Learn Like Sherlock

The BBC breakout hit Sherlock is perhaps one of the most famous television series in the world. A relative unknown, Benedict Cumberbatch has become a worldwide sociopathic genius heart-throb. One of the attractions of the show is the filming and presentation. When you watch Sherlock you are transported into his mind, you see what he is thinking; it’s very fascinating. He has an incredible brain, an eidetic memory, and he’s super weird.

Sherlock uses a technique he is famous for called a mind palace or a memory palace. The Mind Palace is a place where genius’s store memories so they can recall anything with library-like precision. At the end of the last series, it was literally mind palace vs. mind palace as two super geniuses tried to outsmart each other. This memory technique allows the user to remember seemingly endless lists or events or details which escape the rest of us.

I can teach you how to have a mind palace in 30 minutes of soft labor. True story.

We are into our ninth month of Mental Wellness Curriculum and we continue to do this because the leaders of this thing are a bunch of dreamers and idealists who really think that we can make a difference in people’s lives by using martial arts to build better people. Wiser people. We started this year talking about the most famous month of curriculum we ever put out called, “Becoming A Lifelong Learner”. We invited people to learn along with us and together we would try to find meaning for our lives and learn how to live a healthier, more whole, futures. Over the months we have shared stories and talked about important things. This month we want to get very practical. This month we want to help with some tools that work, tools you can use.

So this week we invite you to learn how to learn better. One very practical way you can improve your life drastically is by remembering more stuff. Our counseling team can tell you that learning how to become a better thinker, a smarter and more interested person, really changes your forever.

Here’s the easy way. Darren Brown is a world-famous illusionist who made a guest appearance on Sherlock in the episode where Sherlock jumps off the roof (spoiler alert). He has a three-part podcast/book with only three chapters called Tricks Of The Mind. In this minibook he teaches you, in 30-minute segments, how to understand magic, memory, and hypnosis. The book is brilliant. In thirty minutes you will know how hypnosis and illusion works, why people are gullible and prone to believe in unusual things, the basics of magic and a few cool tricks, and last but not least – how to build your own Memory Palace.

I have a Mind Palace. It is literally my house in Mission. I have recreated my house in my mind and Darren Brown taught me how to put things around my place so my brain can remember them. My mailbox is my first trigger. In my mind I open my mailbox and there is a bunch of vegetables inside. I must remember to pick up vegetables when I get to Safeway. Next, I open the door and that triggers another little silly picture in my brain involving a door knob and a slab of meat. Don’t even go there. Sherlock’s Memory Palace is a cheesy way to learn how to remember 35 things on your grocery list or where you put your car keys. People who can remember more will learn faster, retain more of the important stuff, and that skill leaks over into their lives every day.

So learn how to have your own Memory Palace. There are plenty of places online willing to teach you in about twenty minutes. I also use the Link System as a party favorite with friends, or when I want to remember six or seven things real fast. Learning how to learn faster is an incredibly important skill for everyone.

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”

Someday’s Coming

Someday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I More I Learn The Less I Know

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

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

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

Maybe there is a god.

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

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

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

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

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

Reality is malleable.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sick of hurting.

(Creds to the amazing Tony Ortega for that photo)

The Forest Behind My Fence

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

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

When I was a kid.

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

Remember fun?

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

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

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

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

I’ll be in my Canadian Tire pool.

Hammer, Meet Nail.

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

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

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

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

I do not want to be your nail.

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

 

Here’s Your Mulligan

I stumbled into a porn recently. I am keenly aware, at this very second, of how that must sound so please allow me to explain. I was out for coffee with a friend and we decided to sit in the courtyard by a Waves Coffee. Above the courtyard were residences with balconies. On the balcony directly above us is where you are supposed to now engage your imagination. It is remarkable, the acoustics of a suburban courtyard. Loud, even. My friend is much younger than I. Much much. It felt like a nuclear explosion, “Oh look at that cool cloud formation”. Followed next by, “Wow, that cloud formation looks like a carpet coming towards us!”. Followed by screaming, things breaking, wind… silence.

At first nothing registers. Then, slowly at first but increasing in awareness, it begins to dawn on you what it is you are actually listening to. This is followed closely by growing recognition and an icky feeling you cannot quite yet identify. There it comes.

Just like a bad porno itself, our eyes meet, my friend and I, and we both have a seriously messed up expression on our faces. Screams. Things breaking. Wind. But no silence.

There are times in life for which you cannot really plan. I have seen things in the past month, bizarre things. I love my job. As random as that might sound, my life is a series of small adventures broken up by days of boredom and groceries and driving. It is precisely those ‘moments’ which give my life purpose, depth, meaning. So much of my existence is wasted trying to get out of doing things only to realize that it is those precise things I am avoiding which bring richness to the monotony. I may be going out on a limb here but I’ve probably watched enough television to ensure that I’ve milked all the wisdom it deems to spew on me. People text all the bloody time and I text them back. My Facebook is an imagination feeder but it’s still noise, noise, noise. Phone, computer, TV, radio, texting, communicating, noise.

It is time to get in your kayak, and I’ll get in mine. Screw Melanoma, get a tan. Have you ever stuck your entire face in watermelon and if not, when? Last weekend my wife and I got out-of-town because sometimes we forget what it’s like to be friends amongst the noise. I will consider it a personal failure if I don’t get into the water before the end of June. Stop being so old and jump in a puddle before you become a grouchy old fart. No one cares about your medical problems, or mine for that matter. Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows everywhere may be a figment of my imagination but I can buy a lollipop and it’s sunny out, so two out of three ain’t bad.

Here’s the thing. Sometimes you have to say “screw it” to your own mental health issues and crap life. There are days when you have paid enough, suffered enough, confessed enough, and it’s time to go out for a beer with a friend on a patio. I know life sometimes blows and I promise to spend more than sufficient time feeling miserable; but right now it’s sunny out and I’m going to give you a Mulligan. I don’t golf  but I know what the word means. Golfing may be great in theory, but there is enough frustration in my life without screaming bloody murder at a small white ball. I don’t like walking and they won’t let me go off-road with the carts so I quit golfing but I’m keeping the Mulligan.

Everybody deserves a do over, a day off, and a nap. Your problems are going to be waiting for you after you get out of the boat so you needn’t worry, you won’t miss anything. One of the principles that we teach clients in counseling does an excellent job of training my brain to move on, if only for a moment. I will teach it to you now and save you $90, or $275 if you think you need a medical person to confirm what your clinical counselor told you a couple of years ago. Like most counseling techniques this one is cheesy and only works for some people; though for more people than you would think if only we practiced this stuff enough to make anything work in the first place. Just saying.

One of the fundamental counseling tools clinicians teach is a variation on what I will call STOPP Therapy. STOPP Therapy is nothing more than learning how to stop yourself from having an emotional spike such as a panic attack, anxiety, or anger. STOPP Therapy is surprisingly efficacious, in spite of sounding stupid when you practice it. Learning to say “no” to my impulses may come very close to being the meaning of life, if not the primary way to rock at it. Just like listening to an accidental porno (I have probably never written those words before), learning to control my emotions is an insanely gradual process. Wisdom is the meshing of knowledge and experience, you simply cannot grow up without giving yourself time to grow up. This may not be the 10,000 hour rule but I can tell you from experience I was pretty dumb 20 years ago and aging may take many things but it leaves you with experience. And experience, when used correctly, becomes wisdom.

You aren’t alone when you discovered that, after all those years away, you did better in college than you thought you would. Unbeknownst to you, there was still an accumulation of time and learning and experience. Granted, many of us have squandered a bit of that time but what the hell, you’re here now so let’s get going.

Once I know a little more about STOPP Therapy it’s time to move happily on to our project for today, your “screw it” moment.

There was a time when, not so long ago as I would wish, I was very broken. I have written of this before and I’m not feeling self-indulgent so let’s roll along, shall we? In that time of my life it felt impossible to move forward, and even taking a few minutes off from my grief seemed unrealistic. After many many bad days I started to practice what I preached and gave myself permission to take 10 minutes off, then 20, 30, and eventually I went an entire day without crying because I forgot I was in pain. Just 10 minutes off. I would set my clock or microwave or phone. Bliss would last approximately 7 seconds then the nightmare would come knocking and I had to learn to say “no” to myself for 10 stinking minutes. Then 20. With time it got easier but not until I had failed first.

For some of us it is a struggle to control the chaos for 10 minutes or even 10 seconds. We have work to do. For others it’s the constant demands on our time from things we spawned or married or divorced or share life with. We all feel sorry for ourselves and sometimes feeling sorry for yourself is a very healthy thing. Other times not so much. One day I realized that no one really cared about my problems as much as I did; and most people went on their merry way and got a Blizzard, in spite of my life falling apart. Just the way it is. As Kant famously pointed out, there is the way I perceive the world and the way the world really is. For many of us that could include the cold hard understanding that there is a way we want the world to be, and then there is something called reality. The real world does not care if I am the hardest working person I know. It does not care if I burn out.

So one last time, please accept this Mulligan. You’ve definitely earned it. You have permission to take an hour off and go shopping or for coffee or perhaps something stronger. Play Catch with your friends or swing high at the park. I just realized that works on two levels. You may think you don’t have time for self-care but you are profoundly wrong. I’m sorry if that comes off as arrogant but on a philosophical level you can probably admit I’m right.

Screw it, I’m going kayaking. Somebody please tell my wife I was right.

With Love To A Dying Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our hemisphere is experiencing a seismic shift, yet again.

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

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

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

The Triceratops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Waking Up

When we talked today I didn’t say anything, but you have become amazing. I remember when we first starting hanging out. You were, quite frankly, a mess (and you knew it). You’ve come a long way, baby, even though it rarely feels like it.

I couldn’t explain this to you back then because you weren’t really awake yet. I don’t mean that in a condescending way. You were swimming in shit and emotionally distraught. Things seemed to be crashing every other day. That was then. Along the way you managed to rev down, somehow. You started thinking in ways that lead to a conversation and somewhere along the way you stopped being “messed up”. You would never admit it, but it was getting better.

Many people describe this time in their lives as waking up. People I know who have experienced this understand when they meet others who are heading in similar directions. I know of several adults who, in their 40’s, 50’s and 70’s are headed back to university, often studying the impractical humanities. Others change so drastically that they are forced to redefine the rules for life and happiness. Marriages break up. You begin to understand how counselling can really suck, but you don’t want to stop. People change careers. There are often questions about faith and death and what is beyond. Some people fall in love with learning. I find I need to write. I’m fairly confident that it is less about the way you find yourself and more about the why.

For most of us, pain helped to reframe our world. We have spoken of “the event”, that time in your life that has forced you to change the way you feel about life. Divorce can do that. Death can, obviously. Many of us define our lives as life before The Event and life since. You probably know what I am talking about. As the cheesy song says, “waking up is hard to do”.

If I have gleaned any wisdom from the pain, any insight from the hurt and the brokenness, it has still not been worth it. This isn’t Disney and I don’t get paid to blow sunshine up your backside and most of us realize, often too late to matter, that personal growth and that whole contentment thing must come at a terrible price. So few individuals seem to live in that atmosphere. Usually we kill those people.

I have written before of the famous quote that I usually butcher when I say it, “better a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.” Or something like that. That maxim is, unfortunately, complete crap. It is far better to be a satisfied pig, if the goal in life is to find a level of bliss. A much more realistic maxim comes from the bible, of all places. In Ecclesiastes 1:18 it says, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” One translation puts it this way, “The more you know, the more you hurt”.

It’s not politically correct to talk about such things in a world of pap psychology books on wholeness and the new and super-duper you. Thousands of years ago someone realized that understanding so much more does not necessarily make you life your life any better. The sheer magnitude of the pain and inequality in humanity alone can shipwreck the sensitive soul. Giving up the good life to go and live a “life that matters” sounds really great at church group but it’s a very difficult way to live your life. People who want to make a difference usually don’t end up with houses on the beach and a boat on the dock. Many have no retirement plans and will have to work until they die. Sometimes being the wisest person in the room is a very lonely ride.

I’m not trying to clean your chimney (I have no idea what that means) but being honest about the real world is a necessary and important part of learning to grow up. It may not be as comfortable a life as you had hoped, but self-awareness and knowledge and ‘meaning of life stuff’ matters. Waking up is hard to do.

I am still committed to the journey. It seems like every year or so I look back and realize how stupid I once was, how stupid I probably am right at this moment. That may be why, as I have been writing a book about psychology for real life, even for marginal people, I find it difficult to finish the ending. The story is not written yet and most of us are still (just) discovering who we are again, for the umpteenth time.

The Measuring Stick

Am I crazy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how are you doing?

Racing Thoughts

The apple.

When I was in the midst of the manure, and sometimes even today, I have to get up and get an apple. It was always late at night. The demons usually visit when it gets dark. A Gala apple. So sweet it bites back.

You see, when things got bad, and they got very very bad, I could not shut my brain off. I often tease my female clients that they are cursed. I’m not talking about religion and I’m not mentioning your period, I’m talking about your big, glorious brains. I have often asked my wife, “what is it like in there?” She thinks all the time. All the time. I can’t imagine the hell that would be.

(what follows is a generalization)

In my experience, so you know this is super sciencey, women’s brains are far different from mine. While it is true I have a brain injury, I can clearly (as clear as I ever am) still remember being able to stop thinking. There, I said it. I have asked many different groups of people, men and women, a few questions that seem to indicate that most of the men in my life can literally turn to the wall and shut off for a few seconds. Imagine that, ladies. That is the reason television is the drug of choice for so many men. I am barely awake when I watch television. My wife can ask me a question (and why are you talking during the program?) and I can feel myself shake off the lethargy and reemerge into the waking world. I can stop thinking.

There I just did it again.

In counseling we talk about racing thoughts. Racing thoughts are… well you really don’t need an explanation now, do you? There were bad years when I could not shut down. I know now that my brain was acting on a more primal level than it should be as I write this article. My amygdala was pounding, my higher-end reasoning was drowned out in the waves and waves of pain. You know what I’m talking about.

In addition to size, other differences between men and women exist with regards to the amygdala. Subjects’ amygdala activation was observed when watching a horror film. The results of the study showed a different lateralization of the amygdala in men and women. Enhanced memory for the film was related to enhanced activity of the left, but not the right, amygdala in women, whereas it was related to enhanced activity of the right, but not the left, amygdala in men. One study found evidence that on average, women tend to retain stronger memories for emotional events than men. The right amygdala is also linked with taking action as well as being linked to negative emotions, which may help explain why males tend to respond to emotionally stressful stimuli physically. The left amygdala allows for the recall of details, but it also results in more thought rather than action in response to emotionally stressful stimuli, which may explain the absence of physical response in women.

Wikipedia

Even Wikipedia is hedging it’s bets…

amygdalaSome of us feel this way if we get cut off in traffic, or our spouse demeans us, or someone says something insensitive. Many of us have started down this road just by reading the news. Words like terrorism, or ISIS, or violence, are very powerful and can start your brain in a direction where all bad things tread. We emotionally react “without thinking”. Have you ever said that? I don’t know what happened, I just reacted. I did that without thinking. Amygdala. Limbic System. Throw those around at the next party you go to… nerd. (Technically my wife calls me a geek, but it’s in the same family. Any nerd would know that).

Basal Ganglia. I say it with a slight drawl on ganglia.

Contrary to the tone of this piece (it’s Monday), racing thoughts are no joke.

So I went to kitchen and grabbed an apple. It was hard to get out of bed, it’s warmy in there. I didn’t even need to pee – I like to work efficiently when the room is cold. I could lay in bed and wrestle with my thoughts forever but in that position I could not win. The physical act of getting up, of distracting myself with a sugary snack (that woke me up), pulls me methodically away from that inner battle. It takes me just over two minutes to eat an apple.

I’m not even remotely suggesting you should start eating apples in the middle of the night. You should have a Kit Kat. Counsellor’s orders.

By now you know where I am headed. There are times when I cannot remain in my head and win this battle. There are moments when we need to employ what we know, to battle what we fear. I put the apple in my cheesy toolbox, along with my chair, and my rock, my STOPP therapy, and a few other tools that occasionally work. This is not deep, but it does work.

There is no value in letting my thoughts run wild. I have heard those who believe that we should not seek to damper our emotions, that we should “feel our feelings”. While this is often good advice, it may not serve us well if we are feeling suicidal, for example. There are times when I need to shut the engine down, if for no other reason than I cannot continue to maintain this level of engagement.

There was a time when we believed that practice made perfect. We believed that we needed to “fight the good fight” and engage those thoughts, in order to develop our emotional muscles. We now understand that this is not necessarily the case. I possess only a limited number of “no’s” in my repertoire. Exposing myself to temptation does not develop resilience.

The more I say no to the cocaine, the more it takes out of me. This is not universally known. We have believed that the more I say no, the more I develop the capacity to resist. Research, unfortunately, does not support this premise. The actual truth is – the more I say no the more likely I am to say yes next time you ask. I only possess a limited storehouse of good intentions. If you are an alcoholic, being around booze does not make you stronger. In point of fact it makes you much weaker.

It serves no purpose when I let myself “go there”. There is no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow, just frustration and failure. Learning to stop the freight train is a skill that doesn’t come by accident, it takes practice.

I need an apple.

Resilience

Psychological resilience is defined as an individual’s ability to properly adapt to stress and adversity. Stress and adversity can come in the shape of family or relationship problems, health problems, or workplace and financial stressors, among others.
Wikipedia

“Little by little one travels far” (Spanish saying stolen by Tolkien)

A little at a time.

Almost every day someone, somewhere, asks me the same question. When? When is this going to change? When am I going to find relief? When am I going to win at something?

Lately I have been fond of dispelling misconceptions about psychology and counselling. I have written about the desire we all have to get the “magic pill”. We are saturated by the many distortions and cheap sales jobs by internet gurus and self-help magicians promising quick fixes and miracle drugs. So many placebo remedies and sugar pills, unrealistic claims and bad science. Such bad advise, often from some really lousy professionals, highly paid but misinformed.

One of the topics that gets a great deal of airplay around here is the idea of time. Few of us begin to take a serious look at our lives thinking that this will take years or decades. There is within all of us, I’m convinced, that desire to seek out the simple and quick, even at the expense of the good and the right. I love shortcuts. I absolutely adore reaping a reward with little or no effort. It’s one of my favourite things, to be honest. Easy solutions that are fun are also greatly appreciated.

Most non-profit counselling services offer what is deemed in the industry as a “brief intervention”, usually maxing out at around 12 sessions. It is believed that cognitive-behavioural therapies will produce results in around 12 sessions or 3 months. I have seen evidence of this change literally hundreds of times and the experts are absolutely right – many of us begin to see change in about 3 months, give or take a year…

At issue is what we define as change. I have witnessed many clients and friends change in 3 months, though I would be hard-pressed to identify quantitative evidence of permanent and definitive difference. Many of us have spent years and decades getting this screwed up and we are professionals, I’ve seen our work. If you have been struggling with anxiety for forty years and some idiot with a badge tells you that he/she can fix you in 6 sessions, chances are they have a carnival ride for you to try. You have not put in the requisite time to neurologically/emotionally/psychologically and spiritually change on a fundamental level. Brief interventions only work if your issue is timely, or leads to something not so brief after all.

i-have-no-special-talents-i-am-only-passionately-curious-albert-einstein-quote-1024x682You don’t need to see a professional, necessarily, but I do recommend that you spend a significant portion of your future learning. Read or listen to audiobooks. Turn your Facebook news feed into a glorious reader – I get feeds from Ancient Origins and Brain Pickings and BBC History and Psychology Today and a dozen more, some of which are in keeping with what I do professionally, others because I want to develop my curiosity. I have unsubscribed most of the people who bore me and now it has become a treasure trove of wonder. Einstein is right, as usual.

So here’s the rub – little by little. I’m often wrong, but it seems to me that most change comes in a dream. I tend to become without fanfare or even notice. One day I realize that something has changed, inside of me. That’s it, that’s the epiphany. I was hoping for bright lights and a cheesecake but it seems that little by little, we move forward if we want to. It is the accumulation that counts, not the parade. Momentum seems to be important and momentum takes… well… momentum. I’m a poet.

So I read and I write and I learn and try to become a Jedi – science and philosophy and psychology and faith and history and any cool story on my feeder. Little by little, counsellors tell us, we begin to build something called resilience as we learn how to put our lives together and turn down the emotional volume that keeps screaming into my ears. We learn to lower our expectations, again. We learn to call bullshit on our personal cognitive distortions and the lies to which we are so passionately invested. (Yes that is a link to an article about herpes). We learn new skills, new perspectives, and new coping mechanisms. We unlearn the sick ways we have long trusted to keep us alive but unhealthy. This is not a short process and I am not there yet, though some of you may be. I am constantly resurprised by my own stupidity and immaturity. It’s embarrassing how childish I can become, if pushed.

So we press on. As we often say, unless I start getting high again I really cannot imagine a Plan B.

 

Passing On What We Didn’t Learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Disappointed In You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional wholeness rarely comes by accident.

Are We There Yet?

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

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

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

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

Are we there yet?

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

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

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

Happy first Boxing Day buddy.

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?

Imagine Me Naked

Some time ago I was cleaning up at the little club I used to run, in preparation for the evening’s events. I had been sweating, washing floors and hauling furniture. I usually bring a change of clothing. But not that day.

No one had come in for over an hour. I figured I was safe. With this in mind, behind the bar I proceeded to drop my pants in order to change into clean clothes. At that precise moment a lady walked in and asked for a latte.

Never before have I felt so close to the bar. In fact, we became one as I sought to prepare the latte without letting on that I was wearing no pants. Socks, shoes, shirt, but no pockets.

It reminds me of this bit by Seinfeld:
“Why is it so difficult and uncomfortable to be naked? It’s because when you have clothes on, you can always make those little adjustments that people love to do. Hitching, straightening, adjusting. You know, you feel like you’re getting it together. But when you’re naked, it’s so final. You’re just, ‘well this is it, there’s nothing else I can do.”
That’s why I like to wear a belt when I’m naked. It gives me something. I’d like to get pockets to hang off the belt. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate? To be naked and still be able to put your hands in your pockets. I think that would really help a lot…”

It may shock you to know that I have been in counselling. Maybe not. I once had a counsellor tell me I needed to stand in front of the mirror naked for one minute each day in order to get more comfortable with ‘me’. I told this to someone and they went “eeeew”… which did not help much.

So with all this rolling around in my noodle I continued to grind the beans, praying all the while that I would not have to move. So of course the lady blandly asked where the sugar was, it being at right angles to where I was hiding. I reluctantly told her and proceeded to push my torso inside the small floor fridge as she walked to the condiments.

As she left the club I followed her behind the bar, keeping my beautiful barrier between us until she naively walked out.

Imagine me naked. Ok, don’t. No one should have to see that. Most of us, myself included, are not in love with our naked selves. I tease my wife that she “secretly dresses me with her eyes”. One of my best friends, Jordon Cooper, says I have a “face for radio”. I am no longer as insecure about my looks as I once was, but can still testify that for most of us, physical appearance has a significant role in determining our self-esteem. My wife once pointed out to me that I was squinting while looking in the mirror at our bedroom sinks. I had no idea I was doing this but apparently was squinting in such a pronounced fashion that Annette thought my eyes were closed – a subconscious reaction to a psychological malady. Body image is a life-long issue for most of us.

A few years ago, again while naked, I had an epiphany. I realized in the shower one day that I had been berating myself all my life and was unwilling to move forward, heal, and stop the body dysmorphia. Like so many of us I wasn’t thinking about my body because I was overly proud or seeking to show it off, I was in fact transfixed on the negatives and unwilling to let the embarrassment go.

It has taken me far to long to realize that this is just a shell and no matter how hard I try or how much I whine I am only going to get older, saggier, less flexible, and probably balder. There is little, short of surgery, that I can do to arrest the passing of time.

A shell. Maybe  a fat shell or a ridiculously thin shell, a hairy or bald shell, a saggy shell or a beautiful one, does it really matter? Isn’t it time that we stop letting plastic, Photoshopped, insecure skeletons or fake vampires with no nipples dictate how we feel about ourselves? It doesn’t really matter what you look like if you are healthy and can learn to like yourself. For some reason my wife thinks I am good-looking and that needs to be enough for me.

Even if she didn’t, I’m tired of jumping through hoops for a shell.

 

Casual Fridays – Lessons From Life

Ford Fairlane photographed in College Park, Ma...

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” ~ James Baldwin

I did not really grow up in a strictly religious home. My grandparents were alcoholics and they taught me different lessons than you would probably learn at “Johnny Church Member’s” grandmother’s house. By the age of eight or nine I knew how to play Bridge, Texas Holdem, Blackjack, Craps, 21, 31, 333, Follow The Queen, Stud, Baseball, Woolworths, and various other derivations of many poker games. I learned that you had to be at least thirteen before you can sneak beer from the basement. I learned that everyone drank, that only certain types of beer, always Canadian beer, did not taste like “panther piss”. I also learned that children didn’t matter. I learned that mouthy little kids like me were to be “seen and not heard”. I learned that drunkenness was a daily thing, not a special holiday activity. I learned how to swear. To this day I can pack more empties in the trunk of a Ford Fairlane than anyone I know.

My grandmother was a poor gambler but didn’t know it. She thought she was an excellent player and indeed seemed to be so to an eight-year-old child. She understood the fundamentals of the game and would beat me every time we played. She would usually take my allowance. It was a very tender family.

By the time I was eleven or twelve, however, I began to win. Eventually two things dawned on me: First, she wasn’t that good. Second, she had taken a great deal of my boyhood money and it was time for her to go down. Somehow I convinced her that we should play for higher stakes and I began the carnage. Slowly, relentlessly, I drove her into the ground.

I looked at my grandmother. This was the person who had taught me how to play. She was the woman who had raised my mother. She was an old lady on a pension, and I took her for everything in her account. At eleven years of age I damaged her financially. I watched her sign a cheque in defeat. It was for hundreds of dollars. Did I feel guilty?

I remember thinking at the time, “this is the greatest day of my life”.

As I look back I wonder why I did not feel any remorse. My grandmother was not a nice person. She did not know how to express love, and one could argue she felt little as well. She was a bitter, angry little alcoholic who would later disown me because I won an argument, and not even an important one. When she found out I was engaged she commented, “I don’t know the woman but she must be a slut to marry him.”

I learned a great deal from my grandmother. I learned that family is not that important. I learned that it is easy to lie to cover up addiction, that beer was consumed before lunch for ‘medicinal’ reasons. I learned that bitterness worked. I learned that I didn’t matter. I learned that love was conditional.

As I ponder that part of my life, and the subsequent apathy I felt when she died, I realize that I, on occasion, feel ripped off. I did not have grandparents that I could love and cherish. My father was an orphan. The grandparents I had were not nice people.

I look at the grandparents that my children have and I’m thankful for all four of them. They each have brought something unique and wonderful to the table. My children love them all dearly. When the boy’s papa died last year I was saddened and thankful for his life and his legacy. I am jealous of the relationship my sons still have with their remaining grandpa and grandmothers.

And thankful. Very very thankful.

p.s. – next Wednesday my father will be joining us as our weekly guest blogger!