselves to self blame, recrimination, and second-guessing on a pathological scale. Sons are still mad at fathers who killed themselves twenty or even forty years ago.

How could someone do that to themselves? How could someone do that to their family? How could a sane person have ever convinced themselves that their children and family would be better off without them? Isn’t that insane?

You know it.

I thought of taking my life once, or rather, constantly for a single period of time.

I can look back at that Scott and see that he was an incredibly sick little boy. He was completely and totally off his nut (sorry for the clinical terminology). I look back at that Scott and I can see clearly how he could believe that he should take his own life. I can re-enter his mind and see what he sees, taste what he tastes. I’m back there right now as I write. He’s crushed, broken, deeply wounded and unable, even unwilling, to lift himself up. He’s insane with grief. Is he capable of believing that he should end it all?

Why not.

I did a lot of things I regret, once a long time ago. It’s easy to wallow in the guilt and the muck and actually believe that this insane, crushed, broken man was fully responsible and incapable of being forgiven. If health has taught me anything it’s that I need to be more gracious to myself when I was sick.

Back to our topic.

I have no idea how you are reading this article but it was intended to bring healing to someone out there who still cannot let go of the anger and the pain. Maybe it will help someone else become more empathetic, more understanding of those who are battling mental health issues. They were insane, and insane people do insane things. It was never your fault. It wasn’t even really their fault. People in their right mind do not take their own life. I know.

I’m Going To Explode!

Stress

Panic attacks. Many of us have had one, or several. Somehow things stress us out so much that at some point we start to melt down. Little things become big things. Problems become impossibilities. Everything starts to overwhelm us. Some of you know what I am talking about.

Stress is like that too. The relentless and unbending pace, day after day after day. The problems with my parents, or my kids. The never-ending need to be doing something. The never-ending list of things to be done. The meaninglessness of it all.

It is truly shocking how many of us live our lives in a constant state of anxiety, pressure, and stress. Day after relentless day of problems and issues and things that absolutely must get done before I can fall into fretful sleep. It is no wonder, than, that so many of us live on the edge of constantly boiling over, constantly in danger of being overwhelmed. Constant anxiety can do that. So can ongoing anger, or depression, or grief.  Even ordinary “never going to change” stress and problems can potentially take you to the edge.

Remind you of anything? Ask anyone who’s had an orgasm (and I hope you are one of them) and they’ll tell you that at some point in the whole process you reach what I will call, for lack of a pretty term, the “point of no return”. After this point the house could burn down around you and you’ll still need “just a minute”. There is a vast store of energy just begging to be released. Momentum is building alongside a weakening will to resist and your capacity to hold off a crisis is sorely tested. The train is coming and there is nothing you can do about it.

Anger is also like that. It builds; becoming more intense and more animated, until things just start spilling over. Have you ever wondered why people often seem to make little sense when they are exploding? Maybe that’s because this release of emotion is closer to an orgasm than we care to admit. The build up, the release, the relief. You feel better in spite of the fact that everyone around you feels worse. Time for a cigarette.

Do I Like It Sick?

Many spouses will stay in a relationship that is sick and twisted, but why?

It is a truly terrifying story – a young girl grows up in a sick home and is repeatedly sexually abused by a relative or family friend. This person then becomes sexually active at twelve of thirteen with a boyfriend who in his mid-twenties or beyond. Often this is followed by a period of extreme promiscuity. They are sexually intimate with every boyfriend and come to believe that this is expected of them if they want to stay in that relationship. She starts to associate sex with being loved or loving someone else appropriately. They often engage in sexual acts which they do not enjoy, most of which are degrading in some way. They have an overwhelming compulsion to “perform” in order to be loved. For some strange reason, however, after they have settled in with someone they discover they are not truly happy and still have trauma and self-esteem problems. They struggle to find the intimacy and completeness in romance that they so desperately yearn for.

In counseling it often becomes apparent that this person is actually attracted to the sickness they have come to associate with love. They go after the “bad boy” or they seem to hook up with men who are always emotionally unavailable, their romantic interests usually are selfish, misogynistic or emotionally unhealthy.

If you can relate to what I am writing about then it’s time to ask yourself a question, “Am I attracted to this person because of their sickness or their health? Is this person irritating me right now because they are desiring something healthy (emotional connection, vulnerability, working on the relationship, planning for the future, stability, etc)?

Is it sick or is it healthy? I often send my patients home with this homework. For the next two weeks ask yourself, whenever you feel emotional in your romantic relationship, is this sick or is this healthy?

When he ignores me I pursue him. Is this sick or is this healthy?
I feel repelled by his attentions. Is this sick or is this healthy?
I am overly critical or easily angered by this person. Why? Is it sick or is it healthy?
He/she never seems to live up to expectations. Is this sick or is this healthy?

You get the idea, a good exercise for whenever we are struggling with our loved ones. Ask yourself, “Is what I am experiencing a result of a healthy and legitimate concern, or is this an unhealthy response to a sick situation?”

That may not be a bad idea for any of us.

He Probably Had It Coming

“When I went into the community looking for some support services, I couldn’t find any. There were a lot for women, and the only programs for men were for anger management,” Mr. Silverman told the Post shortly before his death. “As a victim, I was re-victimized by having these services telling me that I wasn’t a victim, but I was a perpetrator.”

The man who ran Canada’s only shelter for male victims of domestic abuse has apparently killed himself. A sad ending to what was, allegedly, a difficult and frustrating attempt to draw attention and provide safe haven for men who have been damaged by their spouses. It’s a dilemma that I have run into for years, often misunderstood and actually mocked and derided by society. Apparently men should not complain if their spouse hits them, they should be above such abuse while at the same time never lifting a finger to strike back or even protect themselves. I have heard the story many times, and on one occasion a husband was charged (and convicted) for restraining his wife who was in the process of hitting him with a cast iron frying pan for the third time.

Let’s face it – for many men just admitting that they are victims of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse (yes I said sexual) is tantamount to admitting that you aren’t really a man. This only exacerbates the problem. Not only is it embarrassing and painful to tell others but you can be fairly certain that others with probably accept your story with a hint of sarcasm or non-belief. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say of men who have been hit or abused, “He probably had it coming.”

Violence is wrong no matter who the victim is. No one should be allowed to attack another, no matter what their gender is. It’s also pathetic that there is no funding available for these victims. Maddening.

You Have Herpes

Reality can be cruel. Sometime ago I was handed the inglorious task of telling a beautiful young woman that she had herpes. She was sure it was a bladder infection, but ultimately the science didn’t lie. There is a stigma that comes with something that is sexually transmitted, especially if you have a partner that does not have an STI.

The thing is, you can deny the reality all you wish, it will not change the facts. It’s like being pregnant, there is no “sort of”. Such it is with life. There are certain realities that come screaming your way no matter if you are willing or not, ready or not, believe it or not. Immanuel Kant believed that there were essentially two different worlds – the noumenal and the phenomenal. The phenomenal world is the world as we perceive it. The noumenal world is the world as it really is. They are rarely the same thing. For those of us raised on The Matrix it is the difference between the blue and the red pill. The real world is seldom as we perceive it.

We put on our sunglasses and filter everything to fit our view on the world. We have been raised to believe certain things, use certain coping mechanisms, employ certain cognitive interpretations and distortions. There is something in all of us that wants to believe we are the exception to the rule. Other people cheat on their partner and get caught but I am too smart, too slick, the exception. I can cheat on my taxes and get away with it. I can cut corners, take shortcuts, skim relationally, and do whatever the hell I want because, although other people get caught, I am not going to be held accountable. Sometimes we are even right.

Sometimes we can get away with enough that it actually reaffirms our excuses and entrenches this belief in our psyche. I see this often in counseling. People want to have their cake and eat it too. On a regular basis an individual will seek me out in order to get permission to do something cheap or immoral, or just a bad idea. They are looking for a professional to condone their desires. Often they leave disappointed.

Although it is not my job to judge others, I do recognize a bad idea when I see one. And I see many. Day after day people walk through my life and describe how they are trying to take a shortcut, convinced that they will not be held accountable. After doing this job for years I am often tempted to stop them mid-sentence and tell them how things are going to turn out in six months or a year. To quote Agent Smith from The Matrix, “That is the sound of inevitability.” 

I am guilty of occasionally telling my clients who are vulnerable, in recovery, or in the midst of crisis, “If it feels good, don’t do it”. If you are still with me at this point you undoubtedly understand what I am trying to teach them. Of course it is good to do good things. The problem is, however, that many things that are instantly gratifying are in fact horrible options. Snorting cocaine is instantly gratifying, so is cheating on my wife. The surge of chemicals in my brain overwhelms me with yummy goodness. It seems like a good idea at the time. That’s my phenomenal world talking, and it’s lying to me. Wisdom rarely whispers to easiest route to success.

Real growth has little to do with taking shortcuts. You can get your black belt in martial arts online if you mail ten dollars to some spurious Do Jang but that doesn’t mean you know how to fight. There are no shortcuts to a real black belt, or a real degree, or actual wisdom… or healing. One of the screensavers that pops up on my computer at the office says, “I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.” That’s reality. – If it seems to good to be true, it is. – If anyone tells you that you can be whole in eight sessions of anything, they’re wrong. – You can’t change anyone else, just yourself. – Guilt/feeling bad is not the same as doing anything – No one else is to blame for your life – Trauma doesn’t usually just go away – Prayer doesn’t fix everything.

Sometimes you have to get off your ass and do something – No one cares as much about your problems as you do – The real world is boring, make friends with that – Everyone is as screwed up as you are… trust me on that … and to repeat – If you aren’t enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it (Cool Runnings)

Living with An Emotionally Closed-off Spouse

The Unloved

I’m not just the counselor, I’m also a client.

I have been told that I have come a long way in the past years. I have difficulty writing that, it feels arrogant to a good Canadian. The truth is, I had a long way to come. There was a time in my life when I was a mess, even though I was still pretending to be an authority on life. I have been needy. Very, very needy. There was one point in my life when I had such an enormous hole in my heart I was quite sick emotionally. I made decisions and did things that were based on poor reasoning and a brokenness that shocks me when I look back.

There are many reasons why we develop dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Some of us are in abusive relationships and have a sick sense of guilt that has been beaten into us emotionally and perhaps physically. We know we should leave, people tell us all the time, but we just cannot seem to pull the trigger. After all, he has many good qualities we remind ourselves. You have a profound and deeply entrenched belief that you are not worthy of a healthy relationship. He or she has told you a hundred times that you are unlovable  unworthy, and you believe them, at least on an emotional level. It taints everything about you.

Perhaps you were physically or sexually or emotionally abused as a child. You find that you have a hard time enjoying normal sexual contact or perhaps you tend to be drawn to poor choices when dating or committing. Maybe you have a hard time with impulsivity or finishing projects. Many who were abused as children are control freaks, have an aggressive startle instinct, or consider themselves more discerning or intuitive than others around them. No one has ever told you that everything I have just listed, and many more weird quirks besides, are often associated with trauma. It can affect your entire life.

Back to my neediness. I fell in love with an emotionally unavailable person who was everything I was not – chill, mature, mysterious, a good listener. I had no idea how that decision would profoundly affect my life. Living with someone who never told me she loved me, ever, who did not need me (I am a caretaker by nature), who was not interested in sexually intimacy or emotional connection, fundamentally changed who I was as a person. I became needy. I found myself experiencing emotional starvation and as a result would act out or say or do things to attract attention. I became sarcastic, judgmental, provocative. I can look back and psychoanalyze myself, see where I went wrong, and learn. I could not do that when I was young, madly in love, and emotionally less self-aware.

Many of you know what I am talking about. Women who are attracted to the bad boy or the strong and silent type, who love men who are quiet or passive-aggressive really know what I mean. Looking to someone else to complete us, even at the best of times, is a dead-end street with  guaranteed disappointment at the best of times. Living with or loving someone who is emotionally unavailable can destroy your self-esteem, your dignity, and your sense of worth if you let it. There is a constant feeling that you can never measure up, that your lover is disappointed in you no matter what you do. You try harder and harder and harder until one day you are disturbed and frustrated beyond your capacity to cope.

We cannot change the past, we can only learn from it. I have learned that we cannot always trust ourselves when it comes to romance. We tend to be attracted to people who we believe complete us. Apparently opposites attract. This can be a very flawed arrangement if we tend to fall for someone who does not share their emotions or is unable or unwilling to emotionally invest in a relationship.

It is never to late to become self-aware.