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!

Living My Life To Impress A Five Year Old

Many of us were damaged emotionally when we were children. We were criticized, we were belittled, we were told how to live, how to act, what to wear and how to think… by other children. Have you been to a playground lately? Have you noticed that their opinions are fairly… stupid?

Or maybe it was a relative who criticized you and turned you into an introvert, or taught you to suppress your emotions, or hide who you are. A relative you now realize is an asshole whose opinion does not matter.

So why are you still acting like he told you to 25 years ago?

Perhaps you had a parent who told you that you were an idiot, or stupid, or worthless. Twenty years later you still battle insecurity, still feel like a loser. In counseling we find out that you feel this way predominantly because of what you were told when you were a child. You now realize that your alcoholic, abusive, degenerate father is a moron.

So why do you still hear that voice in your head?

My grandmother and other relatives told me/taught me countless times that I was a mouthy, disrespectful, immature burden that should be “seen and not heard” (and preferably not seen). I grew up to live up to some of those expectations, perhaps because I believed them on some level. I have taken the time to analyze why I spent so much of my early adulthood trying to fit in, rebelling against the status quo, saying everything on my mind without filtering, etc. In spite of great parents who loved and believed in me I now believe that those relatives taught me important and dysfunctional lessons that I have spent decades trying to come to grips with. With little effort I can still hear my grandmother’s voice. My uncle’s voice.

Mental health professionals are fond of telling us that much of our psyche was formed when we were little children. It is increasingly apparent that many of us had our dysfunctional coping skills, our poor self-image, and our self-destructive tendencies formed while we were yet little people – impressionable, ignorant, socially retarded, childish little kids who had no idea how to filter out the negative and destructive messages. We heard messages and learned lessons that continue to haunt us, regardless of what we understand intellectually. We believe, on one level, that we need to “get over” our past. Making that happen, however, is a different challenge altogether.

We have been imprinted, and those tattoos do not just wash off. It is one thing to realize that you have been molded by dysfunction, it is another thing altogether to effectively break free from that influence. Those attitudes and coping skills have become a part of who you are and how you cope. You have owned them. Really you had little choice.

Every day I talk with people who have been emotionally scarred by childhood or adult friends, or authority figures, or those who were supposed to love and protect them. In counseling they begin to recognize that several of their foundational beliefs and coping mechanisms, ways of dealing with the world that they have relied on for decades, may in fact be deeply flawed. It is a horrible and humbling thing to realize that you have been living your life believing distortions about yourself and your world.

For decades you have believed that no one can be trusted, and you have proven yourself correct countless times. You have evidence to support your cognitive distortions so they must be real. Anger is the way to deal with perceived slight. Always stick up for yourself. Never give up. If you want something done you have to do it yourself. Forget about the past. Meekness is weakness. All men are assholes. All women are bitches. I’ll never get better. I’ll never be able to cope. Never let anyone see the real you. Don’t take crap from anyone. Hurt them before they hurt you. Hitting your partner is ok if I say “I’m sorry”. I won’t measure up. Yelling works. Vulnerability leads to abuse. Nothing will ever change. I’m a failure. I can’t be honest. I’m damaged goods. No one could love me. I’m a loser. The list goes on and on.

Go back to the playground. Go back to that bedroom, that old house, that church basement. Take a hard look at that abusive parent, relative, adult, child. Healing and growth begins when we realize that the voices in my head and the attitudes and coping skills I developed to protect myself may not work anymore. They may, in fact, be keeping me sick and powerless.

You don’t have to listen to him anymore. She was wrong about you. That wasn’t your fault. The coping skills you so despise in yourself isn’t your fault either. You were doing the best you could with very little information and support in a dangerous world not of your making.

It’s not your fault. Talk to someone. Time to question everything. Time to be free.

 

We Believe In You

It took me fifteen years to get my black belt in Sun Hang Do Martial Arts. Some people do it in four but apparently I am a slow learner. That and the fact that I took a ‘break’ for ten years. I had been only a few months from my black belt exam when my life fell apart. Soon after I rebroke my knee, and because of the state of mind I was in, didn’t think I could come back. For ten years I avoided people I knew at Sun Hang Do and lived with regret. Getting a black belt was something I had dreamed of since I was nine or ten years of age.

A dream that had died.

A few years ago, however, I ran into an old friend and martial arts master, Dave Kinney, who encouraged me to try again. Coming back was difficult, humiliating, and more physically demanding than I would have believed.

But I am a stubborn person.

Last May, fighting off two weeks of Mononucleosis, I showed up for the infamous black belt test. As the eight-hour test was about to start, Dave’s brother, and another amazing guy, Brian Kinney, came up to me and said he wanted to help me have a good day. He opened his wallet and produced a business card with a dime taped to it – a memento of a talk I had given during another black belt test twelve years earlier.

A memento that he has kept in his wallet all these years. Another brilliant martial artist and friend, Kumar Bandyo, still has his as well.

Sometimes it is easy to wonder if you make a difference in this world. The martial art I take part in is dedicated to changing the world. That morning Brian reminded me that anyone, even me, can make a difference.
Brian is the third member of Sun Hang Do that has told me he still had his dime, and the only one to produce it. Thanks Brian, that really touched me.

Here is the story I used, not my own, so many years ago. After telling it I handed out a business card with the dime taped to it, the Sun Hang Do Logo on the front, and the words, “we believe in you.”

In 1965 the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers was a guy named Bart Starr. He was a great football player but more importantly, he was a great dad.

He had a son, his namesake, Bart Jr. Every time Bart Jr. brought home a paper from school with good marks, or did well in life his dad would write him a note that said something like, “Son, I really believe in you. I’m proud of what you’re doing. Keep going, I love you, Dad.” And then he’d take the dime and scotch tape it on a piece of paper. That dime to his son began to be a symbol to him of his dad really believing in him.

One weekend the Packers went to St. Louis to play the Cardinals, and Bart Starr played the worst game of his entire career. He was intercepted three times, literally lost the game for his team. He flew back to Green Bay, got off the plane and went home, totally deflated and feeling down.

He walked into his bedroom that night and on the dresser was a note from his son. It said, “Dad I really believe in you. I’m proud of what you’re doing. Keep going, I love you….. Bart. And taped to the note ….. was a dime.

When you feel like you are losing and no one cares, when you wonder if you can make it; it’s good to know someone is cheering you on.

Here’s your dime.

Dime Bar

Casual Friday – You’re a Williams!

365: Day 140, YOU're awesomeOne day I went on a walk with my dad. Some of you have issues with your fathers but I don’t. My father is a player, a lover, a best friend. He may be a half a foot too short, but women love my dad. He knows how to treat a lady. When you are around my father you can’t help but feel special. He has that effect on people.

Once, years ago, some friends went on a road trip and unbeknownst to me they showed up at my parents place. My parents had no idea they were coming. An hour or so after their arrival they called me… from the hot tub. At that very moment my father was bringing them a cheese platter and sparkling apple juice. That’s my pop. He loves people and it shows.

He has always been my biggest fan. If I was even indicted for killing someone my dad would probably visit my jail cell and tell me “they had it coming”. His loyalty has no limits. He was the man who taught me about loyalty. My children know the word too. Family is everything.

That walk was many years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday. Through strained emotions my dad asked me, “whatever happened to your self-esteem? I always knew you to be the most confident person I have known. You believed you could do anything, and you usually did.” At the time I had no insightful answer for him. It has been years since that conversation and I am only now beginning to understand what was happening to me during those years of my life.

I started out as a winner. I believed in ‘me’. But when one or a few of the most important people in your life remind you constantly how much of a loser you are, when you know every day you don’t measure up, when you have artificial constraints placed upon you, you begin to die inside. Some of you know what I am saying. You have people in your life who are disappointed in you as well. They remind you that you don’t measure up. They judge you and reprimand you and rate your performance. And slowly and little by little you succumb to their criticisms.

I have been rereading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”. He is my favorite author, this month. Gladwell contends that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Every successful person has a series of seemingly insignificant advantages – from the month they were born to the place where they happen to go to school. Gates was no accident. Neither was Einstein. Each of these individuals had something stacked in their favor, some winning edge. A significant majority of successful hockey players, for example, were born early in the year. They were more advanced, got more breaks, more ice time, better grooming. He makes a strong case.

My dad and mom instilled in me a sense of value. It is hard to under-estimate the impact that has had in my life. Both my parents were from humble beginnings and had no shortage of people reminding them that they were losers. Neither of my parents came from advantage. My father was an orphan. But somehow, for some reason, they invented the myth that I carry to this day. Though my relatives were a bunch of cattle thieves and alcoholics I grew up believing that to be a “Williams” was something special, almost magical.

I am thankful to my parents for their investment in my life. I have tried to follow their example and instill in my own children a sense of pride in their family and their worth. It’s easy to do, they’re awesome. My boys were raised to think being a Williams was like winning the lottery. As young kids they couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t want to be a Williams. My young son recently had a son of his own and every time we get together one of us will remind five month old Angus Scott that he is a Williams, that he can do anything.

In a world that reminds us on a daily basis we don’t measure up I am thankful that, from my youth, I was told I was special. It is a legacy I am proud of. And why wouldn’t I be… I’m a Williams.

Dealing With Your Baggage

child abuseSexual abuse is destroying our society. It’s almost impossible to find accurate statistics on the percentage of women who were molested as children and adolescents. Numbers vary wildly between 20-60%. Statistics about the molestation of boys hovers somewhere between 6 and 24%.

Emotional and physical abuse statistics are difficult to measure but can be equally as devastating, and not just for children.

What everyone does agree on, however, is the devastating impact of sexual, physical and emotional abuse and neglect. Almost every day I hear story after story of pain and abuse from earliest memory to adulthood. I have often contended that just about everyone has endured some form of abuse by the time they are in their forties. It is easy, therefore, to believe that there is no hope, no cure, no relief from something that looms so large that it feels impossible to overcome. But what if it could be dealt with? What if the effects of this hell on earth could be diminished, even alleviated?

Trauma, whether from childhood or as an adult, is devastating and left undealt with, often affects us for the rest of our lives. Even those of us who have not had a ‘trauma’ event, so to speak, may also have the effects of trauma due to long-term abuse, neglect, or situations which have damaged us emotionally or physically.

Maybe you were not sexually or emotionally abused as a child but wonder if you may still have real baggage. Maybe you grew up in a single family home and it has left you tainted or emotionally wounded. You may have had an emotionally unavailable parent, heard more than your share of verbal abuse or yelling, or had parents who drank too much or used drugs.

Divorce can often have devastating effects on children as well. So can witnessing violence, so can growing up with insecurity or self-esteem issues. Your parents may have shown you dysfuntional ways to deal with stress or relationships.

Although we have different issues, many of us are carrying baggage around. In my course on Trauma we talk about some of the bizarre ways this has impacted many lives. Survivors of trauma are often hoarders, or cannot commit to a relationship, or have difficulty finishing problems, or have long term sexual issues including the seeming inability to be sexually satisfied.

Wounded people often struggle with more loneliness, are far more critical of themselves or others, or are what we call hypervigilent. Their danger radar is especially fine tuned and they are constantly on a high state of alert. There is even evidence to suggest that many who consider themselves ‘discerning’ or ’emotionally in tune’ are actually victims of trauma who have developed this hyper awareness as a defence mechanism.

The list of potential issues associated with trauma goes on and on – difficulty relaxing, problems with intimate relationships, difficulty sharing feelings, extreme reactions to normal situations, anger and anxiety, cycles of abusive relations, approval seeking, etc.

Counselors often say that “Trauma trumps all”. They mean that there are clear indicators that trauma affects every area of your life. If you have not dealt with your baggage it is very likely that you are not living the life you were meant to live. I meet people all the time who have been carrying around this garbage for years, for decades, who believe that there is no choice but to stuff their hurts and try to cope the best they can. While this may work for some, it didn’t work for me. Maybe it isn’t working for you either.

If you are weighed down by a backpack of abuse, neglect, and pain you need to know that there is hope. Working through your issues may be hard but it can lead to hope and liberation. You don’t have to spend the rest of your life reeling from the hurts of your past, no matter the issue.

Talk to someone. Find a friend or colleague that understands and empathizes. Or better yet go see a counselor that doesn’t suck. You can do it.

You’re worth it.

living honourably…

Living honorably is something that I have had to learn throughout my life. I am very outgoing, energetic and often intense and these character traits often clash with my desire to live my life in such a way that I and others would consider worthy of honor. There is a real temptation to try to “shortcut” when facing challenges – for example doing whatever is expedient at the expense of that which is honest, honorable, imbibed with integrity. Often those with extroverted personality are given to exaggeration or embellishment in order to represent themselves in the best light possible. There is a tendency to cover ones insecurities and negative self-image with boastful claims, thereby living a life with less honor, less honesty, than one should.

For many years I have sought to practice the honorable lifestyle. As a counselor I am keenly aware of my own faults but also aware of my propensity to be overly hard on myself and therefore compensate. I also am blessed/cursed with a keen sense of introspection and often spend hours every week analyzing how I am doing, how I am coping, whether I am living my life with integrity and honor. When I was young my mantra was, “I am going to change the world.” The older I get the more I realize that changing the world begins with changing myself from the inside out. Being honorable is not about looking good but rather about being good. As I have often said, “It’s one thing to talk the talk, it’s another thing altogether to walk the walk.”

Eleven years ago I believed my life was on track. I was only a few months from testing for my black belt, was doing fine in my career, had an amazing wife and kids. But a series of misadventures occurred that changed my life forever.

Over the next few years the pain of this loss barely receded and I was forced to look inside myself and question my values, my perceived strengths and weaknesses, and my integrity in general. I realized that I had not been as self-aware as I had imagined and began the difficult task of rebuilding my life. Thus began a decade and more of self-examination and introspection with regard to who I am, how I live, and how I relate to others. I have come to realize that I must strive to live honorable every day, every moment, and not just when others are watching. Honorable living is about who I am when no one is looking, when I am alone with my thoughts, in every aspect of my life.

I have not yet become the man I hope to be someday but am attempting to live in such a way that I can be proud of who I am becoming. It is my desire that someday, on my headstone at the graveyard, someone will be able to etch in – “at least he tried”.