Saturday, June 30, 2018

Don't get stuck between nostalgia and destination addiction

“Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in - its a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Midnight in Paris


“Beware of Destination Addiction - a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job and with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are.”
- Robert Holden, Ph.D.


I've always had a thing about nostalgia.


So much so, that I continuously revisit places from my past. My grandparent's old family farm, my family's first home, old playgrounds, drugstores, diners, and shops.


Others rarely understand this habit, and raise an eyebrow when I make these requests. For many people, the past is gone, and they have no great need to revisit it.

The above quote from the movie "Midnight in Paris" is uttered by a rather unpleasant character, who is trying to explain the dangers of nostalgic thinking. He does have a point though. Was the past REALLY that much better, or have we buffered out the problematic parts and just remembered the good? He's right that humans tend to do that.

And yet, nostalgic people can't always help themselves. The Germans have a word called Sehnsucht, defined as, "longing and yearning for pieces of life that are unfinished or imperfect. It's also referred to as "life longing" or an individual's search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes."

Life longing. I like that. Have felt it many times. That feeling that there is just some piece of life that you haven't quite discovered that might unlock the secret for you.

On the opposite side of nostalgia is something called "destination addiction." We all know this one. It's that thinking that life will be better when you just reach some finish line in your head. When I just graduate from school. When I just get married. When I just buy a house. The problem is, we get to that finish line, enjoy it for a moment, and then realize we still have the same old thoughts in our heads. Soon enough we are angling for the next destination.

I was thinking about all of this following the recent suicide of Anthony Bourdain, a man I greatly admired and always felt a certain kinship with. When he died, everyone had an opinion. It was about a recent breakup. He may have had Parkinson's. He had issues with addictions he was never able to shake.

But I think what he really may have suffered from was an addiction to novelty. It's a feeling I know all too well. The desire for new places, new food, and new experiences. He was on the road 250 days a year, and had more novelty in his life than almost anyone. And yet sometimes in his more pensive moments, you could see a kind of sadness on his face. Loneliness. A longing that never really got satisfied.

A quote from him I've reflected on since his death was this, "Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

And in the end, who really knows what broke his heart. But he most certainly left a lot of memories behind. But I also think there is perhaps a lesson in his life we also might apply.

We have to dance as happily as we can to the music that is playing now.

I recently got a chance to apply this lesson in the most unlikely of places. Midnight in Paris wasn't an option at the moment, so I had to settle for a returned services club in New Zealand. Every Friday they feature bands playing music from the 50's and 60's, and the crowd is usually also much older than your average music venue.

On my first visit, I merely observed. I was fascinated watching the old dance moves and listening to the old songs. Music and dancing have the power to wake up the soul like no other. If you don't believe this, I refer you to Billy Jordan, who turned a group of seniors trapped in a nursing home into a fierce hip-hop dance group called The Hip-Operation Crew.







But as for me? Sitting out wasn't an option on my 2nd visit to the club, as a spirited older lady in blue suede shoes took me by the arm out onto the dance floor to dance to "Runaround Sue." When I tried to politely decline, she asked, "did you come here to watch or did you come here to dance? Because if you just came to watch, you're clogging up the dance floor."



And dammit, no one accuses me of clogging up the dance floor.


And now I drop by every Friday to dance along with these folks. I think they may have helped me resolve my problem feeling stuck between nostalgia and destination addiction. It's okay to celebrate the past. It made you who you are after all. But we also can choose to dance to the music that is playing now. These people have certainly proven this to me. No one is too old or too fat or too tired.

They all just get out there and dance.






And this is what I vow to do as well.



Dance to the music that's playing now.


Monday, May 28, 2018

Project Semicolon, Sydney, and my 1st Tattoo


This weekend, for the 4th year in a row, I traveled to Sydney to attend Vivid Fest, a wild, crazy, colorful party in my favorite city in the world.



But that’s not all I came to do.



I also wanted to visit a place called Watson’s Bay, just a short ferry ride from the city.






I recently came across a story about a man named Don Ritchie, also known as “The Angel of the Gap.” He was a former military man who went on to sell life insurance after his career in the army.



 Nothing too out of the ordinary.




What IS out of the ordinary, is that he lived at the base of one of the most beautiful spots in Australia called "The Gap" in Watson's Bay just outside of Sydney. It's an incredible place full of fantastic views, crashing surf, and lots of privacy.



It's also one of the most famous suicide spots in the world.



During his years living there, Don observed a lot of sad, lonely, and even desperate people outside of his oceanfront home. When he saw these people, he often went down to talk to them. Sometimes he invited them in for some tea. Other times he physically restrained them from jumping over the cliffs to meet their demise.



All told, he saved over 160 lives during his 45 years living in Watson’s Bay.




How in the world did he do this?




His daughter discussed how he would simply walk out of his home with his palms up in the air and ask, “Is there something I could do to help you?"




And often that was enough to start the conversation. A smile. A small gesture of compassion.



So I came to Sydney in part to sit, think, and meditate at Watson’s Bay about this story, and think about the power of a simple act of kindness.



But that STILL wasn’t all I came to do.



I've never gotten a tattoo before, which is actually a little strange. I've been a wild, irresponsible, impulsive, reckless, traveler in my life, and have rarely turned down a dare. If ever there was someone you would think would have gotten an irresponsible tattoo, it would be me.



But nope. No tattoo.



Until now that is. During my trip to Sydney, I decided it was time.



Over the past few months, I’ve become involved with Project Semicolon.



Project Semicolon defines itself as "dedicated to presenting hope and love for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction and self-injury," and "exists to encourage, love and inspire."



Why the semicolon you might ask?



Project Semicolon explains that "a semicolon is used when an author could've chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life".



And I thought about that as it relates to my own life.  At many forks in the road, I've felt like maybe that was all there is. Maybe I'd had my fun. Maybe my best days were behind me.



So yes, I know what hopelessness feels like. Know what if feels like to feel too tired to go on. Too discouraged to get up and fight another round.



But I’ve always found that semicolon. A reason to keep going. A sparkle of hope that lets me believe that something could change and better times that I couldn’t see right now might exist.




And in becoming a psychologist, I’ve done my best, with all my flaws and vulnerabilities, to help install some of this hope in others. Like many people who become helpers, I chose a helping profession in part to try and make sense of some of my own personal, painful experiences and memories. Along the way, I learned to put some of these things to good use.



I once asked a friend why he became a teacher. He could tell I was serious and gave me a real answer. He talked about how he read a passage in the book The Catcher in The Rye, when he was young, about how all the protagonist Holden wanted to do in life was be "the catcher in the rye" who waited by a cliff and prevented kids from going over.



That's a lot of what a great teacher does I think. I've certainly had a few in my own life. They are the people who see us going over the cliff, and try and save us in every way they know how.



And I think, in saving others, that perhaps we also save ourselves.




So today I got my first tattoo so, in those moments where my own life gets a little dark, I can remember that life continues. There's gonna be a lot more good, bad, sadness, heartbreak and laughter.




I accept that. For we the living, life continues. As long as we are drawing breath, there’s a chance to change our circumstances, even if it's only in some small way. Maybe it's by helping someone else. That's the best way I think.


But today, as I sit at the edge of this magnificent cliff, I sit in awe of the wonder of nature. I sit in honor of a man who saved 160 lives with his kindness. I sit in somber reflection of the people who didn't make it and went over this cliff. It was an incredibly powerful moment in a number of ways.


But mostly I'll walk away from here, knowing life continues.




Life continues.




Life continues.




Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Things fall apart


Last week was quite a week. One minute I was way up in the Hollywood Hills shooting a TV show. Then I flew all the way back to New Zealand to attend a conference with some world famous psychologists. It should have been a vibrant, exciting week. 



Except it wasn’t.


Have you ever become so engrossed in a book that everything else around you seemed secondary in comparison? I certainly have. Many times in fact. During this particular week, my mind got locked into “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” by Jordan Peterson. I read it after seeing his name so many times in psych circles that I got curious. It’s mostly a thought-provoking book. Sometimes a little wandering, and others downright brilliant.


One thing stood out that I couldn’t get out of my mind.


Things fall apart.


Peterson wrote about how everything in our life is subject to decay. We buy a car and think it’s going to be beautiful forever. Ten years later it’s a money pit. A new iPhone has a shelf life of about two years. Whatever it is, from a home to a road to a building, it’s going to fall apart. 


And it’s not just material things that fall apart either. Who among us hasn’t been in a relationship that started with passion and incredible sexual chemistry that slowly faded into something a lot more tame? Or perhaps we’ve looked someone in the eye so sure we were going to be together forever that there wasn’t a shred of doubts in our minds.  And yet years later we can’t even find something to talk about with them. Families that spend so much time together sharing rooms, eating meals and taking vacations, may only see each other a few times a year as adults. A job that we were totally excited about in the beginning becomes stale and boring three years later. Friends we were inseparable with become people we exchange the occasional Christmas card with. 


You get the idea.


Things fall apart.


If you’re still reading, you are perhaps thinking, “Why are you pointing out this depressing shit man?


I think it’s important to remember that things fall apart because it reminds us that we can also extend the life of things by doing some maintenance along the way. Here are a couple examples. 




This is Irvin Gordon, a teacher sitting inside his little Volvo he bought for $4,000 dollars a long time ago. He’s not rich and never won the lottery. And yet Irvin and his little Volvo have driven over 3 million miles together. 



Over this time, Gordon has gotten 857 oil changes, swapped out 30 drive belts and used 120 bottles of transmission fluid. Because of all of his tender loving care and diligent attention, his Volvo has never broken down. 


Also,



Here is John and Evie Kaspar, who have been married for 70 years. They made a touching video talking about how they accomplished this amazing feat. It’s full of warmth, love, romance, as well as gentle nagging and teasing. Here is it if you want to watch a nice story. How to be married for 70 years.

But the video I’m more interested in is the two of them singing, “Baby Got Back” together in their 90’s. I think this video has the REAL secret. 






Never stop laughing together.


And when in doubt, cue up a little Sir-Mix-A-Lot when you want to get busy.




No matter how old you are.



I love both these stories because they show that, although things most certainly fall apart, we also have incredible power to delay this process. 


It clearly has a lot to do with how much maintenance we want to put in. 


The problem with things falling apart, is we often don’t realize this decay until it’s already happened. We miss someone terribly after they leave, but took them for granted for years before we finally realize this. We think our health is going to hold up forever, and then are shocked when the doctor delivers the bad news, despite the fact we neglected our health for years. 


Although it might seem depressing to contemplate how things fall apart, I actually think it’s something we should think about every day.  It reminds us to be more present, more attentive, and more aware of the little bits of maintenance we can do to prevent the rapid and inevitable decay.


The examples above are genius level maintenance people, but for those of us that are not so gifted, perhaps we can still think of a few things. Maybe we can take the stairs occasionally instead of the elevator to make a little improvement in our health. Perhaps we can write a letter to our partner telling them all the things we appreciate completely out of the blue. Maybe we can make a point of getting together with family and old friends once a year “just because” instead of waiting around for Christmas and the holidays.


Because things fall apart.


In one of the last pieces of this chapter, Peterson talks about how he saw his 80-year old parents a couple of times a year, as they lived a fair distance away. He thought about this for a moment, and a startling realization came to him. 


He may only see his parents 20 more times in his entire life.


And if you knew that, really knew it, what would you do with that time? Would you sit around watching TV? Argue over silly things? What if it was the very last time? What would you say? What would you do to ensure the snapshot of that memory was one that you would remember?



It’s a powerful thought, and one I think we SHOULD be talking about. Use your time. Love your time. Fix your time if you have to. 



Let’s all strive to be a little better maintenance men and women.




Because things fall apart.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The powerful relationship between addictions and the connections in our lives

In the last month, I’ve seen the two best videos I’ve ever seen about addiction. One is about a bird, and the other is about some rats.





Here is the first video called “Nuggets.” I have been using it with people addicted to video games, porn, alcohol, meth, and even their phones. I believe it shows the cycle of addiction almost perfectly. At first, a big payoff, then less so, and finally no payoff at all as we need the drug just to return to our baseline.




I showed it to a teenager recently, who made a fascinating observation. He asked, “What if the bird only takes the nuggets because there are no other birds around?


Which brings us to amazing video number two. An incredibly insightful video titled, "Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong" by Johann Hari.





As you might guess from the title, Hari has some ideas that rock the foundations of a lot of what we accept as common knowledge about addictions. In essence, Hari makes the bold claim that addictions are not as much about chemistry as they are about connections.


He begins his tale with a story about rats, and more specifically rats on heroin and rats on heroin in “rat park” which is essentially a kind of Disneyland for rats.  The findings were powerful and showed that rats that had “connections” and the ability to chill with other rats, have sex, and play, had significantly lower rates of addiction than the rats who were left in lonelier conditions. Those rats essentially did heroin until they died.


The findings challenged some of the traditional ideas that addiction was a chemical process influenced by genetics and other biological factors. Although SOME of addiction is undoubtedly about those things, this connection piece is also pretty interesting.



He also uses the example of the veterans from Vietnam returning home. A huge number of the soldiers experimented with opiates in Vietnam, yet only a small portion of those soldiers remained addicted upon their return. What was the crucial variable here?


Many of the men came home to families and loved ones and their communities, and quickly turned away from the drugs. 95% of them stopped using heroin upon their return.



What might this say about connection? Perhaps human contact, love, friendship, and community are huge mitigating factors in the development and sustainability of addictions.




In the US right now, there is a raging Opioid epidemic that is virtually ruining entire communities. And we’ve thrown a lot of drugs at the problem trying to make it right.  I’ve done a stint as a psychologist at a methadone clinic myself.  And truthfully, a “heroin addict” often didn’t look at all like what I expected. There were lawyers and students and business people along with people struggling to keep a roof over their heads.



And looking back, the one thing I DID notice about these people was that they often had flimsy connections in their lives. Bad marriages, difficult relationships with parents and children, loneliness, isolation.



Of course there are exceptions to this rule. Some people certainly DO become addicted even when they have healthy and positive connections and support in their lives.



But I’m guessing these are more the exceptions than the rules.



Much debate has taken place around the existence of an “addictive personality.” Some believe firmly in this concept, while others believe it is dangerous to remove the personal responsibility piece of sobriety by calling it an addiction or a personality trait.



Although I’m only a case study of one, I would have to agree that there is such a thing as an addictive personality. Firstly, I’ve studied the lives of a number of celebrities who substituted one addiction for another during times of “sobriety” from a problematic substance. It’s a common pattern known as addiction substitution that shows up in the lives of a lot of people struggling with sobriety.


But closer to home, I know my own life. I’ve always been a creature of excess, and if it’s bad for you, I’ve probably done too much of it at one time or another in my life. Looking back, I thought about these moments when I was most vulnerable. What were the common denominators during those phases of my life?


Loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection. Without question, these things are connected. The psychologist Alfred Adler said we have three major “tasks” in our lives, which are love, friendship, and work. He posited that we might drift towards addictions when we had deficits in any of these three major areas.


It makes a lot of sense. When we are lonely, disconnected, or lacking a sense of purpose in our lives, we fill that void with something else.



It’s not hard to see it when you think about it.


In an era where we don’t sit down for dinner as families, we have our noses in our phones all the time, and people don’t know their neighbors very well anymore, it’s even more interesting to think about some our new 21st century addictions. Video games, checking our phones, online pornography, fucking Candy Crush. Whatever the flavor, it seems useful to think about this relationship between connection and addiction.



In thinking about this, I observed a number of students joined in solidarity who walked out of their school to protest gun laws in the US. I admire their willingness to stand up for what they believe.



But I also saw think we need to be thinking about how bullying, a lack of inclusion, and connections affects our lives. Strive to connect with people you see losing their way. It has huge implications for our future mental health.



Saturday, February 17, 2018

Bowling alone- How a declining lack of community and belonging affects us all.



A couple of generations ago in America, people used to bowl together. A lot.


Not only would they bowl together, but they were in leagues together. I can still remember seeing my grandfather and uncle polishing up their bowling balls, putting on that team jersey and heading out during the week. Bowling leagues were a thing back then.


In the years between 1980 and 1993, people stopped doing that. League membership dropped 40 percent in that short period, although bowling itself remained popular.



What’s this got to do with anything?


A man named Robert Putnam decided to explore this phenomenon and wrote about the decline of social belonging in America. He also found that during that time period, people sat down to dinners as a family 43% less often, attended club meetings 58% less often, and had friends over to their home 35% less often.


He explored a number of reasons for this decline in what he called "social capital." Busier lives, changing workplaces, and longer commutes all played a role. Watching television decreased social capital a great deal. And that was back when there were like 12 channels.


According to Putnam, one of the side effects of the decline in social capital is less social involvement, including lower voter turnout, fewer people volunteering and attending church services and communities losing their sense of shared purpose and belonging.

Putnam published his book in the year 2000, now a whole generation ago and prior to the stratospheric rise in social media as a means of communication, Netflix as a ticket to almost unlimited entertainment, and Tinder as a means to a quick hook-up.


His finding that our tendency to lose ourselves in television seems even more intense these days. You used to have to wait to see what would happen on your favorite show until the next week. Now you can watch the whole season in a day.


And some might argue that social media might help us stay connected, but does it really? I suspect a true scan of an average person’s ‘friend” list on any of the major sites would reveal they don’t get together with most of the people on that list.


And sure you can grab a date on Tinder pretty quickly if you’re a semi-good looking person.



But I’ve had far too many people in my office with broken hearts and much worse things than that as a result of fleeting sexual relationships, to know that’s also not a great fix a lot of the time.


The result is we are in many ways still feeling disconnected. If you want to see how bizarre this really looks, go out to any restaurant and watch a group of friends getting together. My guess is half of them will be on their phones as opposed to being fully present with the people they are ACTUALLY there to spend time with.

I can’t help but feel our lack of connection also has a cost. All the kids I grew up with hung out together until the street lights came on at dark. We knew every family on the block (although some were sworn enemies). Getting us inside was actually a chore. For many parents now, getting kids OUTSIDE is the chore. And this isn’t simply an American phenomenon either. In the UK, three quarters of children spend less time outside than PEOPLE IN PRISON! https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/25/three-quarters-of-uk-children-spend-less-time-outdoors-than-prison-inmates-survey


I don’t think a sense of community is something that you lose overnight. The fact that families don’t sit down together for dinner nearly as often seems to be one place that it starts. And in the secondary circle beyond family, we aren’t keeping those community relationships together either. One-third of Americans have now never met their next-door neighbors. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/08/why-wont-you-be-my-neighbor/401762/


Every time there’s a school shooting in America, all the usual tired arguments get repeated over and over again. It’s so damn exhausting. I have my own beliefs about guns and mental health, but that’s not a place I want to go today.


I can’t help but think some of our problems are related to the lack of community and connection. A sense of belonging is a powerful need in humans, and when we don’t find that in the traditional sense, we sometimes look for this belonging in dangerous places such as gangs, online hate groups, and in the company of other angry people.



Societies don’t lose their way all at once, but one can’t help but wonder where it is we are evolving when we don’t prioritize our time to make families and communities a little stronger. This is the glue that keeps the village running smoothly.


“It takes a village” is becoming, “it takes a suburb of individual internet stations.”




I wish we would think a little more about what this might cost.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Fixing the broken windows in our lives

I have a little confession.


As a psychologist, I don’t always enjoy reading the work of other psychologists. The standard formula is often taking an idea, outlining it in the first chapter, and then just kind of repeating that idea for the next 400 pages or so. Plus there’s too much jargon. I know the jargon and don’t even use the jargon. Our clients rarely care too much about that stuff.


There have however been some wonderful books written about psychology by journalists that have shed some light on why we do what we do. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell was one of these books. In this book, he explored a theory of crime and urban decay called “fixing broken windows.’ A summary:


“If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street, sending a signal that anything goes.”


In other words, when you let the little things go, the bigger things can soon pile up as a result. The creators of the theory demonstrated the idea in a number of cities and found it almost always held up.


Beyond economics and crime, I think there is perhaps also an application for those of us managing the problems in our day to day lives.


When we ignore the little things long enough, they often become big things.

There are many examples of these broken windows in our lives. Maybe we’re feeling disrespected or unappreciated at work and have begun calling in sick more often and slacking off. Perhaps it’s been a few weeks since we’ve been intimate with our partners when we once had a healthy and active sexual life together. Maybe we notice our once happy-go-lucky child is all of a sudden distant and avoidant.


It’s easy to ignore broken windows at first. Maybe we simply tell ourselves things will go back to normal soon enough. Or that it’s just a blip. Or perhaps not worth the trouble of talking about.



But as I’ve learned the hard way in my own life, broken windows become very messy houses if we leave them long enough. Unreturned phone calls become estranged relationships. An irritating work situation becomes full on insubordination. Failing to discuss relationship disagreements becomes going to bed a little later and almost a complete lack of affection.


Broken windows...



We can address these broken windows by learning to embrace assertive communication. As we see from the graphic above, all of the other three primary modes of communication end with someone losing. When we are passive, we sacrifice our own needs. When we are aggressive, we neglect someone else’s needs. And perhaps the most irritating of them all is passive-aggressive communication, where we are clearly bothered by something and punish both ourselves and others rather than actually talking about it.


Assertive behavior is not always easy. When our emotions get involved, it’s really easy to either heat up or shut down. Assertive behavior requires us to manage these emotional surges and ask, “what problem are we actually trying to solve here?” Even the best of us (I’m not one) get it wrong. Get it wrong a lot.


Broken windows also occur all the time with our physical health. Maybe we’re not sleeping nearly as well as we used to, but chalk it up to a bad run rather than exploring the root of the problem. Perhaps we’re experiencing pain somewhere in our bodies but ignore it rather than go to the doctor and potentially hear some bad news (men are notorious for this.)


Both physical and emotional pain usually starts with a broken window. A warning sign. A little red flag letting us know that something is not quite right.

This is, in fact, one of the primary purposes of pain. To open a window and let us know that something needs checking out.


In 2018, I have resolved to start fixing a number of my own broken windows. I emailed someone I was at odds with, made an appointment with a doctor, and took my car into the shop. In all three cases, I actually felt tremendous relief when I got up and fixed those windows.


Give some thought to the broken windows in your life. I bet you can find a few that need a little attention.


We've all got a few.




Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Learning to remove the masks we wear

“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” 
― André Berthiaume

“What we share may be a lot like a traffic accident, but we get one another. We are survivors of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.”
Margaret Atwood

I spend a great deal of my time explaining to people what words like depression and anxiety actually mean.

I fail at this quite often.




In thinking about why this might be, I began showing people this illustrated comic instead to gauge their reactions and see if it increased their understanding of mental health.




It did. It does. In almost every case. 


What the comic so succinctly demonstrates, is that living with a mental health condition is often a question of hide and seek. Of showing one thing to the world and then living a completely different reality to yourself. Sometimes this gets confusing. We try to be good actors, but the issues begin to seep out. Irritability, anger, insomnia, missing work. There are all possible signs that something is not quite right with people, and they are evidence that a person's mental health issues are getting harder and harder to hide. 



No matter how good of an actor they might be.


My professional "bread and butter" has been examining how this works in the life of comedians. In many cases, there is a lot of sadness behind the laughter, and comedy is a way of processing and filtering these emotions. 


But this goes way beyond comedy, and I think is probably as prevalent in the lives of almost anyone who has mental health issues they want to keep "secret." If you break your leg, no one quibbles about taking a day off from work. But "mental health days" are still code for an extra day of vacation. And surely some of us have used them like that. But in reality, they can be just as debilitating. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people 15 to 29, and much of this is also a result of untreated depression. 

There are a number of reasons we strive to keep these feelings secret. In many cases, we don't want to appear weak or vulnerable or perceived as unable to keep up at work or at home. Perhaps we don't want to be a burden to the people we love. Maybe we've tried to talk about it before and been misunderstood.

And so we wear the masks. And they come in many shapes and sizes. That lady furiously typing away with her headphones on is wearing the "busy" mask so she doesn't have to talk to anyone and risk saying the wrong thing. The guy at work who jokes about his drunken escapades every weekend wears the "clown" mask to deflect others away from his addictions and depression. At perhaps most common is the "I'm fine" mask, where people simply change the subject or avoid talking about issues or problems in their lives.

The problem is the acting eventually gets exhausting. We smile through gritted teeth and laugh through internal tears and give people the "I'm fine" routine in the middle of an internal tornado.

So how do we learn to remove the masks?

Mental health stigma has come a long way in the last 20 years, but it still has a long way to go. Some companies have begun investing in mental health programs for their employees and seen their productivity soar. Even "The Improv" which is one of the most famous comedy clubs in the world now employs mental health professionals. People are starting to get the hang of this.

Although talking to professionals is challenging, I think it's even harder to talk to the people we are closest to sometimes. It means stepping out of our comfort zones and showing people something we may not want them to see. Even in relationships, we create impressions. Perhaps even more so than with strangers. We love our "I'm fines" and "It's okay" and "I don't wanna talk about its." They become such a regular part of our conversations that they become clichés.

I've always loved this quote from Tom Robbins about risk.  He writes, “You risked your life, but what else have you ever risked? Have you risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous about risking one's life. So you lose it, you go to your hero's heaven and everything is milk and honey 'til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That's not courage. Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one's clichés.”

So perhaps we need to begin to risk our clichés. To take a chance and talk about things before they fester. To catch ourselves in these "I'm fine" moments and take a chance that maybe, just maybe, someone else has also felt the way we have and can offer some understanding. 

Maybe we're walking right by people that have been there and can help.

In closing, I would like to include a poem from Shel Silverstein. He's known as a children's author. You can believe that if you want. It's a great little poem about the things we share and don't summon the courage to talk about.

“She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by-
And never knew.” 
Shel Silverstein, Every Thing on It

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Blue Monday and the 3 Ghosts of the Holiday Season

For those that don't know, Monday, January 15th is "Blue Monday" this year. What is Blue Monday, you may ask? It's supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. There's even a formula for it calculating the weather, debt level (specifically, the difference between debt and our ability to pay), the amount of time since Christmas, time since failing our new year's resolutions, low motivational levels and the feeling of a need to take charge of the situation. Although the origins of Blue Monday are actually quite dubious, there is some truth that January can be kind of a depressing month. 


As someone quite familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder as both a patient and a doctor, I know this plays a role. After the anticipation of Christmas there's always a bit of a letdown, and in the US at least, the weather often turns truly dreadful. That certainly is a factor.

But I also think there's something about the holiday season that might contribute a little bit. I came to this idea while watching one of those Hallmark Christmas movies with my mother. I watched for a minute and scoffed at the hackneyed formula playing on people's emotions and sentimentality. An hour later I was sitting with a box of tissues rooting for the grizzled town veterinarian to finally find love with the lonely widow. What can I say? Fruitcake makes me emotional.

The first ghost as per the Dickens' legend is the ghost of Christmas past. This is the ghost of regret. For some, it's another year where they haven't met their goals, found love, improved their financial situation, or whatever. For others, being with family after a long layoff stirs up a number of old feelings of not being good enough and letting people down. Others remain estranged from their families, which can be particularly lonely and painful at Christmas time. 

The 2nd ghost is the ghost of Christmas present. This is the ghost of stress. Many of us worry about how we're going to make it all work financially. Others may worry a great deal about how they look, or where they are in their lives, or how they're going to make it through another year without a catastrophe. For parents, there is that pressure to meet expectations and make the holidays special for their children without also going into financial ruin. I remember my own mother working about three different jobs during the month of December so my brothers and I could beat the shit out of each other with our transformers. A lot of parents make that sacrifice. 

The third ghost is the ghost of Christmas future. This is the ghost of anxiety. Anxiety is a future-oriented fear. The unknown. Things hovering in the future that we haven't resolved and spend a lot of time worrying about. Maybe it's our health, or finding love, or passing a test, or paying our bills. All of us have these worries, and they seem to intensify in the middle of January if the Blue Monday equation is to be believed.

So perhaps the most important question is, how do we keep our heads above water during these tough times? That first week back to work? The first big credit card bill that comes? 

In the Hallmark movies, all of that stuff just kind of works itself out, but real life isn't so simple. Many of us have a plan for the new year to do things differently, and perhaps we've already started to slip a little. As gym owners all over the world can tell you, there is a huge difference between motivation and discipline. Motivation is dreaming of looking great and exercising like crazy for a day trying to get there. Discipline is going to the gym with a hangover a week later on a day you really don't feel like wanting to go. Strive for discipline. 

Beyond the usual "goal" stuff, I think we can also do a little better job managing those ghosts. Maybe it's swallowing our pride and making peace with someone from our past (one of my projects this year). Perhaps it's sending someone a short note telling them we're thinking about them in the new year. Or maybe it's even forgiving ourselves for something that is weighing heavily on our minds.


Although January is a time to unbury ourselves from the month before, perhaps it's also an opportunity to erase the etch-a-sketch and start with a clean palette of self-forgiveness and compassion.




And we can also resolve to do a little better with the people in our lives this year. Listen a little better, pay a little closer attention, stay in touch a little more. Be grateful that we all get another spin around the universe this year. Not everyone does.


Let's use our time as kindly as we can this year.



Wednesday, November 8, 2017

In Search of the Poetic Memory

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful ... Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.
Milan Kundera- The Unbearable Lightness of Being 

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Roy Batty- Blade Runner (Who just wanted a little more time)



The year was 2008 and my life was stuck in neutral. I was finishing up my doctorate and was a grown-up man with bad furniture and ramen noodles in the cupboard. 



I needed an adventure.



With this in mind, I booked an impromptu trip to Ireland and left on a moment’s notice. Not being a wealthy guy at this juncture of my life, I stayed in a hostel, where I met a nice couple from Australia and a beautiful girl from Spain. 



Later that night, I sat with my new Spanish friend on the bridge at the River Liffey, and she told me about her life in Spain and some things she had been through. She talked about how she was alone in the world and in transition in her life and needing to make a human connection.


And then, our stories just kind of converged in that time and in that moment. It was sweet, romantic, and sadly fleeting. 















That was a poetic memory. 




Milan Kundera writes about this idea so beautifully and describes those little moments in our lives that etch their way into our “forever” memory. These are the things we come back to over and over. For many people, this might be the first time their partner said something that made them seem totally unique. And it doesn’t even have to be romantic stuff either. Maybe it’s something a teacher said we always remembered, or a compliment we received that was so unique it kept us going for years. These are those things that stand out in our minds in the wake of constant new information and experiences. The good stuff. The memory hooks. The mile markers. 



One theory of aging posits that time seems to move a lot faster when we get older because we have less and less of these memory “hooks” as we move into more responsible lives. In our 20’s we take more chances and travel and try on a lot of different places and people. This gets harder as we get older, and the years “fly by.”



As a frequent traveler, I thought about how this idea applied in my life. Often when I travel, I immerse myself in the local scene and try and find the exciting people and the adventure. But a couple of times in a row recently, I found myself staring at my phone more than I did introducing myself to new people. And in thinking about this, I knew that this was exactly how we lose those hooks. 



Staring down at your phone when you’re alone in a strange situation may certainly ease a moment of awkwardness.



 But it may also cost you a potential lifetime of memories. 



I decided to put my theory to the test on a recent trip to Wellington when I left my phone back at the room before I started my day. It was how I had traveled during the best years of my life, and I wanted to see how this might work in these more “modern” times. 



And so I wandered down strange streets with no google maps, no trip advisor, and no Yelp to guide me. I followed my nose down alleys, through laneways, and into some strange and exotic looking neighborhoods. 



I found a lovely little brewery down one of these laneways and immediately felt around in my pocket for my phone. That’s what we do now, right? Check our phones as a reaction to even the slightest moment of awkwardness, boredom, or social discomfort?



But this wasn’t an option, and I immediately struck up a conversation with the bartender, who provided me with a number of great ideas about the city.



But that wasn’t even the end of the story!! 


A lovely Irish lass overheard us talking and laughing and soon went to the back of the establishment and fished out a “beer map” of the city for me. She even accompanied me around to a few of the places on the map and introduced me around. 


This story does not end with a romantic interlude on a bridge. But it was a really amazing day. One I’m sure I’ll remember for a long time.


I’m not sure the day would have ever happened if I had brought my phone.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for some tech-free utopian society. In many ways, our lives are made easier by GPS, Google Maps, and even Tinder. But perhaps there is a cost. Perhaps the “escape” these devices provide, keeps us locked in comfort zones that we may sometimes need to wander out of. This was certainly true for me. 


One thing I learned from my time working in nursing homes was that all of the “stuff” we accumulate will mean very little one day. Even the wealthiest patients I knew essentially ended up surrounded by what could fit into a small room. And the few things they did take with them into these little rooms? They weren’t their nicest things or their most beautiful clothes. They were pictures of their best memories. Times from their youth. Or perhaps something from when their kids were young. Memories. The best memories. The poetic memories. 




We should be making all of them we possibly can. Trust me as someone who spent years working with the elderly and the dying, that one day these memories will be the most valuable currency you have. 



Now go and find some little moments.



And put down your phone once in a while!!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An open letter to those in the helping professions about self care




Are you still reading? Good. I couldn’t think of a good title for this essay.


But I do have an important point to make about getting rid of toxic energy. Especially for those of us who spend our time helping and listening to others.



Now then, just imagine.


You begin your career as a nurse, doctor, psychologist, etc. as a brand new untouched sponge. You can absorb a lot. Terrible stories, trauma, uncooperative clients, bureaucracy, problems with insurance companies, etc. The water comes pouring in again and again and again. But you can handle it. You trained for this.



But as the years go by, the water gets a little dirtier and the sponge gets a little heavier. Maybe it doesn’t even clean things as well as it used to after a while.



And you probably see where this is going by now.


The sponge needs to be squeezed out. All that dirty water takes its toll. Sure the sponge gets a little more frayed around the edges, but really, it should be rinsed out every day.



But let me back up for a minute and tell you a story.



The year was 2005, and I was looking for my first job in the realm of psychology. I talked my way into a job as a biofeedback therapist at a prominent headache clinic, and set to work teaching relaxation and coping skills to people with severe headaches. It was interesting work and I learned a lot, but all day long I heard one word. Headache. And I sympathized! I saw the pained look on people’s faces and got very involved in their lives. I listened, learned, and in many cases even helped. But you know what else happened??



I started getting headaches...



I learned I was not the only one. Many of the doctors, nurses, and even receptionists that worked there got headaches as well.



You see, hearing all of those stories about headaches was like water pouring into the sponge. Often times when we sympathize, and in particular when we empathize with people, we help them share their pain.



But we also in many ways absorb it.


Much has been said about the importance of self-care, supervision, and maintaining a level of personal detachment with our patients. It all sounds pretty good. But the fact of the matter is there are often more patients than people to help them, and I have found this to be a universal truth around the world. And often the people that care spend the most amount of time with the people they are caring for, which means less time to do paperwork, more time spent at work, and in many cases even taking work home after we stop giving paid.


I’ve found this to be true in every office, hospital, state, and even country I have ever worked in.


In many cases, this leads to caring professionals feeling completely overwhelmed, Tired. Stressed. Burned out.


We need to remember to squeeze that sponge. To let that toxic energy out. To repair and refresh ourselves.



How do we do this? Sometimes it’s getting help of our own from fellow professionals. After all, who helps the people that help? Maybe it’s something simpler like making time to listen to some of your favorite music every night, or making sure we are prioritizing time with friends and family. It could also mean taking care of our bodies by getting enough sleep and not eating on the run all the time. Maybe it’s turning your phone off when work is done and drawing appropriate boundaries around work time versus personal time. It could be time in nature, or a night out dancing, or playing a stupid video game for a couple of hours. Whatever it is for you, make sure you're making time for it!




I’ve seen many, many good nurses, doctors, cops, psychologists and teachers who had to give up something they were good at because they couldn't separate the personal and the professional. And the world lost something good because of it.


And maybe you aren't "officially" in the helping professions, but simply someone who is a good listener. Perhaps your friends and family sense this and unburden themselves to you all the time without realizing the weight they sometimes leave behind. This applies to you as well.


We can’t set ourselves on fire to keep other people warm all the time.


We need to squeeze that sponge.


So for those of you that do spend your lives helping others, please take this as a gracious thank you for all you do, as well as a bit of advice. Your family, health, and even sanity will all be better for taking some time to prioritize your own self-care.




Now rinse out that dirty water!


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Here Comes the Sun

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it's all right
~George Harrison (The Beatles)


All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.
~Anatole France


If you listen closely enough, you’ll begin to realize that your life has a soundtrack. Think about it. I’ll bet there are certain songs that have kind of followed you around throughout your life.



Here comes the sun is one of the songs on my soundtrack. I often hear this song following a period when life has knocked me down a little bit. And there’s a bit of a literal connotation as well. As a long time sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder, I love the message of hope that the song conveys.



Even the worst winters have to end sometime.



Most recently, I heard the song while sitting in a bar on the gorgeous Riverwalk in San Antonio. I was on a great vacation, spending time with my family, and seeing some amazing things.



And yet that particular night I was feeling down. I was thinking of my vacation coming to an end, and thinking how little time I had with my mother now that I lived overseas, and a little tired from a very active vacation.



And then I heard my song! Here comes the sun. It was exactly what I needed in that moment, and I sang along with every word and then gave the singer a big tip. It was the perfect song to return me to the present moment. The only place I needed or wanted to be.


But in working with clients for a decade now, and in battling with my own issues over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that some winters last longer than others. Some of the seasons of our lives can be very stubborn, and we begin to lose hope that anything can ever change. But go back to your hometown some time and take a look around. I’ll bet you everything has changed. That’s the way life is. We never see the changes in a day but are often astounded by the changes over the years.



But in these dark seasons, we can learn to alter our responses. One of the most effective treatments for depression is something called behavioral activation. It sounds like a fancy psychological idea. It’s not. It’s basically a term for “doing stuff.” Even when we don’t feel like it. Join a group. Take a guitar lesson. Get together with some friends once a week for coffee. It’s amazing how even one little circle on a calendar can restore a little hope. For me, I ALWAYS have a trip planned. Even if it’s a little one. It reminds me that better times are ahead and that I have something to look forward to.


Sometimes it’s hard to see things clearly though. You try meds, and therapy, and exercise, and gluten free brownies and just about anything else to try and beat the blues. But it doesn’t work. None of it works. And sometimes this is because the only thing that really alleviates depression is time. The passage of time regulates seasons in the mind much like it regulates the seasons of the earth. Dark moods don’t last forever. Neither do great ones. Such is the transitory nature of time, life, moods, and seasons.




When we can accept and understand this, we can deal with it.




Even in the darkest of seasons.




And meanwhile back in the Southern Hemisphere, the first day of spring has just arrived. It’s been a long, cold, lonely, winter.



But here comes the sun.



And I say.




It’s alright….