Dying Bitter

Robert Frost’s famous poem has been a reference point in my thinking and practice for decades. Considered by many to be a populist poem for the poser, it touched my life in Grade 11. For some reason, and I have no idea why, I almost liked poetry in high school. It wasn’t very cool for a guy who played competitive sports to spend too much time discussing poetry with girls when you could be kissing, so I pretended to think poetry was stupid.  Something stuck.

My grade 11 English teacher seemed 100 years old. She was one of those old-school marms who wore her hair in a bun because she hated fun. We couldn’t stand her, but we were exposed to a ton of poetry, and I learned how to put a sentence together. Thank you, Miss Enns, wherever you are.

My roommate and closest friend at the time once, when asked to compose a ditty of his own, compiled the first lines of a few dozen poems in our textbook and named this epic “As Winter Fought”. He got an A. Glen is still a legend in Grade 11 English.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

I am a believer in the concept of The Journey. My life has been a series of adventures, some amazing, some boring, some hurtful. We all have our lists, our columns of successes and failures, and it seems to me that seemingly small decisions in my life have often had a profound effect, in ways I could never have imagined. One day you turn left instead of right, or you agree to do something, and your life becomes an Owen Wilson movie where you visit Paris and wonder how your life could have gone so sideways. I would have never imagined, when I was 20, that I would be the person I am today.

Here’s where I am headed. So many of us have been hurt, and hurt bad. My slice of the world may not be indicative of the whole pie, but I imagine a strong case could be made that most people find this time in history stressful. Significant numbers of us deal with one or more mental health challenges, or we’ve experienced trauma, or our self-esteem could use a tiny bit of tweaking. Working as a clinician you meet scores of people who have experienced things in their life which threaten to ruin them on the inside, if not the outside. Some of us continue to struggle with processing relational hurts. Divorce or breakup can almost certainly taint our souls. Losing a loved one, or watching what you have worked for, for so long, shrivel up and die, is enough to make people bitter… and that’s the point.

I was speaking with a colleague this morning when it occurred to me – the hardest time in my life is the thing which continues to define my philosophy of life and coping mechanisms, for good or ill. As cliché as I know this to be, the time life broke me has influenced my decisions and outlook far more than any class or conversation or trip. As cheesy as it is to admit, I am thankful for what I have learned in my darkest hours. There were lessons and experiences there which I could never otherwise know.  Still, I wouldn’t wish some of those crazy nights on my second greatest enemy.

I hung out with my parents this summer. My dad and I shared a sailboat in Mexico, then a week in British Columbia with my mom and niece. When I get together with my dad we tend to talk about philosophy or history or life. He plans to finish his Bachelor’s Degree, part-time, by the time he is 87, a few years early. Floating in my Canadian Tire pool he pointed his finger at me and said, “Don’t forget, always have a plan. I have a 10 Year Plan. Always have goals.” That’s my old man.

Not bad.

Dylan metaphorically said it, “you can serve the devil or you can serve the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody”. Some people who come to my office, or meet me for a Dairy Queen Blizzard, have been through hell and back and they are wiser and stronger and more determined than ever. Others have not been able to sustain the relentless attack and they are still chasing bitterness, in spite of best intentions. This is not meant as a negative indictment, far from it. Moving beyond the biggest kick in the face of your life seems impossible for some people. I know that some kicks are also harder than others. You try to tell a parent who has lost a child that “things are going to be ok”. As I have stated on several occasions, you lose a kid and you get a free pass the rest of your life. You can swing gophers in a pillowcase, as Brent Butt says, I’m not sure I could survive some things.

There are people in my life who have chosen to keep fighting, and some of them have begun a journey of self-discovery. They begin to understand the meaning of their life. This is what gets me up in the morning. There are those, whether on purpose or through sheer luck, have come through tragedy and decided that they don’t want to end up like that. I have watched people wade through hellish madness or grief or anxiety on levels which would stagger the uninitiated, and yet somehow are able to dream about graduating from university at 87. We will not diminish this by pretending this is a Hallmark Card and your attitude determines your altitude, staying engaged in a world that has kicked you in the groin is very hard and requires a butt-load of work.

Few of us are going to radically redefine our attitude towards life and stop being pessimistic without taking significant time for you. As we have quipped before, I want to learn enough I want to change, not hurt enough I have to. My clients who move forward drink the Kool-Aid just enough to believe that things will change if they keep trying to give a damn. I can just hear several of my clients saying, “yes but I’ve tried that before, many times, and yet here I am”. I believe you. All I can say is that I have names of people who have a richer life now than during that time we dare not say out loud. At the end of the day that ridiculous greeting card may hold some truth after all, I do have a say in how I choose to look at life.

I had one other thought about this subject this morning: Why do some people tell me that the worst time of their lives has turned out to be the time when they grew the most? While there are certainly circumstances which I would not be qualified to judge, times when a life has become untenable, for many of us our greatest heartbreaks only almost killed us.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I pray I never become a bitter old man who spends all day talking about his medical problems.

Dealing With Your Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

From our friends at brainpickings:

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

Inner Monologue

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

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

Only it isn’t.

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

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

That’s why she’s one of my editors.

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

Here’s Lori again.

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

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

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

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

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

I desperately want to be that person.

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

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

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

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

That may be living but that is not a life.

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

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

In retrospect of course.

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 Feel Me?

My friend Lori the art nerd, that’s her legal name, has to critique another student’s play. I would stink at that. As a psychology geek I would be all like, “but there’s too much criticism in the world already and I have no idea what kind of hell this person has gone through. How old is she, 30? That means she’s a senior student. Good for her! But wait a minute. A senior student, what went wrong? Why is she back at school now. Some bastard broke her heart! Good for her! How can I criticize Cheryl, she’s a hero!”

You probably don’t really need someone like me to remind you of your problems. You know your problems. You didn’t just pay me to tell you what is obvious to you, did you? You have a bead on your problems, what is missing are solutions.

Or am I wrong?

Granted, someone like me gets paid to help you look through another lens. Trust me on this one, you want that. I tell people who are going through something like grief or depression, addiction or anxiety, that they should think of themselves as insane. You heard me. Screen Shot 2012-09-18 at 12.19.55 PMWe simply need to put some heavy limits on our application of the word. When you are depressed you cannot think rationally because your frontal cortex is getting slammed by three greasy hippies on cocaine driving a Vega (I especially like the mini wagon with fake wood) spraying warm tapioca from your primal and basically cray cray brain. I like to impress readers with my technical know-how.

When things were bad in my hemisphere I am completely certain that I was absolutely and coldly nuts, much of the time. I was so entirely broken that it framed every decision in my life. Some of you know of what I speak. So yes, I was a little insane, thank you very much. Probably a great deal more than a little. You would never want someone in that mindset to walk your pet, let alone make decisions of any import. In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have remortgaged the house twice because I “didn’t give a damn”. You feel me?

(What does that mean, anyway, “you feel me?”. I would, frankly, prefer that very few people actually “feel me” so I guess I should say, “please stay appropriately behind the yellow line and I’ll greet you with a firm hand shake”)

It’s easy to wear our failures like a hairshirt. If you want a list of my shortcomings just ask me. Either I figured it out or it was driven into me a few hundred thousand times. Pointing out your obvious flaw may make you think I’m Kreskin, but chances are it will simply reinforce how useless you already feel. Thanks for that, best friend! I know I have problems, I made them.

relaxing-on-beachHey listen. You’re coping the best you know how, right now. Most of us live our whole lives never living up to our own expectations, much less everybody else’s. Sometimes you need to be a little easier on yourself. You are on a journey and you are making this up as you go along. Few of us figure this out at the same rate. Life is profoundly more complex than the poster promised. I am virtually a full-time student and I am keenly aware how stupid I was only a few years ago. Will I say that again in five years?

Wisdom takes time, unfortunately. No one gets a free pass and that means no one. My goal is to figure this out in my current decade and it is taking far longer than any of us imagined. We can only do the best we can with the light we have right now. That’s as good as it can get, short of a scholarship to Cambridge. What is important is to play the hand given me well and eat as much candy as I can. If you need a kick in the butt feel free with my compliments, but don’t forget to eat some kitkatKitKat ice cream and listen to a comedy. I just watched Trevor Noah: African-American on Netflix and finally learned how to correctly pronounce Zebra (it sounds like Debra).

I can be hard on myself tomorrow.

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 Weatherman

Joseph Stalin had only one real job before going into revolution as an occupation. He was a weatherman. He also had smallpox. And a webbed foot. And one arm shorter than the other because of an accident with a horse. His dad was an alcoholic, a peasant. As a psychology guy I find these seemingly random facts incredibly interesting.

Nature and nurture.

There is no way to be certain but it may have made a difference that the defender of the largest geographic region in the world during the nazi attack called Barbarossa was intimately familiar with geography and weather. The nazis were ultimately stymied by the cossack winter. Was that a coincidence? What impact did his pockmarked face have on his bad attitude? What was it like growing up as a Georgian peasant at the end of the 19th Century Russia? Did growing up in poverty influence his decisions? How was he moulded?

Chances are, you can’t really escape your past. I look like my father, I have his hands. My kids are just better looking versions of me, poor slobs. There are scars, outside and some deep down. You have been imprinted by your past, by your culture, biology, and family systems.

Hitler attacked late. In the famous account we now know that at the last moment he decided to detour over to Hungary and flex his muscles a little. As a Canadian I can appreciate how short summer can be. The timelines were incredibly tight. Hitler had to have Moscow by winter. He was a few weeks late. The German soldiers had not come prepared for the Russian winter. Timing is everything when it comes to the weather. A weatherman would know that.

We may never fully understand the influence of seemingly insignificant detours in our lives. You chose one school or another and it changed everything. You met one person who transformed your future. You were born to particular people with specific dysfunction. You learned certain coping mechanisms in certain ways from certain people. The person I have become has been no accident, in spite of it happening by accident. We all carry the impressions from our little piece of crazy.

One of the reasons that this stuff takes so long to master must be because we have spent a lifetime being imprinted by our surroundings. The jury may occasionally be out, with regard to the biological impact that your forebearers  have had on you, but one thing is certain – nurture may have more to do with your life than nature. There are specific and significant mechanisms that interact when you live in an environment such as yours. There are entire branches of psychology dedicated solely to this, family and cultural systems theory and therapy. It is impossible to understate the impact living in such dysfunction could have upon a vulnerable and developing psyche. You are what you eat. And who you love. And where you live. And how you are hurt. Chances are there are also a bunch of other influences, whether apparent or not.

10885501_10152888523605049_5123057925881569940_nI am a Williams. That probably means nothing to you, but my family has created a mythos around our heritage that is taught to subsequent generations. This Christmas my parents bought everyone around me a T-shirt with “Be calm and let Williams handle it”, even the still-to-be-born Williams affectionately referred to as “Jellybean” (he/she received a onesie). If you are a little child in my world whose name ends with Williams you have undoubtedly been reminded how awesome and lucky you are; just because you are a member of this elite and ofttimes condescending tribe. My kids think that to be a Williams is a big deal. Generations of winners. It’s all a lie.

I mentioned recently that my family were/are peasants. Our history floats on a river of alcohol and impulse-control problems. My dad is an orphan. My mom, as a child, probably never met a teetotaller. I come from hard stock, unforgiving and obstinate… and talkative. Many had very large noses. Serfs.

This history touches my life every day. I have acquaintances who are one or two generations further removed from their peasant ancestors. That fact alone has a massive impact on every aspect of my life. There is not, and never were, the merchant assets to pass down to the next generation. This led, inevitably, to fewer options and a far greater likelihood of generational poverty. Williams’s don’t go to college, or at least they didn’t. There was no tradition nor cultural expectation with regard to education. My family simply did not go to college, we went to war. I am honoured to report that my father, at 76, is in university… again. I received my high school diploma before he did.

These are not insignificant cultural markers. How you grew up, and who you grew up with, affects everything from finances to self-esteem, where and how you live, who you date, how you raise your kids, how you self-medicate, how often you travel, your values and spirituality and intelligence and ability to cope. Further exposure to experience or abuse melds the psyche in early childhood, and sometimes much later. If your parents broke up, this will impact your everything. If you were/are abused, if you make poor relational choices (for the aforementioned reasons), if you grew up around violence or addiction or a passive-aggressive parent or three-ply toilet paper, everything factors in.

A man who earned his living by predicting tomorrow’s weather probably did not get confused when the snow started to fly in early October. His troops were cold weather fighters who used the land and the cold (and the biggest secret peasant army hidden east of the Urals that the world has ever known) to defeat the undefatigable Third Reich. Stalin knew hardship. The Nazis were almost in Moscow and all seemed lost, but Stalin did not leave – why? He was depressed but he was a Georgian peasant who had risen to the top by killing every single person (and their family) who stood in his way. The boy who had been teased for his scars and his bum arm wasn’t laying down for anyone. Some people have wounds that have defined them, shaped them.

Who I am, and where I come from, is so fundamentally important that it’s almost embarrassing to discuss. Yet time and again we are resurprised by our foibles and cannot understand why we act the way we do. We date the same kind of person over and over. We continue to experience the same difficulty with relationships, or finishing projects, or hoarding, or painting the kitchen every other month. For some, anger has become our constant companion. Others have identified themselves as broken for so long it is impossible to imagine a world wherein wholeness is even an option. Understanding the role our history has played in our dysfunction is crucial to healing. As the man said, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This oft-quoted line has been liberally applied, but I believe it can apply here.

There is a possibility that you may not be as nuts as you think you are. Perhaps it really is your parents fault! Whatever the truth, it’s important to find out. Learning is how we wrestle this pig to the ground. Again.

One last story.

When I was 29, I woke up one morning and realized that I had been having a repeating nightmare. I could remember it being a little different, years ago, but wasn’t sure how. In the dream I was always chased by two guys who grabbed me and threw me into a white van. I believe the van was once brown but it changed colour, I have no idea why.

That day it dawned on me that I had been having a version of this dream since childhood. I decided to look a little deeper. Over a period of time I was able to trace the dream back to when I was 9 or 10 years old. So the question was, why?


I am old enough that I believe that I saw Pinocchio, probably on a Sunday night, and probably while watching The Wonderful World Of Disney. I remembered how frightened I had been when the slimy Fox and the Cat (or whatever they were I’m too lazy to Wikipedia it) grabbed Pinocchio and threw him into the cart with the donkey boys. Could it be?

I never had the dream again. It could be that, once I realized why I was having this nightmare my subconscious was able to move on. It might be that I’m more brain damaged than I think. Either way, I’m all good.

I know it sounds like I am suggesting that if you can trace back your abuse to a specific time then you would miraculously “get over it”. If you’ve been here before you know that’s not my thing. This story is an anomaly. I find it interesting, however, because of the power of such narratives. There is a connection between our thoughts, motives, history, and mental health. Quitting cocaine is a great step but chances are that isn’t your complete problem. Your life is your problem.

There seems to be a real correlation between how much I know about this stuff and how fast I move forward. The more I learn, the faster I run.

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.

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…

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

So how are you doing?

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

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

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

Thanks for that. It really helps.

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

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

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

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

Women, Why You Don’t Make Sense

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

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

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

You aren’t talking Man-glish.

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

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

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

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

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

Chasing Tornadoes

i_believe_in_chasing_tornadoes_round_stickers-p217161373895334849en7l1_216One day, while living in Denver, Colorado, we heard that there was a tornado brewing in our area. This may seem like a big deal to you if you live somewhere else, but in Colorado tornadoes are a fact of life. I witnessed dozens of funnel clouds every year and often they would touch down, usually in a trailer park. God hates trailer parks. It’s not bad enough that you live in a home that can burn to ashes in four minutes. For some reason God has this habit of skipping houses with minivans and spanking the trailer folk.

Back to the true story. My wife is listening to the radio and she hears about this tornado heading right towards our neighborhood and she starts to get nervous, especially since my dad and I had gone for milk almost an hour ago and hadn’t gotten back. She started putting two and two together and started to shake her head and think to herself…. “they wouldn’t!”

Ok so my dad and I are cruising home from the Quickie Mart and we turn on the radio and we hear about this tornado heading right towards our neighborhood. We start to get excited. We had never seen a tornado from like, real close, and thought it would be cool to go looking for it. Actually it was my dad’s idea so that explains a lot about the kind of upbringing I had.

So here are two stupid Canadians in a Dodge Colt driving towards the tornado. We’re passing vans and cars and your basic fleeing mob going the other way. It was awesome, there was no traffic in our lane.

How close can you get to a tornado? It turns out you can get very close indeed. Fifty feet if you are stupid enough, or so I’ve heard. I blame my father. What kind of parent would let someone like me chase tornadoes?

The moral of the story is, Canadians are idiots. No, wait, that’s not it. The moral of the story is – it seemed like a good idea at the time. In retrospect, although it was still very cool, we were flirting with disaster.

At the time we believed we knew what we were doing.
At the time we thought we knew the score.
At the time.

When I was struggling with dark depression, at the time I felt I was making the best decisions for my future. At the time.

When I was lonely and horny and had no one to hold, at the time I thought I was making the right decisions for my life. At the time.

When you are struggling with mental health issues and chronic pain and fatigue and loneliness and stress and financial problems it is tempting to make decisions that feel right… at the time. Unfortunately few decisions that are made when we are at our worst turn out for our best. At these times most of us have lost our objectivity and the pain has sapped us of our motivation to do what is difficult. Very often what seems “like a good idea at the time” is in fact very detrimental to our future lives and we are unable to see it. In these moments we need to be very willing to accept the advice of those who love us and can see things more objectively. I have failed to take such at advice on occasion and have usually come to regret it.

Here are a few examples to leave you with:
listen1. When you are infatuated with your new romantic interest you probably do not see the whole picture; understand that you are not qualified to make long-term decisions at that moment.
2. When you are in love and people are screaming at you that your lover has big problems you need to listen to them because you are not being objective.
3. When you are depressed you will not make good decisions. Yes I mean you.
4. If you are at a vulnerable, hurting, or damaged place in your life if it feels good than chances are you shouldn’t do it.
5. Good advice rarely sounds good when you are in pain.
6. When you are struggling, depressed, or hurting, your inner voice will tell you to do things that are selfish, destructive, and short-sighted. Don’t listen to that voice.
7. If you think no one understands what you are going through you are probably right. Talk to someone.
8. Real change takes a ton of time and effort. Get-fixed-quick schemes don’t work in the long run. Ever.
9. Most of your friends are not qualified to give you advice. Remember that.
10. Get off the couch. Get out of bed. Open the curtains.
11. You will fail. Failure is an important part of getting better.
12. Ninety percent of success is just showing up, even when you don’t feel like it.

“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 compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” 
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Capture the Flag

PaintballSplatHave you ever played paintball? It’s this disgusting sport where you attempt to mow other people down in the name of recreation. It promotes values like picking on the weak, killing, and violence on many levels. It’s really cool.

One of the most popular games you play at paintball is “Capture the Flag”. It’s the same as normal capture the flag except with guns, which adds a certain edge to the whole experience. In paint ball capture the flag, the idea is to hide or die. Only morons with a desire for pain make those lightning attempts to outrun the opposition in full daylight. The goal is stealth – see but not be seen. Kill and not be killed. If you are shot you have to go to the jail and hope to be liberated. It is the ultimate humiliation. Some would allege that it is far better to hide and play it safe. Good things come to those who hide and sneak and take cheap shots.

We are good at hiding. Many of us hide behind excuses; our life is not our fault. Others jump from relationship to relationship, blaming our ex’s for everything bad that happened. It is far easier to rationalize our behaviours than have to hold them up to the mirror of reality. We can hide for a variety of reasons because it is an uncomfortable thing to face the truth. This is one of the reasons that so many people never really grow up, never really understand life.

Self awareness, real self-awareness, usually comes at a terrible price.

Taking a hard look at our issues is not something we are prone to do until things get messy. Most people merrily go about their lives blaming the government, their parents, and their ex-lovers for the problems in their life. Real personal change takes an enormous amount of painful work. Frankly, most of us will pretend to address our issues while only scratching the surface.

In the movie As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin, is forced to confront his own dysfunction and begins to realize that the very foundations of his existence and the beliefs he holds most dear are in fact bigoted, narrow, sick and twisted. As the movie progresses you watch this shell of a man come to terms with his life, a life that has been destroyed by his own attitudes. As the final act unfolds Melvin is humbled and enlightened, and his reality begins to change. In the real world things do not change in 120 minutes, but they can change.

There are a million reasons to hide and only one reason to get up and run. It is impossible to capture the flag, or any flag for that matter, without exposing yourself to risk and potential pain. On D-Day the officers knew, as they were urging frightened men to get out of their hole and storm the machine gun nests, that to stay on the ground was to invite certain death. It felt safe there, but it wasn’t. Victory only came through a hailstorm of bullets.

The willingness to be brutally honest with yourself will change your life. Real growth comes through pain and humility and failure. You may have to confront your darkest secrets and worst nightmares but it will be worth it.

Many of us, myself included, have struggled with the fear that people will not love us if they saw our ugliness, our sick thoughts, our petty dreams. We are afraid that we are unloveable so we hide behind masks, hoping to fool the world and fool ourselves. The result is a life of frustration, depression, anxiety and pain.

In counseling we call this a “cognitive distortion”. We have convinced ourselves that no one would care for us if we came clean.

We are wrong.

We have believed the lies about our own ugliness for so long that it is hard to imagine being free. We begin to think that we are unlike other people, we are freaks incapable of change.

We are wrong.

I have been there. Many of us have. The pit of self-loathing and recrimination is a deep one with few hand holds. It is better to hide, or so we think.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fallHumpty Dumpty sat on the wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

But did you know that there’s more to the story?

Not only did all the King’s horses and all the King’s men try to help Humpty out, “soon the King himself heard of Humpty’s fate. News about him had reached all the way to the palace, and the King was deeply disturbed. So setting aside his royal finery, disguised as a common peasant, the King slipped unnoticed through the majestic palace gates and into the rough-and-tumble street life of his kingdom.

“The King meandered through the back streets and alleys in search of Humpty. After several days and nights the persistent monarch found him. Humpty’s shattered body was scattered over a ten-foot circle amidst the broken glass and flattened beer cans of the back alley.

“Though weak from his searching, the King was overjoyed at the sight of Humpty. He ran to his side and cried, ‘Humpty! It is I – your King! I have powers greater than those of my horses and men who failed to put you together again. Be at peace. I am here to help!’

“‘Leave me alone,’ Humpty’s mouth retorted. ‘I’ve gotten used to this new way of life. I kind of like it now.’

“‘But – ’ was all the King could get out before Humpty continued.

“‘I tell you, I’m fine. I like it here. That trash can over there… the way the sun sparkles on the broken glass. This must be the garden spot of the world!’

“The King tried again. ‘I assure you my kingdom has much more to offer than this back alley – there are green mountains, rolling surfs, exciting cities….’

“But Humpty would hear none of it. And the saddened King returned to the palace.

“A week later one of Humpty’s eyes rolled skyward only to see once again the concerned face of the King standing over his fractured pieces.

“‘I’ve come to help,’ firmly stated the King.

“‘Look, leave me alone, will you?’ said Humpty. ‘I’ve just seen my psychiatrist, and he assures me that I’m doing a fine job of coping with my environment as it is. You’re a cop-out. A man has to deal with life as it comes. I’m a realist.’

“‘But wouldn’t you rather walk?’ asked the King.

“‘Look,’ Humpty’s mouth replied, ‘once I get up and start walking I’ll have to stay up and keep walking. At this point in my life I’m not ready to make a commitment like that. So, if you’ll excuse me – you’re blocking my sun.’

“Reluctantly the King turned once again and walked through the streets of his kingdom back to the palace.

“It was over a year before the King ventured to return to Humpty’s side.

“But, sure enough, one bright morning one of Humpty’s ears perked up at the sure, steady strides of the King. This time he was ready. Humpty’s eye turned toward the tall figure just as his mouth managed the words, ‘My King!’

“Immediately the King fell to his knees on the glass-covered pavement. His strong, knowing hands gently began to piece together Humpty’s fragments. After some time, his work completed, the King rose to full height, pulling up with him the figure of a strong young man.

“The two walked hand in hand throughout the kingdom. Together they stood atop lush green mountains. They ran together along deserted beaches. They laughed and joked together as they strolled down the streets of the gleaming cities of the King’s domain. This went on forever. And to the depth, breadth, and height of their friendship there was no end.

“Once while walking together down the sidewalk in one of the King’s cities, Humpty overheard a remark that made his heart leap with both the joy of his new life and the bitter memory of the back alley. Someone said, ‘Say, who are those two men?’

“Another replied, ‘Why the one on the left is old Humpty Dumpty. I don’t know the one on the right – but they sure look like brothers’”.

Use Your Compass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is the point.

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

You’re worth it.


The Smell Of Rotting Fish

When I was a kid my dad took me fishing on Primrose Lake, a private military lake that is used for target practice and inaccessible to the general public. My dad pulled a few strings and before I knew it we were fishing between bombardments. It was incredible. The fish practically jumped in the boat. It took twenty minutes for three of us to catch our limit of big, big fish. The cleaning took far longer than the catching.

We filled our freezer with fish that summer. Summer also brought holiday time and before long we were off to the family camping trip, thoughts of Primrose Lake far behind us. What we didn’t know was that, just before we left, someone had accidentally pulled the plug on our huge freezer.

Two weeks later.

We got home and the house reeked of bad fish. Why, we wondered, was that odor so pronounced? It didn’t take us long to find our way downstairs and finally open the now completely defrosted freezer… full to the brim with brine and water and dead smelly fish.

What to do?

It was tempting to just close that lid and walk away. We could have dressed up that freezer, even painted it a new color, but that wouldn’t have changed what was inside it. We could have hired a psychotherapist to talk to the fridge, maybe a pastor could have come by and cast a demon out of the thing. It would not have mattered. Dress up that thing any way you want and the fact remains that it still is a freezer full of rotting fish. No amount of therapy could have changed that.

That’s alot like me… like you. I try to make excuses for my problems and blame someone else but at the end of the day the fact remains that it is still my mess-o-fish. It is not my ex-wife’s problem or my kids or my parents, it isn’t even my ex-bosses issue – it is mine alone. At the end of the day I can blame whoever I want, it’s still my problem.

So why is this so hard to accept? Perhaps because blaming other people relieves me of some of the responsibility. Many of us have been through horrific situations wrought by dysfunctional and abusive people who scarred us for life. Unfortunately, however, they are not going to fix us. Most of them will not even feel responsible. No one else is going to help us heal.

Other people may be to blame, but that doesn’t really matter much, now does it. It’s up to us to find a healing, a solution, or a way of coping. It may seem far easier to go through life wounded, blaming others for my issues but at the end of the day I am the only one who is going to miss out of this one life, this one chance at happiness and wholeness.

There is an iconic scene in the movie American History X where the skinhead Derek Vineyard, after being gang-raped by his once cohorts while in prison, has a visit from his African-American high school principal. The principal, Bob Sweeney, who has watched Derek self-destruct as he blamed everyone else for his pain, says, “There was a moment, when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happen to my people. Used to blame everybody. Blamed white people, blamed society, blamed God. I didn’t get no answers ’cause I was asking the wrong questions. You have to ask the right questions.”

Derek turns to him and asks, “Like what?”

Sweeney replies, “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”

That is a profound question. He knew Derek had pains and hurts, grudges both valid and vile. Like many of us Derek had been damaged by someone or something. Violated. Carrying that hate and that pain was all that he knew. How could he possibly get on with his life after what had happened to him?

Some time ago I wrote a letter to someone who had hurt me, never intending on sending it. The next morning my wife saw it before I could get up and mailed it, as a courtesy. A few weeks later I got a phone call from that old friend. He could not understand why I was angry.

Think about it. For seven years he had not been carrying that pain I felt almost everyday. For seven years he had been perfectly happy and content. He didn’t hurt, only I did. It hadn’t ruined his life.

Has anything you’ve done made your life better?

Weekend Musings – There Are Victims And Then There Are Victims

“A benchmark of emotional management and responsibility is the realization that our past can no longer be blamed for our actions in the present.“
Doc Childe and Howard Martin

Every day I work with people who are victims, real or imagined. They grew up in a bad home, someone has rejected them, the white man has dragged them down, people have taken advantage of them, they have been abused, raped, abandoned, the list is endless. There is no shortage of people to blame.

Usually the client or person I am talking to has legitimate issues. They are dealing with things that most people can barely imagine. They are trying, the best they know how, to find some anchor in a life that has been beyond their control. Many patients I have spoken with have gone through horror stories and are endeavouring to move forward. They are the reason I get up in the morning and go to work excited. They are my heroes.

Others are looking for something to pin their pain on. They cannot see any personal responsibility, they will not own their own complicity. They sit and we talk and it is always someone else’s fault. Often they have legitimate complaints but they wear their victimization like a crown and filter everything through with a pre-disposed diagnosis. This week I met with a young man who told me that the reason he could not pass in school was because generations ago people oppressed him. I reminded him that he was not in fact alive a couple hundred years ago and though he has had to suffer historic abuse and that has undoubtedly profoundly affected his life, perhaps the reasons he is failing in school have more to do with the fact that he is skipping and spending his considerable income on crack. He called me a bigot.

I come from generations of alcoholics and the pragmatically poor. My dad was an orphan whose father fell from a skyscraper during his last week of work before going to a new job. His mother died when he was 12. He completed grade 9 in school. He had no social safety net, no social worker looking out for him, no strong family to provide for him, no one to blame. So he didn’t.

Years later my father would stand before the Governor General of Canada and receive the military equivalent of the Order of Canada, our highest civilian honor. He had, in fact, finally finished his high school equivalency in his forties. He had worked his butt off to make something of a shunted life. He is my son’s hero. Wednesday he will be our guest blogger.

Every now and again I will have occasion to feel sorry for myself. Maybe things aren’t going smoothly or my friends have nicer houses or boats. Sometimes I wish I had a family with money and a house on a lake. But then I remember how fortunate I am to come from a heritage that simply would not give up.

As i sit here writing this it just hit me, I have never heard my dad complain about his lot in life. Ever.

“People spend too much time finding other people to blame, too much energy finding excuses for not being what they are capable of being, and not enough energy putting themselves on the line, growing out of the past, and getting on with their lives.”
J. Michael Straczynski


Casual Friday: Does Anybody Out There Know Who I Am?

English: Cover of Undead Fishtank album, for u...

Tony Campolo tells a story in one of his books about something that happened after World War II. There were more than 200 Frenchmen who returned to Paris suffering from amnesia. They had been in prison camps and were so psychologically devastated by their ordeal that they had lost the conscious awareness of who they were.

In most cases, their identities were quickly established, but after all that was done, there were still 32 men whose identities couldn’t be verified. The doctors who were treating them were convinced that their chances for recovery were slim unless they were connected with former friends and relatives and restored to their once-familiar settings.

Someone had an idea to help. They published photographs of the men on the front page of newspapers throughout the country, and gave a date and time when anyone having information about any of these amnesia victims could come to the Paris Opera House. Well, on the appointed day, a crowd gathered to view these war veterans who didn’t know who they were. In a dramatic moment, the first of the amnesia victims walked onto the stage of the darkened opera house, stood alone in the spotlight, and slowly turned completely around. Before the hushed audience, in a halting voice, he said to the crowd, “Does anybody out there know who I am?”

It is a profound question.

I mentioned on this blog that recently I had a Grand Mal seizure at work. Fortunately I work at a doctor’s office and two of the best doctors I have ever met were on the scene within seconds. At least that is what I was told. I don’t remember any of it. Apparently I also became physically violent at one point as well, although I wasn’t there to see it.

It is a scary thing to wake up on a gurney and not know what is happening. It is very similar to waking up from an operation with that foggy pseudo-understanding that something has happened and you should know what that is. You understand, on some level, that you shouldn’t be in an ambulance – it’s a work day. It gradually dawns on you that you don’t know where you are or for that matter, who you are.

I could not remember where I lived.

It is a bizarre thing to realize you do not know who you are.

Many of us spend our entire lives trying to find out who we are. We jump through hoops and do things hoping to be loved, only to find out that we have lost a sense of ourselves. We grew up believing we were going to be rock stars and multi-millionaires, at the very least healthy, wealthy and wise, but we aren’t, and we may not get there anytime soon. It is easy to build your identity on the wrong things, trying to impress the wrong people for the wrong reasons. It is no wonder than that so many of us have come to the conclusion that the real world is boring and life has little meaning unless we find it from within.

The older I get the more I realize that life does not hand you meaning, you have to grab it for yourself. The paltry drive to acquire more money and status is so entirely meaningless yet enticing. How many rock stars and celebrities have to kill themselves or end up in rehab before we as a people stop spending our lives wishing for something that does not heal our souls?

So who are you? As Billy Crystal says in the immortal Princess Bride, “Hey! Hello in there! Hey! What’s so important? Whatcha got here, that’s worth living for?”