A Letter To A Friend

I have spent some time thinking about you lately. I know, that sounds so creepy.

You told me that you have lost some faith in the process and life is not working out for you, right now. I can hear you talking and sometimes there are silences because I am absorbing the weight of your despair. You carry a very heavy burden, and have been for a while. This has been a long drought.

At this point in the journey counseling rarely helps in any tangible way. I think a person gets beaten up for so long that, like in any prize fight, eventually you are so punch-drunk that it’s impossible to stand up straight; and it seems like you will never stand tall again. I get that. Counseling is hard enough to believe in when things are going your way.

There is a cardinal rule in counseling that, as a therapist, you never make it about you. Good counselors don’t abscond with the pain and diminish the journey of those who are suffering. But this is a letter and I’m not charging you for this session. So I will be ever so brief when I contend that I know a little about what it feels like to be suicidal, and I’m familiar with years of gut-wrenching pain. In a very unfortunate way, many of us can relate to this living death, and this is a club that no one wants to join. Welcome to our team, we suck.

There are lessons in life that you only learn in hell. As cliché as this may sound, it is oft repeated because it also happens to be very true for oh so many of us. You are visiting the living death, and I can only imagine how soul crushing that must be. In your particular case, there was no life-killing death or disease, just the relentless grind of the ordinary, and the profanity of a world that kills our dreams. Someone hurt you very bad, all those years ago, and some kinds of scars don’t go away without mountains of therapy. Those of us who have been neglected, or bore physical or mental “deformities”, those who were bullied or beaten or raped, that stuff is very real and it will wreck your life if you don’t take this very seriously. But enough preaching.

Don’t give up. Nothing I can say to you is going to help right now, but there is one thing I do know for sure. If you stick this out you are going to be wiser. This is meaning of life stuff. You believe that this life is going to go on forever and that’s normal. Virtually no one really understands where the journey is going to end when it has been months and years of failure and broken promises.

Sometimes, when I listen to the stories all day long, I get caught up in the hopelessness. There have been times in our sessions when your frustration and hurt washes over me, and I get just a glimpse of what it must feel like to live in your reality. I have literally watched hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who have been punched in the throat and are convinced that their problems are terminal, and are tempted to give up. Hell, many of us give up all the time.

I have known others in this journey who have spent years, and I mean years, struggling to cope with a reality they never dreamed possible. Lives of loss and loneliness and the fear that their lives don’t matter and they will die, forgotten.

Don’t give up. Someday is coming, it’s just probably going to take years longer than you have been promised or believe. Longer than anyone imagines. I told something this morning that it could take years to move beyond some mental health challenges. Keep reading and thinking and arguing with me, I can take it. I do this job because I firmly believe it is possible to create a different future, and I watched my father systematically do so as I was growing up. The people in my family believe that the future is not set because my orphaned parent fought against all odds and fixed his shitty reality. Some lessons only come with time and sometimes it isn’t time, quite yet. Most of us don’t have an inspirational orphan story to keep us going when we have only known failure all our lives. How can you embrace a future you believe only exists in movies and for other people.

Reminds me of that quote, “passing on what you didn’t learn”.

Dealing With Your Stuff

Let’s be honest, dealing with that stuff from your past isn’t easy. Truer words are rarely spoken. Like you, I have heard hundreds of experts groan on about how their system or mindset or new book on sale at Amazon (mention this program for a 10% discount) will “transform your life in 8 weeks”. Real mental health clinicians usually take those claims with a grain of salt. Anyone in my field can give you a formula for success and it won’t take 8 weeks.Knowing the right answers has very little to do with being serious about being different. The tools you need to address you issues are relatively simple to learn (in theory) and very difficult to master. If you have a major issue with anxiety or depression or abuse or any number of mental challenges, it is going to take work and time. Oh ya, real change takes time, and usually lots of it. But with the right tools, and a dedication to do whatever it takes, you can begin to experience significant change in just a few months.

One of the reasons change takes time is because of this principle in psychology: Real change begins with changing your mind, not your activities or emotions. Most people want to change their situation or their location or their income or any number of outside things. As the therapist says, “change your mind and your butt will follow”. It’s rarely the other way around. There may be little you can do to change those people and problems in your life which constantly try to push you down, and knowing that is very important. We have all tried to fix others and eventually we come to realize that at the end of the day, we can only work on ourselves.

As your online friend I would like to challenge you to deal with your thoughts, show you how to practice taking back control of your impulses, and help you learn to address your dysfunctional coping skills and cognitive distortions. More on that later.

Hurting people can move forward. This reminds us of another truth about change: You either hurt enough you have to or learn enough you want to. Wouldn’t it be nice to learn enough to change, just one time? I hate learning every lesson the hard way. You may need to drag your emotions and garbage and racing thoughts, kicking and screaming, back into your control. You will have to fight your own dysfunctional thinking and learn to get control of your mind, battle your obsessions, say no to your desires, and question your own beliefs. This is a great deal of work and pain but the reward is sanity, hope, and a shot at a happy life. As the saying goes, we’re not telling you it’s going to be easy, we’re telling you it will be worth it.

Don’t be discouraged. These things take time but, before very long, you will begin to see positive results. You only have one precious life and wouldn’t it be amazing if you could learn contentment and wisdom?

There are no shortcuts, contrary to what many people are selling. You can begin today to make your life different. Some people are finished products and have decided to settle for a broken life. Don’t be like those people. To do so is to succumb to bitterness and misery, if not now then soon. So begin right now. Begin small.

Many people work on their mental health like they diet. Every now and then they shake themselves awake and decide to read a book or see someone. These are both very good things but, like most diets, this is a lifestyle change, not a passing fad. As we said months ago, the goal is to become a lifelong learner. It’s not about one book or one documentary or one more crazy article on the internet about bacon or the ozone or why you should drink 8 glasses of water a day. The journey to mental wellness requires humility and the understanding that there are things I still need to learn, this is not just about great intentions.

Talk to someone. Listen to an audiobook or sit in the sun and pretend to read something good for you. Go back to school. Take on online course. Watch a documentary. Learn enough about your own issues that you gradually change, one experience at a time.

One of the coolest parts about being a counselor is the opportunity to walk alongside people from that first frustrated, hopeless, impossible day; and watch them gradually begin to morph. It may be virtually impossible to see your own change, you live with that mess every day. I get to sit on the outside and watch the genesis take place.

Then one day you walk into my office or table at a coffee shop and it becomes apparent something is different. Neither of us can point to a time or a day when things got this way, it seems to have happened by accident. Most real change, in my experience, doesn’t come from an epiphany or conversion experience. For the rest of us, there is only slogging forward and hoping for the best. And on that day, you suddenly realize something a few of us have noticed for months – you are changed, somehow.




Stress and the Social Self: How Relationships Affect Our Immune System

From our friends at brainpickings:

Somewhere in our brains we carry a map of our relationships. It is our mother’s lap, our best friend’s holding hand, our lover’s embrace — all these we carry within ourselves when we are alone. Just knowing that these are there to hold us if we fall gives us a sense of peace. “Cradled,” “rooted,” “connected” are words we use to describe the feeling that comes of this knowledge; social psychologists call this sense embeddedness. The opposite is perhaps a more familiar term — we call it loneliness. Continue reading “Stress and the Social Self: How Relationships Affect Our Immune System”

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.

Someday’s Coming


I remember a moment captured in time. I was making breakfast at my restaurant, The Bad Dog Grill, and I realized I hated my life. It was 7:30 am and I wanted a beer. If I cut my hand one more time, maybe I can go home today. I just knew I would never get out of that kitchen. Then one day I was.

I have spoken with people in prison, or doing time in a bad relationship, who have been convinced I was wrong. This hell is never going to end. I will never meet someone who loves me. I will never want to live again. I can never move on from this. Then you do, though rarely like on television. We sincerely need to have a conversation some time about what recovery really looks like. God never sent me a thunderbolt and one day I didn’t wake up fixed. It’s gradual and tedious and most of us have no flipping clue what “better” really should look like.

Many of us grow up believing that we are supposed to move beyond, not just move on. Somehow we are supposed to forgive that monster or forget about that loss or magically get normal. Those are wonderful motivational posters but in the real world we usually become scarred by life and I’m not just talking about table saws and missing fingers. Life beats the hell out of many of us and it is going to take a religious event or a Canadian Tire pool full of good tequila for things to feel spanky. It is tempting to pine for the innocence or the waistline or the eyebrows of our youth but, and I hate being the one to tell people this, that ship has sailed, been attacked by Somali pirates and sunk by the North Korean military. You are never going to be who you once were and when you think about it, that may be a very good thing. I know you used to be able to run for miles and jump over fences and turn everyone’s eye but chances are you were way way dumber. Do you really want to be 18 and perky again? Willing to give up all that experience and drink the Koolaid?

When I was younger I was convinced I knew the score, and I was an idiot. Sorry to get all technical on you there. I could not give up what I know now for who I was then. That is difficult to write but it rings true for me.

Someday. Someday things will be different than they are today. Before the steam engine you could be attacked by the Huns in one millenia than the Mongols in another and the tactics would be similar because both armies used horses and bows and arrows. The world was defined for centuries by a single warrior, usually on a mount. The players may have changed but the world hadn’t. Time barely moved. The vast majority of the planet never travelled beyond their district. There was no Wifi. When the Mongols used gunpowder against the Hungarians no one even understood what that sound was, and why is there a hole in me? Generations passed with little noticeable difference.

This is not that time. I cannot promise you much, but it does appear self-evident that this culture is addicted to unstoppable momentum. A woman in a bad marriage is far more apt to leave than she was four hundred years ago. Heck, forty years ago.

It may not get good but it probably won’t stay the same. Fewer of us are willing to put up with monotonous misery anymore. There is no possible way soldiers would sit in trenches today, like they did in World War One, unless there was an Xbox and free Facebook. Two months of sitting in water and rats and dysentery and I don’t know about you but I’d probably go over the hill and let them shoot me, just out of boredom and from the constant itching. I hate itching. It may be possible that we are not the strongest generation that ever lived. Those old 90-year-olds killed people and it still would not serve to piss too many of them off, especially on a cruise when they race their walkers and gave me the evil eye. My grandfather left his family for over four years to drive a gas truck to the Front. Did he even have air conditioning? The times, they are a’changing.

Someday’s coming, for all of us. To quote Mr. Smith, “that is the sound of inevitability”. Your depression may not be terminal and that kid may talk to you again, someday. Someday you will know things that you don’t right now and your situation will change just enough that you will look at life differently. What often looks like “things finally going your way” may have at least something to do with how much you change, and that is the best news I can tell you. Sure you are going through hell, but if you are keeping your head just above the waves you are undoubtedly learning important lessons that you would never understand without going through this Armageddon. You are reading a blog by a therapist, so you are probably wise enough to know you aren’t wise enough yet to handle the whole enchilada. Me too. I desperately hope I am not a finished product.

Overcoming your stuff has more to do with just getting in the ring, than it has to do with winning every round. I can’t tell you how many times I fail at almost everything, and my job is to keep getting up in the morning and giving a damn. That’s me, it may not be you. For people with ADHD just keeping your act together is often hard enough without all the gushy little rewards. The empaths suffer so very much, just being alive. Being the strong one sucks. The person who carries the weight of the world is often crushed. Most of us would self-medicate if we could get away with it, Scot(t)-free. We haven’t even discussed one of my favorite themes – the real world is often boring and relentless and stressful. Stir in a few mental health issues, and a loss or two, and you may be tempted to just give up.

Don’t do it. Someday’s coming. It may be years or it could be today (probably not) but change happens whether we like it or not. This is the one constant in the Twenty-first Century. If you are awake you may have noticed the global village is experiencing the most profound cultural revolution since the Enlightenment. The internet, combined with catastrophic cultural changes, has transformed the world forever. There is no way to put the rabbit back in the hat.

I am not going to launch into a diatribe on how we are all headed to hell in a handbasket. There is plenty of time for that. Lately I’ve wondered if there is not a pot of gold in this electronic GMO rainbow. I can remember, even in my lifetime, when you had to go to a library if you wanted to read about anything. The world was slower and if you are depressed or dealing with impossible situations, slow never feels good.

Hold on. Someday’s still coming. I just wish, sometimes, it would hurry the hell up.

All kids need is a little help, a little hope and someone who believes in them.  
Magic Johnson

Check Up From The Neck Up

I’m going on vacation today. Right now that seems so far away, in the distant haze of a much later today; but by the time you read this I will be zen.

My wife keeps booking me appointments at the dentist. Like, every year. When I was single I could go forever without going to the dentist but of course I would never admit that in a forum such as this. Apparently people go to the doctor, for no apparent reason, just to check in or check up or whatever it’s called. I go to the doctor when I need something fixed, gouged, or medicated. I happen to break allot so why would I go again just to have him take my blood pressure? They don’t even give out candy at my age. My wife seems to think this will keep me alive longer so I asked her, “what makes you think I want to live longer?” So controlling. Continue reading “Check Up From The Neck Up”

I More I Learn The Less I Know

People ask me how I could believe in an afterlife when I am a huge and daily fan of science; and the reason is, because I want to. Call it cowardice or pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die and I can take it, but know that I have spent my entire adult life studying and I am still such a complete idiot I’m waking up to the fact that I may not be qualified to discount the supernatural, just because it seems ridiculous to my puny ADHD brain. I have, of late, begun to understand how completely little I know about existence. One thing that happens when your drug of choice is learning is that many and varied worlds begin to open up in areas you didn’t even know existed. The more I learn, the less I know.

I had no idea I was this ignorant. There were five or ten ideas I convinced myself I had my head around, and life was predictable. I liked to believe I was an expert at something, but then I started reading and listening to audiobooks. Don’t get me started about audiobooks. It felt as though everyday I was hearing about things I had no idea even existed. Philosophy and history and literature that blew my mind. I started to collect books and didn’t need cocaine. It sounds ridiculous to even write about this without a few shots of tequila, but I had no idea how fascinating String Theory was. My wife may call me a geek but some of that crap is seriously cool. Universes of the very small and books about the profound expanse and majesty of the profoundly large.

How can I dismiss things which may be beyond my capacity for comprehension when I cannot begin to understand something so obvious as the expanse of the universe or the fact that if you move a photon in Boston its partner will know instantaneously in Los Angeles? That may not rot your socks off but it may just disprove Einstein and prove that you can travel faster than the speed of light. Exceeding the speed of light is impossible. Gene Roddenberry was apparently a very smart dude.

Maybe there is a god.

I gave up trying to fit in a long time ago, but one thing you learn when you have 190 gigs of audiobooks is that it is perfectly fine for philosophers and eggheads and earnest seekers to talk about the meaning of life. Many people smoke weed or cut or stay depressed because life can lack meaning; and if someone or something takes away your hope then it’s pretty hard to cope with the day-to-day crap that is foisted upon us endlessly without a reward or a gold watch to look forward to at the end of this god-forsaken grocery line.

At the end of the day it’s important to talk about the end of the day. Philosophy was my first love and like all first loves it’s very hard to shake that first kiss. I have watched clients transform once they had hope and a purpose and a reason to wake up every morning. It always takes far longer than we can imagine, and it doesn’t sound like an inspirational meme on Facebook, but opening your mind to experiences and stories outside of your well-worn mindset can be incredibly enriching.

No one knows, at least at first, when they go insane. I have sat across from dozens and dozens of people who were slowly succumbing to the demented hell they are forced to endure; and you can watch people deteriorate, almost before your eyes. Counselors are paid to help people get better and it is a maddening thing to watch someone who is looking to you for hope begin to unravel. I recently confessed in this forum that I have, because of a once-in-a-lifetime random seizure, been gifted a brain injury which shows up primary through memory loss and brief moments of confusion. It is a fascinating journey to watch yourself learn to deal with this curveball from a clinical perspective. I find the phenomenon interesting enough that I study it… myself. As soon as I know it has happened I journal and think and research exactly how, why, and what just happened. It is almost enjoyable. Almost. But we digress, as usual.

Here’s the thing – it’s very difficult, at first, to know when you are losing it. I have a forthcoming article on this, whenever I feel like finishing it. It takes a while before you know what is happening. Nothing seemed different. It was not as though you suddenly knew your melon was wonky. Life continued on as before until someone or something or somehow it begins to dawn on you that you are not making any sense and that person is looking at you funny and you have absolutely no clue what you were talking about. For those who suffer with such things this can scare the shit out of you if you let it. How do you realize something is wrong when it is your entire reality? Now that is an important question.

Xenu_HomeboyPeople who leave cults have difficulty explaining how they could be so fooled because it happens gradually and in tiny increments. No one stands up on the first day and confesses that you are about to worship an intergalactic warlord named Xenu who imprisoned souls in a mountain in Hawaii. Little by little we have our truths altered until what was once deemed crazy now, for some reason, appears perfectly reasonable. Desirable, even.

Reality is malleable.

So when I think about alternate universes or quantum mechanics or cosmology or god, it has become apparent that I do not yet possess all the information that I will need to prove conclusively that I am meaningless. I am cognizant, as a therapist, how incredibly self-indulgent and subjective that may sound, but I don’t care. I want a cake and I want to eat it too. So there.

I find atheism, like fundamentalism, a tad arrogant. Perhaps I am jealous of someone who is convinced that they possess all the information available about reality and know enough to prove something which has, thus far, not been conclusively rendered. I’m just not that smart.

Bill Bryson (read Bill Bryson) relates the story of the incident wherein Max Plank asked his professor whether he should go into Physics or Mathematics. He was advised to pursue Mathematics because all the great scientific breakthroughs in Physics had already been made. This conversation took place before Einstein even took a job as a patent clerk. Physics was still in its terrible teens and academia was already warming up the funeral durge. To be so sure, this astounds me. Even Christians talk about faith as belief in something you hope for, not necessarily something you never question.

I’m not really interested in a religious debate, those days are long over for me. What interests me is the power of hope and the realization that the pursuit of wisdom can be a powerful part of my toolbox when I am stressed by a life which is long on commitments and short on happy buttons. Change your mind and your butt will follow.

Is there life after death? Few of us live to tell. In this moment perhaps we can at least entertain the possibility that mental health and wisdom may be cousins. Hope and understanding can be profoundly empowering. As that counseling cliché says, “you either hurt enough you have to, or learn enough you want to”.

I’m sick of hurting.

(Creds to the amazing Tony Ortega for that photo)

The Forest Behind My Fence

When I was a kid, living in suburban Winnipeg, there used to be a forest behind my backyard. A land of wonder and adventure. To my 10-year-old eyes it went on forever, or at least as far as a kid would dare venture. If you saw it now, it’s smaller than it once was. My mother is sitting beside me as I write this, visiting from their mountain village paradise. She could only see the back lane through the eyes of an adult; and to someone who was big the back lane was only thirty or thirty-five feet from the neighbour; a man we children imagined was scary and old and didn’t like kids. To a ten-year-old this was Narnia.

When I was a kid my parents, in retrospect, didn’t seem to give a crap about how long I was out or where I was. I spent my childhood watching the creek flood and helping where I could. I rode my Pursuit 5 bicycle and life was pretty good. I know my parents read this blog and wow, you either trusted me way too much or were smoking something; but thanks for the memories! It was a different time.

When I was a kid.

My world got smaller, somehow. Life and hurt and age and experience and bacon have changed me (I consider myself a vegetarian on humanitarian grounds but still eat bacon and sausage if you make me because, come on, it’s sausage and I go to a butcher). Many patients complain that they don’t know how to have fun anymore. I have known parents who dropped off their kids at Grandma’s, on multiple occasions, just so they could go home for an 8 o’clock bedtime. Party on. Raves and benders give way to tantrums and naps, and I’m not talking about the kid.

Remember fun?

It is freaking hot here. You are forced, by the sheer weight of the heat, to slow down. I have a killer tan this summer. Between building a fence with five neighbours (more next week) and drifting away in my beloved Canadian Tire pool, my face is brown.

Summer holidays were once filled with creek water and forest magic and skateboarding behind my bike. Playing touch football on the piece of grass in front of my house in Winnipeg they used to call a boulevard. I knew nothing about abuse or war, stress or broken hearts. It always makes me laugh (sardonically and to myself) when teenagers tell me their life is worse than anything anyone else has ever endured, ever. Just wait muffin, reality is going to be a bitch.

Enjoy the sun. Life is far too infested with commitments and responsibilities and stress and bills and whiny people we love who drain away our will to live. I still believe in summer holidays. Practice mindfulness by sticking your head under the water and relaxing. Allow the presence to envelope you. Buy a kayak or plant some basil, it’s all zen. Drink in the heat and let it warm you up in all the right ways. Have a fruity drink or pay two bucks and creep everyone out at the local outdoor pool when you swim alone. Who cares. Tan those stretch marks or love handles and be free. I have a few little people who should probably go to the water park with Papa soon. You can see where I’m heading.

No one has time for selfish delights, so do it anyway. Sit on your porch under the moon with someone who stimulates you. Take your bag lunch under the tree beside a good coffee shop or a park, and have a picnic. For the love of god, go to a lake. I’m not really trying to tell you what to do and it’s all fun and games but seriously, spoil yourself a bit. Have a banana split. Cheryl, have something that is gluten-free, you hippy.

I’ll be in my Canadian Tire pool.

I Don’t Give A Crap

The Princess Bride is, unquestionably, one of my favourite movies. I own the novel. There is something about a magical story, with giants and accents and the Dread Pirate Roberts with which we resonate. A great story can take us to places in our imagination that playing Minecraft simply cannot. Reading matters. My clients have all had the lecture – you don’t read, you don’t grow as fast as you want to. It doesn’t matter how you get your fix, I listen to 90% of my books. What matters is that you are constantly exposing yourself to good ideas.

My wife thinks I actually like Facebook. The truth is, and I’ve written of this in the past, I really do “like” Facebook, in spite of hating Facebook because I want to be a hipster. I have unsubscribed to most of your updates and I really don’t care if you take a selfie on your next trip to Red Robin. My Reader looks nothing like it once did; it’s my daily source for archeology, psychology, philosophy and spirituality and religion and English comedy and Scottish history, Brain Pickings and Cracked and Mental Floss. Most of us on this journey are reading constantly, though some have not yet discovered the thrill of an old book. A surprising number of us start thinking about science, eventually. Some begin to dream about going back to school, though most eventually convince themselves that they are too old or too stupid or too pragmatic. As usual, I digress.

Some times in our lives define us.

My boys and I communicate primarily with media quips and movie quotes; it’s hard to explain if you don’t know what I mean. I was a single dad for the majority of my children’s lives. We had a foosball table, not a dining table. Black couches. As the boys got older, quotes from The Simpsons and Family Guy found their way into many conversations. We began to communicate in prose. We tried to talk like The Boondock Saints and memorized classic children’s literature and Die Hard. People were lost in conversations when the Williams boys were around. Quotes from Descartes and Homer, Simpson. Samurai Pizza Cats and Recess and Roger Miller singing, “Robin Hood and Little John running through the forest”. My guys know history and philosophy, psychology and how to ignite methane. It was the worst time of my life. It was the best time of my life.

I would not wish a life of single-parenting on you, but cannot begin to describe how much I have learned, through it all. My kids are, if I think objectively, way better than your kids. I mean nothing by this, they’re simply amazing young men. We still talk in Simpson’s quotes and share a closeness for which I am daily thankful. We all know that we are so tight because of the tears, not in spite of.

I listen to many speakers in the course of a month or a year. I have my favourites, most of whom are dead. Great speeches, like great comedy, is usually born out of pain. When discussing a preacher or poet or prose-master I am prone to comment, “he hasn’t suffered yet”. There are lessons you can learn only from the dark side. Being a single parent for all the wrong reasons was easily the most difficult and transformational time of my life. There was before The Event and there was after, and this is definitely after. I find it difficult to listen to those who have never bled.

If I’ve learned anything, doing this for a living, it’s that most people suffer far more than they let on. Many have experienced hardship on a level we could never have imagined. People who have been broken have wisdom that others simply don’t have. Some of us have issues as well, to be perfectly honest. Becoming bitter is the easiest thing in the world, north of 40. Many describe themselves as “realists” because they like pink clouds and unicorns. Truth be told, the older I get the easier it becomes to wear my damage like a badge of honour. Being happy becomes something that I have to work on. You may not have noticed but there are some nasty folks out there. Some of us live and love very negative kin. A few of us are a tad more sarcastic than we really need to be.

Most of my readers know I love my old man. If you broke your leg he would convince you that having a cast was the best thing ever! Women feel the love, my dad totally has game. He thinks your zit is charming. You’re beautiful just the way you are, have that bagel. His nickname is Happy Howie. He inspires me to not give up on idealism, on choosing to be happy in spite of all the crap. His life has been anything but easy. Growing up as an orphan, living as an adult while still in middle school, no one handed him anything. Ever. If you visit the Home Hardware in Invermere just stop and listen for his whistle. Everything is wonderful, wonderful.

There are people in my life that cannot seem to stop complaining. Life is difficult for them. I no longer wish to live in that world. Sure Isis may attack or that damn government needs to smarten up, but frankly I am learning not to care quite as much anymore. The research is in and it all points to giving less of a fart about the daily junk that I won’t remember in a week anyway. Most of us spend the majority of our lives stressing about toothpaste and taxes and hoping we won’t die alone. So boring. I no longer care if my neighbour likes my lawn, it’s all crabgrass anyway. I don’t give a f5620a2a175f04d1f254d9ff542541e8tinker’s damn about so many things that used to drive my mania, though I still have a long way to go. I have been challenged to practice this mindfulness exercise, caring less. I need to figure out how to lower my expectations of life.

As my dad always says, “If it doesn’t affect my pension or my grandchildren, I don’t give a crap.” He’s no idiot, my old man.


How Do I Let Go?

I am asked this question all the time. How do I leave? How do I stand up for myself? How do I lower my expectations of this person? How do learn to be happy in the mess that is my life right now? How do I let go of the grief or the expectations or the unrealistic dreams? How do I forgive? How do I move on?

It’s a question as old as time. Letting go is something that I only learned through pain, and it wasn’t worth it. How do you let go of hopes and loves and connection? How do you let go of a dream?

No one wants to hear that it takes years and tears. We want to believe there is something we can do which will move the process forward, when we haven’t even accepted the real situation. In counselling we call this, magical thinking. We all believe in magical thinking, every once in a while. We want to believe if we rub our lucky rock we will win the lottery. Some of us believe the universe is punishing us, for some reason. If you wish upon a star your dream comes true. If I just want it hard enough… well then maybe I can pretend I don’t have anxiety anymore, or depression, or trauma. Maybe Oprah has a guest celebrity that will fix you. Magical thinking is when you believe that if you think hard enough you can move that coin with your mind. Or change your life with a gimmick. We all want change and we want it yesterday.
In counselling this kind of stuff takes a long time. The process you can probably guess – I begin to work through my own insecurities and the sick reasons I can’t move forward, including letting go of my need to stay stuck, my need for approval, my fear of the pain. We talk about lowering expectations and about assessing our relationships in the harsh light of objectivity. Once we understand the “why”, the “how” usually works itself out. It’s about acceptance and time and grief. Like most things, attitude changes everything. Once I change what I want, it’s easier to stop coping mechanisms I no longer need or desire. And that’s the key, though a very hard one to actually learn. How do I learn to change what I want (if I don’t want to)?
self-confidenceWhen you are in a situation that isn’t working I often recommend starting with the DBT concept of “Radical Acceptance“. I learn to see my situation for what it really is, no bullshit, no excuses, no insecurities, no lies or illusions or fake expectations. I usually need help from my counsellor/friend for that. It’s hard to be objective from the inside.
I pitched this article to my friend Lori, a fellow blogger and friend in the real world. We had been talking about sideways solutions, as I call them. Sideways Solutions are all about looking at things differently, through a new lens. I’m speaking at a gig next month about this very thing. I call the talk, “Going Rogue”. Simply put, I have long been fascinated by The Trickster in folklore and have endeavoured to incorporate that outside-the-box thinking in life. Apple, the most financially valuable commodity on earth, sold billions with the moniker, “Think Different”. I believe in going at things sideways. Creativity usually takes me where logic fails to go. Lori reminded me of this earlier today.
Letting go rarely involves telling your story again and again. It’s difficult, when our lives are ruined, not to fixate on the problems. Stress is consuming, so is debt or relational problems or chronic pain. When you are low there is a temptation to employ those Cognitive Distortions we talk about so very much. We are focused on the problem, overwhelmed. We make decisions based on emotion. We become trapped in a verbal and emotional feedback loop. We say the word “but” more than we probably should. We pretend everything is going to magically work out.
There are times when moving beyond is really about moving beyond. We need to focus on something, anything, rather than our grief or anger or pain or disappointment. We become outward focussed again. We begin to spend less time replaying the tapes. This last part is very important because there comes a point in the journey when you need to write new stories. I know you cannot let go of that thing, I couldn’t either. Ask anyone who knows me, they can tell you. Been there, done that, spilled hot sauce on the t-shirt. I wore my brokenness like a badge of honour. I was determined to go down with the ship.
Sideways solutions don’t feel natural. It’s normal to lay on the couch and feel hopeless. It’s completely normal, when you are depressed or grieving or (insert personal hell here), to lack motivation and get winded walking to the fridge. Many counsellors will tell you that in order to get “better” you will need discipline. I have a difficult time with this when I’m happy, let alone depressed. That’s why, when clients describe how stuck they feel or alone or hopeless I often talk about going to college. My pop is 76 and in university. The aforementioned Lori has become an art historian, and a bard, and a bunch of other things that she discovered at university. I like to talk about Europe, and philosophy, and science, and history. You might feel a great deal better from studying neurochemistry than you ever would taking an SSRI. Sideways solutions. I couldn’t stop crying once – so I started to listen to audiobooks. You should see my collection. That may not float your boat but it saved my life more than any counselling ever did. Some people garden. Shirley makes amazing quilts. Some of my other friends have become soul coaches or knitters or experts in the hippie arts.
As we say in the business, “too much head time is bad time”. If you cannot turn off those voices in your head maybe you need to go about it sideways.

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.

Other People Have It Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?


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.

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.

Don’t You Know Other People Have It Worse Than You?

So how are you doing?

Anyone with Fibromyalgia, CFS, depression or chronic pain will tell you that this is not necessarily a fun question to hear. It is often a flippant question, given as an opening to something else or in passing. Anyone who suffers on a daily basis know that most people aren’t really interested in the truth, they are just making conversation. In my work with chronic pain patients this often comes up – the feelings of loneliness and misunderstanding. It’s often easier just to say, “fine”, no matter how you feel. No stable person wants to be a burden. Few people are willing to listen if you really need to talk, anyway.

Fine – F**ked up, insecure, neurotic, emotional. Ya, I’m fine.

Of course there are those people who love to hear your problems. They practice what I like to refer to as, “amateur psychology hour”. They have all kinds of advice for you. They also love to compare. Sure you may have a chronic back problem but they have a sore back too and they still go to work. You look fine, so you should be fine. They read an article, or watched Doctor Phil (before he blew it on Twitter last week) and they know how to help you. Just walk more. See their naturopath. Read this or that book or website. Sleep without any underwear facing east (actual advice). Why are you still depressed? Don’t you want to get better? You have too many metals in your system. Oprah talked about your problem just last week. Stop whining. Look on the bright side. Don’t you know other people have it worse off than you? Count your blessings.

Thanks for that. It really helps.

It’s not that the aforementioned advice can’t be helpful. Clichés are popular because they contain an element of truth. Your attitude really does, sometimes and in some ways, determine your altitude. If you change your mind your really will change your life. The problem is timing. If you are so depressed you cannot get out of bed, going for a half hour walk or praying for an hour may not be helpful advice. Eating more kale probably is a good idea but won’t cure your chronic pain. Dieting is a good thing but sometimes you have other issues screaming for your attention. It’s important to recognize that making grandiose prescriptions for other people’s problems isn’t always helpful or appreciated.

Mother Teresa was once asked: “Why do you give them fish to eat? Why don’t you give them a rod to catch the fish?” She responded: “But my people can’t even stand. They’re sick, crippled, demented. When I have given them fish to eat and they can stand, I’ll turn them over and you give them the rod to catch the fish!” Profound words. No one knows what you are going through today. You may get all the best advice in the world but you still can’t stand. Great words are only helpful if you are able to hear them through the fog.

Years ago, when my life fell apart, I heard hundreds of pieces of advice but I could not receive them. What did matter, however, were those who climbed down into my pit and cried with me, fed me, hugged me, and loved my kids. All the best counsel in the world wasn’t as important as a casserole, or a coffee, or a gift for my boys. It didn’t matter if other people had it worse, I could barely cope with what I had.

“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give… We have nothing but our freedom. I have nothing to give you but your own freedom. If it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit or it is nowhere.”
Ursula Le GuinThe Dispossessed

Women, Why You Don’t Make Sense

You have told him fifty times that your relationship is in trouble and you need to connect better emotionally. So why isn’t he trying? He doesn’t want you to nag or belittle him, you’ve tried and tried and he can’t get it. How much more obvious can you be? Why should you be the one trying again?

Counsel any woman in a heterosexual relationship long enough and these kinds of complaints will emerge. What is it about some spouses that they seem to care so little for emotional and relational intimacy? How did this relationship get so stale so fast?

Unfortunately the problem cannot not be entirely laid at his door step. What seems ridiculously obvious to you may not register the same way on his radar. He isn’t a woman and therefore cannot think like a woman. Only someone who has been living alone under a rock still believes that male and female brains are exactly alike. We understand on a cognitive level that we must speak in such a way as to be heard but this does not mean we know how to do this. He does not know what you mean by relational intimacy, for example. He has tried to “connect” a million times but you don’t seem to notice.

You aren’t talking Man-glish.

You want to connect more on an emotional level. You want to “talk”. I thought we have been talking. You haven’t shut up in twenty minutes. What the hell were you even talking about? I took you to dinner and a movie. How come you are still mad?

What many women fail to understand is that, for many men who have not grown up in a metrosexual environment, that ‘dinner and a movie’ thing was a sincere, even stretching expression of his emotionally availability, whatever that means. Many men have difficulty connecting on anything beyond the most shallow pool unless beer is involved. Dinner was his attempt to connect. Sad huh?

Sometimes that lousy attempt to connect was in fact the top of his game. He was playing his best card but you are still upset. What can he possibly say at this point to appease you/impress you? He’s already shot his best load and now he has to come up with a response that will diffuse your anger and convince you he knows what you are trying to yell at him. But he doesn’t.

Learning to think like someone else is an extremely important, albeit difficult skill to learn. Chances are your perfect plan to gradually win him over to your side hasn’t worked by now and you realize that relationships that aren’t working just get worse and worse. It is almost impossible, once a couple has grown apart and there is misunderstanding involved, for reconciliation to happen. We simply lose our will to keep fighting and it’s extremely difficult to get back.

Take a relationship course. Send for my free session on “Speaking Chick and Talking Dude. Read a book or listen to an mp3. Learning to understand your partner is like taking any foreign language, there are few shortcuts to literacy.

I’m Disappointed In You

Have you ever had someone in your life who seemed constantly disappointed in you? It didn’t seem to matter how hard you tried, it was never enough. Sometimes they didn’t have to even say much, you just knew – you are a loser, you will never be worthy.

I know what it is like to live with disappointment. It was a glib smile and a few words, a gentle sigh. I failed again. In my particular case it made me needy, so very needy. Dedicating every waking minute to impress, to please, to do, didn’t seem to matter. Disappointed again.

Maybe it was your dad, or your mom, a relative or a friend. For many of us it was our spouse – a wife or a boyfriend whose expectations and selfishness bruised and ultimately scarred your heart.

Poor self-esteem. Bad self-image. Feelings of inadequacy. Second-guessing yourself. Minimizing your accomplishments. Squinting in the mirror. Fear. Doubt. Self-loathing. Pain. Never good enough. Loser. Pathetic. Bitch.

On some level we all know that it is our own responsibility to feel good about ourselves. In theory. In practice, when someone whose opinion is supposed to matter denigrates and often subtly destroys our wholeness, it is very difficult to feel worthwhile. We know we are not supposed to base our self-esteem on others but how do you do that?

Quick quiz – If ten people tell you that you are beautiful and one person tells you that you are ugly, which one will you remember?

I wonder if the reason we believe the insult is because somewhere, down deep perhaps, we believe them. Many of us have been told we are ugly or fat or stupid or bald or pathetic or worthless all our lives. How can we possibly have good self-esteem now?

The truth: The opposite of bad self-esteem is not good self-esteem. The opposite of bad self-esteem is self-acceptance.

The truth is, you may always be fat. You may always be bald. Joan Rivers is scary proof that plastic surgery can only take you so far. You may be considered ugly by the beautiful. You may never go to college. You probably will never be famous. Or rich. Or even successful. And you get cry all you want and rail against the system, get angry and frustrated and die in a flaming manure-ball of bitterness. I see people every day who absolutely refuse to accept their illness, or their spouse, or their saggy boobs. I know how they feel. There are seemingly countless things I don’t like about myself. Nobody needs to point our my flaws, I see them in glaring technicolor. You don’t need to be disappointed in me, I can do quite fine on my own, thanks.

One day I woke up and realized in retrospect that I was living my life to impress someone who was incapable of accepting me or loving me for who I really was. I understood that I had been running myself sick trying to earn her love, only to hear her sigh with disapproval. I still care about this person, actually very much, but no longer feel compelled to sacrifice my soul for a smile and a nod.

Emotional wholeness rarely comes by accident.

Use Your Compass

IMGP0127The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.                 Gloria Steinem

A long time ago and in a distant life I was a canoe guide in Northern Saskatchewan. Most people do not know that some of the best whitewater and wilderness in the world is found there. Don’t tell anyone, we don’t want the masses to know.

When canoeing on the Churchill River one is eventually going to have to traverse Nipew (Dead) Lake. It is not called dead lake because the flora and fauna is dead but because of some of the cool voyageur battles and imported white man diseases that ravaged the area during the fur trade. One can easily, when paddling the myriad of islands on Nipew, imagine being ambushed by Northwest Company voyageurs hundreds of years ago. People who say Canadian history is boring need to come north.

We always tried to get across Nipew Lake early in the morning before the waves got up. It’s a big lake and nasty from about nine a.m. to six p.m. everyday. It’s a long paddle. I’ve been stranded on the lake several times, taking refuge on islands or inlets.
We tried to get on the lake by about six am. Usually that is evilly early but I have learned that if I sleep in, the price is too high. It’s usually foggy on the lake and I’m headed for a tiny inlet eleven kilometres away. I can’t afford to make mistakes. I have learned how to read a compass. I know about things like declination and magnetic north. My compass was the most expensive piece of equipment I carried. I made my employer pay for it and if they want it back they can pry it from my cold dead hands.
When I was in the fog and I had eleven canoes and twenty potentially dead people, I learned to trust my compass, not my eyes. I didn’t trust my ears, I don’t even trust my experience. I have tried to fake it in the past and gotten caught. On one occasion, early in my guiding career, I was sure that I was going down the right arm of this confusing lake only to realize too late that I had made a six-hour detour with a large group of tired and frustrated high-schoolers. It is a lesson not soon forgotten.

SONY DSCThe point I am trying to make is that sometimes even our best judgment cannot be trusted. If you are depressed or anxious or prone to obsessing than it is very important to realize that you cannot trust your emotions and best thinking. Sometimes it is very important to consult a compass, a guide you can trust. I have.

You wouldn’t trust someone who is suicidally depressed to do your taxes would you? Would you trust them to take care of your children? Of course not. The fact remains, however, that day after day many of us who are struggling with mental health issues choose to trust our subjective and emotionally based cognitive distortions to guide us. We make decisions that are based on our depression or anxiety or worse. We allow ourselves to be guided by the worst advice imaginable – our own. Sometimes you need to find a compass. Basing your decisions on your own tired and stressed out emotions is usually a sure-fire recipe for disaster and ongoing illness.

I remember many years ago, when I was at my worst, the insane and destructive thinking that I engaged in. At some points I am certain, and I have a level of expertise in this area, that I was completely off my nut. The grief was so extreme I contemplated and did things that were absolutely not in my best interests. I made parenting decisions that I continue to forgive myself for even years later. Some of my career decisions were, for lack of a better word, insane. I do not choose to hold these decisions against myself still because I was not thinking like a rational and healthy person.

And that is the point.

Get help. Talk to a counselor that doesn’t suck. Be gracious with yourself. Don’t believe your own bullshit.

You’re worth it.


Are We There Yet?

Christmas vacation, pack up the kids and head out. I remember as a kid taking our great big land boat from Winnipeg to Calgary to make the yearly Christmas trip to grandma and grandpa’s house. Some Christmas’s, because we were military, we would jump on a DC-3 and sit in the jumpseats for the trip which took almost as long as a car, but twice as fun.

The car was one of those big camel-coloured wagons with fake wood on the side. When I was a kid my grandpa told me that the wood siding was because cops radar wouldn’t work on wood. I had family issues. The ark car also had the extra seat that faced the back making it so you could seat nine people if you wanted to. My dad didn’t believe in stopping for anything. Straight through – Winnipeg to Calgary in like fourteen hours, no potty breaks. My dad used to say, “Scott that’s why God created pop bottles son.” Explains a lot about me doesn’t it.

I remember when the kids were young driving them, complete with pop bottles, to see their grandparents. We left the house here and started out early in the morning to Invermere or Saskatchewan, depending on the year.  We’re driving and we get to Oooooh….Hatzic (about five miles), and one of the boys would ask the inevitable question, “Are we there yet?” (ok, so it was me). My wife would scowl at me and say, “Scott!” I would apologize and turn to the boys and say… “Are we there yet?” By the time we broke down in the big city of Redcliff AB we had it down to a science.. We set it to music (“frere Jacques”) – “Are we there yet, are we there yet, no we’re not. No we’re not”. We kept it up for hours like some kind of a pagan chant.

Remember when you were a kid and your dad had that big APE arm that he would swing behind him as he would try to belt one of you? I remember telling my mom “I gotta go” for probably the tenth time and her handing me a poop bottle, (some of you also had dysfunctional parents like that!). Now that was quality family time! I’ll tell you.

Are we there yet?

Lately I’ve thot a lot about the journey. It is so tempting to get bogged down in the fight, forget the finish line, and get discouraged when things don’t go your way. Since the world didn’t end on Friday I guess we are stuck with this journey for some time yet.

It’s Boxing Day in Canada, another excuse for a mandatory day off and a rabid trip to the shopping malls. Around our household we try to do something family oriented, something cheesy like bowling or pinball or pool or a trip. The Hobbit is going to work his way into our schedule somehow as well. I am reminded of the real meaning of life and the thing that keeps me grounded – my family, in all it’s weirdness and wonder. This year we have the addition of my new little reason for living, Angus Scott Williams. He reminds me, every time I see him, what matters most in this world.

I know the world is full of problems and pain. I see it everyday, usually. Today, however, I’m going to practice a little mindfulness and enjoy every minute with Angus I can steal. My prayer is that you will also find something beautiful to concentrate on this holiday.

Happy first Boxing Day buddy.