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….

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Dance like no one is watching

“We do not have ideology. We do not have theology. We dance.”
Shinto priest to Joseph Campbell

Come dancing,
Come on sister, have yourself a ball.
Don't be afraid to come dancing,
It's only natural.
The Kinks- Come Dancing

And we danced like a wave on the ocean, romanced
We were liars in love and we danced
Swept away for a moment by chance
And we danced and danced and danced.

The Hooters-And we Danced

It’s winter in New Zealand. In July.

I’m used to July being a fun month, it's not here.

So what’s a gal to do? Think outside the box a little. So that's just what I did this weekend. I found a Neil Diamond impersonator who was playing a show way out in the sticks. I was sold!!

But that’s not the most interesting part of the story.

Just after a glorious version of “Coming to America,” a little lady wandered up to the singer and whispered something into his ear. She gestured towards her friend, who was in a wheelchair, and the singer nodded.

I was intrigued.

A moment later the singer belted into “Sweet Caroline” and the little lady pushed her friend onto the dance floor. She loved Neil Diamond and had loved to dance as a healthier woman, and wanted another tour of the dance floor.

And then the nicest thing happened.

The crowd, who hadn’t had quite enough alcohol to dance, all almost simultaneously joined her on the dance floor. Her face lit up into a huge smile and the singer eventually brought her up on the stage with him. Here is a picture of that moment.

It reminded me of what an extraordinary thing it is to dance. When I was younger I was “too cool” to dance and would hover around the back and look on in judgment.

There’s always a guy like that at every party. Don’t be him.

Nowadays, I’m often one of the first people on the dance floor. I don’t care if I look stupid. A part of me even knows I do. But who cares??

The music (and let’s be honest, the beer) moves me to express myself.

Later, I chatted with the woman and she told me all about her nights spent dancing as a young girl. It reminded me of the lovely song, “Come Dancing” by the Kinks quoted at the beginning of this essay. The song switches on my nostalgia button like crazy.  It’s fun. 80’s. Wistful

So later on, I had the privilege of sharing a dance with the lady in question.  It reminded me to dance while I still can. One day my legs won’t work anymore, I’ll grow old, and I’ll have nothing but memories.

So tonight I decided to make another one.

So for everyone out there that’s “too cool,” I urge you to rethink your position. Dance like no one is watching. If you can master that, you’re winning at life, I promise you.

So I will close with a little picture of me in Costa Rica. Me in all my sweaty, non-Spanish speaking glory.

I made a lot of new friends that night.. Despite not knowing the language. Music and dancing are universal languages that break down barriers of culture, class, language, and age.

And if you’re ever in New Zealand in July, give me a ring..

I just might take you on a tour of the dance floor to Sweet Caroline.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

You Don’t Understand! Some things people with Anxiety and Depression want you to know.

“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, "What else could this mean?”
Shannon Alder 

I’ve been a therapist for over ten years now. In a decade you hear a lot of things. A lot of the same things sometimes, but it’s also important to remember each person is a case study of one. A good piece of advice I once learned was to examine how a person was like all other people, how they were like some other people, and how they were like no other people. It reminds the person listening that every person you meet has their own unique story.

But there are also some common themes. Some ways people have been misunderstood in their lives. Some false assumptions others sometimes have about them. Here are some of them I’ve heard a lot.
  • When I cancel plans at the last moment, it’s not because I’m a snob or don’t want to hang out with you. My nerves have gotten the best of me and I had to stay home. You may be disappointed, but trust me that I’m even more disappointed in myself.

  •  There are things you take for granted that are incredibly difficult for me. Just going to the store can be a battle that takes me hours to prepare for. I pray I don’t run into anyone I know. Every word exchanged with the cashier is painful. For most, this is a mundane activity. For me it's a kind of torture.

  • Talking to other people can be really hard for us. We’re constantly thinking of the right thing to say, and that makes us say the wrong things sometimes. Later we will go home and think about every misstep in the conversation, and this will fill us with shame. We’ll have lot of conversations in our heads trying to make it right again.

  • We HAVE tried a lot of treatments. We’ve tried pills, doctors, and herbs. Therapists, yogis, and healers. We’re well aware of the issue, believe me. We appreciate you trying to offer helpful suggestions, but really they just make us even more self-conscious.

  •  We’re really not very uncomfortable inside our own skin. Think about how you felt on the day you took your driver’s test, or your wedding, or when you had to make a big speech in front of the class. Remember the racing heart? The cold hands? How you kept forgetting silly little things? That’s how we feel all the time. That’s why it’s hard to take advice sometimes. Our dials are turned way up all the time. When we’re physically that wound up, the smart, rationale, thinking part of our brain turns off. It’s called fight or flight.

  •  It’s totally different suffering with something that’s “invisible.”  When people can’t “see” what’s wrong with you they often think (and even say) “It’s all in your head.” That’s true to a point. But that’s a big place for it to be!! When people say they don’t “believe” in mental health issues, it’s really hurtful and makes us feel like we don’t belong anywhere.

So there’s a few. There are a lot more on the list, but those are some of the big ones. Each person’s individual demons might vary, but these are some of the battles.

It’s not all bad news on the mental health front. More and more laws are being enacted around the world to ensure mental health is treated with the same respect as physical health. These kinds of laws aim to take some of the stigma away. Give people permission to talk about their battles without fear of disbelief and ridicule. They are a good start.

But if you do have a person struggling with mental health issues in your life, be patient. They know something isn’t right, and sometimes they need a little understanding even when they’re not being very nice. They want to talk about it but it’s very hard. Embarrassing even. 

But they're trying…