There’s a Post in There Somewhere…

Should I talk about depression? Potential posts tend to start poking at my insides, enough to bother and eventually distract me from whatever I should be doing. And then I sit and write, as I am now, even though I really should do the thing I’m avoiding.

Avoiding isn’t quite the right word though, because today there isn’t A Thing I’m avoiding but rather many many things I should attend to. About a year ago, I had enough projects going on where I could easily write on a different one every day for several months and still not be finished. That’s the mess I made and I am finding myself in a very similar one right now. Except I did manage to finish all those projects, which might have made my current situation worse. Meaning I successfully completed everything then, so my inner little mad scientist knows I could do it again if I had to, and that is likely adding to tendencies to procrastinate.

But procrastination also isn’t the right word. Admittedly, I do, have, and will procrastinate. I have always believed at my core I’m a rather lazy person wrapped in a high-achieving blanket. So occasionally I cast off the blanket and YouTube binge, or engage in some sort of Fallout 3 marathon session, convincing myself that once I become level 25 strong I’ll finally have what it takes to finish my article. That’s true procrastination and likely some self-preservation, because otherwise I will workaholic myself into oblivion.

I have had to admit to myself though, that this latest bout is likely tinged more by depression, and less by my typical carnal self-soothing interests.

Now let’s pause on this word, Depression. I am qualified to talk about depression from a professional perspective, but I don’t want to. Largely because I don’t find such conversation particularly useful, inventive, or meaningful. I don’t really want to get into the “here’s your symptom and here’s your cure” dialogue, nor do I want to share the multitude of platitudes my field and culture expell on a daily basis whenever someone even hints at being “off.” Depression for me, rather, fits in as a strange visitor who came to my house and never left. He can be a nuisance, but for the most part he sits in the corner in his moldy old chair and grumbles to himself a lot.

Essentially, Depression is really Father Jack Hackett from the series, Father Ted.father-jack

The first time I noticed Jack was when he crashed into my house. I was pretty young at the time and wouldn’t have even known this visitor just barged in. But he didn’t exactly sneak past the guards, so to speak. I think the doors at my house would’ve been wide open to let a figure like Jack in, someone who could show with some amount of force just how unpleasant things had become. And he was a serious pain in the backside, driving me to a great deal of isolation and avoidance, and likely a few self-destructive tendencies.

But as with most uninvited guests, eventually a time came when I told him to just up and fuck off (how I did that is material for a different post). And I thought he did, but really he just hid in the basement for a while. A good long while. He was likely very good at living off the vermin and stale air. I was very good at not paying attention to the odd, occasional banging noise coming from the pipes. Granted, at the time I didn’t know such sounds could emanate from a crazy man in the basement because I didn’t think people lived down there. But looking back, I can see how he cleverly survived in that cellar and even enjoyed himself, prying into all the odds and ends one keeps in a basement.

He emerged, triumphant, in my early adulthood and proceeded to rearrange all the furniture. He also took the liberty of smashing a few pieces while tossing others out, without asking, and was pretty happy to relocate his soiled ratty wingback chair into the middle of my living room. He drank a lot and shouted his all too familiar, “arse, feck, gaarrls” over and over again like a bad nightclub song. I couldn’t help but notice him this time as his frequent appearances prompted panic attacks as well as the desire to hide in the closet. One day I found myself screaming for no real reason, so I decided to enlist some help at dealing with my unexpected roommate.

I don’t remember how long I saw my counselor before she used the word, “depression” for the first time. I do remember being surprised by its use; it was casually introduced by way of, “oh that will help with your depression,” suggesting depression was a) there and b) I needed help with it. This was news to me. It wasn’t that I disagreed with it, nor found my counseling experience bad. It was simply the first time You Are Depressed was bestowed upon me, and I felt the burden of such a mantle. I had a “thing,” to be “helped,” implying it could also “get worse,” and I was supposed to do something about it. Ideally I was supposed to get rid of it.

Jack wasn’t exactly too happy about that proposition and we engaged in battle for the next several years. I made my bed, he tore it up. I wanted friends, he didn’t want anyone inside. I used reason, he threw tantrums. There were several occasions where I successfully tricked him outside and locked him out. But then I’d find him sneaking through the bathroom window, or sliding down the chimney, and we’d go round and round again. During this era, the self-help industry exploded. You could find a support group to help match your socks or pick up inner child workbooks while filling up at the gas station. Socially, the message I kept getting over and over again about Depression was clear: it shouldn’t be there, and if it comes back it’s your fault. Work harder, try harder, believe harder, talk harder, whatever the fix was do it harder and your affliction will disappear if you follow the plan.

The fallacy of all this inner talk proselytizing though was that Jack Hacketts really don’t give a fuck if you do anything harder at all. They just sit back, drink, and laugh at your misfortune. You say, “get out,” and he says, “make me.” In fact, the harder you push the more that big lump will suck himself to his nasty chair and throw cups of tea against the wall. What you’re left with is the nagging feeling that you are to blame for your depression, which is Jack’s biggest victory – convincing you that every time you can’t get the energy to move, it’s your own fault. If you were a better person, you never would’ve let some creep like Jack move in to begin with.

I thought I moved him out again for some years. But then a life crisis brought him charging back, more determined than ever to stay and take over the house. He is incredibly childish, because the first words out of his mouth are, “told you so, you can’t make me.” And I felt the desire to let myself be defeated, to just accept that this unhygienic blob was going to lie in the middle of the floor, farting and drinking all the booze. In my life that translated into pure numbness, like I was sitting through a concert but with speakers unplugged. I wanted to get some incurable disease so I could sit in a hospital and let someone else decide what would happen next. Go ahead, Jack, throw a party. I. Just. Don’t. Care.

Jack did throw a party. A hell of a party, a great big whopper that drew a few noise complaints and likely brought the police around. And that’s when it hit me like a gong.

I sat up and said, Jack, you have my attention.

It occurred to me that I had spent so much time trying to kick Jack out that I hadn’t bothered to find out why he was there in the first place. His arrival wasn’t an accident; he walked in because a space was open for him, and that space had been created by circumstances beyond my control. I realized Jack wiggled when something tried to hurt me, and he made noise when something tried to silence me. He drank when I needed a break and he slept when I needed to go outside. But none of that was revealed to me until I started talking to him.

Becoming friends with a gross ogre of a thing is not easy, nor did it happen over night. But it did begin by changing a basic premise: recognizing all that popular speech about “getting rid of” your problems was really part of the problem. I didn’t need to get rid of anything. Having Jack around wasn’t a reflection of personal success or failure, rather it was simply an expression of circumstance. I live with a crazy roommate. He can be a handful, but he can also liven up the place and keep me from taking things too seriously.

Father Jack still keeps a chair in my living room. These days he sleeps most of the time, but we’ve got an understanding. Recently another life transition had him moving about, but he doesn’t cause the damage he once did because he doesn’t need to. We can talk (sometimes shout) to each other but there’s no battle for control because control is no longer the goal. In fact, the first thing that settles Jack down is recognizing and relinquishing the illusion of control and just allowing the flux of emotions to wash over us. We might be sad, angry, ecstatic, irritated, frustrated, enthusiastic, enraged, passionate, or lethargic – but we are not numb.

I quip that Depression hangs around my life, poking fun at me and cracking jokes. It puts me in embarrassing situations at times and nowadays I laugh or tell it to piss off. And sometimes it does slow everything way down, telling me to say “no” and my worth isn’t conditional on being liked. We’re buds. I don’t expect Depression to go anywhere and I don’t think I want it to leave anyway. It is, after all, difficult to be a socially observant existentialist without your own cup of Depression steeping away on the table.

So Father Jack, what do you say to a cup of tea?




All I Want for Christmas…

Thought I had a blog post. Maybe I don’t. why is it that when you hit your 40’s, you start getting injured for no apparent reason. I’m on my couch because my lower back decided to not work; cause = apparently just being alive.

You’d think I would’ve posted about the shooting in San Bernardino by now. After all, not only is the whole country talking about it, it also occurred practically in my back yard. I’m still settling in to this new place, so I have a weird sense of attachment-not-attachment to what took place. I’ve had a million thoughts and no thoughts, a reaction and not a reaction.

There is a social justice angle, for sure. But does anyone need me to point out how fascism is not an acceptable response to an act of terror? It could be argued that fascism generates acts of terror in the first place, but a despot like Trump seems to have forgotten that. And really, no ones needs me to point out that obvious statement. Also no one needs me to point out that we very easily talk about “radicalization” these days, and apply it to anyone who isn’t Christian, even though it could be argued that many acts of violence have been carried out by self-identified “Christians” also in the name of various aspects of Christianity (let’s try the other recent shooting at a planned parenthood, or anything done by Westboro, or things like internment camps, the holocaust, or slavery just to name a few). Right. I don’t need to say these things because everyone already knows it.

Ok, that sentence might have a little sarcasm built in. It’s clear not everyone agrees with this. There are plenty of people out there who seem to think it is a completely acceptable response to tag Muslims or any other group we become afraid of and start treating them like cattle, to deny them their status of personhood so we can more easily label them as the problem and thus feel less guilt about killing them. If it is wrong to label all Christians as “zealots” then it is likely also wrong to label all Muslims as “extremists.” Perhaps the only good thing about Trump right now is people who think his way is the right way a global society deals with its difficulties are being exposed. Their presence makes it so someone like me doesn’t have to work very hard to say racism – pure, overt, nasty racism, not the innocent, well-intentioned accidental racism – exists.

Painkillers. I need painkillers. My back is screaming at my legs and it’s just a cacophony of angry shouting nerve endings replicating a fight scene out of Enter the Dragon. This is not helping my mood.

It is, therefore, a surprise for me to hear at a meeting held for those affected by the San Bernardino shootings that their biggest fear right now is not the possibility of further terrorist plots but rather, the fear that our own country will turn itself into a replica of 1930’s Nazi Germany. That we will make it okay to lock people away just because they follow a particular religion that is different from what the majority believe. That we will take people from their families and strip them of their freedoms because we contrive multiple reasons to believe we are superior to them. And that the only reason we attempt any of this is because we are afraid, and instead of trying to reach across the boundaries and finally establish a global community, we will engage in isolationist xenophobia and knowingly perpetrate another holocaust. It is also another surprise to hear that attached to this fear that the country will turn, is another fear that those of us who don’t want this to happen will silently stand by and let it happen because we fail to speak up, or act, or do anything at all.

This is a pleasant surprise, by the way. This is an injection of hope.

It also stands out a great deal that the people who are expressing this are the people who live here, people who were directly affected by the shooting, the subsequent car chases, manhunts, bomb threats, school closings, and all the other scary things going on that we are being assaulted with. We who are here, in other words, don’t want to close our borders and cast out the identified “other,” rather we want to speak about the potential for joining together, for reminding each other that we belong to each other and want a better life, not a captive life, for ourselves and our future.

We want to break down prejudice, not support it. We want to expose our biases, not hide them. We want to increase understanding, not prevent it. We want to make friends, not enemies. We want to go outside, not hide in our caves. We want life to be about hope, not about fear.

I feel slightly disingenuous using the word “we” in that above paragraph. After all I’m a new part of this “we.” However, maybe that’s part of it, to realize that “we” doesn’t have to be limited by geography. We are tired of being told what we are supposed to think and say. We are ready to speak for ourselves.

So I guess if anything were up to me, that is what I’d want people to do. Many out there are attempting to express “solidarity” with San Bernardino. That’s very nice, but it would be a little bit more to use your words, not your Facebook profile pic. You don’t need to hold up a sign in order to make a difference. Have a conversation. Talk to a person. Don’t expect to have an answer, don’t expect to prove a point. Just for once try to understand something you didn’t know about another person. Who cares if you agree. But maybe just by talking, by starting this conversation, we can get to more conversations, bigger ones, and maybe it won’t be so scary to talk about what we don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t know how to do. Maybe we’ll learn how to disagree. Maybe we’ll learn how to change our minds. Maybe we’ll finally admit that in reality we can’t control much of anything and will stop trying to control each other.

What do I know…I’ve been debilitated by a pinched nerve and I’m going to spend considerably energy rolling over once I finish this post. Then I’ll 1556847watch House pop vicodin on Netflix. Dunno. Seems fitting.


Project: I Am

get ready for some reflection...
get ready for some reflection…

Sometimes you need a reminder about what matters. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the day-to-day drudgery of work life and become convinced that some minute detail deserves front and center attention. I’ve written about social justice; I’d like to think that my work connect to social justice never falls victim to such distraction, but it does.

Let’s face it, in the work world people often become wedded to a point or idea or concept and adopt the stance that such point is the center of the universe. The sun revolves around the earth instead of the other way round. I’ve done it; the word on the page becomes the only word you can see and you forget about all the paragraphs that go around it. It also means you lose sight of your audience, and when myopia takes over, you even convince yourself that it doesn’t matter if your audience understands what you’ve written.

I’ve certainly watched others in my world of work get caught in this. I get distracted as well, arguing on principle and insisting that it must be a comma instead of a semi-colon. What I hate is how that small point suddenly takes over my life for a period of time. I become consumed by it, angered, saddened, frustrated…and the obstinate teen that still inhabits my headspace typically just wants to push the chair into a back corner, lean back with boots up and say, “whatever dude” to whomever is trying to push me into something.

Aside: that’s a funny point though isn’t it? That we find ourselves in those consuming spaces usually because there are others we are butting up against on those very detailed points. I suppose I should say that sometimes a detail does matter. But it still drives me nuts when I have to give attention to that.

Where does this ranting lead me…well as it happens too many of such points have dominated my life recently. So I am grateful for the wake-up call that was our gallery exhibit of Project: I Am. It shook me in just the right ways.

witnessMy lovely co-director and I decided to lead a workshop this spring that involved teaching counselors how to assist clients in a process of reclaiming identity from experiences of oppression. I won’t go into the theories and such here, but it boils down to 12 participants who met as a group on two separate occasions and also worked individually in between meetings. It was a learn-by-doing method; like so much of the work we do it helps to go through it yourself in order to really learn what is going on. The process results in each person creating a work of art that expresses an aspect of their preferred “self”, the self that Oppression may have tried to diminish, alter, restrict, dominate, etc.

It waI AM exhibits the first time my partner and I had attempted this workshop. While it is based on work that we’ve learned about done by many others, it is still a new thing to us – so this was one of our biggest experimental leaps yet (I say that even after attempting the film. Yikes). So we always had this background anxiety questioning if it was working, if we need to change anything, is it going to fail, etc.

As with the film experience, we found our little group starting to form their own community through the process. They talked to each other about difficult things but also about triumphs. They helped each other develop images and ideas to translate into their work. They gave encouragement and had a good laugh throughout. And that also means we got to know people in a way that, again, is a little different from a traditional classroom setting. You find out just how much talent people have through things like this; I don’t mean specific to artistic talent (although we did find many closeted artists!) but the many different talents that get revealed through the process. In short, you see just how amazing and interesting people can be.

The project culminates in a gallery exhibit of participant’s work. We managed to secure a gallery and hold a one-night show

we're making art here
we’re making art here

where participants could invite whomever they wanted to share in their exhibit. The night before we set up the space – and here is when we first started to see the “magic” that exists, that mysterious force in work like ours that definitely envelopes all that is done, but will disappear if you try to put your finger on it. You just have to let it “be.” As the works went up on the walls, you just felt it in the air, had that tingle in the spine that says, “something is happening here.” Even watching each person setting up, watching them work together, made me want to just stand back and take it in. Something had happened for these people and while I still don’t have a word for it, I can see its presence, particularly in ways different from before.

Resident Artist  - he's gonna go far
Resident Artist

The show itself was fabulous. It was also my first time seeing the completed works. I was taken aback by the commitment and passion in each piece. And the variety of media was a big surprise; everything from woodcut to painting, photograph to spoken word. Each person getting to share their work, talk about why they did what they did, and to do so in the ways they chose to, not in the ways they were required to. To have their work addressed and handled by a professional artist (our resident consultant), then displayed in a gallery, all adds a level of legitimization that I think even the participants didn’t quite realize until it was happening. It’s like the ultimate, “hey this matters; your story matters.”

And that brings me back to where I started this post. I had an emotional moment at the start of the show. Not because I was sad, but because all the shit from the past month finally started falling off my back. It didn’t happen because it was the end of the week, or because I’d checked off another “to do,” but because I was experiencing a space of camaraderie and validation, I was witnessing our group “arriving.” Something had been reclaimed and we were in the presence of it. So I shed a tear, not out of pain, but out of the relief of being reminded about what matters. I saw who our participants are, and it reminded me who I am as well. Why I do what I do and what I’ve gotten good at. And suddenly the bullshit details I’ve had to fight around became just that, small insignificant points that in some cases didn’t even add up to a whole. That inner teen finally got to fist-pump the air.

I left shouting to everyone just how beautiful they really are (no, it wasn’t just the wine talking). It’s funny, because one of the silent motivations for doing this project was the hope that it would be my parting gift. One last thing to give to them before I leave. And darn it, whether they know it or not, they ended up giving something to me too. Au revoir my friends; I’ll carry that one with me for a very long time.

until we meet again!
until we meet again!

Story Time

[So i thought I posted this a month ago and it’s been sitting in my drafts. Oops.]

Ok, I wrote a little thing recently about coming to terms with fear. Thought I’d share here. (but hey, don’t copy this one without my permission. Just sayin’.)

Thanks, G

Stage Fright

(Or how the play within the play made me a better therapist)

I don’t know how I became a person who does things. As a child, I remember being afraid of everything; I didn’t even want to climb up to the diving board platform because I knew I wouldn’t jump off. My biggest enemy was something called Public Speaking, something that didn’t intimidate me when I was very small but strangely enough shrank me into silence as I grew older. When I started realizing I wanted to do things like be a lawyer, or a teacher, or just someone who wouldn’t pass out when asked a direct question, I knew I had to do something to push back against Public Speaking’s humiliating gaze.

As I currently work as a professor, and I entered a “people profession” called counseling, somewhere along the way I successfully vanquished my foe. Yet knowing myself as someone who had to do battle with this beast, and knowing how that fight took most of my life, I have not lost the sense of myself as someone who once lived regularly with fear. Fear hasn’t disappeared from my life; rather we’ve just learned how to live together peacefully.

So when someone calls me, “brave”, I get confused by that. I recently had an experience that several people have called a “brave moment,” and this feedback set me to wondering about how fear and bravery were working in my life and what they might be trying to help me out with this time. As I’ve shared the following story with others, particularly students who are new to the profession, I’ve found that talking about these tales of fear seem to be having some effect on other’s attempts to bolster bravery. Thus I offer this story here in the hope that something can be gained from my experience, or if not then at least my students can get some joy at seeing their professor “freak out.”

Some time ago I attended a workshop led by David Epston. He was introducing to us some highly innovative narrative practices he’s been developing for some time. As per his style, we spent a great deal of time examining recorded interviews and transcripts to gain insight into these practices and learn more about philosophies influencing his work. I find it all exciting, even though by the end of the day my brain declares itself full and needs to take a big long nap afterwards.

After sharing session material demonstrating what he refers to as “insider witness” practice, David indicated that he had not been able to get recordings of a particular aspect of this practice. Now being a professor in a counseling program that requires regular recording of all client work conducted in our clinic, I heard his problem as an issue of technology. He is unable to get a recording? I can get a recording. We record everything. I was also in a position of supervising students in the clinic, which meant several possible opportunities to try the practice he had demonstrated. So I approached him and naively offered to get a recording of what he was wanting. He jumped at the offer, and when I later returned home and back to work, I started to set up the kind of interview sought after.

The practice I needed to demonstrate involved two stages; the first where I would interview a supervisee with that supervisee portraying the client. The second stage involved me interviewing the client, who would see the recording of that portrayal, about the portrayal. As luck would have it, I had two students working with a couple where this practice seemed possible and of benefit; we presented the idea to the couple and they agreed. All was ready! Now we just had to conduct the actual interviews.

Prior to meeting with my supervisees, I had read several of David’s transcripts and talked with my students to help prepare them for the task at hand. On our arranged meeting date for the recorded interview, we set up our room for multiple recordings (backups in case one recording failed), had a short chat amongst ourselves to get ready, and then pressed “record.”

About 8 minutes into our interview, I was hit over the head with a hammer of a thought: What am I doing? It came crashing down on me that not only had I never attempted the kind of interview I was now in the midst of performing, I was also going to share this recording with David – the God of Narrative Therapy, and he could strike me down if he wanted. Panic washed over me as I thought, of all the times to share your work with someone, you picked something you’ve never done, and you’re going to show it to the one person who could see just how much you don’t know? Gandalf suddenly appeared and shouted in my little face, “You shall not pass!”

Instantly I was catapulted back to being 14 years old, in my high school speech class, standing in front of an audience of cold, disinterested pasty-faced adolescents who had no idea who I was and also didn’t care. Would my speech, scribbled on disorganized note cards shaking ever so slightly in my hand, die in my mouth before the words even came out? Would the students simply stare at me slack-jawed or would they scoff loudly at my mistakes? Would I prove to the world I really was as foolish as I felt?

I don’t remember what that first speech was about. Likely something mundane like rocks or tennis. But what I do remember was being surprised at the sound of my own voice, how loud it was and how at some point all the dull faces became awake. There was even a laugh somewhere, maybe more than one, at a point where it was supposed to be funny. I felt like I stood in front of that room for two days, yet I am sure that speech only lasted about 5 minutes.

It was not a perfect speech. Some of the words needed work. But afterwards I remembered feeling the fire of excitement with the kind of racing heart you get after driving a car ridiculously fast and managing to not crash in to anything. I don’t think I heard a single speech after mine, because my pulse was pounding in my ears and my brain was shouting, “You’re ALIVE!” Did someone just say, “hey, not bad”?

Fast forward to the next speech, 10 minutes, one where I had to actually perform something like a magic trick in front of the class. I don’t remember the sweaty panic, the hyper-awareness, or the breath stuck in my throat; rather I remember starting to actually enjoy myself when again my voice boomed to the back of the room and more laughs (in the right places) replied. I might actually be able to do this, I remember thinking. I might even someday grow to like this. This crowd is actually applauding as I walk off the stage.

Flip the channel back to myself staring blankly as I sit in front of two supervisees who are trying something completely foreign to them. One of the reasons they have agreed to walk into this unknown territory is because they trust I won’t leave them wandering in the dark on their own. I’m not hearing what they’ve just said, my head now full of doubts like, “what am I supposed to say,” “how did I get myself into this,” “what if I ask the wrong question…” The same kinds of overly self-conscious appraisals I remembered asking myself when I was a student sitting across from a client for the first time.

But as the panic transported me to earlier fights with fear, it also brought me to the companion that I found in those experiences: Reassurance. It reminded me that I do know how to hold a conversation; my work has been watched before; I don’t know what David would say but I do know what I would say; and if it all goes belly-up we’ll just try again. My many tussles with fear also gave rise to the many skills I now had to put fear in its place and do what I came to do, including the biggest skill of offering compassion towards my own mistakes. I did not know what I had entered into but that did not mean I had no right to be there.

My ears tuned back in to my supervisee’s words, and I opened my mouth. Words came out, and the interview continued. Upon reflection, I don’t think it was the best interview I’ve ever conducted. But it also wasn’t the worst, and in the end we found our way. No one died; the room didn’t catch fire. When it ended, we all breathed a sigh of relief, not because we had failed miserably but because something indescribably cool had taken place.

A few days later when I met again with the students, we talked about our experience of the interview and I shared my panic moment. They both expressed having no idea that had taken place. When I looked back at the video of that session, I saw the moment when panic started – and in real time that moment ended after about 75 seconds. Years of my life were re-experienced in 75 seconds.

We later record the next interview which included students, clients, and myself. Still uncertain, yet no panic intruded upon me this time, and this interview required even more invention than the prior one. David and other practitioners viewed the videos. Much feedback was provided. No one said, “You suck.” The good and the not so good were commented on, and many, many suggestions were given. The ideas were invigorating, and I found myself in a curious reflective experience. Without meaning to, these comments had the effect of showing my professional self to my personal self in a way that hasn’t happened to me since I was in my doctoral program nearly 15 years ago. The picture presented to me was intriguing, not because it depicted someone who gave a perfect session but because the image showed a person who made some effective attempts, took some missteps, dealt with the unexpected, and tried a few risks. These are the same hopes my high-school self had when she first rebelled against fear and signed up for speech class.

While I still hesitate to call myself, “brave,” this experience had the effect of showing me where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m still trying to go. It has been rejuvenating and refreshing, a good antidote to the tediousness that accompanies adult working life. I realized that the once overly-methodical, reluctant to move little girl now shares the stage with another version of herself who willingly, spontaneously, bumbles into experiences just like the one described here – experiences that let both of us see just how much potential really exists in any given moment. Improvisation writes our script in the play of Not Knowing, and I can’t wait to see where the next act will go.