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…

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Gifts to myself…perfect “fits.”

giftsAs another holiday season winds down, an inevitable truth remains – nobody got everything they wanted. You need only look at the crowds in the stores to see the high rate of exchanges of those gifts that didn’t fit right, didn’t look right, or were simply so off-the-mark that even using them for next year’s White Elephant parties seems questionable. And I, like everyone I know, was left a little underwhelmed by my holiday haul. Year in and year out. What am I to do? Gifts to myself…that’s the answer!

Years ago I started a tradition of giving myself one Christmas gift: a nice Swiss watch. I did this because it’s not an item I cannot reasonably expect others to buy for me, and I’m assured to get exactly what I want. I love watches. The mechanics. The design. The style. The symbolism. The race against time. And Swiss watches are the best, at least in my not-so-humble opinion as someone who used to sell timepieces. This is the first year I did not reward myself with a new bauble. Try as I might, every time I tried a watch on I kept thinking something was wrong or that I was missing out on something better. After reflection, I decided to give myself several gifts. There was no need to wrap them. None of them were found in a store. Instead, these gifts are ideals and goals. Somewhat lofty perhaps, but they fit me perfectly and there is no need for exchanges. And already I’m more excited than I ever was with a watch. Perhaps something on this list would be a good gift for you, too?

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  • Forgiveness. We all do wrong. We all are wronged. There is no perfect person among us, and there is no way we can ever be perfect in all that we do. And focusing on forgiveness helps me remember that. Not just forgiving others who offend me or slight me. This is about forgiving myself for all of my shortcomings. Not being nice enough. Not being charitable enough. Not making enough money. Not spending enough time caring for myself. Not learning a foreign language. Not learning to play the piano. Not keeping the “ideal” weight. With so many opportunities to be hard on myself, it would be all too easy to be my own worst enemy and hold myself back. Instead, I’m giving myself the gift of forgiveness. As long as I’m living my best life and trying to leave the world better than I found it, it’s more than enough.
  • Patience. I want it all. Right now. Actually two minutes ago. Or an hour before that. I am so impatient with life goals and ambitions. I used to think there was a timeline for everything. Graduating school. Internship. Private practice. Children. Cabin in the woods. Million-dollar retirement account. Boy have I made myself crazy trying to live my life on an arbitrary patiencetimeline versus letting life unfold. My practice will grow just as it should so long as I continue to do my best work. I’ll retire when I’m no longer capable for working, not when my IRA’s and 401k’s have the “right” balance. Family will happen when it happens. In fact, it’s all going to happen when it happens and I’m going to be okay with that. I do not have to micromanage every detail of my life. Sure, I will work towards the things I want but I refuse to see my efforts as any semblance of failing just because the timing might not be what I’m told it should be.
  • Charity. That watch I wanted all year and got so excited about buying? I gave that money away to charity. I can’t wear it on my wrist. I can’t show it off at parties. Nobody will be impressed or envious. Many will not understand. That’s okay. Others got hot meals, gifts for their children, places to sleep, and affordable or free therapy. I have no idea where it all went or how it was dispersed, much less the ultimate trickle down effects as one person helps another help another, but I know it was a far better use of my resources than another possession I did not need. This year I will focus more on what I call the “give back.” I maintain a certain amount of slots for free or low-cost therapy for those who cannot afford quality care. And yes, despite the growing push for national health care there are still too many people who are uninsured or even with insurance cannot afford to get help. I can afford to do more. We all can.
  • Boundaries. I discuss this with all of my clients. Boundaries are very good things. In addition to avoiding offense and maintaining prosocial ties of equitable benefit, boundaries allow us to be “us” in the face of all those day in and day out boundariesrequests for our time and support. How many times has a friend called in “crisis” and you leapt to their side to be supportive, only to kick yourself later because it’s just another in a series of “drama queen” moments that you find humorously pointless? Or all those invitations for dinner or drinks or parties or celebrations that create more stress than joy for you? If you’re that stressed out around the people who are supposed to be your circle of support, where is the benefit? This year I’m giving myself the gift of “no.” I will remain social and engaged. I will strengthen ties with those  important to me. But I will also have no problem saying “no” and investing time taking care of myself. I deserve that. My clients deserve that. My family deserves that. My friends deserve that. And did I mention that I deserve that?
  • Goals. There are so many things I want to do with myself, and if I can do all of the things above than I will have opportunities to set goals and achieve them. I won’t share all that I want to do, but I will say one of my big goals is to write a book and this year I will start that process. Will it ever be published? Probably not, but that’s not what matters. The point is that it’s something I want to do for me, and I’m giving myself the gift of this goal and I am going to enjoy my efforts. It’s a big goal to be sure, but it’s hits all the hallmarks therapists encourage for their clients for “SMART” goals. Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Time-bound.

zenIf you could give yourself any non-material gifts to improve your life, what would they be? What is missing that would make you happier and allow you to better love yourself and those around you? What would you add to your life to accomplish your goals? Make a list. Be detailed in why you want it and how you will use it. Then share it with those closest to you. In fact, maybe turn it into a group activity and hold each other accountable to make sure you truly cherish the gifts you’re giving yourself. I suspect if we spent a little less time focusing on material giving to others and more time focusing what matters in life, we would be happier and healthier.