Somewhere in my twenties, I noticed a recurring pattern in conversations with my friends’ dads. Many of them would make casual jokes about warning you to never get married. Others would make the same comments but stare burningly into your eyes to let you know this is a #jokenotajoke.
However you never heard any of them ever make a joke about regretting being a father. If I even alluded to it, they would actually correct me and show a slight glimmer into their well of unconditional love (most of them will deny this).
As a father, I understand. My son is my heart and my daughter is my soul. This topic focuses on my son. I cannot begin to describe the pride and love I have for this boy. He has handled some incredibly challenging situations in life with incredible bravery and a focused mind. However I struggle with him sometimes because he possesses certain cognitive patterns that seem to naturally flow to negative points. A fine mixture of negative superlatives (e.g. it’s never going to happen) with a quick reflex towards attacking of the self (e.g. I’m the worst). This is difficult for me because: (1) it is not my natural approach to challenges, (2) my education in psychology has assured me that these patterns can be adjusted (especially in youth), and (3) data shows correlation between overall lifetime happiness and positive self-talk.
Very early on our brain begins to assemble mental patterns. These can be reinforced through a variety of factors and learning techniques. However at some point they become habit. Something you do not even really need to think about that your body and mind will automatically go to when the opportunity presents itself. Think about the first time you drove a car as a teen. How you may have had trouble putting the key in the ignition, double checked your mirrors, and how contorted it felt to get your body in the position to go in reverse. Fairly different from a driver with a few decades of experience. To break these patterns you need to establish a new pattern that if used enough and reinforced can actually develop into the stronger option. To use another car analogy, imagine that your town has a solid main road that is the easiest way to get through the area. It is where traffic normally goes. Same can go for your mental connections. It can become used to using the same pathways over and over again. However if your town began building a new road with more lanes and fewer lights that could get you to the same destination, eventually traffic would naturally start flowing to this new route. The same can happen mentally. If you began by just being aware of a pattern you want to change, you can slowly start catching it and adjusting it. With time and repetition it can develop into the stronger response. I wanted to attempt a behavior plan that would help my son break out of this mental routine and help him establish a brain pattern that would go easier on himself when faced with adversity. Now please know that I do not claim that any of this is a causal factor for any changes in him. As adolescents sometimes they can just take a nap and wake up more mentally and physically developed than they were an hour previously. There are far too many variables going on to pinpoint what is actually happening. What I will say is that I saw elements of this become a natural habit for him (and myself), and it led to increased confidence and a better relationship with his friends and siblings (big surprise).
I did some research, workshopped it with his mom, and discussed the plan with educators and other adults who knew him. We had a plan. Now we had to get him excited to participate. He loves to play games and is naturally competitive. However he has one great source of inspiration in these tasks. He loves to beat me (not sure if he has the same dynamic with his mom). Armed with this insight, I casually explained to him a game I was playing against myself that had points. It was a positivity exercise that I was going to do because I needed to boost my positivity. The game in actuality reinforces self-efficacy (your ability to respond to challenges with a belief that you will overcome response) more than positivity, but we stuck with words that made sense to him. I explained it to him and we made up the rules as a family. We also agreed that we would play for a few months until his birthday, and if he won he would get his own game screen (The boy has a future as a hard negotiator).
Here is a pic of the board we created:
You can get points for:
1. Positive statements (any can apply, while trying to suggest positive self statements (e.g. “I like that I tried my best”)
2. Using ‘at least’ or ‘but’ statements. A negative thought can be expressed. However if you can reframe the thought and find the positive, you can get the point. (i.e. “This place is boring, BUT or AT LEAST I get to have pizza for dinner.”)
3. Positive Actions- Applying positive thinking – If someone begins to get frustrated, centers themselves and completes task. Exercise, meditation, playing at recess or anything physical also counts.
4. Encouraging Others
6. Honor- This is all based on the honor code and keeping track of your own points. Nobody can dispute the points of another although we can increase the challenges to get points as this moves along.
Some basic guidelines:
-Anyone can award themselves or another player with points.
-There is no negative penalties or taking away of points.
-You want to encourage success without killing the fun of the game
-Any negative moments expressed should not be challenged (i.e “That’s not positive”). Let those thoughts be expressed while also acknowledging that it would be a great moment to gain a point using #2.
-If the game becomes stale discuss and maybe focus on a certain number that day (i.e. “today triple point bonus for sharing.”)
-Totals must be recorded in our spreadsheet. Each day starts back at 0 (he hated this part but the numbers started to get crazy)
-There really are no rules. Just have fun and the benefits will come in long term repetition of these practises. Nobody is trying to fix anything (implying something is wrong with someone).
– It’s about total points, not necessarily about who the winner is.
In the end we wanted him to win (which he actually did). Sometimes a day would end and his response to how many points he got that day was 100.
We would discuss examples, have a laugh, and put down the score he believed. The important thing was that he kept playing and smiling. In terms of getting points he excelled in two areas. He would be physically active every day and he became an expert at #2(the atleast or but statements). Admittedly I would forget the game was still happening some days and all of a sudden he would spill a glass of water and say, “at least it wasn’t orange juice. BOOM! Point!” This was usually followed by a dab, floss, or some other kid-move based on items in the medicine cabinet.
I would say it was mildly successful but then life took some odd turns. He received a Nintendo 3ds for his bday (used off of Craigslist). It was the first screen of his own and he was loving it. This was no ordinary gift. He knew he was getting it because he had won a 4 month positivity game and had tremendous pride in it. So after some debate he took his Nintendo to his day camp at where screens are allowed during lunch. This camp had been phenomenal and he had loved every day of his weeks there (not one negative comment which amazed his mother and myself). So a few days ago, his 3ds went missing from his bag at camp. When we heard the news we were devastated. When I went to go pick him up that day I was really expecting a full swing of “everything sucks” mentality. To be honest I was in the middle of my own mild pity party and was finding it hard to be the cheerleader. It is also important to keep from going into full parent ‘something happened to my kid?’ beast mode.
But to my surprise he had genuine hope. ” Maybe they will find it tomorrow, & there’s always a chance” came out of his mouth. I was so proud and impressed with his approach although I thought it was unlikely we would see it again. The next day when they didn’t find it he was bummed, but he still managed to work through those feelings. He didn’t accuse anyone out there or get angry. We worked through the feelings when something we care about disappears or it gets taken away from us. It really stinks but it is unfortunately a part of life. By the third day he woke up crying about it but was able to recover enough to be start his day. His mom and I talked a lot about how to replace it without reinforcing that when something goes wrong it’s ok because Mom and Dad will just fix it. It was complicated and we were talking about teaching him about credit and using some bday gift cards to pay half, etc… when I got a call from the camp. It was the head counselor who wanted to let his mom and I know that all of the camp staff had gotten together and bought him a new one. Not only a new one, but an XL all the bells and whistles.They knew how much it meant to him and were disappointed as a group that it even happened. I was overwhelmed on the phone because these young men and women were not only validating everything about this positivity push and Ezra’s newfound mindset, but because they were showing our children the beauty of the human spirit. Either way this memory was going to be a defining moment for my son. It could have been about protecting what we care about from negative forces out there, but because of these counselors it became about caring for each other and helping one another as a team. As a parent it is difficult to teach values because eventually your children just get tired of your voice. So to have these lessons displayed by other young adults whom he admires is a gift beyond any material object. My family simply cannot thank these counselors enough. This game started as a simple attempt to help a boy get along better in this world. In the end it gave an opportunity for many to come together and share the power of a community. It tested our reactions, but positivity was achieved. BOOM! POINT!
A new year is here and more so than ever, we are surrounded by Shnoise.
Shnoise- /schnoiz/ noun. 1. shit noise 2. endless chatter that constantly invades our eyes and ears in an attempt to sway us mindlessly one way or another. It does not matter if you are a Libtard or a Trumptard, a person who prefers Coke or a Pepsi. Shnoise attacks all tards (us) equally. It can be hard for us to remember who we are, what we value, what inspires us, and what we want to incorporate into our lives. Sometimes we just need some peace, quiet, and time to think.
Meditation can be a very useful technique to shut out the shnoise and focus on our own core thoughts and emotions. It also has well-documented positive results against anxiety, depression, stress, poor health, memory loss, and much more. Good Stuff
However it can also be very intimidating. Most humans (probably justifiably) don’t instinctively relax when they start hearing a British woman using voice effects telling them to channel their animal aura while wind chimes are inner mixed with sounds of seagulls fighting over crackers at the ocean. To some who had a rough ferry ride on the English Channel, it may even constitute PTSD. If you are on the beach and a British woman comes up to you asking ‘what color your spirit is’, you would more than likely move your towel.
It is understandable and a very common reason why people automatically think meditation is useless or quickly turn away from it after a few encounters. Unlike most humans with jobs (that pay real salaries) I had the absolute pleasure of going to college (for the first time) for an undergraduate acting degree. While this did not give me a plethora of transferable skills (note- It was the best thing ever by the way), it did desensitize me to phrases like ‘inner child’ and ‘breathe with your whole body’. This allowed me to jump in and try these with less awkwardness than a truck driver in Ohio (who may also have a fine arts degree). Regular meditation (several times a week or even multiple times a day if a very challenging time) has helped me as much as any other practice I have incorporated in my life over the last few years. Yes in the beginning they will seem ridiculous, but it does have real value. Even beyond exploration of thoughts and feelings (some of you cringed just reading that.. admit it), in the end it comes down to a simple question. Don’t you deserve 10 minutes a day to just sit and be still. Not to check your phone or watch tv, to just sit and stop. That is all a meditation practice needs to start with. Give yourself that right. We need life time outs.
When are you most at peace now in your life? When does your brain just pop up with a new idea or new way to think about something? Think about anytime you have ever escaped into the bathroom. Taking a shower just to have a break from kids to a little extra reading time (careful hemorrhoid sufferers) just so you didn’t have to come out so soon. That escape (without needing an excuse) is what meditation can give you. The best example I can give for folks who like to remember an indestructible life is cigarette breaks. Workers being able to just leave their desk to go outside and smoke a cigarette was amazing. What were they doing? Nothing. Smoking was accepted as being a thing so that was the answer. Sometimes it was social, but most of the time it was just being outside for 8 minutes staring at the sky and not having to listen to Janet in the next cubicle talking on the phone to her ungrateful son. It was just a life time out. Meditation is that without that pesky cancer and yellow teeth.
To start I suggest just trying any of the free apps on your phone. There are so many and some of them are really well made. Start there and just use trial and error until you find one that seems to work for you. Don’t get frustrated if the first few are not what you are looking for. There is literally so much out there. You can also just do a search on youtube for “guided meditation__________”. Fill in a word that describes what you think you need, ex. relaxation, forgiveness, new beginning, letting go, etc. Again trial and error and before long you will have a few favorites that you can go back to. All of these may probably start with a vibe that may feel too intensely hippie for some. So for anyone who is thinking of trying meditation for the first time, I thought I would help you learn some of the vocabulary and concepts they refer to in most meditations so that it doesn’t feel like the British voice you are hearing is asking you to believe in UFO’s.
The first is the concept of YOUR TRUE SELF or your inner self. Many meditations will refer to this voice you are supposed to hear that will reveal all of life’s mysteries. Which also indirectly implies that if you don’t hear it, you must suck at meditating. So what is this voice?
I did one meditation where the narrator explained it very well. When we were all born, none of our infant (childhood it is already quite apparent unfortunately) brains would attack us. They wouldn’t think or say: “you stink, you are the worst, or nobody likes you.” Any of that type of talk is a learned and conditioned cognitive pattern. That is one of the ego’s many voices(a whole other post). We all have that critical voice and others as well, but we get to choose who gets the microphone. There is a quiet voice deep inside all of our thoughts that knows at our cellular level we are trying to be good, caring, helpful individuals. One that forgives us for making mistakes and for being human. One that knows what gives us joy and how we like to be loved. However that voice is very difficult to amplify, especially with all these judgement-filled loud mouths in our skulls. The hopeful purpose of meditation is that you can learn to quiet the judgement chatter, just enough so that the true self can be heard. Have I ever had it happen? Yes. Often? A dozen times or so over 2 years. How do I know? Because I knew that it was saying the truth (not necessarily what I wanted to hear), it made me feel like myself, and at times it was an Aha moment that gave me the ability to move on.
Checking in with your breath- Now here is a big one. ALLLLLLLLLLL meditations are going to have you focus on your breathing. Now this may seem like the most ridiculous of all things to have to focus on because no one has ever died from forgetting to breathe (in the short term). However this is where your ability to increase your self awareness actually begins. Yes we all know how to breathe, but do you actually realize when you are holding your breath in life? This takes some practice at first, but start really trying to realize when in life you hold your breath.
Ask yourself that question constantly. When I started doing this I realized I was holding my breath all the time. You might be amazed at what you find. Do you hold it when you drive? When a certain name appears on your caller ID, when you eat, during meetings, when you are at a party and others are dancing? Don’t judge any of these moments. Just recognize this. Be very curious about yourself and enjoy learning new information. Instead of “Damn coward, what the hell are you nervous about, just relax!” reaction, try “Wow, I had no idea I was doing that. How long has that been happening? I wonder what that is about.” Here is the chain of clues to look out for. Holding breath——-Sign of Anxiety about something——— Mind uncomfortable———-Causing Tension in the body——–Making it harder to feel like(hear) the TRUE self. The Patterns will start emerging. Remember your job is to recognize not to make it go away.
Giving Yourself Permission to Feel something- This one has to do with judgement. The ultimate goal is to just get a few minutes of piece and quiet from the parts of our brain that fight us. If you can do that and just sit still while focusing on your breathing, certain things are going to start popping around your brain like jiffy pop. This is totally natural. Your brain’s natural job when it has time to relax is to sort through all the information it has been observing, processing, and keeping track of all day. It starts to file away distractions and nonsense so that it can focus on what is important. This is what happens when you sleep. It’s why we dream. Now you are doing this in a state of being awake on the edge of the conscious and sub conscious. After the initial popcorn pattern, it will slow down.
The meditation guide will always remind you to just come back to focusing on your breath. Don’t dwell on any specific thoughts. You will start to relax when your brain begins sorting all the things that don’t matter for the next 10 minutes. The fact you are out of milk, didn’t pay the electrical bill, need to drive someone somewhere. All this will fade out and you will start being aware of different items. More significant items. Maybe you overreacted at someone during your morning commute. Perhaps the feeling when your partner said goodbye that day felt extra heavy or perhaps empty. Maybe the way you were treated by someone else was hurtful and you can still feel it. This is where you need the permission to feel. Give your brain and soul time to explore it, dig through it, and see what is really there. You will hear those ego voices poke through. Telling you to get angry, offer excuses. These are defenses. Or they may go on the offensive and attack you- identify your weaknesses and poke them. None of these are the truth. Keep breathing. Give yourself more permission to dig deeper- to sort through these clouds. To try to hear the message your true self wants to tell you. You will make new discoveries along the way, and when you hit something you will know. How? There will be a release. Like a massage where they work over a tight knot. Breathing will be easier, a certain muscle may feel looser, there may be crying and emotional intensity (not a goal just a possibility). Just keep breathing, releasing, and giving yourself permission. That is where your answers are.
Will you then be fixed? If only it was that easy, but with time you will see an even more important truth. None of us are broken. We are just out of tune. Like an emotional engine on an older car. Certain parts straining to make up for others. We need to take some elements apart, clean out the years of built up gunk, and rebuild them. Meditation is another tool to help you as your own emotional mechanic. Learn to enjoy the process and be proud of yourself for devoting a few minutes each day to whatever your heart, and body know you need to focus on.
As the holiday season surrounds all of us, it is important to be conscious that for some it may be the most difficult time of year. It is such a powerful milestone of the year which can force (perhaps unwanted) reflection. For someone who may have had a rough year, is experiencing the season for the first time without a special loved one, or is currently experiencing an unwanted life transition it can be far from a joyous occasion. Could you also believe that some families are actually ‘NOT’ that supportive and in fact could even make someone’s uncomfortable thoughts and feelings grow in intensity?
I know it’s shocking but true. If you or someone you know is in that place where the holiday season might be a tough stretch, here is perception shift that has been interesting to explore. Please know that I am not trivializing the pain or suffering anyone may be going through. However I personally am always looking for mental exercises that switch cognitive processes and reduce dissonance. This one came to me through an observation of the human body. As mine gets older, it becomes more difficult to be aware of the little changes (the big ones are easy to remember- I see you hamstring). But much like comparing a new car to one nearing the 100,000 mile mark, some of my parts are simply worn down from life.
This became clear to me by watching my kids. Now we all know they have endless energy(except when they completely pass out like someone hit the off button). What I did not expect was the crispness with which their senses experience everything-simply because their parts are brand new. Color just springs off of objects for them. As adults we can only experience this with substances we hope they will never try. They are so sensitive to light and sound. There are so many noises that they have begged me to turn off that I barely even noticed with my ears dulled by years of woodworking tools and live rock shows. A child’s reaction to a blender or a vacuum is like someone electrocuting them. Taste seems to hold steady, but I can remember clearly two very specific times where my kids minds were blown. The first time their little taste buds that had been previously impressed by mushy peas and blended carrots were introduced to the marvels that are chocolate and bacon.
I could have sent them in a rocket ship to the moon and I don’t think they would have been as impressed. Everything is so much more vivid and intense for them. I can think back to being a kid and having that same intensity in some of my memories. How I would play with my toys, the color of a favorite t- shirt, my dad taking me to a special dinner. The power my new sensory parts had back then made those memories have extra power. As you grow older, you get desensitized to the awesomeness of life and that makes sense. We experience driving, flying, hanging out with friends all with the same senses that have done it hundreds of times before. We simply become accustomed to the experience.
I truly tried to analyze all of the experiences and emotions that we experience as children and adults and felt many were still good, but without that rawness of experiencing them with a fresh mind and machinery. I found that to be true for everything except trauma and love. Now trauma is not a subject anyone can quickly assimilate into a blog metaphor except to say that the mental survival of such an experience should be celebrated as a personal triumph on the same scale as the incident itself. However the presence of love as the other all encompassing timeless emotion was fascinating to me. I remember the first heart break I ever experienced. I made a valentine for a classmate who told me she didn’t want it and that I could throw it in the gutter if I wanted- which I did. That damn construction paper heart stayed stuck in that gutter until June I think. I also remember love appearing in its purest form. The buzzing energy in every skin cell as I drove to see the person who made me believe in a god because a higher power needed to exist to make this person possible. Both of my young children will one day come to me with a broken heart. It hurts already just thinking about the pain they are destined one day to feel. But the one thing I will not be able to say is that one day it will get easier. Life thankfully still brings me the chance to experience the mountain top highs and the woeful depths of love. Perhaps less than an uplifting thought for some, but is it not a testament to its amazingness that love is more powerful than time. You have to keep living, have to keep moving, have to fight all your defensive instincts to stay open for its return. With this concept in mind, I started trying to assign numeric values to emotions based on intensity instead of good or bad. For example, extreme Love and extreme Sorrow are both 10’s. Now this is a stretch- but if you see value in the idea that a life well lived is one filled with intense connections and experiences than an intense positive or intense negative experience should be equally (maybe not equally) appreciated as being a powerful example of what life can bring. Basically Live Big, Love Big, Hurt Big. It’s all worth it. So if you are feeling a level 10 of hurt for something or someone that is not in your reality this holiday season, take a deep breath and be proud of yourself. Some people only experience life at a 3 or 4 because it is too scary to try anything more. You gave yourself the opportunity to feel life and love at a 10 and who knows, maybe your heart goes to 11.
A Friday life challenge. One of the heaviest (and frankly most frustrating) aspects of not feeling your best is that you have to spend a tremendous amount of time and energy focusing on yourself. In the end, you can get burnt out from feeling like the main character of a movie you are not enjoying (or anyone in a DC superhero movie).
There is a way to flip the lens and put yourself behind the camera. That is to shine the spotlight on others by thanking them, even when you are not in the best place. Here is an exercise that I suggest to anyone looking to give. Even when we feel low, we have tremendous value as a human and there are ways to share that aspect of life.
During this past year, I was lucky to receive a few surprise gifts from some incredibly special souls in my life. They always seemed to be perfectly planned and came when I desperately needed a boost. They were so simple: a bag of coffee, a great card, an old dvd. The excitement of having something unexpected in the mail was such a mini thrill. Can you even fathom how excited someone in the wild west must have felt when the pony express came by with a letter that was already 4 months old?!?!
One particular piece of mail really made me stop in my tracks. One day I came home from a day where the world had given me a half decent bruising. I was questioning myself, my abilities, my past, present, and future. Waiting for me in the mail was a small package. Inside was a card from one of my former students who was graduating from Naval Civil Engineers Corps Officer School. It included a commemorative pin from his graduating class and a note with kind words about his appreciation for guidance I had given him(supposedly- I learned more from him I think). I have been lucky to have special connections with several of my former students(colleagues). In particular when they tell me they are going to serve in some capacity in our military, a very complex emotion comes over me. It is a strange brew of extreme pride mixed with a parental worry about the state of the world and the troubles that exist. It is always a special surprise to hear from them. However in this case I was shocked and overwhelmed by this gesture. I thought how could I have influenced him enough to think of me at a moment as monumental as his military graduation? It helped me realize how profound our effect can be on each other. I was filled with gratitude and a genuine desire to reach out. But a normal thank you did not feel like enough, so I decided to begin an exercise fueled by his act of kindness.
I began writing a thank you card each night for the rest of the month. In the beginning, I had a loose list of the people I wanted and needed to thank. So my final act of each day before going to bed was to write a thank you card. I would never decide who it was for until that moment, and I never reread them. Write and seal, that was the system. Within a few days it became the highlight of my day and it changed my perspective entirely. Seeing who my brain felt like writing to that day was an incredibly joyous experience. As the days went on, it became so much easier to express my thanks and to identify new candidates for my mental list. Putting myself in a position to give when I had been in a long ‘need’ phase was a completely different life energy. It made me feel like a contributor to the human race again. My mind began focusing on gratitude all around me. Things that I appreciated, from a perfect willow tree to a great exchange while getting a cup of coffee, stood out in my daily memories. Life had highlights.
This exercise was complete. I was so appreciative for the new thoughts and perspectives it had helped emerge. However it still had more to give. This desire to give thanks to others was done completely with the intention that nothing would be given in return. A thank you for a thank you? That can get out of control quickly.
However I started receiving a few messages and phone calls from my friends telling me that it was such a perfectly timed boost for them. My cards arrived right when they were having a bad day and questioning different aspects of their lives. It is so easy to forget that all of us have aspects of our days that are frustrating and filled with all the challenges of being a person. Even those who may seem to have their lives together or have a positive outlook on social media. (Nobody would only present the good parts of their lives on facebook right?!?!?!)
The mail was delivering the same emotion I had received. We had built a network of thanks. It became the starting point for some real meaningful conversations with family and friends. I began to see the cards displayed on shelves in their homes or suspended on their refrigerator. It was clear that it had a personal value that I did not expect from my small piece of paper and ink.
So my challenge to you is this. Try to show thanks to someone once a week. Something deliberate with thought. It doesn’t need to be expensive or cost anything at all. A special text, ordering them funny socks, a small card with a heartfelt message. Let your feelings be a small alert message for this act. When you feel like your life is too hard, take a breath and look for a way to give. It is impossible to feel self- pity and gratitude at the same time.
Support can and will come from many different places. For thoughts on how to build a support network, check out: https://brainbelay.com/2017/10/18/building-your-support-team/ Hopefully you are bringing people in: friends, family, personal connections that obviously want to help and provide some ease to your discomfort. However these lovely humans are filled with all of the beautiful biases that make them your friends and family. In my case I am very thankful that my mind decided “You need a pro.” Although I am graced to have friends that are caring, intelligent, and resourceful, this was not a DIY job. These are the people I would call if I needed to redo my kitchen, or figure out how to. If we burst a pipe in the kitchen it would be a Tim ‘the Tool Man’ Taylor moment, but we would figure it out together, and probably laugh our way to the solution. However my mind, body, and life were flooded. Even the most handy among us would hopefully realize that as the water in the basement is rising towards the electrical box, we should call a professional.
In the theme of a now timeless classic, Pulp Fiction, you may need to send in the wolf- someone who has studied, read, and written for years about the situations you are going through and the symptoms you are experiencing. Therapists are not miracle workers, but they are better informed than you or I.
Our society has for many years had certain stigmas around seeking mental health. I would encourage you to move past some of these inhibitions with these thoughts. #1 If you felt a constant pain in your right leg with every step you took, wouldn’t you eventually go see a doctor? I say eventually for the most stubborn out there who would spend the first 6 months learning to hop on the left. When would you finally cave in and get it checked out? When your friends start calling you ‘Hoppy”? #2 From an anatomical point of view, in any kind of accident or activity what is the number one part of your body you should be trying to protect? Hopefully you realize the answer is your brain (writes the human who once was getting an x- ray and used the small heavy vest they gave him to cover his genitals). You can live without a leg, arm, jaw, and yes even your privates, but you cannot live without your brain. So if it is the MOST important part of your body and you realize it is having trouble functioning, why would you hesitate on getting it checked out? #3 I am not going to get into the validity and possible setbacks of prescription anti-depressant and other mental health medications. I know they have helped many people while in some cases being a factor in serious setbacks. However from the perspective of seeing a LICENSED therapist or counselor, my only question is “why not’? Don’t you think EVERYONE in life would benefit from being able talk openly about their problems for one hour? How many hours do each of us waste a week? In cat videos alone, that is probably 27 sessions. Point is this a very low- risk, high-reward investment. Worst thing that happens is you spent an hour talking to a stranger who you will probably never see again.
Now here is where I was met with another challenge. How do you find a good professional? What about when you cannot get an appointment for 2 months? What if you get a terrible feeling from the first encounter? All of these are possible and likely. The main suggestion is to understand that this process takes time, but it is essential. Start with your health insurance company if you have one and ask if they cover counseling. This is confidential and you can be assured that this information does not go to your employer. However I found my insurer’s website to find providers awkward to use and incomplete. Instead I was directed by a family member to the therapist listings on psychology today’s website under ‘find a therapist’. https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rmsutm_source=PT_Psych_Today&utm_medium=House_Link&utm_campaign=PT_HomeTopB_find
If you need a breakdown on the differences between therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists check out this link: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/couch-meets-world/201107/psychiatrist-psychotherapist-whos-who-in-mental-health
There I could search by zipcode, specialty, gender, therapist or psychologist, etc. It was an incredible resource. From there I would research the ones I was interested in. Honestly there were some that I would not even consider because of my own personal biases. Some of them just did not look like the kind of person I could open up to. Sure that involves prejudices, but you need to feel comfortable for this to even have a chance at being useful. I asked a friend of mine who was a graduate student in psychological services at the time if gender, nationality, etc mattered when choosing a therapist. To my surprise her answer was “absolutely”! To paraphrase her words:”I am a Dominican woman. If I am seeing a white American therapist, she is liable to think I’m loca when I’m acting normal.” In other words if your cultural or societal norms don’t have some common ground with that of the person listening to you, there might be some misinterpretation. That being said, I also think this is also a great opportunity to get a dramatically different point of view on your thinking. Maybe you need the support of your inner Latina right now. Perhaps it would be helpful for a man to get a woman’s input on his relationship situation and vice versa (he types while laughing at the thought that any woman would need MORE of a man’s point of view in her life).
In the end I think the biggest surprise will be that they actually do not give you too much feedback. A good therapist listens, helps you facilitate your understanding, and is mostly a guide in the process. He or she is not the person with the answer so they may actually say very little. Go with your gut so you can commit to opening up quickly and getting proper help. Once I found a few that were on my short list, I began calling them. Please note that most therapists are self employed or share office space without a receptionist. You will most likely not get a person who answers the phone. This is not a rejection it is the nature of their business. Leave a message with as much information as you feel comfortable sharing and your return phone number. You should get a call back within a day or two. If it is during the summer or holidays this can be way longer. If they don’t call just try someone else. Do not overthink this. The important thing is to see someone. From there you can search for someone else if you do not feel it is a good match. If nothing else, it is something productive to do with your time and that you can check off a list. Congratulate yourself for every accomplishment during this time. Looking up therapists and leaving voice messages should be enough for a small reward- whether it is a pat on the back, a few minutes of online searching, or a healthy snack break. You are learning to help yourself and that is a skill we could all use more of.
One of my favorite types of movie magic formulas is when the protagonist decides he or she needs to form a team. We get a slick montage where all of the different elements are layered on- the muscle, the brains, the face, and not to be undervalued- the humorous yet slightly unstable member. I have always loved the concept of organizing a group of specialists to tackle a problem. Having others with abilities that fill the gaps in ours. With an elite super force you can vanquish any foe (we are talking internal here) or overcome any challenge. When you are assembling a support network- the same formula works. Get excited about the process. Chart it out. Use Dry erase boards, set up a situation room with maps, anything to make you feel like you are unveiling a master strategy.
When I began my first calls were to 2 friends. One who was my oldest friend in life, not necessarily closest at that time. However I knew he had been through a situation as challenging and similar as mine, and had values I could trust. My friend was sympathetic and immediately wanted to help. He tried to remember things that had helped him, promised to remember others, and was a confidant. Perhaps the most important feeling this provided me was that finally, someone knew I was in trouble. That I was in a situation that I did not know if I could fully deal with. Occasional check in calls became the norm, and they were always perfectly timed. Next was a college friend whom lived nowhere near me. This was vital because it was another connection I could open up with that was not in my immediate space or community. They could see it from a larger perspective, without having to be active participants in what I was dealing with daily.
Now with these initial contact being met with compassion and sympathy, I felt safer but was still for all intents and purposes alone. My sister became my truest source of stability. To be clear, she was the muscle, the B.A. Baracus of the team, who pities the fool who messed with her brother. Now this was trickier because she was more present in my life and community. Bringing her into my troubles had an interesting effect that I saw other times as well. Being good humans who care about you, they hate knowing you are in pain. This begins a process within them of discomfort, possible hurt, even rage at times. They are showing empathy, but it might be a lot for them to handle even if it is indirectly. By no means am I saying that you should not go to those close to you with your problems because it is too much for them. These individuals are hopefully people who love you and would in fact be more offended if you did not go to them for help. What I am implying, is that you need to recognize this can cause a shift in their realities and worlds so be compassionate. If they do not react the way you intended, understand that. Bring more people into your inner circle so that not only one person has to shoulder the emotional energy of supporting you. Have 3,6,9- however many you feel comfortable with and rotate your support among them.
This is your team and you need to MANAGE your support network. If you called your best friend to connect for 2 days in a row, now plan a day with a family member. Spent most of the weekend with a certain couple that supports you? Change gears and take a colleague up on the offer to take you out to lunch. Spread the support around so that your system stays fresh. Use their specialties. If someone in your network has a deeper understanding of addiction, go to them when you have feelings associated with that relationship. If someone else words in the medical field- go to them when you have health questions or concerns. People like being helpful. Identify their strengths and let them help you in the fields they feel comfortable in. If you know an educator, trainer – let them teach you; a lawyer- let them counsel you; an artist- let them help you express and create. Put them in the best position to help you. Don’t go to your stoic sibling and be surprised when he or she is sympathetic but unemotional about your situation. Have a few team members that are there to provide pure fun. However here is a caution. If you are going through a troubling time and reach out to a friend, even a great one, who solves his or her issues at the bar do not be surprised when they suggest helping you with their coping methods. This may be done with every good intention, However you need to be very aware of who or what you bring into your foundation when you are not at your peak. These are guidelines, however there is one monumentally important rule- be open to surprises. If that one friend who never opens up about anything surprises you with how deep they are willing to discuss emotions with you, accept it as a gift of humanity. Crisis creates change. For all the damage it can cause it also forces evolution. You will evolve as will those with you on the journey. Be open to what you see.
As you start bringing people into your support network, understand that you are inviting more viewpoints and personalities into your life. Although it may be extremely helpful to share your thoughts and experiences with others, it also gives opportunities for others to question or judge your actions and reactions. Regardless of the temperament of the people I was speaking with, eventually we always had a form of this conversation. “You must be mad as hell! If it were me I would be losing it right now. Why aren’t you angrier? No really, you better make sure you are getting that stuff out, or you will explode!” Some variation of this exchange was had between me and my family members, friends, colleagues, professionals. I always found it so fascinating. Everyone seemed so hyper-focused on anger. They seemed genuinely confused and even more shocking UNEASY by my lack of overt aggression. Now don’t get me wrong, the anger was there and I could sense that it was incredibly strong. I could feel it there waiting for any crack in my composure to present itself. But there was something about it that just did not feel like it was there to help me. Most of all, there was something about it that seemed so powerful that I was not sure I would be able to harness it. I respected it as a force. I have never been an aggressive or violent individual. But so many people literally WANTED to see it. Even one step further, they NEEDED to see it. It was as if only then could they feel more comfortable with what I was experiencing. Until there was anger , we were speaking slightly different languages. As if me expressing it would give them the permission they wanted to express it as well. I needed to know more. Somewhere in the back, back, back of my consciousness, a voice was telling me that this was not going to get me and my family where we needed to go. However the seed had been planted. Were they right? Was I setting myself up to be an emotional powder keg that was going to one day explode on a person for cutting me off, or stepping on my shoe? I started researching and experimenting with anger in a variety of different ways and these are the points I found most helpful:
Experiencing change positive or negative is a five senses experience. Although smell is perhaps the sense most linked with memory, music became very pivotal to me during this time. Music historically can be a foundational element of building relationships and then can also equally be forever linked to their downfall. Each of us has certain songs that can make our heart flutter from a memory with a loved one. (Thank you Otis Redding!) We also have ones that hit us so hard they make us want to drop to one knee. (Damn you Otis Redding!) It became apparent to me during this time, that if I allowed certain artists or songs to become the soundtrack to this experience, there was a decent chance I would never want to listen to them again. This was a calculated risk based on the time I had to get a colonoscopy (yes we are going there). Colon cancer has a history in my family so I was being screened early during a blessed time with health insurance. When you reach that monumental threshold in life, surprisingly you get a choice. Before the exam you need to completely flush your system the night before. This happens by you drinking essentially a gallon of prescribed laxative in 1 minute intervals (the proctologist’s power hour). You will eventually be running, albeit with very short steps, back and forth throughout your house. Much to my surprise, the prescription you have to mix with the water comes with a variety of flavor packets. You can delightfully choose to bomb your intestines in cherry, grape, orange, lemon, or pina colada. I was about to go with my staple of cherry when I took a pause. A sudden rush of uncertainty filled me- as opposed to the sudden rush that was about to certainly unfill me. I had no idea how this was going to change my opinion of cherry. From lollipops, to icees, gatorades, etc it was too risky. In the end (pun intended), I said aloha (also means goodbye) to pina colada. I felt good about my choice and on vacation I pleasantly enjoy daiquiris. I used the same logic in this life crisis. I stayed away from my staples. There was no way I was going to lose Stevie, Bruce, or Dylan to this. (although Dylan actually held his own). Certain bands were also doomed, for better or for worse, to be sacrificed in this. Music that I enjoyed enough, but in the end I could live without. Good bye Dire Straits. You were money for nothin’, and your band name perfectly captured my situation.
You were a bargain vinyl.
A solid find.
Unfortunately for both of us
You came at a bad time.
I don’t feel like a sultan.
Definitely have no swing.
You will do for a few weeks,
But the trash will be your thing.
Have to be honest-
‘Romeo and Juliet’ was a bit much.
Although for certain moments,
It came through in the clutch.
“That ain’t workin that’s the way you do it”
You once famously said.
Sorry to see you go,
But you saved the Talking Heads.
READ- I was lost with no clue how to stop the spinning thoughts in my brain. Each day I began looking up an article topic that I thought applied to my situation. Each time hoping that one would feel like an answer to how I was supposed to get out of this mess. In the end I never found that answer, but I did find a tremendous amount of resources that helped give me some insight into what I was experiencing. Be very open-minded with your searches. You may think that articles about losing your job is what you need, but in the end you are relating more to articles about rejection. If you come across a term you do not really recognize in an article, search it. The more you can grow the vocabulary associated with your experience, the better you will be able to pinpoint it. Enjoy where that journey takes you. It could go from professional sites to ones on psychology, parenting, mindfulness, or even hobby based sites for surfing enthusiasts. Reading anything is better than letting your mind wander on its own right now, so trust your instincts. Also fun tip- be ready when all these searches start changing the suggested articles and products being advertised on your normal web pages. Nothing more fun then when your amazon page starts reminding you daily about the thing that is bothering you the most. “No I don’t need a private investigator Google!!”….or do I? In the universe of trolling and people being able to share hateful opinions about cute cat videos, surprisingly the most helpful input was from the comments section. Many people shared their stories, impressions, advice. It gave me a point of reference for my feelings. It also gave me a very unique perspective. I could see the current states of the people who had lived through what I was living. Some were so bitter, defeated, fighting their reality,refusing to accept their situation, filled with an anger that had consumed them. A few others had found some element of understanding, a productive perspective, a mild sense of peace. It was possible. We have a choice. A choice on how we want to live and who we want to be on the other side of change.
My son has a natural tendency towards negative self talk when he is stressed. Things are ‘never’ going to happen or he is ‘always the worst’. Working with him on these reactions, I became very conscious that all of us have positive and negative voices in our head trying to drown out the other. But we also have a power. The ability to identify and amplify. We have a microphone that we can chose to give to any of those voices to help them overtake the debate. In crisis, the negative voices are already louder than normal. This makes it even harder to hear some pivotal information that our minds and bodies may be trying to send us.
There are a few very pivotal moments throughout this year that I feel were life changing. Some were a necessity of the circumstances, some were conceived using calm sound judgement, and others were mini miracles of luck and the ability to follow my body’s natural instincts. This was the latter. The first morning that I experienced the internal alarm clock of dread it was 3:30 in the morning. No matter how hard I tried I could not get my brain to slow down. Just when I thought I could get some breathing under control, I felt all control release like a semi truck without brakes trying to navigate a curved steep decline. I was at the mercy of my emotions and thoughts. Neither one of them was my friend at this time. The hours passed until I was mercifully allowed to get out of bed and start my zombie like day. The next night after collapsing again from the mental odyssey, I awoke again. The levee that had temporarily held my emotions at bay while I slept disintegrated in an instant and flooded all of the synapses in my brain with every version of suffering feelings that exist. I knew I was going to relive the same living nightmare from the morning before, but then my brain found one shining light of an idea. It was a whisper at first. However in that moment I feel like my intuition found one break in the negative energy. Understanding that this may be its last chance to communicate with me it uncharacteristically shouted: “Get up” “Just get up”. Just as quickly the voice was gone. But the idea implanted itself in the cycle of my brain. How did this happen? What is wrong with me? How could I be so stupid? “Get Up” the voice said. Fuck everyone involved with this! God this hurts? What will happen to us? “Get up” it repeated. What did I do wrong? You are such a weak fool! “Get up” it finally demanded. My mind could catch this and it engaged my sense of reasoning. I knew what laying there was going to feel like and I could never go through that again. “If you are awake, just be awake” I told myself. It was 3AM. I went downstairs. It was quiet, peaceful. The madness and hurt was all around me but, for the first time in days, (perhaps it was years) I was listening to my body. Now I was awake, but so what? It was warm that May. I saw some running shoes that had never gotten the use they were intended for staring at me. That original voice popped back for another direct message, “Move. Just move.” So I grabbed my dog who was shocked but thrilled at this early morning appearance and went for a run. The sky was still dark, but I started running. I felt certain muscles in my legs begin to heat up. My arms began to sway and my shoulders loosen. I was actually running faster than normal. My heart rate began to match the pace of my brain cycles. Now please note that I am aware I was not in anyway solving my negative brain energy. All I was doing was making my body race as much as my mind. I was literally allowing the fight or flight energy to run its course. As I jogged through the park near me, all the feelings were still present. However now I started seeing similarities in my body functions and traditional emotional responses. Perhaps it was just my level of fitness( or lack thereof) but my running breath felt similar to crying. It felt good to have salty liquid around my face and eyes. Many times I wanted to stop, and in those moments I did slow down to a near walking pace, but I did not stop. Then something magical happened as my body and muscles began to tire, I felt my negative mental cycle begin to slow as well. Mind and body were becoming more in sync. I looked out along a grassy field and the sun was rising over the NYC skyline. I saw something that I felt was beautiful and I allowed myself to stare and experience it. When I returned to my house my body had tired , but my negative thoughts had already found their second wind. They were stronger and were soon right back to their overwhelming pace. I still had no answers, but for the first time in this whole experience I finally had something. I had one way to slow down this demon. Even if for a short time. It had a weakness and that gave me a chance.
When the foundation of your entire life dissolves in an instant how will you react? Each of us has pillars in our lives that are the foundation for our identity and what gives most of our actions meaning. But when that pillar becomes unstable or disappears entirely, what action will you take? It can be a career or business change,the loss of a family member, diagnosis of a serious illness, or dissolving of a romantic relationship. There may be times when we may even allow ourselves to attempt to develop some insight into that moment, while immediately peeling back from the intensity of the sheer thought with a comment like “I cannot even imagine” what that would feel like. We obviously all react differently to traumatic events, however in my case, the reactions my body and mind experienced were echoed by others who had experienced something similar. This was a welcoming thought in hindsight, but in the moment it felt like I was having a completely unique experience. Here is what I can remember. If any of these feelings strike a chord with any experience you have had or are having, perhaps the tools that helped me hang on during those times will be of help to you.
I wake up. The room may still be dark or the sun may have begun to shine, time has lost meaning at this point except as a placeholder for appointments. Have the kids to school by a certain time, get to work by a certain time etc. For a glorious split second as your consciousness begins to awaken you are just thankful that you were able to fall asleep. What a curious thought? Why would someone be thankful that they fell asleep? This simple question engages your memory and from there the pain begins. Your memory releases every terrible element attacking your reality. It rushes through your bloodstream and immediately fills your body with an extreme caffeine like rush of toxic emotions. You start to remember where you are at, where you are sleeping, what the circumstances are that brought you to this place, what did go wrong, what can still go wrong. Pain, Fear, and Anger just start swirling in a constant cycle that will be seemingly endless. Endless until the next moment your mind reaches the same level of exhaustion where it literally can no longer operate and you surrender to sleep. Then finally a pause. Not exactly resting, just a pause, until you reawaken in a few hours and ask yourself : “Why am I thankful I fell asleep?” and the living nightmare begins again.
However now you are awake and in full understanding of the pressures that have overwhelmed you. It may be 3AM with hours before any unnecessary alarms will ring or 9AM with alarms all snoozed and disabled since you have nothing left to give. Your body is pumping with negative adrenaline, however you are unable to move. The thought of having to get dressed, say hello to a human being, simply standing up seem completely insurmountable. So you lay there, mind revving through emotional patterns. Crying with disbelief of your situation. Fear at thoughts about what the present and the future hold. Anger at whoever or whatever you perceive as the culprit for this situation. Each stage of this cycle can vary in length and intensity, but the sheer speed of thought is unbelievable. For me these 3 stages would complete their process between 2 and 8 mins on average, continuously. At times there might be a pleasant pause lasting a few seconds, to the point where you fool yourself into thinking the pattern has finally broken down and your body and mind are regaining control over themselves.However this is an illusion- it is the ascension of the roller coaster and all of a sudden you are filled with the terror as the clicking stops and you plummet back into a free fall followed by twists and turns that whip your sense of self until you are completely disoriented of your existence. Does it ever end? You have no idea. You assume it must because you are neither the first nor the last to survive this circumstance. However your experience is utterly unique. Your psyche is attempting to process emotions at a speed and intensity that is most likely impossible. Eventually the engine runs out of fuel and you collapse into a period of utter mental exhaustion. Your brain finally burns out and it must sleep. It is not peaceful nor will you feel rested, but it is however a break from this carousel. With it comes the slight hope that perhaps tomorrow will be the day when your psyche regains control.