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

A Therapist Comes Out

ComingOutNo, I’m not coming out as gay. I already did that some 20 years ago. And yes, I realize Pride was last month. But still I’ve decided to come out of another deeply personal closet. This one might actually be a bit harder than when I thought I was going to shock my parents about sexuality … though they were not the least bit shocked and if anything were a bit underwhelmed by the revelation. I am coming out of the therapy closet. I am a therapist who sees a therapist for my own mental health and well-being.

DepressionIt would seem like a therapist should have no trouble admitting that he sometimes needs help just like anybody else. In my mind, I can easily accept that at some point in their lives nearly two-thirds of American’s will qualify for a mental health diagnosis like anxiety or depression or ADHD. I encourage people to live genuine and open lives where shame and pretense are cast aside. And now it’s time for me to do the same.

Years ago I was diagnosed with a depressive disorder. Like many people, I tried medication with limited success. I wasn’t ready to work on the “real” issues and thought taking a magic pill would solve all my problems. It did help to an extent, but since I avoided dealing with the root causes of my depression it was bound to relapse. And it did. Several times in my adult life. Recently I started a course of psychotherapy to unpack the longstanding issues that fuel my depressive states. I want to better understand myself and the things that have happened in my life so I can make lasting changes. I want to cast off the chains of depression and emotional oppression so I can be the happiest and healthiest version of me. I deserve that.

Depressed WomanMy fear in coming out as a working professional with a depressive condition is that clients would think I was unfit to do my job. After all, who in their right mind would go to a depressed therapist? Well to be clear, I have periods of depression that are cyclical in nature. They are not so debilitating that they prevent me from attending to my daily needs, going to work and doing a good job, socializing with my friends, and enjoying many aspects of my life. Does that sound at all familiar? A “mild” depression where you are living life, just not your best life?

I was fascinated with the notion that mental health professionals are supposed to be these perfect creatures living blessed lives of flawless grandeur. And when my clients ask, sometimes jokingly and sometimes not, how therapists get through their day without having somebody to talk to, I would give a standard answer about “being trained to compartmentalize and maintain boundaries.” That is a true answer. We are well trained to compartmentalize the things we hear and to maintain a professional distance to avoid a vicarious traumatic reaction to the struggles and stresses of our clients’ lives. But come on! We’re still people! We have feelings too!

So here I am, coming out of the therapeutic closet and seeing the world from the eyes of my clients. When I attended my first session with a counselor who specializes in treating mental health professionals, I was quickly assured that I am not alone or some anomaly. In fact, he said something that gave me pause for several minutes: “the best therapists have their own therapists, and it makes them better at their jobs.” I’m pretty sure I’ve said things that caught my clients off guard and helped them see themselves and their struggle in a different light. Or at least I hope so. With that one sentence I knew I was doing the right thing.

Why come out of this closet at all? Why take the risk of alienating current or potential clients by admitting that I also seek help? Because mental illness in America has been far too stigmatized for far too long. How can I in good conscience encourage people to accept mental illness as a variation of the human experience and be ashamed of my own struggles? I care not for hypocrisy, so it seems to me that if I want to encourage a shift in how we view those seeking help I need to change the way I view my own need for help.

Therapy 5What have I learned so far? Nothing groundbreaking. Nothing that I didn’t already know from my own professional training. And yet I’m learning more about me than I could imaging because I wasn’t open to the possibility before. I’m solidifying goals for my life. I’m unpacking a lot of hurts that impact my self-esteem. I’m learning to better care for myself and reach out when I need support. I’m discovering just how passionately I care about some issues and how I can help make my world and the world around me a better place. I’m learning to see the best in myself so I can be the best version of myself. All the same things I do with my clients, I’m ENJOYING for myself.

And I feel great! I’m no longer scared to say that I have a therapist. He helps me care for myself and better myself. I am living a healthier and happier life, and working towards being the best me that I can be. And I know that I am a better therapist for it. Not just because I have a better understanding of what it’s like to be “on the couch.” But because I have a better understanding of the change that happens when you take care of you.

LifeIsGood

Surviving Your News Feed

social-mediaIn light of recent geopolitical events, many of us are wondering how to move forward in our daily lives. Sure, some were ecstatic with the outcome. Others were ambivalent. And there is a large percentage of people who are genuinely scared for what happens next in America as a whole, but also to individuals who might be living on the fringe – our marginalized compatriots who are segregated by race, ethnicity, national origin, sexuality, gender, gender identity and expression, and socioeconomic status to name but a few divergences.

If you’re anything like me, you’re checking your social media several times a day. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Pinterest. Snapchat. Tumblr. And who knows how many more you might have. Leading up to the election and inauguration, many of us went on a rampage of “if you think ____ then unfriend me now!” and ourselves choosing to unfollow, unfriend, and outright block those who in opposition of what we know in our hearts to be the best for all of America.

But the election is over. The President has been sworn in. Now we have to move forward with our lives and that can be hard to do when we feel beholden to the social media onslaught that can be psychologically damaging. How do you stay connected and sane? Is there a way to use social media without spiraling into a depression with every post on your friends’ walls? Here are a few strategies that make my life easier. Hopefully some of these will work for you too.

Have Good Boundaries

lineinthesand.jpegBoundaries. Not walls. Not fences. Just boundaries. Know where your line is when it comes to devoting time to social media. I remember my dear sweet Aunt Robin always had a retort about answering the phone. “It’s there for my convenience and mine alone.” I think maybe that’s a healthy way to view social media platforms as well. Unless you are a paid blogger or paid activist, this really is hobby work. Limit the amount of time you are willing to spend sitting in front of a computer looking at the world through somebody else’s eyes. Not only is this about the grand total of time, but the number of times a day you check your feeds.

Stephen Covey, famous for the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, divided tasks into quadrants. I cannot share the rubric here for copyright issues, but you can easily Google this. Covey believed that we should devote most of our time to Quadrant II. Without a doubt social media for most of us falls into Quadrant IV, which is the no man’s land of wasted time and wasted life. He never advocated getting rid of these activities completely, but rather taught that we prioritize our time so we don’t get trapped in the abyss of hours gone by. Surely we can all agree that much of our social media time would qualify.

Digital Disconnect

With my clients, we talk frequently about a “digital disconnect.” This is another form of good boundaries but with some escalation. Take fixed periods of time where you “log off” of your social media presence. A good starting point is a two-day weekend. Maybe from there build up to a seven day “cleanse.” If that suits you well, consider a full thirty-day abstinence. I have no doubt that when you log back on, you will see things through a different lens.

Consider the Source

I admit that I have been one of those people who share snopes.com and other fact checking sites to refute various posts and memes. I don’t know at what point we decided as a society to blindly trust so-called facts on the Internet and give up our willingness to critically analyze a situation. I fear some of us never learned that skill, or maybe we have become complacent because if our friends post it then it must be true right? In research terms this is known as confirmation bias. We select data sources that confirm what we want to be true and discard other sources of information that might prove us wrong. This is very easy to do in social medial because we surround ourselves with likeminded “friends.” What would happen if liberals also watched Fox News or conservatives logged onto Politico.com every day? At the very least our preconceived notions might be challenged enough for us to consider where we get our information.

truthometerAs a cautionary tale of what happens when we remained ill-informed, we need only look at the recent lambasting of Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway when they tried unsuccessfully to pass of misinformation as “alternative facts.” Or the frequent reactions by liberal and conservative news outlets to the tweets of the now President when his facts are not quite accurate (attack at the Louvre, NY Times falling readership and apology for coverage, threats of cancelling federal funds to universities based on their selected speakers, etc.). Just because somebody said it, tweeted it, memed it, or shared it does not make it true. Fight to keep untruths and partial truths out of your psychology.

Maintain a Schedule

We are creatures of habits, some good and some not so good. We take comfort in the safety and familiarity of routines. I get up at the same time very day of the week. I have the same coffee beverage every morning while reading the news. We enjoy the same Friday night pizza date every week. Routines are good. Routines give us a sense of stability. Keep going to gym. Keep meeting your friends for happy hour. Get those regular massages. Exercise every day. Make sure you get plenty of sleep. Take your vitamins. Allow your routines to shield you and to make you feel more confident in your daily living.

This might be a good time for a reminder about healthy sleep hygiene. My clients always chuckle at this because of my vision of beds. Our beds have two purposes: sleepin’ and sexin’. When you climb into bed your brain needs to know you’re either about to sleep or about to sex. If it’s clearly not a romantic or sexual interlude, you will be training your brain to “shut down” so you actually fall asleep. And if there is some fun about to happen….well enjoy! Our beds are the not the place to watch TV or binge watch Netflix, read, eat, study, text, chat, etc. As comfortable as it might be to do things on a pillow top mattress under our favorite blankie, it sends the wrong message to our brain and disrupts the routine we need for good rest and rehabilitation. Sleepin’ and sexin’. And if neither happens in the first fifteen minutes, leave the bed and come back later so we don’t train our brain to the routine of staring at the ceiling.

Get Involved

getinvolvedMy clients have been asking for weeks how to feel better about the future in these seemingly uncertain times. One of the best things you can do is get involved! Political activism can actually be good for your psychology. It is future oriented and action oriented. It involves you as an active participant rather than a political victim. Join your local political party. Join a national organization. Attended rallies and marches. Call your representatives. Host fundraisers in your home (it’s never too early to start raising campaign funds). Write letters to the editor.

A secret to involvement to feel better is scaling it for your life. If all you can do is write a check, it’s enough. If you can only find time to write a letter to the editor or make one call to Congress, it’s enough. There is no minimum standard here, and in fact starting small might make it easier for this to become habitual. The point is to do it because it engages the logical part of your brain (frontal lobes) just as much as the emotional side (limbic system). None of us really wants to be slaves our amygdala! Emotional overload leads to anxiety and depression. Getting involved can ward that off.

Be Emotional

But, we are emotional creatures and our limbic system sometimes does get the better of us. It is important to allow yourself to feel your feelings. Let it happen. Be open to emotional expression. Vent to a friend. Go for a run. Schedule a massage. Call your therapist. Just be. You cannot completely suppress the feelings or they will build up and overtake you at some point. We’ve all seen friends who kept choking it down until there was an explosion of anger or frustration. Hell, we’ve been that friend! Accept that you are going to have feelings about all the things happening in your life. All of your feelings are valid. Yes, they are ALL valid. Feelings are not what define you as a person. How you respond to those feelings is where irrational behaviors might come in to play and that’s when you should reach out for some help. But short of that, feelings come and go. It’s part of the human experience. Let it happen. It’s good for you!

Positivity and Future Orientation

positivityOnce you’ve had those emotional “breakdowns” or accepted those negative feelings, it’s time to move forward. This is a great time to remind yourself of all the good things in your life. Yes, even when it feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket you still have good things in your life. We need to maintain our sense of gratefulness. I find it helpful to make lists of things I am grateful for and to thank people for their contribution. Who wouldn’t love to open the mailbox and receive a handwritten thank you note for being a meaningful contributor to someone’s life? Writing that note encourages positive emotional expression. Since it uses emotion, memories, and rational thought, we are engaging multiple parts of our brain in a positive exercise. A little boost of serotonin and dopamine to improve our mood and outlook.

Being grateful for what you have is an easy way to help you decide what you want to have in the future. If you love meeting a friend for coffee, do that more often. If family reunions fill you with love and hope, make plans more frequently with relatives you might not see so often, even if you’re limited to phone calls for those far away. Spend time with those people you love – your family of origin and your chosen family. Focus on activities that bring you joy and happiness, and do as many of them each week as your schedule allows.

Find Your People

It really does take a village these days to be healthy in a pluralistic society and make meaningful civic contributions. Find your people. Find your tribe. This is especially important if you are part of a marginalized group. Reach out and be supportive. Reach out and ask for support. Build alliances because change takes time and continual forward momentum. It is exhausting. You cannot do it alone. There has never been a more important time in our living history to connect with those who support us, and hopefully even build bridges to bring new people into our tribes to grow our spheres of influence and emotional support networks.

Take care of you. Take care of one another. Love freely and openly. Just be.

Be at peace. -wp