One Bite At A Time

How do you swallow an elephant? One bite at a time.
Old Fable

This week I spoke with one of you about eating elephants. It seems more and more apparent, at least in my small part of the village, that at some point in any journey worth taking you are going to feel overwhelmed. The 20th Century has redefined the art of being busy. Remember when you thought you had no time in the 20th Century? Amateurs. The onset of the biggest culture shift since the Reformation is redefining who you are and what pounds into your head, 14 or 16 hours a day. The noise, noise, noise; the Grinch was right. Text messaging and Facebook and your constant web companions are literally rewiring you on a neurological level, and few of us have wondered to what degree the virtual world could transform world culture and what effect that will have on your brain and your psyche and your family in generations to come. I told someone today that the single worst mistake I made in my parenting was buying my youngest an Xbox. He used to play outside. He owns a bike. A good snowboarder. Too bad so many of our kids would prefer to stay at home and molt into the furniture if we let them.

Last week my son, my dad, and I took an eco-tour via sailboat to the Marietas Islands  Bird Sanctuary with Pegaso Charters, the coolest dudes you will ever meet. We spent an entire day on a classic sailboat and it was absolute nirvana. It will change your life. Eight-and-a-half hours of warm ocean swells, weird and cool facts about the local ecosystem, snorkeling and lounging at a private park beach; way out in the ocean. I wanted to go again the next day. I love to sail. For six hours I stood, back against the thinnest of insulated cables, dancing with the ocean. At first it is difficult to find your sea legs, though this passes quickly. For a time you hold on to the cabling and feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme. Later you begin to let go and move with the music.

Two people spent much of the day texting. What is happening to us?

Sailing is a very holy experience for me. Years ago my friend Julie had a sailboat in her family and we got to steer the 34 footer across the Vancouver Bay area. This was different. We were headed somewhere, a point in the horizon aboard a vessel with dimensions similar to Ragnar’s and Leif’s Viking galleys, 500 years before Columbus hired a better publicist. It is almost immediately apparent, aboard that beautiful sailboat, how sailors and fisherpersons and Vikings wrote about becoming one with the ocean. My daughter-in-laws family is filled with tugboat captains, they know what I mean. Swaying with the ocean for hours at a time is a deeply religious experience if you choose to pay attention. My geek friends know what I am talking about. Thinking about philosophy or being one with the great vastness of the ocean is very zen when you are catching the wind in those lily-white sails.

But I digress.

Life is very complicated if you look at it, all at once. If you are negotiating a tough present or future, if you struggle to feel like you give a damn, if you wonder if you will die alone, this world  can sometimes be too much to bear. Remember when we were talking about how overwhelming you life was? The only way to deal with that noise is to begin at the beginning. Days aboard sailboats are few and far between, and it is very easy to fall out of sync with the ocean. Problems seem enormous when we are tired out and fond of losing, when we feel like losers or when the situation is going on and on and on and there is no relief in sight.

One bite at a time. Parents ask me everyday how they can get through to that child who is lost, or consistently high, or struggling with body issues, or depression, or anxiety. When your baby is doing cocaine you want an action plan. It’s tempting to storm into that room and put that kid on an episode of Intervention, but that isn’t the real world and it isn’t going to work unless your kid is Amish. It’s time to listen to your counselor.

You need to sleep and eat something made of fruit. This may not be sexy but when lives fall apart people lose 24 pounds and go bat-crap crazy. I remember nights of absolute insanity, like really made-for-tv weird kind of stuff. You are going to be no good to anyone if you are freaking crazy. I know you need to tell me the story, one more time, again and again. I get that you want the world to change in one day and your spouse to know you have really really changed for good, but I’m not the one who is barking at the moon. Becoming a Jedi is about consistency, not climaxes. People who figure themselves out have spent thousands of hours living the program, one day at a time, one argument or heartache or anxious experience at a time. Everyone wants a golden ticket but complex psychological change takes years.

Start by taking better care of yourself. You are definitely worth it. Learn the tools you will need to cope with your spinning thoughts. Practice what you preach. Watch Midnight in Paris or The Razor’s Edge (1984) or the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I know it’s cheesy but that’s kind of the point. If what you are doing is not taking you there, than all a guy like me can tell you is to switch game plans. You have been programmed by our chemistry and our family and those stupid 80’s sitcoms like Three’s Company. Literally the entire planet is trying to convince you of something, and chances are your childhood didn’t prepare you for the crushing relentlessness of real life. If the horse is dead get off of it, don’t try to ride faster, or however that cliché goes. Counselor types constantly harp on self-care for a reason, and that reason is usually that  you aren’t doing it enough.

Most of us experience times when we really have no idea what to do. You cannot force that kid to stop smoking weed but you may be able to get them to talk to someone about their anxiety or why they need to self-medicate their crappy lives. A decent counselor can provide you with a few dozen strategies that you will inherently already know, but cannot think of, when your life is screaming in your ear. The journey to wholeness is a series of little life hacks and the discipline to keep working on this crap long after it stops being fun. STOPP Therapy and Neil Gaiman horror poems and obscure foreign movies. Dozens and dozens of cheesy tools that sound like they were created by a seven-year-old. Thousands of conversations and failed attempts and tiny victories.


“Courage is not something you have, it’s something you earn.”

the_blitzMalcolm Gladwell tells the story of the bombing of London in World War Two. The Germans called it the “blitzkrieg” or just the Blitz“In the years leading up to the Second World War, the British government was worried. If, in the event of war, the German Air Force launched a major air offensive against London, the British military command believed that there was nothing they could do to stop it. Basil Liddell Hart, one of the foremost military theorists of the day, estimated that in the first week of any German attack, London could see a quarter of a million civilian deaths and injuries. Winston Churchill described London as “the greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous, fat, valuable cow, tied up to attract the beast of prey.” He predicted that the city would be so helpless in the face of attack that between three and four million Londoners would flee to the countryside.

In 1937, on the eve of the war, the British military command issued a report with the direst prediction of all: a sustained German bombing attack would leave six hundred thousand dead and 1.2 million wounded and create mass panic in the streets. People would refuse to go to work. Industrial production would grind to a halt. The army would be useless against the Germans because it would be preoccupied with keeping order among the millions of panicked civilians. The country’s planners briefly considered building a massive network of underground bomb shelters across London, but they abandoned the plan out of a fear that if they did, the people who took refuge there would never come out. They set up several psychiatric hospitals just outside the city limits to handle what they expected would be a flood of psychological casualties. “There is every chance,” the report stated, “that this could cost us the war.”
David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell

The government was sure that the residents of London would be shell-shocked. Everyone knew that it would be only a matter of time before Britain was boarded. Everyone was wrong. For a lot of reasons that Gladwell illustrates, people in London in World War Two gave ‘the finger’ to the Nazis and shrugged it off.

The experts are often wrong. That psychiatrist who diagnosed you might not have had a clue what was really going on. Those meds may work for some people but that does not mean they work for you. Research is changing so fast that none of us can keep up, and I do this all day. Sometimes the people we trust to know the answer are googling it while you are waiting in their office (This is, in point of fact… a fact).

The experts believed that the people would be afraid. It turned out that when people survive a bombing they begin to feel invincible, and in the end the Germans only managed to make a strong country into a very pissed-off enemy. That was one of the lessons of the story, I suppose. They were not afraid, they were afraid of being afraid. In counselling we call that catastrophizing. What was the worst that could happen if the Germans came? What if we lose? Making a mountain out of a mole hill. Come on, you know what I mean. The people who should know were convinced that the Blitz would be the beginning of the end. It turned out to be the end of the beginning. Everyone underestimated the RAF, and never have so few given so much for so many, or so the story goes. Churchill stood alone against the world, a ragged bulldog who just wouldn’t lie down. The worst didn’t happen. Not even close. And that is why history is cool.

Sometimes, often, I care way too much about crap that shouldn’t matter. I get sucked in to the drama and forget to reach for my Wisdom Rock. It’s hard to be Zen when the kids are screaming. But hear me here: It’s not about last time, it’s about sometime. Sometime you will get better than this. Sometime things will be different. ‘Sometime’ is not a cognitive distortion. Sometimes this stuff works. Sometimes. We call that hope, and without it you’re pretty much screwed.

There are moments when catastrophizing does WAY more harm than good. It can take me places where I have a hard time coping. I know there is that statistic somewhere that can prove me right, the one about how most of what we are afraid of never really happens. You know the one. But let’s be honest, it’s not about who is right and who is hurt. It has to be about me.

Try that on for size. It’s even hard to write. It has to be about me. I am no good to anyone if I am not strong. People count on me. I do this for a living and it gets inside me, infects me, for better and worse. What good am I to my wife, my kids, my partners, if I am emotionally wrecked? This is a hard lesson for a Canadian to learn. It feels selfish to my prairie ear.

Many of us are afraid of the unknown. The “what-if’s” have happened more than once. What the Germans didn’t understand, and what we all tend to forget, is that you cannot break a spirit that gets stronger every time you bomb. The Brits were prepared to gas the Germans on their own beaches, if pushed. You do not piss off the British Empire. They are stronger than they let on.

Sometimes you just have to endure and learn.  It’s not about last time, it’s about sometime. You cannot be beaten if you learn every time you are hit. You will win in the end. I have to believe that because I’ve seen it happen literally hundreds of time. I’ve felt what it feels like to be “ok” and I want more of that. A bunch more.

You can do it. You are, like the fairytale, stronger than you know. Courage is not something you have. Courage is something you learn. Malcolm is, in the end, right as rain. You’ll have it when you need it if you practice what you have learned. That isn’t rocket science but this stuff is hard and it is important. It needs to stop being “hurt enough I have to” and start becoming about “learning enough I want to”. Getting better is about learning – I will die on that hill, if necessary. You can’t get better if you aren’t getting smarter about your own particular piece of crazy. We’ve argued about this before. I get paid to research and I listen to audiobooks like a drug addict, what can you do?

I know, it’s a sweet gig.

Cue the cheesy ending – “You’re bigger than you know”.

Wireless Weekends

I am wired. And unless you have recently emerged from your bomb shelter, chances are you are as well. Cell phone. Check. Laptop. Check. IPad, IPod, another laptop, desktop, work desktop, Wii, Xbox, Roku, really crappy laptop, satellite radio. Check and check. TV’s and technologies everywhere I look. Check. It’s time for a break. I commented to a friend today that I am not sure cell phones and the internet have really added much to my life. As a therapist I see a frightening array of what I have started calling our cultural ADHD behaviours, behaviours that didn’t seem as prevalent even a few years ago. My youngest son used to read, and paint, and create. Now he would play his Xbox 16 hours a day if we let him. If I make him stop he looks around like a wounded and confused zombie. He has lost his ability to entertain himself. If it’s not the Xbox it’s the laptop or a smart phone. He doesn’t seem to understand that they are the same damn thing. The television now seems innocuous for some reason. I have found myself saying to him, “why don’t you watch some TV?” It seems like it was only a few years ago that I was telling him not to watch the boob tube; now it’s the healthy sounding alternative. What happened? I can tap my credit card now because it takes too long to put in a password. I am frustrated if the internet is slow (remember dial-up?). The automated teller takes forever. Cultural ADHD… I was in Hawaii recently for only a few hours when people were Facebooking me asking for pictures. I’M ON VACATION! People get upset if I don’t immediately return their text, email or Facebook message. I have come to loathe FaceTime. Surfing the web has become work. People can get in touch with me 24 hours a day, no matter where I am. It’s time to go kayaking. This summer I’m calling it “wireless weekends”. I am going to turn off the two cell phones I have, stay off Facebook – heck I’m going to stay off the computer all together. No texting, no surfing, no electronics… except a bit of television because I’m not Amish. It’s beyond time for a change. Years ago, when I went on vacation or left for a conference everyone understood I would be out of touch for a while. No one texted me an hour later to find out if I arrived safely or had any friggen pictures yet. Time for a blast into the past. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Luddite. I love technology, love it. I used to be a I.T. guy. I own a complete sound system for my band. I have five or six computers, but enough is enough. Time for a break. Ever considered how you and yours are affected by technology? I have no solid data on this but it seems, in my little part of the world, that we are becoming less and less able to sit still. I cannot remember the last time my sixteen year old sat out in the sunshine without some electronic device. People have stopped reading books. Clients appear more and more frantic, more stressed, more impatient, and less happy. I sometimes wonder if the growth in technology has really made our world a better place. My world has become a more frantic place filled with text messages and phone calls and Facebook updates. Maybe I am an Luddite. Tomorrow I will say goodbye to my MacBook Pro and hello to my kayak. See you again on Monday.

The Emotional Tank

Years ago I heard a talk about our four gauges. Let me explain.

The speaker spoke of the various internal gauges that he had noticed in his life. He had a spiritual gauge and as a religious person he felt that this tank was regularly filled. Think of a gas tank. When the gas runs out, the engine stops. He also noticed his mental gauge – as a scholar he kept that tank filled almost all the time. He was also a marathon runner and knew implicitly that his physical gauge was good. So he was in tip-top shape right?


What the speaker did not realize was that there was a fourth tank, an emotional tank. People who are caregivers, or young parents, or counselors, or that ilk are required to empathize with people, to care. You can jog all you want and it won’t fill your emotional gauge. It might be therapeutic but it probably isn’t enough. After a while people who constantly give out begin to “skim” emotionally. They still care in theory but becoming emotionally involved gets to be harder and harder. It is no wonder, then, that many caregivers have secret addictions, or masturbate more than most, or engage in risk-taking or risqué behaviours.

I have arguable the easiest job in the world. I get paid to sit and drink coffee all day and listen to people talk about their issues. When I first starting doing this I heard of counselors going on stress breaks – and laughed. I had just come from owning a restaurant and I knew what stress looked like, or so I thought. Coming to work was a break from my stress, not a contributor to it.

For a while.

After a few years I started to notice I didn’t care as much, didn’t work as hard, didn’t engage emotionally like I once did. I became easily irritated and struggled to emotionally engage with my family. I had no idea what was happening.

Then I remembered the emotional gauge.

Today I listen to audiobooks and do martial arts. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, hundreds and hundreds. On this computer alone I have 63 gigs of audiobooks and that isn’t even my biggest collection, which is on my removable hard drive at home. I listen to philosophy, brain candy, psychology, sci-fi, physics, pop novels, comedies, history etc. Right now I am listening to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a massive chronicle that I have now read almost three times. I use the word “read” figuratively. Last week I listened to Dune (it sucked) and before that Physics Of The Impossible (amazing). I cannot get in my car without an ear-bud attached, it is a full-blown addiction – and very therapeutic. Listening to books fills my emotional tank.

We all have an emotional tank, and when we are stressed or anxious or busy it gets depleted. By now most of us know we should practice self-care but most still cannot make it a daily or even weekly priority. Self-care takes time and we are too stressed or anxious or busy to take that time. It is a vicious circle that keeps us mentally and emotionally ill.

Self-care can smell an awful lot like selfishness, especially when you are trying to drink a daiquiri on the back deck when the kids are screaming for your attention. The tyranny of the urgent is forever clamouring for our attention and we have been taught that self-care is optional, or laziness, or self-indulgent.

This weekend when I get in my kayak it will feel selfish for a minute or two, until I put in my ear buds and return to The Battle Of Britain. When I get home I’ll try to convince my wife that I am practicing what I preach… and perhaps she’ll buy it.

Either way I get to go kayaking.