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.

 

The Weatherman

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

Nature and nurture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last story.

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

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

Pinocchio.

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

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

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

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

The Price of Ignorance

In the fifties and sixties Dr. Benjamin Spock changed the way parents thought about their kids. He believed that children had rights, were individuals, and as such deserved to be treated with respect. Growing up I heard him described in varying terms, usually something along the vein of “pinko” or “hippy”. He is perhaps best known as the man who changed parenting styles and worked with the liberal-left seeking political and familial reform. He was considered an icon for parenting and permissiveness and he may just have caused the death of tens of thousands of babies.

Spock, with relatively no scientific data to support his seemingly offhanded comments, advised parents to place their babies on their stomachs for sleep. Here’s the Wikipedia:

Spock advocated that infants should not be placed on their back when sleeping, commenting in his 1958 edition that “if [an infant] vomits, he’s more likely to choke on the vomitus.” This advice was extremely influential on health-care providers, with nearly unanimous support through to the 1990s. Later empirical studies, however, found that there is a significantly increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) associated with infants sleeping on their abdomens. Advocates of evidence-based medicine have used this as an example of the importance of basing health-care recommendations on statistical evidence, with one researcher estimating that as many as 50,000 infant deaths in Europe, Australia, and the US could have been prevented had this advice been altered by 1970, when such evidence became available.

At the time, no one understood what the effects of placing children on their stomachs would be. Spock was not qualified to give this advice and shows us, yet again, the price of ignorance.

You will probably never see a movie about the great scientist, Thomas Midgley, unless he is the bad guy. In the 1920’s Midgley orchestrated the further introduction of chlorofluorocarbons for business application. Midgely’s work would eventually contribute to the destruction of the Ozone Layer. His work to introduce leaded gasoline would poison thousands, and further destroy the environment. It had all seemed like such a good idea at the time. He was, after all, a brilliant and dedicated scientist. He is remembered as a man who “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.” And not in a good way.

You may never destroy the North Pole or the Ozone Layer, but chances are that our ignorance plays an significant role in our dysfunction. We employ things called “coping mechanisms” (I know you know this) and cognitive distortions to deal with the stress and trauma that has been meted out in our direction. We have childish and often highly erroneous ways of thinking about ourself and others, which keeps us in emotional bondage. We are convinced that we know how things really are, in spite of sometimes overwhelming evidence. Going to counselling is basically an exercise in addressing and dealing with my screwed up ways of thinking and doing life. Anyone who believes that they know exactly what is wrong with them and how to fix it has probably never been in my office.

There is a price for ignorance. Our inability to become like water and embrace mindfulness and resilience is a major source of our dysfunction. It takes time to, in the words of Immanuel Kant, understand the difference between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds we all live in. We catastrophize and listen to the screaming noise of our Amygdala. We come from a long line of weirdos (nature) and have learned a very specific and messed-up set of life skills (nurture). People hurt us and break our heart. We are moulded by our experiences and have learned to do life in distorted and misguided ways. Well at least I have.

By now you can probably understand what the article is driving towards. We cannot change our past, and most people are not willing to do the incredible amount of hard work that is required to move forward. Wholeness, whatever that means, requires learning and pain. Self-destruction is free and you can reach your goals from your Xbox.

Learning is not optional. Many of us have heard of the 10,000 Hour Principle. The 10,000 hours idea basically states that it takes approximately this long in order to master anything. Many of the greatest painters, greatest composers, whom we have always believed to be “gifted”; may have been so, but most of their best stuff still took years to produce.

I will never spend 10,000 hours in the gym. You might. I no longer seek physical mastery. I seek spiritual, emotional, psychological wisdom. That is my journey, though I still need to keep training. So, with this in mind, I endeavor to read (mostly listen to, but I get to count that because that’s a rule I made up) at least 1–books a year. You will never see me without ear buds on, outside the gym. Friends often tease me about that very thing. I dare you to test that theory. I am not saying this to brag, I just know the math. This concept is, obviously, not infallible and prone to caricature.

If I want to be a spiritual master, according to this principle I need 10,000 hours of practice. If I want to be a psychological master, same arithmetic. This gives me a goal to strive towards, and I need that. This is why I read, or at least fake read. This is why we study or go back to university in our forties and fifties. This is why people keep going to counselling, long after they are finished with their crisis. This is why people study philosophy, and faith, astronomy and quantum physics. Like you, I seek wisdom.

 

Creeps

Last night my wife and I surfed Netflix enough until, like most of us, we gave up and watched the documentary on Lance Armstrong – something far outside my comfort zone. I am not ordinarily a fan of movie stars and supermodels, and to be honest probably wouldn’t get out of my chair if one came to the house. The documentary was, however, interesting to watch unfold. I could tell, relatively early, that he was lying his ass off. I do this for a living and my counseling hat was pinging like mad. He wasn’t even very good at it, and it suddenly struck me why so many people were so unsurprised when the poop finally hit the fan. I turned to my wife to pontificate about micro-expressions but it became abundantly clear that she was way ahead of me. She was pinging too, albeit perhaps on a somewhat more subconscious level. She described him as a creep.

That word comes up often in my line of work.

Time and again, perhaps because of my dual worlds of addiction and counselling, women describe men as “creepy”. We have all known a few females, as well, who kind of “freak me out”. We are prone to believe that this is something that has no foundation in evidence-based realities; but we may be wrong. Upon further probing, people who have been creeped out inevitably describe surprisingly similar feelings. There are facial ticks that are registering. Certain intonations strike them as “off”. There are fewer contractions and often more confrontation. People who have “their radar on” may not know why, but they definitely know who. I have invested some time endeavouring to calm any personal boundary issues, and I heavily monitor my space and posture for this exact reason. I rarely hug, and never very close. If you visit me in my micro-office we will take opposite corners. I have spent too much time learning from women to not find myself hyper-vigilant in this regard.

I believe creeps are real. Many are described using terms like “narcissist” and “psychopath”, though usually by wives who are not qualified to diagnose and are deemed too emotionally involved. They are, therefore, often misregarded (I made that up). In my experience, more women than men have this sensitivity to the creep factor, perhaps many more.

I continue to be resurprised when I am in the presence of a “creep”. They seem to lack basic self-awareness. They often describe themselves as “smooth” and popular with the ladies. Often they actually are, and sometimes for very nefarious reasons. By way of example, there are those who are strongly attracted to narcissists. Something in the seeker’s psyche is broken and seeks fulfillment in controlling, and often very physical, relationships. Part of counselling often includes addressing a client’s choosing mechanism, and many people have had to address their attraction to dysfunction in an office very much like mine. Many of us, myself included, are prone to make the same relational mistakes over and over, for very psychological reasons.

Many clients and friends have included a crap detector in their emotional toolbox. There are people out there, for reasons that escape most of us, who glean satisfaction through manipulating and controlling the people closest to them. Such individuals are often highly charming, though indubitably self-serving and emotionally unhealthy. To use the internet word of the month, people like this always obfuscate our lives (I know you’ll Google that) and inevitably leave a wake of hurt and unresolved trauma.

I advise clients that if someone is too charming, too slick, or too nice, it’s probably too good to be true. Dating is an exercise in lying to each other and we all know that on one level. Your charmer’s ex probably wasn’t as bat-shit crazy as you have been told. We have a tendency to want to believe in the fairy tale ending, often at the expense of real world objectivity. I don’t care who he/she is, they have significant issues. You can disagree with me all you wish, but chances are I’ll be proven right. I do not enjoy winning that argument, perhaps I’m just a bit tainted from sitting in an office talking about pain everyday. That is highly possible.

Injustice And The Third Way

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

No. There is no Pixar ending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More On Invasive Thoughts

Great article from Psychology Today on invasive thoughts. Here’s a taste:

  • Your job review is scheduled in two days and, in passing, your boss says, “Well, we’ll certainly have a lot to talk about.” You try to put what he said out of your mind—what did he mean by that?—but it keeps coming back, and now you’re a nervous wreck.
  • You’re sitting in the airport, ready to board, and thoughts of every plane crash you’ve ever read about keep barging into your head. You try to shake them off, reminding yourself that plane travel is safer than driving a car, but it doesn’t work.
  • You’re going to the doctor next week to have that mark on your thigh looked at and you think it’s probably nothing, but worst-case scenarios float into your head 24/7 and distracting yourself doesn’t work. Why is that?

The answer is what Daniel Wegner calls “the ironic monitoring process”—your brain actually searches for whatever thought or emotion the individual is trying to suppress. Yes, your brain is actually nagging you…

Failure Is Not An Option!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put that in your pipe…

Why Some Relationship Counseling Doesn’t Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rewiring Your Brain

A new study reported by the Huffington Post, among others, is reporting that cocaine begins rewiring the brain even after a single usage. This is old news to those of us who deal with addictions or have ever taken a class on neurochemistry. Drug and Alcohol Counselors have known for years that the opiates, though seemingly innocuous when taken at prescription strength (T3’s, Percocets, Emtec, Morphine, Oxys, Heroine, etc) have a profound and physical effect on a neurological level. Unfortunately for many of us, so does porn. Actually on some level any response mechanism, coping techniques, cognitive distortion or belief has not only a physical but also a neurochemical effect on your brain. There are fantastic and crackpot websites a plenty to explain this all over the internet. Some are informative, some are… less informative.

It’s important to understand that the brain is not a static device, set in stone as they say. It is actually possible to change the way the brain spits out those little chemicals and where those little dudes land. If you don’t believe me just start or stop a habit. Creating a habit is nothing more, on a chemical level, than rewiring where your dudes land. You can change the way you act, the way you think, what you believe, who you are. This is powerful information if you know how to manipulate it. You are not a victim of your circumstances, at least on a neurological level. You can convince yourself of virtually anything, given enough time and effort. It’s a fascinating study that has pragmatic consequences. If you don’t believe me google neuroplasticity, or synapses, or dendrites, axons or neurons and you’ll soon have a ton of new material to throw around at parties to impress your friends.

Psychology has come a long way since we liked to  drill people’s heads, and information is power. Once you realize that quitting smoking, or stopping catastophizing, dealing with your poor self-esteem, or stopping using cocaine is a matter of rewiring your brain it is possible to hope that change can come.

You can do it. It’s a scientific fact.

You’re Yelling Again

Yell

 

I don’t yell. I’m not saying this to brag, I’m fairly certain it was a dysfunctional coping mechanism.
Maybe it was because I had relatives that yelled and I repress such expressions as a response to that situation.
Maybe I’m just too shallow.
Maybe I just like it rough.

As a mental health professional I am, of course, horrible at analyzing my own stuff. I self-diagnose all the time. I’m just not that good at it.

I am one of those lucky people who gets to hear people yell on a regular basis. Some professions have it much worse, but I do get my share.

Yelling is an interesting psychological and sociological issue. I have watched spouses curl into the fetal position as a madman controls the situation and hurls verbal abuse. Notice the almost orgasmic effect that “letting off steam” has on the angry screamer. I have seen that horrible energy transferred to the victims as they get emotionally gut-punched. Long after the yell-er is satisfied the object of their derision still suffers. Yelling is a very selfish act.

There was a time when clinicians would tell the angry young man to go home and punch his heavy bag for an hour till he “worked it out of his system”. Today we realize that constantly giving in to that urge to ‘boil over’ only builds a dependence on purging yourself of emotion – a very poor model for impulse control. Such need has little to do with control and more to do with complete surrender. It is no wonder, than, that people have been known to even stop making sense when they are in the throes of an angry outburst. Anger can literally make you stupid. The effect is almost sexual.

Have you ever considered stopping?

Many people do not even realize that it is possible to go for years without yelling. Screaming is just “how our family is”. It is such a normal part of life that no one realizes how abusive it is. There are so many dysfunctional aspects to yelling that I literally do not have enough energy to fully define its ill effects right now. The act is so intrusive, so esteem crushing, so negative, so unloving, so socially acceptable. I am suggesting that we strip away the veneer and identify it for what it really issue – a lack of self-control.

If you are struggling with yelling, this is not intended to make you feel like garbage. Many, many, many of us struggle with this as well. Yelling is so ingrained in our culture that it is rarely even addressed anymore. We blandly accept that angry person without offering any accountability. Our children grow up believing this is an acceptable form of communication and… the circle of life.

If you struggle with this difficult problem talk to someone who can help. Read about it on the web, look up phrases like “cbt (cognitive behavioural therapy) and anger, or yelling, or impulse control. Find out what is behind that anger – after all, that is really the issue now, isn’t it?

Don’t give up. You can do this.

 

What Do You Want?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women, Why You Don’t Make Sense

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

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

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

You aren’t talking Man-glish.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Disappointed In You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional wholeness rarely comes by accident.

You Just Got Hit

Bad day“They have a saying in boxing – everyone has a plan till they get hit… well guess what, you just got hit. Whether or not you get up is up to you.”  from The Ghost And The Darkness

I remember, years ago, hearing a minister talking about the worst day he ever had. I won’t go into details but suffice to say, it wasn’t much of a day. No one died, nothing bad happened. He was inconvenienced. I remember hearing him and thinking, “That’s the best you got?”

Some people get through lives relatively unscathed. I don’t know them personally but that’s the rumor. For the rest of us, however, life is a series of adventures and misadventures. I have a theory that almost everyone has experienced some form of trauma by the time they are forty. I can’t prove this but it seems to be true in the world I live. To quote the greatest family movie of all time, The Princess Bride, “Life is pain highness, anyone who says different is selling you something.”

We all get hit, from time to time. The older I get the more I notice how differently my life has turned out than I had anticipated. You can have all the plans in the world but they won’t help you if you get Fibromyalgia, or cancer, or are in a car accident. We are all just one bad moment from having our lives drastically changed. Twelve years ago I had my life all planned out, then I got hit. Some hits you never fully recover from. Perhaps that shouldn’t even be the goal. Trauma changes us. The trick may be to use situations we hate to change us in the right direction.

Life isn’t fair. Sometimes the rich do get richer and the pretty people do get all the breaks. Sometimes the jerks yand the liars do get ahead and there really seems to be no justice in the world. The Nortel legal battle in Canada, among others, demonstrates that the laws that apply to some, do not necessarily apply to the rich. The right set of high-priced lawyers changes everything.

Have you ever noticed that rich men usually have better hair? There is no justice.

It’s easy to get bitter.

But it doesn’t help one bit.

Have you ever noticed that the older people get the more they become a caricature of themselves? It is as if our personalities are water-soluble and as we age more and more of the water evaporates, leaving us with more “us”. As the capacity to exercise social restraint wears away you begin to see who that person really is. Old people seem to go one of two ways; either they become more gracious, more beautiful, or they get more bitter. So many bitter people.

I do not want to become bitter as I grow older. Already I can see the my tendency to become judgmental, or critical, or just grouchy. There have been people who have hurt me deeply and my natural inclination is to hold grudges and carry that pain forever. Perhaps I am not alone in this.

At the end of the day, like most things, it is about choice. Choice and a great deal of hard work. Left to our own devices many of us will gradually slip further and further towards negativity. Awareness is important. Hard work is much more important. Working on myself cannot, must not, be something I only do when I need to get something or someone. My life is not a thing to be fixed, it is a project to be nourished.

I know from personal experience how damaging it can be to live with bitterness and unforgiveness. I like to say it’s like taking poison and hoping your enemy will die. And it really is that harmful to us to live this way.
Joyce Meyer

Capture the Flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are wrong.

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

We are wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use Your Compass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is the point.

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

You’re worth it.

 

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.

Casual Friday – I Had A Dream

The Real Canadian Superstore adjacent to South...Have you ever tried to phone the Real Canadian Superstore? Let me save you some time. They are not in the phone book under the white pages, neither are they under any of the ordinary denominations in the yellow pages. That’s power. They don’t even need to let you get in touch with them. They know you’ll still come shop there. That arrogance is amazing. So after I finally found a number under pharmacy, I asked when they are open. The nameless automaton on the other end of the phone only said, “the regular hours”. Regular hours. The guy just knows I already know when they are open. And the sick part was, I did. That’s power. That’s arrogance.

They could care less if you like them. They have you and they know it. I despise that attitude. I hate the idea that someone has control over me. I want to believe I am in charge of my own destiny – that my decisions, not some power monger, determine my life. Of course on the same hand I like to play the victim so I have someone to blame when those decisions don’t turn out. I want to control my life – but I don’t want to be blamed for it. I also need to believe that I matter. With their cattle lines and impersonal service Superstore reminds me every week that I do not.

At the time of this writing I have been living with a decision I made some time ago to step out of the limelight. Since adolescence I have been a showman, craving the spotlight, performing for the crowds. Obviously I would have never admitted such a thing so overtly before, I spoke in altruistic platitudes about using a certain temperament or gifting or opportunity. Looking back it amounts to virtually the same thing.I have, from youngest years, believed I would be significant. There was always this carrot of notoriety just outside my grasp. I spoke yesterday of desperately trying to fit it. So much of what motivated me stemmed from this insane need to be ‘someone’. So much of my personality was wrapped up in this subtle egoism. That is not to say that I do not struggle anymore with obscurity. Every time I sit down at this computer to write I question my motivations. I can feel that snake coiling just beneath the surface, even now. Stepping away from full-time public speaking has been the best and most frustrating journey I have ever been on. I would contend that I have learned more about myself and my world in this time than in any other period of my life.I have found obscurity.Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I have finally admitted to myself that I am ordinary and unimportant by almost every societal barometer that matters in prevalent society. It’s ok, you don’t have to encourage me, I’m fine.

This has been good for me. It reminds me of those lines from one of my favorite ‘B’ movies, The Replacements, when Keanu Reeves, a replacement quarterback is confronted by the spoiled and arrogant star quarterback of the pro team who he has just replaced:
Eddie Martel: This doesn’t change anything Falco! I’m still an All-Pro quarterback with two Superbowl rings. You’ll never be anything more than a replacement player.
Shane Falco: Yeah. Yeah, I can live with that.

We all need to come to grips with who we are, not who we pretend to be. It’s tempting to spend your life chasing after something only to find out that when you get it, it really wasn’t what you needed after all.

Close to his death Martin Luther King preached his famous sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct”. As usual, he said it better than I ever could…

Martin-Luther-King-Jr-9365086-2-402“Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. That isn’t important.Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards. That’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say the day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a ‘drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. That I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.”