Dear diary…life is hard.

Expressive Therapy

Sbux1Every morning on my way to the office I stop at the same coffee shop. One of the joys of this type of routine is seeing the same people over and over, and developing some form of bond. For sure I have a few favorite baristas, and there is one in particular where we have developed quite a flirtation. She writes love notes on my coffee cup, and sometimes not-so-loving but enticing notes that make Sbux2me smile or even blush. (Yes, I’m still gay…or mostly gay…and that’s another post for another day.) Nice way to start the day. I also see the same customers over and over. The mechanic from down the street. The nurse from the nearby clinic. The retail manager from the mall next door. It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only caffeine junkie trying to get a fix.

Lately I’ve noticed this same guy every morning. I’m intrigued by him. He sits at a table right outside the front door. He has a stack of books that truly is just over a foot tall. Various books with no clear theme. Yes, I glance at the titles each day because I’m just that nosy! He also has a notebook where he is furiously scribbling notes. Some kind of journal. I haven’t been nosy enough to stand over him and read what he’s writing. My curiosity does have appropriate boundaries most of the time. But from the open books in front of him I imagine him to be capturing his thoughts on what he’s reading. Possibly he’s researching his own book. Perhaps he’s reading for deeper meaning and making a life plan. Maybe it’s a form of bibliotherapy, which is a fancy psychobabble term for reading books that encourage us to think and heal.

harry-potter-1640525_1280I love to read. All the time. People who know me well understand I have quite the love affair with the Harry Potter series. First it was from the perspective of an adult who didn’t quite get the hoopla of a children’s book. Then I read them and enjoyed every word. Then I reread a few years later for escapism. Afterwards I started to appreciate the psychology of this magical world. Books are written about it. Classes are taught about it. Entire fandoms have sprung up around it. I revisit the entire series every few years and always find something new to think about. This year it’s quills and parchment.

In the HP canon, Harry attends school at a time when computers are establishing dominance in educational settings and ballpoint pens have been around for a century. And still Hogwarts relies on quills and parchment for schoolwork, and the wizarding world hand writes letters for delivery by owl. Surely email is faster for keeping up with family and other wizards around the globe. Carrying quills and ink every where you go? Geez. Seems like a pen in the pocket or purse would be more practical. But is practicality really the best measure of an experience?

fountain-pens-1828646_1280I don’t use a quill and have never seen actual parchment. I collect fountain pens. Right now I own just under a dozen. I’ve recently started journaling in a lovely Moleskine notebook I carry everywhere. I’ve also started writing letters and cards on a daily basis. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time finding reasons to break out one of my pens and hand write something. Anything at all. Which is really a big deal for me because I have the most atrocious handwriting. I hate it. It’s the reason I’ve avoiding hand writing anything I could for the past twenty years. And now all of the sudden I cannot put down the pen. What happened to me?

notepadI discovered a new connection between my mind and the paper when I use an actual writing implement. For me it is the fountain pen. For Harry it is the quill. Writing something out by hand requires deliberate thought. It is an active process. When I see the stranger at the coffee shop writing in his notebook, he is truly thinking about what he wants to record because there is no backspace. There is a reason so many authors and poets and speechwriters compose in longhand. JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel in longhand. Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oats. Neil Gaiman. They all write longhand.

As I said I have taken to journaling. Every day. Sometimes more than once a day. It’s a form of expressive therapy that focuses on my internal experiences, thoughts, and feelings. It’s an attempt to make sense of the past and the present so I can better see the future. Journaling helps me process what is going on in my head so that I’m more active in my own therapy sessions. It has allowed me to uncover themes to the events in my life, and my role in those events. I can revisit something that I know has a meaning even if it hasn’t become clear yet. Sometimes my journal is like Dumbledore’s pensieve…a place to record excess thoughts and examine them later to spot patterns and links.

travelers-notebook-2245970_1280Sure, I could keep a digital diary on my computer or my iPhone or iPad or whatever device non-Apple users prefer. But I’ve found true joy in putting pen to paper and what it means for me to transfer my thoughts through a physical act. Deliberate thoughts where introspection leads to a new insight or just the release of pressure from clearing my mind. Sometimes I write a paragraph, and sometimes I write several double-sided pages. Maybe it’s all one topic, and maybe it’s a bit more jumbled steam of consciousness writing to just “clear the cache.” Certainly a blog like this is a journal, but what I write here for public consumption is not nearly as deep or personal as what’s in my little black book.

What have I learned so far? For a long time I have really hated myself. My thoughts and words and actions have been centered on so much self-loathing and self-sabotage that I marvel at how I’ve gotten out of bed some days. My view of myself has been so harshly negative for so long. Some of it dates back to childhood hurts related to being bullied in school and my family of origin. Trauma has played a role. Some of it is tied to failed relationships and rejection. And most of it is simply tied to daily life events that affect us all, but that my distorted view allowed to spiral out of control in a repeating cycle of self-destruction.

Brain KeyMost of all I learned that I’m far more culpable than I wanted to admit. I am usually the architect of my own unhappiness. I have been one of the worst for taking care of myself despite what I advise clients. I learned that I have a creative side that wants to burst free and see the world. That I love deeply and passionately and have much to give others. That my view of the world, sometimes healthy and sometimes not, is perfectly valid so long as I use it to shape my life into something meaningful. That I am actually a fairly interesting person who deserves happiness and joy. And that I alone am responsible for making that happen.

Some of this was a bit tough to accept. After all, who wants to learn that no matter what happens in life we are ultimately responsible for our happiness or lack thereof? Getting over trauma requires an investment to be healthy again, and fair or not we have to do it. Moving past a failed relationship requires owning my part in the failure. Acknowledging positive qualities and traits is healthy and realistic, and good for me even when I want to discount myself. Seeing all the potential in life helps me set and achieve goals alone and with others. Yes, it’s been quite a journey and there is no end in sight. As long as my hand can hold a pen, I will be journaling to better understand myself.

Journaling just for me requires a level of honesty I was not ready to accept at first. I had to strip away the pretense of what I imagined a journal to be. This is not “Dear Diary, today Johnny called me a fag and everybody laughed at me. Still I think he’s the cutest boy in school.” This is real. It is deep. It is meaningful. It has helped me see the world and my place in it in a far more realistic way. I love that. And now I’m off the journal some more…

books-690219_1280

Small Town Surprise

grooms cakeLast week I was fortunate enough to serve witness at a wedding. A gay wedding. In Oklahoma. A small town in Oklahoma. Initially I was surprised that the grooms, who live in the Dallas area, chose Oklahoma; however, one of them graduated college there and had an affinity for that area. And given the still-limited number of places where they could get married, I suppose Oklahoma is as good as any.

But I’m going to be honest about this…I was dreading it. Not because it was a gay wedding. I’m not a hypocrite. Rather, I was dreading a gay wedding in small town Durant. Should you ever need to know, it’s pronounced “doo-rant” and not “dur-unt.” I was corrected several times by the locals. The same locals I was sure meant to do us harm.

You see, I grew up in a small town. Well, I grew up outside the capital of Arkansas and then graduated high school in a town of 4,455 with only one flashing red four-way stop at that time. So I have some understanding of the small town mentality. I was quite fearful of what we might find in Durant. As we crossed the state line and entered the sleepy little town, it was very much like my adolescence all over again. Rural area. Lots of wide open spaces. Traffic crawling slowly enough to pass on a bicycle. People congregating to talk about passerby and clearly unknown cars. Felt like home, and not in the best of ways.

When we arrived at the courthouse to retrieve the license, my fears were palpable. We entered through the doorway for marriages, and there was a big, burly backwoods bubba of a guard talking to a woman who looked like a regular customer on “Breaking Bad.” They sized us up, and saw one female in our party of four. The guard asked who was getting married, and the two grooms proudly raised their hands and declared it was their big day. Without missing a beat, the guard asked if they would be using the gazebo outside facing the main street. He explained that jurors from a trial gathered there to smoke and could sometimes get unruly. And then he gave an instruction that caught me entirely off guard. He said that if anybody gave us any problems we were to immediate find him because he was our “problem solver” that day. Then he offered hearty congratulations, which was quickly followed by his conversation companion with a big smile. Needless to say, I was flummoxed.

This only continued when we went to the clerk’s office and watched them all conference in hopes of solving a computer problem and not delay the “handsome” grooms on their special day. And then, again, when I met the man who would serve as the officiant and his lovely wife, both whom I have now connected with via social media. And lastly during the ceremony itself, which was held on a particularly popular and picturesque walking bridge on the college campus. Passersby would smile and wave and apologize for intruding. Very friendly.

This was not at all what I expected. I was ready for a rumble. In my mind, I was there to witness an exchange of vows and declaration of love, but also to be there for my boys in case there was any trouble. I sure did feel foolish. mob

You see, what happened was a common psychological phenomenon known as cognitive thinking errors. We all do them, and quite frequently. It really is part of our everyday experience. Left unchecked, though, they can become quite problematic and lead to all kinds of craziness. I spent the drive home reflecting on my errors. There was mind reading, where I assumed I knew what others were thinking without having any real evidence of their thoughts. I sure was catastrophizing, or having a very firm belief that something bad or even unbearable was sure to happen. And lets not forget one of my favorites, overgeneralization. You know that one…we perceive a global pattern of negatives based on limited events. In my case, I falsely assumed that all the backwoods citizens of Durant (overgeneralization) would absolutely hate us on site (mind reading) and possibly come after us with lynches and torches while wearing white sheets (catastrophizing), or at the very least prevent the wedding through some nonviolent means (catastrophizing) because they firmly disapprove of or outright hate the LBGT population (mind reading).brain gears

I’m not alone here. You do it too. We all do it. And I promise that is not an overgeneralization. It’s back of the human experience and a natural part of our self-preservation instinct. But it sure can get out of hand and make life miserable for you and those around you. Think about someone you know who is depressed and views the entire world through a negative filter. Or the overly anxious person always waiting for doom and gloom. Two examples of what it’s like when it gets out of control.

But what about lesser variants that may be just as toxic? Look at what I did! I’m a therapist and I engaged in distorted thinking to the point I was ready to fight an imaginary angry mob. In fact, there were several times I kept looking around and over my shoulder waiting for something that never happened. To be sure, I did not let it impact my day or cast any negative light on my friends’ big day. Thank goodness for an implacable poker face. But you see my point? Even on a smaller scale thinking errors can have a big impact. It’s good to have checks and balances. That day, my friends were my checks and balances. I shared my thoughts, which were not unlike their own actually, and we were able to laugh about it and enjoy way too much fudge from a local shop on the drive out of town. Checks and balances are important. They keep us on track. They refine our perspective. Therapy is absolutely a great place for this, but never underestimate the power of what I call “social therapy” in sharing with your friends and experiencing their views as well.