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”.

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

Hammer, Meet Nail.

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer,
to treat everything as if it were a nail.
Abraham Maslow

Every week I get to hang out with Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police and feel moderately badass by proxy. It is a strange feeling, when I visit a crime scene, as it dawns on me that I am the only person in the group without body armour and a Glock. Police have an arsenal of weapons, not all of which are deadly. My colleague is a female member who has never had to pull her firearm. She may carry a lethal weapon but she is a master at diffusion, distraction, and de-escalation. Not all members are as adroit as my friend, however.

If your only option is a gun, there is a temptation to pull your weapon and wave it around at a group of teenagers at a pool party. You may have all sorts of issues with tasers but I still prefer taking a few volts to a bullet in the center mass, but that’s just me. The fact that the officer has other tools in her arsenal can KitKat_logo.svgkeep me alive. Give me a baton to the head every time. I do, however, prefer a KitKat.

Though it is usually not referred to in such mechanical terms, counselors quite frequently talk about the hammer. If your ‘go to’ is heroin and your children are destroying your will to live, chances are you will eventually meander your way back to a dealer, in spite of best intentions. If all you have left is anger and yelling, then that’s the hammer you are going to employ when someone pisses you off. I know people who can cry at the drop of a hat, ensuring they never have to honestly address their dysfunction. Those who take offence, persons who run and hide, many who lie or control or freeze. For several reasons too convoluted to discuss here, much of society has a very limited toolbox; and for some of us, there is only a hammer.

I do not want to be your nail.

There are those who struggle with significant anger issues and love to swing their hammer around (I know, it works on two levels but we are pretending to be adults, so get your mind out of the gutter you perv). We all have that one relative who is overly quick to take offence. The chronically bitter, or negative, or just plain bitchy. A few of us find any reason to play the victim.  If all you have is a hammer, as Maslow and others have stated, eventually everything begins to look like a nail. People use anger because it works. Whining works. Controlling can also work, if only for a time. It is shocking how often some people complain. Bitterness will paint your entire worldview. So can chronic depression, or trauma, or a boring and meaningless existence. Time for drastic change. It’s all or nothing. Delete your Facebook page, join the gym and take too many classes. Hammer away. Sure it may be the wrong direction but damn it, we’ll just drive faster. Don’t take crap from anyone. Punch that loser out. Go ahead, make my day.

Hammers are rarely subtle. Even the perceived criticism, fault, or indiscretion is an opportunity to swing away. When one has the most limited of resources (tools) than it is almost certain they will default to what they already know.

One has but to interact with a teenager to validate this hypothesis. When I was in my late teens I knew everything; my world was incredibly finite. Ignorance is its own reward; you get a world you understand and can control. Self-awareness invites a universe infested with chaos, impossible to contain. I did not know what I did not know, so I believed I knew. Now I know.

Teenagers tend to believe they can diagnose the world’s woes solely based on their limited and vastly overrated understanding of the meaning of life. This is just one reason why many teenagers are as stupid as lawn darts. Yes I said that, but you have felt the same way and let’s not pretend a fifteen-year-old is just an adult with pants that will not stay up. It is an unfortunate factoid that we tend to abuse our bodies and minds so completely during a time in our life when we have only a partially connected frontal lobe. Teenagers are brain-damaged in the most literal sense of the word.

Adolescence is also a time of increasing independence and self-determination; the same self-determination which led genius over there to drink rubbing alcohol this past weekend because it said the word “alcohol” on the white part of the label (don’t ask), and no one was going to tell him he couldn’t drink something that could kill him.

But I digress.

It is not just your pimply sixteen-year-old who likes to hammer out his problems. Men often do this in relationships as well. My wife wanted to tell me a story about her messed up day. She asked me for input. I made the mistake, yet again, of believing she actually wanted my brilliant solutions to her problem. I do this for a living and I make that rookie mistake day after day. Hammer, meet nail. Problem solved. You’ll be fine, as long as you pay attention and do exactly what I tell you. Women love it when I say that.

There is something deep inside me that enjoys being in control. I am tempted to believe my own narrative, the one where I convince myself about my need to be right.

Moving forward can mean having to learn new tools, new ways of acting and even reacting. Perhaps there is also a piece in there about letting go of a bit of the intensity that I manufacture to keep my world sane. Like many of us I am endeavouring to let go of tools which have been in my box for years; words like insecurity and grief and immaturity and my need to fit in. From here on it is critical that we develop tools which work, not just ‘used to work’. Anger and grief may have defined your existence but they don’t have to become a terminal illness.

One more thing. Hammers usually find a nail to hit. If I think the world is a horrible place I will probably be proven correct. There are no end to the reasons why I should be bitter, or angry, or depressed. Now is the time when I need to adjust my default mechanisms, my biases, in order to move forward. Anger often works but you may need to redefine what you mean by the word “works”. It may help you win that argument even if you have to destroy someone’s character to do so. Changing my automatic thoughts has proven to be an incredibly difficult challenge. Learning to think differently is ultimately the most powerful, albeit difficult, personal achievement on my radar.


With Love To A Dying Church

I don’t write about religion on this blog. There are many reasons and not all of them are healthy, but I never wanted this to be about church because I have literally been there, done that, and I’m better now. Religion is a topic that divides families and I’m not about that, and I’m too pink to care, and I have other outlets. I rarely delete comments but come at me preaching and no one will ever know you stopped by. Contrary to what some allege, I am absolutely not anti-faith, quite the opposite. Spirituality is essential to mental health and I really just wanted to talk about your Hippocampus and not John 3:16. Don’t worry mom, I’m not going rogue.

I grew up around the Evangelical Movement. I attended boarding school because my local school had no room for me and it was a boom-or-bust oil town; so my parents sacrificed their middle-class savings and I went to the middle of nowhere. Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan may not be the end of the world but you can smell it from there. I remember the first day of grade 10 – we had to go to chapel. I did not know what “chapel” really was, but soon I found out it was Monday Church before class. How quaint, I thought. Then we had to go to church again on Tuesday. You saw the pattern here before I did. Holy Monkeys.

I didn’t come from this. My family went to church whenever my dad had to do the books (he literally missed the service) and he could scrape up the money to bribe us with a Happy Meal. It was a long time ago and Happy Meals were cool so shut up and quit judging me. They had a prize inside, for heaven’s sake (see what I did there?). Oh, and I had a Summer Bible Camp girlfriend. Sorry Connie.

Church came with a Happy Meal. We would stretch out on the pew and have a nap, right there in front of a hundred people. My father would literally put up with anything to get us to a service. My mother didn’t even go, and it took me years to realize that eventually even McDonald’s wasn’t enough to keep most of us in church.

One day I grew up and married into a religious denomination because everyone knows that Christian chicks are hot and I was an adolescent hormone who had to go to Thursday Church. I met some amazing people on the journey and learned what selflessness looked like and tried to play a small part. Everyone seemed to want to change the world.

As a therapist I get to visit many different realities. I am intimately familiar with the nuances of both a crack house and a mansion, occasionally on the same day. People come to Drop-In and tell our counselors things that are unbelievable, but absolutely true. One day last week I heard three horrific stories in a row only to realize it wasn’t yet 10 am. I’m not complaining, my job is rarely work and it turns my crank but it’s staggering, the measure of pain that is in your town.

The world became complicated and my religious friends began to look baffled and overwhelmed. Pastors told me on a regular basis that they “had no idea” how to engage the culture anymore; and when they said this to me it sounded as if they were talking about a foreign country with a different language. Several even had a visceral reaction to their own comments. Words were spoken with grief, not animosity; wonder, not cursing. It must be a horrific thing to feel like an outsider in a world you walk through every day. “In the world, not of it” became for some a mandate to circle the wagons and run from the homosexuals. Churches formed schools, than Starbucks and bookstores and yoga and health foods, and before you knew it you no longer had to talk to pagans at all.

We still need you, church. We need your brashness and your balls, your unswerving and unsuccessful attempts at integrity, your idealism and your faith in humanity. You don’t need to worry, we know you are flawed, but so are we. If only we could put down our weapons and have a beer. Many of the kindest and most loving people in the world are from your camp. The media is wrong, you do have something to bring to the table; but you need to realize that you have become only one voice, a voice easily marginalized when the volume is cranked too high. It is not as scary as you think, out here in the wilderness. Many friends are still asking the hard questions and looking for community and aren’t as angry as they once were. You taught us about hope and faith and happiness and family; and that stuff, when you hear it from someone who actually gives a damn, sticks with a person.

I was giving a talk on Current Drug Trends last week and I offhandedly commented, “There is no war on drugs, we clearly lost.” People who don’t believe that addiction has become a permanent part of our cultural landscape are called Amish. Many of us really really like dopamine and serotonin because they are super yummy and Canadians sometimes do drugs because drugs are awesome, for a while. Being high can be significantly more fun than being sober, especially at work. Many of us smoke pot every single day and then tell our friends that it’s not addictive. The Amish are lovely people with a rich and diverse heritage.

What do drugs have to do with Methodists? Many of my friends in the church are very nervous about having a frank conversation with a society which is often highly medicated and has embraced gay marriage, divorce, premarital sex, pornography, shopping on Sunday, recreational drug use, cheating on taxes, promiscuity, reality television, partial nudity, pluralism, The Long Island Medium, gay marriage, legalized pot, living in “sin”, potty mouth, “worldliness”, abortion, 4/20, yoga, violence and gore, Justin Bieber, and women in stretchy pants that are so tight you can see their bladder. As the world swerves into the Post-Christendom Era it has caught the conservative Christian world with its pants down. I am keenly aware that this can offend but I do this for a hobby and my wife thinks I’m good-looking so I can take it if you can just understand my heart on this.

Our hemisphere is experiencing a seismic shift, yet again.

Many in “the world” are willing to have an authentic conversation and they know you can’t give on a few things because of the Bible but that’s ok, let’s just be real with one another. I can honestly say that I have never had a candid conversation about faith with anyone in the past ten years who was not warm and engaging, with the possible exception of a few faithful.  People love talking about spirituality with anyone who validates their journey and doesn’t tell them what to think. Why is this so hard, church people? People are interested in the conversation, just not the condemnation. Spirituality is incredibly important and when we are easily wounded we shut down the dialogue before it can really bear fruit.

I miss you, the friends of my youth. Some of you were wise and sage counsel and I loved you like a brother or sister. If I could wish for you one thing it would be the gift of not being offended. Priests can’t kill people anymore, so groups who want to get their message of hope across need to figure out how not to pick a fight. Learning to take a little less offence at the obvious blunders and shortcomings of others is probably something from which we could all receive benefit, myself included.

Let’s hang out. I’ll buy you a Happy Meal.

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.


You Suck

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassions, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
– Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

So I was sitting in the tub this past week (cue disturbing visual image) and reading an article about “fun with semi-colons”. I’m not really a tub guy but I had a busted wing and it was either that or stink. If I had a dime for every time I’ve started an article with the line, “so I was sitting in the tub”. I have become a nerd who reads psychology and philosophy and Mental Floss. I can live with that.

My wife walked in the bathroom and upon hearing what I was reading, sardonically announced, “I have never been less attracted to you.” If I had a dime for every time…

Making fun of myself is easy. I have plenty of ammunition. I’m an expert at self-abasing, most of us are. I was birthed in Canada, where false humility is a national preoccupation. Growing up we all believed that self-promotion was sin, and bragging was something you only did if you were an American (it’s not you, it’s us) or hung out with people who had really good hair. In grade ten I had an afro so had little reason to brag. Ok, I was prone to self-promotion and I secretly miss the Fro.

It is common, although often incorrect, to assume that people are arrogant when they brag about themselves. This seems to have little foundation in any real psychology once you exclude the narcissists and the psycho/sociopaths and your Uncle Bert. For the rest of us, isn’t it true that (I got that line from a lawyer who kept putting words in my mouth during a trial I was called to testify as a counsellor at)… Isn’t it true that for most of us we tend to brag because we are actually insecure and generally feel bad about ourselves? I can sense, somewhere deep inside me, that when I lean towards self-promotion I am usually trying to convince myself and others that I am not the secondhand turd that some people believe me to be. I’m just saying, for me.

Insecure people brag. Secure people rarely feel the need. To be candid, the more I learn to accept myself the less my detractors matter. It is a testimony to this problem that at this point in the article I feel obligated to include the detraction, “I don’t mean that in an arrogant way”.

There is a measure of psychological sense to the religious confessional. When clients are trapped in the cycle of emotional self-abuse I often ask them, “Do you feel you have done enough penance yet?” There is something in most of us that is prone to continue the self-blame cycle forever. When will the day come when I have punished myself enough? Shame is a powerful and pervasive sickness that can trap a person and convince them that they do not deserve a rich life. At some point in the journey it is time to say enough is enough, forgive ourselves one day at a time, and scratch a little happiness out of life.

“Your problem is you’re… too busy holding onto your unworthiness.”    Ram Dass

This is not a self-help piece that ends with a parade and hot chocolate, although I highly recommend both with a splash of irish cream. In the real world, it is up to me alone to learn how to move beyond my own insecurities and learn to become comfortable with who I am right at this particular time. I will never be “good enough” until I learn to settle for good enough. Many of us can agree that we are sick and tired of feeling bad about ourselves.

Bragging can be a very healing and affirming thing, when done with someone who is safe and gets it. I have a few friends who really encourage me to feel good about myself. You know who you are and thank you. There is a time and a place for everything, apparently, and when was the last time you really bragged about something that matters to you? We need to be cheerleaders for our friends. In a world that constantly reminds us how we do not measure up we all need someone who is wise enough to give us a chance to crow. Everyday and in every way we are given the message that we do not measure up, we’re too ugly, too fat, or too old, or too whatever. And always not enough – not enough education or maturity, not enough love or health or understanding from a world that appears to take delight when you wipe out and they can get it on tape.

So go ahead, brag a little. You’re pretty awesome.

The Triceratops

I was given a small piece of a backbone recently by a new friend. The backbone of a Triceratops. Wicked. You can see the marrow, or so I choose to think. It looks like a bone, a 68 million-year-old bone. For an amateur history enthusiast, this is very cool. I am becoming more of a geek all the time.

History is something I care very much about. It has been, along with a few other diversions, one of the passions of my adult life. I endeavour to read history almost every day. One of the reasons I love this so much is because it teaches me lessons that others have had to learn the hard way. The other reason is because I fancy myself a bit of a storyteller and I can mine history forever. There are literally millions of great stories I have not heard yet. Billions. Many are lost to antiquity and most, the vast majority, were never remembered in the first place. Life is story.

When Brian Williams got incinerated by the media recently for embellishing on his war correspondence I understood what he was doing. I try to never let the absolute truth ruin a great story. I still tell a few stories I know are not true, simply because they are amazing. I will often even start with, “This story is not true.” I don’t care, I’m interested in hearing a story, this isn’t church. Williams is guilty of losing himself in his own story. He forgot that he was supposed to report on the action, not be the action. He has told that story so many times he probably could convince himself that it’s probably half-true. I’ve done that. Once, while on a whitewater canoe trip with The No Tan-line Annual (NTLA) crew, my canoeing partner Don Hand caught a huge lake trout on a lake called Trout Lake. I told that story so many times I started to believe I was the one who caught the fish. I still prefer to tell it my way.

Stories have enriched my life in ways I cannot begin to fathom. By now anyone who reads this rag knows that I am a strong proponent of audiobooks. I have gone on record, many times, alleging that audiobooks may have saved my life. Every day, many times a day, I lose myself in a story. I have a tiny hint of ADHD in my psyche and audiobooks keep me placid and awake. They keep my mind from going places that it should never go. When I used to cry every day audiobooks gave me a break from the grief. See, I can’t stop preaching about audiobooks.

Where were we? Oh right, the Triceratops. Looking at that horn connects me with something far bigger than myself. That’s why I collect old books and newspapers and coins. Touching those French Francs from the 18th Century gives me a deep sense of connectedness with the bigger story. Yesterday, while on Lori’s blog, I looked at a picture of Napoleon’s gloves. That makes him alive to me, somehow.

I have a deep connection with my own story as well. Even with my memory I can feel a connection with my past. I can enter again into 15-year-old Scott. I can remember how it felt to paddle into that secret bird sanctuary on the Clearwater River. If I think hard enough I can develop a sense of mindfulness with my younger me and see how he felt and what he believed. Sitting here, I can connect with Scott on stage at the Clarke Theatre in 1999. He was ridiculously naive and immature but I can also see his heart and I know the truth. Try that on yourself, sometime soon. Get in that chair or that bed and spend 15 minutes intentionally going back. Remember how she felt that day, you know the one. I did this mindfulness exercise just before I started this article and it is powerful once you figure it out. Try it six times before you give it up. I learn new things about myself every time I wander.

There is a profound wisdom to be found in your own story if you allow yourself to look at it in a more objective fashion. The more you can develop a third-person relationship with your past, the more you can learn. As I recently wrote about, it’s again about radical acceptance. Radical acceptance of the truth about my personal journey. I desperately want to whitewash my own immaturity but that takes away, profoundly, from the story. As Kant said, you have two worlds. There is the world as you wish it to be and the world as it really is. It’s like a bad remake of The Matrix and it’s true. My failure to cope often defines the story. My ability to accept my own part in the dysfunction is crucial if you want to learn the truth. You were there too. Don’t worry, I’m not blame-shifting. It really may not have been your fault but we aren’t talking about blame. I have learned to deal with life in certain ways and some of these are dysfunctional. It may have been as a result of abuse or just because that’s the way things turned out with your particular strange porridge of DNA and family weirdos. The story is, after all, about me.

As Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember (learn from) the past are condemned to repeat it”.


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.

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 Measuring Stick

Am I crazy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how are you doing?

Injustice And The Third Way

It isn’t fair and I don’t like that. On some level, most of us have had to face the harsh reality that doesn’t feel fair. But is it?

No. There is no Pixar ending.

Sitting in the old counselling office one rainy day this truth began to open up wider for me. I began to see threads, real or imagined, in many of the stories of pain and trauma that funnelled their way through my door and sometimes my life. It may be that this cognitive distortion, this need for life to “make sense”, has been responsible for a larger slice of misery than at least I ever imagined.

The stories are similar. Depression or anxiety brought on by trauma or heartbreak with a sense of cruel incongruity. We have been wronged and something needs to be put right. We simply cannot accept that there is no payback. It’s so… unfair.

As the good book says, and I proceed to steal and compare myself, albeit tongue-in-cheek, to the great Apostle Paul, “I do not come to you as one who has attained. Nonetheless I press on.” Like you I wonder why good people seem to suffer and total jerks continue to prosper. She left and it hurt and she never came back. I know that feeling. It’s bad. He died without ever getting his “just desserts”. Some of those Nazis escaped to Argentina and lived off the rewards of their raping and pillaging and genocide. As I consumed Martin Davidson’s book, The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering My Grandfather’s Secret Past, it was apparent that the author never was able to see his grandfather pay for his heinous crimes. There is no glass slipper ending. Gru doesn’t really adopt the cute little girls – they get thrown into the social welfare system and spend their childhood in Foster Care. They became sexually active early. Chances are they have issues with addiction and end up marrying poorly. That’s the real world and it is many things, but it is not fair.

But here’s the problem. I am DNA’d to believe in fairness. I cannot seem to get it through my dense skull that reality cares very little about my sense of injustice. It is up to me alone to move forward, and it’s very, very, hard. Years.

There are three ways, I think. There is the way I want, the way I don’t want… and the way I don’t know yet.

I have a friend, a real friend who I see in the real world, who has been working on her stuff for years. Not too long ago she came to me and uttered, “Five years. It’s been five years and I’m still not fixed.” It was heartbreaking, because she is a rock star.

As I wrote in my last post, some people go through things that are beyond coping. There isn’t a toolbox in the world that prepares you for the loss of a child. As I’ve said even recently, you get a free pass for that. I would go crazy. I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would be ok if I lost one of my kids. It’s simply not reasonable to imagine, yet in ways that are beyond my meagre understanding, some people keep going.

I just finished rereading Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants. He’s a storyteller. I like stories. In that book he points again and again to average people who, when faced with insurmountable odds, found a third way. He doesn’t call it that, but he seems to understand. Mennonites who have learned that vengeance sometimes creates more pain than it heals, even when your baby is defiled. Huguenots who stood up to the scariest dictatorship we have known and said, “We have Jews, come and get them”. Poor people and zealots and losers who came to understand that they have only one life; and the need for justice was ruining what little they had left.

There is the way I want, the way I don’t want… and the way I don’t know yet.

Five years of reading, learning, letting go, and moving forward against impossible odds. No one comes to a counsellor to sign up for that program. Most of us who are in process would happily abandon it at any time for a magic pill or a glass of good tequila.

Like most of us, it started with a broken toolbox of coping mechanisms. Imprints from childhood and generations of dysfunction, broken promises and unfulfilled expectations. Death had robbed her of a piece of her life. Choices. No role models who were not also broken. That ugliness inside. So much pain and hurt it was overwhelming. Some of you have been there… are there.

It’s hard to believe that you might be a success story. There is no pink cloud, no happy ending, no days of bliss without Xanax. But on some deep levels, people can fundamentally change. She still reads everyday because, if nothing else, she has learned that there are no shortcuts to wisdom. She needed to get started. There were days and months and years when it didn’t seem that there would ever be a good day again, but she was wrong. She knows that now. I don’t talk to her like a counsellor anymore, we just exchange information, sometimes everyday. There has to be a good reason to work this hard or I couldn’t live with myself and do what I do for a living. I’ve seen too many people find a third way to believe that my life is hopeless anymore. There must be a way from where you are to where you need to be or I quit.

Here’s the last thing I’ll say about this here. I didn’t have a clue what the third way was for years. I thought, many times, that I had this covered, but I was very wrong. I knew what I knew and I was willing to die for the cause, but the cause was flawed. No one could tell me that because I was right.

But one day I realized I wasn’t. Letting go of what I knew to be fact was exceedingly difficult.

Realizing that I had to work on this stuff every day for the rest of my life was at first disheartening, then exciting. It sure didn’t start out “exciting”. It was horrible. How do you stop believing what you have known to be true all your life? How do you “fake it until you make it” when you feel like you are lying to yourself? How do you hope again when you have been proven wrong in hundreds of ways?

Those are very good questions and this isn’t Sunday School and we have to figure this out for ourselves (with a little help). I can’t give you a slick closing sentence to make you or I feel any better. As I have often been counselled, I need to be relentless in my desire for change. There is only one game in town.

Passing On What We Didn’t Learn

My father was an orphan. He grew up with a brother, little supervision, and almost no “life lessons” from a parental figure. His relatives were racist, religious bigots.

My mother is one of three girls. She came from a long line of alcohol and cigarettes, empties and ignorance.

Neither one of my parents really inherited much of worth from their forebearers . My grandmother, by her own admission, hated me. Eventually, as the years progressed, she learned to hate others as well. By most accounts she was a nasty piece of work. My grandfather drank beer for breakfast and filled his work thermos with scotch, in order to cope. He was, according to legend, a very bright man. Very sad. He taught me how many cases of Canadian beer fit in the back of a Buick. Marketable skills…

Parenting is a ridiculous proposition, when it comes down to it. Take a person or two, give them limited skills, make them young and inexperienced. Toss in a boot-full of low-income and sleepless nights and worry. As the kids grow older offer them few real tools and then take their kids and throw them into the meat grinder called “school”. Enter drugs. Enter peer pressure and poor self-esteem and pimples and loss. Welcome to the real world.

Recently, a good friend from a difficult background told me that he felt it was his job to “pass on what he wasn’t given”. He was attempting to raise children with values and ethics to which he had never been exposed. Like my own parents, he was trying to pass on lessons he had never learned. It was time to break the cycle of abuse and dysfunction.

Many of us can relate to the story of my parents. We were also not given the right tools and mentors. We watched while parents punched and swore, or had relatives who were abusive or neglectful, ignorant or narrow-minded. No one taught us how to grow up, much less help a child do the same. We never learned how to think in high school. School also never prepared us for real world finances, or communicating with our partner, or how to deal with stress, depression, or the grinding monotony of life. There was nothing on addiction, or the meaning of life, or how to develop impulse control. But hey, thanks for the calculus skills that I use practically every day in the real world…

Most of the stuff we talk about in counselling I never learned in a school setting. There have not been many lights for parents whose children are defiant, or mixed up, or broken. Sure there have been many books written, but somehow reading yet another book by a successful author doesn’t help as much as the book jacket promised. No one else is there when your child tells you to “go to hell” or comes home with a broken heart. If we are honest, most of us will admit that we don’t even have it yet worked out. How can we teach what we never learned?

There was a time in my life when I thought counselling was stupid. Weak people went to see a shrink, people who couldn’t handle the real world. I was an idiot. Parenting… living… in the 21st Century is insanely complex and confusing. The world is going through a historical “swerve” and even in our lifetimes things have changed so much some of us still think a moustache is cool. Methodologies that have worked for centuries are no longer relevant. Many of our hand-holds are being stripped away.

Take, by way of example, the challenges that the modern man goes through. Even while writing that sentence my hands started to automatically backpaddle and include the ladies. I have been conditioned by society to demean the average male for a myriad of reasons. When I was young we were supposed to be The Terminator. We would have kicked the crap out of Legolas, or those vampires that sparkle. Real men didn’t eat quiche. Manicures… well don’t even get me started. Men who were not “macho” enough were ridiculed. My friends who are gay report that they never even considered “coming out” for fear of actual physical violence. Verbal and emotional abuse was assumed. Just when we figured out the strong, silent type we were told we had to be sensitive. Sensitive? Some people do not understand what a profound mental shift that was for many men. Now give that guy a boy of his own to raise and sit back and watch the fun.

I no longer think counselling is stupid. Few of us are adequately prepared to face the complex situational and emotional dynamics of our present realities. And sometimes… it’s just helpful to have someone look at you across the room and confirm that you aren’t crazy. Every day I try to help patients look at life a little more realistically. They, in turn, teach me profound lessons about myself. Life is hard enough with help. Going it alone cannot be good. I am simply too ignorant of too much to assume I can adequately cope with this complicated thing called “reality”.

Keep going. Keep learning. Someone once said that change comes when we “hurt enough we have to, or learn enough we want to”. Personally, I prefer the second option. I’ve learned enough in pain. I’m tired of figuring everything out the hard way. The next lessons can come from wise sages and wounded prophets, life champions and scarred doyens. It is for this reason, as well as the sheer pleasure of it, that I strap on the headphones and listen to audiobooks day after day after day. Some of my friends actually read real books. Ten of my clients and friends have decided to go back to college, some in their forties and fifties. As I write these words I am laying in bed with my Macbook, one foot on my Nook and several good books in the night table. I am building my new library across the hall. I am not saying this to brag. As I have often pointed out in this website, there is just so much I have yet to learn.

I have to be honest with you, it’s much easier to grow if you read. Or fake read, like I often do. The more I learn the faster I grow. Some of us need to be creative because reading does not come naturally to us. You can start by changing the kinds of television programs you watch. Google your own mental health issues and include phrases like “cbt for anxiety” or depression, or a passive-aggressive spouse, or impulse control, or whatever. It’s like the old Canadian Participaction commercial, “Don’t just think about it, do it, do it, do it”. “Like” Psychology Today’s Facebook page and get their daily article feed. Go to other feeds as well. I personally use Facebook more as of a daily reader than a tool to find out whether or not my fake friends are at Walmart. Learners get better faster – that’s just the way it works. I am coming to believe that there are few shortcuts, only lessons I can choose to learn.

Pass on what you weren’t taught… because you taught yourself. No one is going to do this for me.

Failure Is Not An Option!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put that in your pipe…

Why Some Relationship Counseling Doesn’t Work

Listen to people talk about their problems long enough and you begin to realize that there isn’t very much we can do about some situations. Take for example the person who comes to talk to me, complaining that their spouse drinks too much, is too insensitive, is unappreciative, too angry, (insert complaint here). Most are hoping that somehow, things will change. I tend to disappoint people…

Live long enough and you begin to realize that it’s very difficult to change anyone else. Sure if you whine enough, or threaten enough some things can change, though usually temporarily. If you are talking about a major character flaw or mental health issue, however, the likelihood that you can remonstrate enough to create real change is slim to none. Very few of us are willing to make and maintain major life change because someone bitches continually.

Unfortunately we know that the only person we can really change is… me.

I am not very good at marriage counseling. I tend to want to focus on personal change when many couples are there because they want to air their dirty laundry. How can they move on, they allege, until these issues are dealt with?

Ever try to “deal with” twenty years of broken trust or hurt? The word ‘impossible’ comes to mind. Couples who want to get over all that historic hurt usually end up in divorce court. Sorry but it’s true. Some of that stuff simply does not get fixed by talking and pleading and begging for forgiveness. How long does it take, you might ask, to restore trust when the other person is barely capable of understanding how you really feel (especially if that other person is from the other sex)? Brokenness breeds mistrust faster than most people can get over their problems.

Hoping my spouse will decide to make radical change is also a trap. To be honest, most people don’t change. I often point out here that counseling rarely works because often the cost of changing is too high. The time it takes to work through decades of abuse and pain is extremely difficult and it is probably unreasonable to expect someone else to go through years (ya that’s not a typo) of counseling, introspection, prayer, accountability and humility that is necessary for fundamental psychological and emotional change (wow, now that’s a run-on sentence…).

MeditationKnowing now what I didn’t know then I have come to realize that the only person I can count on to do all that work is me. I can dedicate myself to working on myself, whatever the cost. I can invest hours and dollars and effort to become something I never realized I could be – whole.

I am finding, to whatever degree I am growing, that the more I am ok with me and the more I am complete in myself the less I need someone else to fill those holes in my heart. As I mature I am able to better maintain my center, even if the world around is crazy. Working on me may, in point of fact, be even more important than working on “us”.

I am trying to get to the place, as I often tell people, where I no longer need my wife. No longer need her to feel good about myself. No longer need her to complete me, or fix me, or even approve of me. I am endeavouring, with varied success, to come to the place where I no longer need my wife, though I really want her. I can’t help but think that if I can be that guy then maybe, just maybe, I will be a better husband and a better man.

Sex, Junk, And Menopause

English: graphic convention of manga, sweating...

I like talking about sex. After you have spent hours talking about depression, stress, marriage break-ups and anxiety it’s nice to talk about the clitoris. There is also the fact that I grew up in a conservative, Canadian culture that didn’t talk about female anatomy unless you are making a lurid joke; so there is the added risqué factor. I have actually caught myself, while in a conversation with a couple about their sex life, wondering, “Am I allowed to talk about this?”. It’s a childish, prudish attitude but frankly that makes it a bit more fun.

It will come as no revelation to anyone that women come to counselling far more than men. Without any verifiable data on hand I would guesstimate that at least 85% of my clients are female. This factor alone has radically changed my own life and taught me more about relationships, women, men, and psychology than any schooling or book. I am able, on some rudimentary level, to understand women far better than I ever did while working with men. I am still a Neanderthal, I admit, but hopefully a teachable one.

But I digress.

Sex is, unsurprisingly, a complicated thing for couples. Heterosexual couples have the added challenge of differing equipment, among other differences. Many men, surprisingly, still do not really understand female anatomy. True confession – as a teenager I didn’t know where women pee’d from. I didn’t have the advantage of an extensive and lurid porn collection and assumed women pee’d from that hole somewhere. My parents were actually very progressive and open about sexuality and I still didn’t figure it out. Laugh if you want – then ask your young teen. We’re dudes, our junk is on the outside and free to peruse at our leisure. Ok, now I feel like an idiot. As they say, laugh at yourself and you’ll never run out of material.

But I digress.

Menopause is another area that men don’t really understand. Why are you sweating without covers on? What do you mean when you say, “I feel like a furnace, the heat comes from the inside”? Can you really have a period for a month? Or not at all? Why does it suddenly hurt? Don’t you desire me anymore? Don’t I do it for you anymore?

Why are you crying? And once again, stop sweating!

It is easy to be critical of men and assume they are clueless about women because… well… we are. No one took us aside (outside of pornography where women all want sex all the time in every position imaginable and orgasm in about a minute) and explained your junk, or how to communicate, or even how to act like a man or a passionate lover. You don’t make any sense to us and we are usually too embarrassed and insecure to ask you for directions.

I love getting directions. But then again, I’m weird.

Women who are with men would do well to understand that we have not been properly taught how to understand you. Our teachers were our fathers (Neanderthals) and the dark side of the internet (run by Neanderthals). We don’t stand around at the job-site and ask each other about our feelings or talk about our relationships (at least not in a way you would appreciate). Few of us are in touch with our feelings and we do not understand how to ask for guidance or input in such a way that you won’t get disgusted or laugh. Telling me to “stop that!” only scares the hell out of me and further entrenches my belief that you are an alien species who cannot be understood. Add the male communication handicap and you have a recipe for misunderstanding. When it comes to the bedroom arena, couples really should spend at least as much time talking as they do… kissing. Creating an atmosphere free from ridicule or shame is the best gift you can give to your sex life. Talk, then touch. Then talk some more. You will be glad you did.

Are you done sweating yet?

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

What Do You Want?

I Can't Quit You BabyPeople often come to counseling hoping that the professional will basically condone what they have already been doing to deal with their problems. Eventually that counselor, if they don’t suck, will gently point out that perhaps, just maybe, the problem isn’t everyone in their screwed up family – the problem is how they are handling their thinking, coping, and life. This is usually a difficult thing to hear and process. Such a revelation may necessitate change in areas the client is not happy to address. They want to be different but they “cannot” change what they need to change. At some point they will turn to their counselor and actually ask for help doing “something they don’t want to do”.

I won’t teach you how to quit doing something you don’t want to stop doing. I have a hard enough time convincing patients to spoil themselves. Besides, people usually do what they want to do. So the question is, what do you want to do?

Here’s the secret – don’t change what you do, change what you want. How easy would it be to quit drinking if you earnestly believed that you hated alcohol and didn’t want it in your life anymore? The key isn’t to convince you to stop snorting cocaine. The key is to help you learn a different way to think about cocaine. A different perspective will change everything.

I have a client who wanted to stop using cocaine so one day he lined up a line of cocaine and then made a second line out of Drano, a horrible cleaner that was under the sink. The two lines looked almost identical and he asked himself, “Which line is worse for me to snort?”

The answer seemed obvious, the cocaine was obviously safer to snort than the toxic drain cleaner. This is the obvious answer and the obvious answer is completely wrong. Snorting the Drano will cause him to become sick and throw up. The experience will teach him never to have that experience ever again. Problem solved. Snorting the cocaine will lead to something that feels good but will take your house and your marriage. It is much much safer to snort the Drano.

You don’t need to do something that you do not want to do. You simply change the way you feel about the cocaine. You consider soberly how prone you are to remember only the good parts of a bad addiction. You allow yourself to believe that you could be happy without artificial stimulants. You begin to dream about life in Normieland. You start getting up in the morning. You get a job. You go to church, or yoga, or NA. You choose to stop entertaining your negative thoughts and force yourself to be positive until you believe it. You come back to life.

The principle applies for almost everything we are dealing with. Radically changing the way we think about life is the ONLY way to find wholeness as we learn to address our inaccurate thinking patterns, our dysfunctional coping skills, and our skewed outlook on life.

As we say around here all the time, “Change your mind and your butt will follow”.

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.