Zen Habits to the rescue

I know what it’s like to feel on top of the world. To feel like I’m standing on a surfboard and I’ve caught a rogue wave at its peak and with no effort at all, as if every fairy godmother in the universe is cheering me on, I’m gliding like Jesus walking on water.

As I continue on the wave, I’m peering into the horizon and no matter what I do, I can do no wrong, as if pink unicorns and purple fairy dust is sprinkling down on me and isn’t that a rainbow? No. Oh god. Look. It’s a DOUBLE rainbow rising up out of the ocean directly in front of me like a magnificent Orca beckoning me towards it, straight towards Nirvana on this earth in my lifetime. Amen. Been there. Occasionally. Okay at least once that I can think of, vividly, but not for quite some time.

I also know what it’s like to be on the other side of that coin. It’s not depression. Well, maybe a little. It’s more like being dropped into some bunker in the middle of nowhere and everyone has forgotten that you’re there and you might as well be in the trenches at Vimy Ridge or at least having a flashback to that time. Well, okay, that’s overly dramatic. So?

Now being a writer helps contribute to the second reality because there are many periods of uncertainty, and periods of down time, or periods of just trying to think of something new when you’re in between the actual writing of something. It’s that period of time that requires brainstorming and researching related to coming up with a good idea, or even a really stupid idea, or let’s get real, a downright bad idea for queries or something, anything, give me a sign. One that doesn’t show how lame I can be at times at handling uncertainty, but never as lame, alas, as those who have long-term, full-time jobs are about to be unemployed. Not as lame as them.

The downtime can be a tricky period because for someone like me, it can feel like I’m not working even though I’m always working and I have to figure out why someone who seems to be spending more and more of my life these past few years not working at a formal job can still get anxious about not working at a formal job.  I will chalk that up to my childhood which is the root cause of everything that is wrong with me. There’s research to back up that fact so, no, I’m not being overly dramatic.

Not all periods of work are productive. Are you at work? Look around. I mean, honestly! You’re reading this stupid blog post. Get back to work!

Somehow, alone, just me and my computer, in that period of time that requires mining for new ideas, sitting or going for a walk in the middle of the work day or getting outside for a coffee at Starbucks and just free associating to come up with something of value as a starting point can make me feel like more of a fraud than I normally feel in the troughs of neuroticism as Holy Grail.  I blame it on being raised by Presbyterians on my late father’s side.

So yesterday when I was feeling this way, right at the zenith of that feeling, I got an e-mail from my subscription to this blog called zenhabits and it was so perfect. Leo’s solution related to countering that feeling of being overwhelmed with just doing the dishes.


I love that. Here’s someone who gets that sometimes just doing one simple thing that’s actually achievable can make all the difference.

Here’s his post. Subscribe to his blog. But first, do the dishes!

Post Secondary 30 years later

AbnormalPsychologytextThose of you who know me off the Interweb know that last July I started taking courses as a part-time student. I enrolled at Vancouver Community College. I tentatively stuck my big toes across a classroom’s threshold to begin to gather prerequisites to eventually apply to a Masters in Counselling Psychology hoping to be accepted at one of BC’s universities somewhere in the vicinity of Fall 2016 or thereabouts.

That first classroom experience was excellent. The instructor was lively and animated. She was a woman who had returned to school herself just years before. My fellow students were an eclectic mix of people with former degrees, McWorkers, recovering addicts, and those, like me, who have overcome their own traumas and dramas and reasons for needing to seek counselling. They were a super lively bunch who ranged in age from mid 20s to late 50s. It was a great class! Had that experience been less than it was, I am not sure I’d be continuing on this journey.

At that same time, I enrolled in the six month Graduate Manuscript Workshop via SFU Writer’s Studio taught by Wayde Compton. I must say that writing and exploring writing, especially nonfiction if it’s related to personal history, fits really well with taking courses in counselling. The trick is to figure out how to keep writing when my focus is so dispersed.

Content of the courses aside, these new endeavours are proving to be most interesting not just because of what I’m learning but what I’m observing about the different campuses. I feel like a mystery student, akin to a mystery shopper, dropping in to VCC and Douglas, returning to SFU’s downtown campus and who knows, maybe I’ll cherry-pick another pre-requisite online from Athabasca. I feel like I should be carrying around a little clipboard taking notes of all the things these post-secondary institutes are either doing really well or need to do better. There’s a lot of each to choose from.

This term, I managed, in spite of 18 people on a wait list, to get into a course I need at Douglas College and going there is a little more personally daunting. The biggest challenge is that everyone, as they should be, is right out of high school. I’m like, Mom’s here! I think back to when I was at SFU, right out of high school, and had I seen someone my age, I would have been confused, maybe even a little hostile. Why is she taking up a spot? I get it kids. I understand.

At VCC, small classes are the norm, 20 people or thereabouts. I really like that. The instructors actually know every student’s name. The counselling courses are very interactive, obviously, and fellow students become practice clients which isn’t ideal in terms of boundaries but the most viable option. You get to know people. You feel a part of something.

At Douglas, there must be at least 35 people in the class and the instructor just finished teaching the same thing to a different section right before. Give the guy a gold star… or maybe some drugs! How do you talk in front of people, repeating the same thing, in the same afternoon-evening for more than 6 hours and not start to sound like a crazy person? He managed to stay incredibly articulate. Kudos to him. Still, the whole instructor at front lecturing seems so 1980. There’s got to be a better way. Luckily, they seemed to have improved the text book, complete with Canadian references no less. I opened to a page and a photo of a guy I was friends with as an undergrad, now a Psychiatry professor, was staring back at me. Shocking in both good and bad ways. I know too much. About him! I don’t want to see him looking back at me from a textbook.

At the same time I’ve begun training to volunteer at the Vancouver Crisis Centre and can I just say there is probably no better training that I’ve experienced in terms of let’s ramp things up here and get into the psyche and psych-ache of BC. I was worried about doing it. How will volunteering there impact my own mental health? That’s yet to be determined. What I’ve learned there in the first two weeks of training has been equivalent to at least an entire semester at any course I’ve ever taken, and more.

It’s been an exciting and intense start to the New Year. I’m guessing my brain is looking a little bit like that childhood toy, Lite-Brite.

“We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.” – Paulo Coelho

Thank you to my friend Elaine for the quote this morning. It seems to fit.

Dreaming Psychotherapy into Fiction

DSC_0519Sometimes I wake up and I can’t get here, present, out of some forest I’ve never been to before and into the space where my body is. It’s as if my dreams, the ones I can never remember, even though I’m told that “we all dream” “keep a pen and paper by your bed” “write them down” have wrapped their gauzy claws around me and demanded I stay in character, just as I’m supposed to be –  there – wherever, a million miles away, another galaxy, as if I’ve been snatched to perform in someone else’s dream. That’s how I feel today.

I’ve just finished reading this fantastic book that I couldn’t put down called Love’s Executioner, Other Tales of Psychotherapy. It’s a book that had its moment of recognition quite some time ago even though, honestly, the stories of people’s lives and their problems revealed within it are timeless and amazing.

Written in 1989 by a somewhat famous Existentialist, an M.D. psychotherapist, Professor Emeritus from Stanford and writer Irvin D. Yalom.  

There’s nothing like being a voyeur into other people’s problems and other people’s therapy to learn that life truly is the stuff of fiction and truth can be at least equal to those carefully woven fictional plots.

I’ve been discovering that for myself in my own student counselling and I can see how peeling away the layers of another person, their story, their unique take on the world, their true life dramas can become quite addictive to learn about – trophy hunting revelations – maybe especially if you’re also a writer.

I find myself not just listening and trying to respond, with empathy, while trying to utter something that will lead them deeper into themselves, into insight and clarity and mostly failing, but suddenly, there’s an even more compelling layer where I’m imagining what I might do with that nugget they’ve just shared, how it could be changed and woven into some story into the future. Stop that!   

EMDR in therapy, in class and into the world

Sometimes life and learning come together in such perfect ways.

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a form of psychotherapy developed by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro who lives in California. This integrative psychotherapy had a bit of a flukey beginning (just like many discoveries and innovations).

Shapiro was walking across a field one day back in 1987. A few things were bothering her and she noticed as she walked and thought about what was bothering her that her eyes moved very quickly up and down. Now you might think, that’s a really weird thing to notice. Who would notice that? The answer is a woman who had been intensely focused on the mind-body connection for about 10 years, via workshops and other learning, as a result of doing all she could to recover from a bout of cancer.

Shapiro noticed that after these rapid eye movements, her mildly distressing thoughts were lessened. She tried it again, on purpose, asking friends to call up a disturbing memory, then purposely guiding their eyes back and forth, having them follow a marker for 30 seconds per set. She got consistent results. She continued to do that for about 70 people asking them to hone in on a specific disturbing memory, to notice their feelings in their body, the negative thoughts about self associated with the memory, and how those changed and lessened as she did the rather hocus pocus looking thing that meant their brains were being stimulated bilaterally.  The disturbance lessened. The original negative thought became more positive and they were left feeling more in control, not controlled, by the original negative experience.

She began to hypothesize that EMDR somehow replicated the body’s natural healing process, the one that seems to allow us to process events every night in our dreams when we experience the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) portion of our sleep cycle. The brain is able to process the things that we need, that are helpful, and let go of the rest, unless it can’t. If the disturbance is so out of line from anything else we’ve ever experienced in our lives then sometimes, not in everyone but in many people, the brain can’t process that information and it becomes problematic. We have no where to integrate that traumatic memory into our nervous system and sometimes that trauma leads to PTSD.

We react way out of proportion to things and may be triggered by sounds, smells, colours, a facial expression, or images when those tap into the original event which (in the case of childhood trauma) we may have repressed.

Shapiro enrolled in a doctoral program in Psychology and published findings from her thesis in the Journal of Traumatic Studies in 1989. It was met with great controversy. How could something so strange be such a quick fix for Big T Trauma? The journal must have been duped. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had only been defined in 1980. There were no good therapies, not really, for helping those suffering from traumatic and intrusive memories.

EMDR was met with skepticism, which is good, that’s how it should be. And then not so good – with controversy – and finally, after years of anecdotal testimonies and 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies, it is now recognized as an effective treatment for those suffering from trauma. EMDR has been approved by the American Psychiatric Association and the U.S. Department of Defence and Veteran Affairs and it’s acknowledged as effective treatment for people who have been through a traumatic experience and others who have suffered traumas as children or are experiencing other problems – depression, anxiety, that they haven’t been able to overcome.

This week I’m giving a talk on EMDR in one of my classes and I’m really excited about it because I believe wholeheartedly in EMDR. My experience with it, and I’ve had it many times as part of talk therapy, is that it has taken me on a journey into myself every single time unearthing images that bubble to the surface like metaphors, causing emotion to rise faster than I’ve ever experienced it as a release, provides insights to mull over and leave me feeling not only astonished at what came up, but, by the end of the session, more in control of the original stressor instead of controlled by the emotional reaction to it. There’s an alignment between body and mind and a genuine belief in the positive thought and a neutralizing of the feeling in the body.

Best of all, it always ends on a positive note. I don’t know how. Nobody knows how exactly. The studies are ongoing.

Given the realities of the 21st century where traumatic events are so widespread with ever increasing levels of anxiety and depression, I think the implications of using EMDR are so exciting and timely with the potential to be an incredible aid to humanitarian response in war zones, after natural disasters, and in lesser traumas that prevent people from living their lives to their greatest potentials.

Let’s be clear, it’s not a miracle cure but it does offer a faster positive response and resolution to long held struggles than previously available and that has been proven scientifically for anyone who can’t be open enough to get past the process, and remains stuck on the initial controversy.

Shapiro’s latest book is called Getting Past Your Past published 2012 and if you’d like to know more about EMDR and begin learning some really easy stress reduction techniques, I’d suggest reading it.

Visit EMDR.com or EMDRIA.org and EMDRhap.org for more information.

PS: I was reminded the other day. The best way to evaluate a therapy before someone wants to supposedly help you is to discover for yourself (based on evidence-based research) whether it has reliability and validity in helping others. And then, is it one that you are willing to participate in?

The best thing you could do for yourself before seeing any type of mental health provider is to find out what paradigm(s) they believe in and what therapy they are using on you and why they believe it’s the one to use.  Of course, often, we are not in the position to do that when we need to reach out and seek help because we are desperate. Caveat Emptor. Just sayin. And trust your gut.

An excellent book that I’ve read recently that has a chapter on EMDR in it,  that seems, based on my personal experience to be accurate, is called: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

Another excellent book related to complex trauma that I’ve recently read is called: Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving.

Goofing off for future productivity


It’s important to be self motivated when you work for yourself. This is true regardless of what you do. It’s especially true, and I admit that I’m biased, if the work has anything to do with writing.

One of the tricks about that is knowing yourself well enough to know when you need to buckle down, fight the inner child who just wants to goof off, tell them to go to their naughty mat and stay there, and force yourself to buckle down to get whatever you need to get done done.

It’s just as important to know when it’s playtime. Wash your face. Brush your teeth. It’s time for a little close to home excursion. Yahoo! Clap your hands with excitement.

I don’t know if it’s just the freedom of being able to do what you want, when you want to, or if it elicits traces of the feeling we all got, if and when we played hooky during high school, but taking the time is like reaching through and snatching a bit of the open space for ourselves.

I did that yesterday. It was 31 degrees. I wasn’t staying in my apartment staring at a computer. Are you kidding me?  That would be crazy. I made my way out to Steveston at around 1:30 pm and headed immediately to grab lunch at Pajo’s on the wharf. I ordered the salmon and chips. I said “Yes,” to the tarter sauce. I shouldn’t be eating any of that but tough.  And on a day like yesterday did I feel lucky that I control my own schedule right now? Oh yeah!

I sat at Pajo’s, ate my lunch which was wrapped in newsprint, and soaked up the Vitamin D of the brilliant sunshine.fishnchips

Afterwards, I wandered down to look at all the slippery shiny sockeye fresh off the fish boats backed into the dock. The tourists and locals streamed past. Fingers pointed at which fish they wanted. Shaved ice kept the salmon in the big bags fresh. Caught! Poor Mr. Salmon at life’s end, that remorse mixing with my own anticipation of delicious meals ahead.

As I carried on along the beautiful cement walkway that fronts the river from the little village to the Britannia Shipyards, I admired the sparkling water, the boats, the people clustered in little groups of twos and threes, chatting and walking and drinking coffee at Starbucks. I saw the fishers on the dock. When I arrived at the little recreated historical village, I spoke with a volunteer. I wanted to know what some big ship near the dock was. Did it do research? What was it? “I think it offers luxury excursions,” she said. It was called the Pacific Yellowfin.

I admired the little wooden structures that I’ve been in many times before. I listened to the music from the 1940s. I admired an old phonograph, saw postcards of women in bathing suits, letters from home across a bed. I tried to imagine the life of the people who lived then, worked then, their joys, their sorrows. How hard it must have been and yet the anticipation of building, something, even if it wasn’t clear then.

Outside, I noticed the bull rushes along the shore, the sea grasses,  and the way the sunlight hit the top of the metal roof off the old shipyard building, the sparkles off the water painting everything new. There was one of those yellow pianos on the dock, sitting there, inviting anyone to play it. I touched a note, feeling regret that I used to play, took lessons for years and now, without music, without practice, all that dormant.

I stopped at the gardens behind one of the tiny historical houses and peered in at the last bit of greens and feathery dill.

Mostly I just luxuriated in having time, my own time to do what I wanted with. It’s a luxury and all I’m really trying to say is that it’s good to be grateful (always) but especially when the day unfolds in a way that offers a bit of this and a bit of that, in all the ways that make you happy. The experiences are every bit as tantalizing as the morsels at one of those progressive dinners that used to be popular.  I felt like Mrs. Dalloway minus the high society and the party at the end of the evening.

To compensate I bought my own salmon.

Cutting it up and freezing it later. That’s a story for another day…

Pushing silence out of suicide’s way


Recently, I decided to take a course called Introduction to Counselling because I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a Masters and before I can even apply there’s a bunch of pre-requisites to be completed. One baby step at a time.

My ultimate goal, a never ending journey in the past few years, is to find a way to do something for money that complements my writing but will bring in more money than my writing has and will enable me to be self-employed.  I love the idea of doing more than one thing to make money. In fact, going to one job, in one place, for the whole day just seems like too many contradictions: a luxury, a penance and some retro fantasy that seems really outdated, especially if you have an artsy background.

Now, those of you who know me know that I’ve had way more than an introduction to counselling in my own life. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt. Pretty much already have the PhD in life experience.   But, no, that’s not true because I don’t, have a PhD that is, and because it’s different when you’re on the other side.  Surprise, surprise. Counselling is harder than it looks, and so far, in the class, we’ve only been practicing with fellow students, people who aren’t desperate, or even if they are, aren’t expecting you’ll be able to help them help themselves, for real.

It’s been a fascinating experience because it takes away any illusion one might have about other people being so much more together. They’re not. Simple. Done. Wipe the hands. Everybody’s got their shit. It’s an absolutely hallelujah moment to recognize that everybody’s got their shit and, well, so what?  Next. Moving right along.  The question is, are you dealing with it or inflicting it?

I mean if Robin Williams is done, what hope is there for the rest of us? And I really wonder if that’s what some of the more fragile out there are going to think. I wonder if the suicide hot lines are going to be off the charts this week with people who feel this way after the tragedy of Robin Williams taking his own life.

On  a more positive note, I feel like we are reaching a turning point, a barely visible shift when it comes to depression and other mental illnesses being taken seriously, and it’s been slower than proverbial molasses. People finally get that depression is an illness, not a sign of weakness, and most importantly, it’s real. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t moralize. Don’t ignore the signs. Don’t think you’re better because you’re always just fine thank you very much. Hold the cliches. You know what they are. Think on the bright side. You’re glass is either half empty or half full. Cheer up. It’s not so bad. Count your blessings. What have you got to be depressed about?

When I was in high school and suffered what I consider my first major bout of depression, I might as well have been naked on a raft in the middle of an ocean with nothing but a Bengal tiger and a hyena for company. It was the 1970’s. Depression? What’s that? That’s how alone, how ashamed, how isolated and desperate I felt made worse by how everyone around me reacted by not reacting at all. I could feel the shame. Was I embarrassing them? I can still recall the misery all these years later, and the misery of every time the darkness beyond black has descended. Immobilized. Ashamed. Here but not here. Stuck. And yet still a worthy human being. Right here. Me. Deal with it.

I have experienced the suicide of someone I loved. I know the devastation first hand. His name was Mac Rymal. I have heard about the suicide of someone I played basketball with for five years in high school, attended her funeral, and the pain of knowing how and what she did, leaving behind three young daughters as a result,  is something I think about regularly. I’ve always wondered how her girls, one just a baby at the time, have made out in life and I have never forgotten her. She was the captain of our championship basketball team. Her name was Donna Digby.

It might surprise you to know that the death rate for suicide is higher than the death rate from motor vehicle accidents. It surprised me.

It’s no longer okay for the S words to remain in the closet. Are you thinking of killing yourself?” is a legitimate question. It needs to be asked when it needs to be asked. It won’t push someone over the edge.

It’s so long overdue, one loss after another, to kick those other two S words: silence and stigma, to the curb.