Stigmas shape culture and belief. Stigma, is a mark of disgrace or shame associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. In the case of “Mental Health” the stigma is clear. Most people seem to believe some who is “mentally ill” has a broken brain, and we “gotta get ’em fixed.” That’s bullshit. The truth, brains all work very differently. That’s a fact. My brain and yours work very differently. It’s time to de-stigmatize mental health.
The big question I have is, what if the stigma of “mentally ill” were creating more harm than actual mental health issues? The resistance we have to being mentally unstable, which is a normal part of life, I believe, may be causing more harm than actual mental illness. One of the very normal behaviors that we have stigmatized, is sadness. In our culture it’s not ok to be sad anymore. No, now you are labeled as “depressed.” The pressure to wear a smile all the time is exhausting! Who’s with me?
The stigma of being “depressed” is so pervasive, that those of us who struggle with it often adopt the belief that we are broken. And due to the stigma, we have all accepted it as true. What if “being depressed” were, in fact a social construct? What if depression wasn’t even a pathology to begin with? This is a presumptuous question. And one that I hope you can grasp the importance of. In no way am I suggesting that depression isn’t real. It is very real. Being depressed is a serious thing, it can lead to severe loneliness, hopelessness, thoughts or worthlessness, and suicide. We know through fMRI brain scans that the brain chemistry of someone who is diagnosed as depressed is different than someone who is not. I am not minimizing how serious and debilitating depression is. It is more than just feeling sad. Much more than that. I am simply asking the question if we de-stigmatized, or normalized, being sad instead of labeling it as mental illness or brokenness, what effect would that have on people? My theory, it would change the very landscape of our society. In other words, sadness and depression are natural human responses to individual experiences. This is not a “bad” thing. The brain’s natural response to loss and trauma is to change how it works. That’s mother nature’s way of helping us, she is not hurting us!
But we have demonized this sadness and the solution has been prescribed for us. The answer is pills, pills, pills, and more pills. Guess what folks? Being sad isn’t bad. It’s freaking normal for crying out loud!!! Sadness is a natural and healthy human emotion. But for some reason we have decided that if we feel sad we need to numb the pain associated with it. This, my friends, in my humble opinion, is one of the great downfalls of our society. We are so pain averse and resistant that we will do anything we can to run from our discomfort. Often times at the expense of others.
As such, now sad people are deemed broken and “need to be fixed.” We have no place for sadness anymore. And as a result, anyone who is sad is lonely beyond belief. Believing, that they are the saddest person alive. When, as a culture, we have decided to numb out all of our sadness with pills, drugs, alcohol, video games, and avoidance, no one has the space to show how they feel anymore. We all hide our feelings constantly. Putting on a brave face, showing the world nothing of our true self. For fear of being found out, for fear of being labeled as “sick.” And what ends up happening, “what we resist, persists.” We end up being even more lonely and sad, simply because of our aversion to feeling pain.
Ask yourself this question: When was the last time you publicly cried? When was the last time you told someone that you were having a hard day? When was the last time you just said, “I’m sad.” We don’t do it. We all put on a mask everyday. We need to lean in to the discomfort just a little more.
When we ignore, numb, and deny ourselves the pain we ALL live with, we create isolation and loneliness. What’s worse we are creating a generation of young people hyper-occupied with how bad they feel, willing to do anything to stop the pain. All the while creating more pain. Simply because they believe the pain is “bad” in the first place. This is the society we live in, and as a result we are creating numbed out, risk and pain avoidant, scared children. If I’m afraid of being sad how will I ever address how I feel?
What if we normalized pain and sadness and accepted it as part of life? In reality pain is the things that binds us. Suffering is the only commonly experienced thing in life. That’s what being human is, suffering. Our suffering binds us together.
Whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or non-believing, man or woman, black, white, or brown, we are all the same. Physically, emotionally, and mentally, we are all equal. We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and love. We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering. Each of us has hopes, worries, fears, and dreams. Each of us wants the best for our family and loved ones. We all experience pain when we suffer loss and joy when we achieve what we seek. On this fundamental level, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language make no difference.
-His Holiness the Dalai Lama
As we ignore what binds us, we disconnect from each other. When we numb our suffering and run from the lessons it can teach us, we lose our innate ability to connect. As a result we are more disconnected and fractured now than ever. However, there is hope. Moving towards compassion and love we can find connection. Owning our suffering, rather than pretending “everything is ok,” takes courage and builds compassion and connection. We all just want to be loved, it is easy to love what we understand. And we can all understand suffering. Own it, be sad, live in the sadness for a minute and watch what happens. If each of us just attempt to break the stigma of sadness, we will find that with that simple act comes an abundance of love and happiness.
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” -Brene Brown.
We struggle, as human beings, to define shame and more importantly to understand it. Most people believe shame is something completely different than it really is. Basically, shame keeps us stuck. Shame leaves us believing that we suck at life and that no one cares about us. I don’t know about you, but I feel this all the time.
Man, life is discouraging sometimes. Right? I know I feel like I fail constantly and just can’t seem to catch a break. And that little voice inside my head is always right there telling me I’m never going to amount to anything. That is shame.
Shame is the number one thing keeping us from believing we are capable of more. We believe that negative voice inside our head and we stay stuck. We never try new things. Then we do the same things over and over expecting a different result, wondering why life is so mundane and repetitive. All because we listen to the voice that tells us, “you can’t do it.” In other words, we all go a little more insane each day with self doubt every time we believe what shame is telling us. We are unable to break free of our own self-imposed limitations.
So how do we move through shame and into freedom? We have to be authentic. We stop pretending to be something we’re not. Belonging is at the core of shame. If I feel like I don’t belong, I won’t ever succeed. And if I believe I’m a fraud, I’ll never feel like I belong anywhere.
I meet new people constantly. And like many of us out there, I want to be liked. Each time I meet new people I really only have two options, pretend to be just like the person I meet so they will like me, be a chameleon, or I can be authentic and real. If I choose the authenticity route, they like me because they like ME, who I am, not some pretend version of myself. If I choose to fake it and try to be the chameleon, they like me because I have changed who I am. They don’t even know the real me. And, most importantly, I think they liked me because I changed to be like them.
No matter what, when you choose to be a chameleon, even if people like you, your inner monologue is always, “If they knew who I really was, they wouldn’t really like me.” That, is shame… That voice that tells you, “your not enough.” It screams, “be someone else!” It whispers, “you’ll never be liked.” When we listen to shame we become shells of our true selves and we miss out on the wonderful relationships waiting to be explored and enjoyed. We miss out on feeling joy and experiencing true success!
The challenge we all have is to be true to who we are. Authenticity, is where it’s at folks. When we are authentic and honest we find love and belonging, and shame just withers away. We can do it people. Be real! Be you! It’s great. People will flock to you when you be you. Your authentic self pulls in people close. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when you feel truly loved, for who you really are.
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I was recently introduced to the work of Bryan Stevenson. He is a well known attorney, he represents people who are on Death Row. He sees humans at their darkest, in the very depths of despair and sorrow. The concept of mercy is profound. He opened my eyes to a new way of looking at mercy and how it works.
“Mercy, is for those who don’t deserve it.” – Bryan Stevenson
Mercy is the gift of forgiveness, given to someone who seemingly doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. In my work I too see many people who believe they are undeserving of forgiveness. Bryan’s definition of Mercy transcends this.
If you truly think about it, being deserving of forgiveness isn’t really the qualifier for who should be forgiven. If that were the case, would anyone really be deserving of forgiveness?
“Simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” -Bryan Stevenson
Punishment teaches nothing. It only reinforces the negative beliefs we have about ourselves. In our fear, we have cast out the most broken of us and hide them from our sight. Have we forgotten our humanity? Since when do we get to be judge and jury of who belongs where? Judgment is crippling us. We remain broken along with those who we hide and walk away from, those we cast out.
In our brokenness we seek what we believe to be true. We look for ways to reinforce what we already believe. We look for evidence to support our own theories, whether they are factual or false.
This is the case with criminals, especially with addicts. We have deemed addiction an “evil” and believe men and women are bad and look for evidence to prove our theories. In doing so we have over 2.3 million Americans behind bars right now. And as a result we do it to ourselves. In our own lives, we look for evidence to support our belief that we don’t belong either
The ever inspiring Brene Brown teaches us in her latest work:
Judgment is what keeps us all apart. Judgment leaves us fragmented and broken, we judge others constantly based on fractions of the truth. And what’s worse? We judge ourselves even more harshly. We compare ourselves to others constantly, ending up on the bottom of a weighty self belief that we are worthless. This is the scourge of our society. This is shame. Believing that we are worthless, less than, not enough.
Shame plagues us all. I see this every day. People broken by child abuse believing they don’t belong, look for evidence to support this theory. All the while pleading for another chance, hoping that maybe they can just survive another day. And what do we do? We reinforce their worst fear by casting them out. And they, like us, believe they are at fault; they did something to cause the horrific atrocities the experienced as children. The downtrodden of our society believe they are less than, and we cast them out, look down on them, and lock them away. When are we going to understand just how important mercy is? Will enough judgement ever be cast that we can begin to forgive?
It seems that today, it takes a celebrity suicide or other fatal tradegy for us to jump to social media to call to one another. We send thoughts and prayers, but how shallow of an attempt is that? I recognize the effort, I do, but can’t we do more? What about those who live in the dark, who we don’t see? These are the most broken among us. We need to change the way we live. Instead of casting out what we don’t understand, it’s time we love what looks a little different than us.
Ghandi taught, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.” We fear what we don’t understand, and we cast it out. When someone commits a crime, he/she is desperate enough to do so. Desperation does strange things to people, when we cast those we don’t understand out of our society, we increase desperation and thus increase crime. As a society we have decided to leave the desperate with no options and they are forced into living as less than and outcasts.
The courage to be compassionate and merciful comes from understanding and empathy. This, we find in our hearts.
If we go into our hearts and think for a moment how someone who is “not like us” lives, things begin to change. We can imagine what someone has to do to just survive, we begin to understand why they do what they do. This is how we gain compassion for others. And more importantly we are more compelled to show mercy for each other. And as we do so maybe, we too, can learn to show a little more compassion and mercy for ourselves. It’s worth a shot.
Sometimes I’m just confused by the way the World works. Is anyone else there with me? It just doesn’t make sense. I look around me and see much goodness and so much sadness as well. It all just seems so random and unfair. Good, kind people experience horrific atrocities, and seemingly selfish people live these lavish, carefree lifestyles jet setting to the Bahamas for no reason at all. It just seems like a bunch of bullshit, to be honest. On days like today that feels particularly true. However, I was recently taught an important lesson that I had already thought I had learned, but apparently needed to learn again.
I had just finished listening to an awful account of a trauma that someone had experienced. Everyday, I hear accounts of the most tragic and atrocious things you can think of. Rape, abuse, death, loss, grief, immense pain, every kind of tragedy you can imagine. This is my job. I’m kind of twisted, because I love my job. Also I get that someone has to be the vessel for this stuff, somebody has to be willing hold some of these tragedies for others. That is my gift and my lot in life. I accept that and expect nothing in return. Truly, I don’t. I just want to help people heal.
On this particular day I was told a horrific story about a young girl’s life, I’ll spare you the details. This story was so horrific, I had trouble hearing it. I hear a lot of stuff, and for this to happen the story needs to be extreme to say the least. After hearing it, I went to a friend and colleague of mine and asked “How do you keep doing this? How do you hear this stuff day after day, and not let it just destroy your faith in humanity?”
Then she responded with something remarkably poetic,“The darkness has to equal the light.” She began to explain that she is no longer surprised anymore by what she hears. It goes both ways, the potential for depravity in the human has to match the potential for beauty. For all the tragedy in the world, there is an equal and opposite amount of beauty and wonder. This is tough to remember some days. I work hard to remind myself of this, it’s easy to forget when there’s so many depressing things happening around me.
I remind myself often that I have seen some remarkable and amazing things in this world. The potential for love by a human being is infinite. This could not be more true as I have seen my friends turn the most tragic event imaginable, losing their precious daughter, into something amazing, something so unbelievably brilliant and “bright” the effect continues to spread all over the world.
The Brighton a Day Foundation was created by Kevin and Bethany Tenney to help families and parents grieving from the loss of a child. Weeks after the sudden loss of their beautiful four year old girl, Brighton, they turned tragedy into love! This cause is close to my heart because these two people have become some of our closest friends. Kevin and Bethany take their life together and dedicate it to others. I don’t know how they do it, to be quite frank. Their kindness and love never ceases to amaze me. I spend my days listening to people who experience loss and it destroys them. But not these two, they go on. Spreading the light their daughter left behind.
Today is Brighton’s Angel Day. It’s been two years, and they go on. I watch them, close up. I see what it means to be strong. I see what it means to thrive despite having the deck stacked against them. I see what it means to desperately cling to glimmers of hope on the dark days and it gives me the strength to go on too.
Please take a minute today and think about your life. It is unfair. It is bullshit. Yet you must go on. There’s ways to make it. Find meaning. Find a cause. Find a reason to live your life! Doing so drowns out the darkness and brings light to those around you. And that my friends, is the meaning of life. Helping others in their darkest moments, stepping into the dark with them. There in we find the light within ourselves, we often never even knew existed.
I often get asked about books that I have found to be helpful. The following is a list of books that somehow or another have found a way into my life that I continue to return to often. (This list excludes religious cannon) Whether it be in working with a troubled teen, Veteran struggling from PTSD, or mother struggling to get over her past, all of the lessons and principles found in these books have shaped who I am and how I help others.
The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman
Anatomy of Peace, The Arbinger Institute
Beyond Anger, Thomas Harbin
Codependent No More, Melody Beattie
Vulnerability, Shame, and Belonging
The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown, PhD.
Daring Greatly, Brene Brown, PhD.
Rising Strong, Brene Brown, PhD.
Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown, PhD.
The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
Getting Past your Past, Dr. Francine Shapiro
Come to Your Senses, Dr. Stanley Block
Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate
Refuge Recovery, Noah Levine
The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz
The Alchemist, Paul Coelho
The Art of Happiness, The Dalai Lama XIV
Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
Standing for Something, Gordon B. Hinckley
7 Habits for Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey
Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell
The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg
Grit, Angela Duckworth
As a Man Thinketh, James Allen
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
This past year I attended several funerals for friends who have taken their own lives. The most recent was the fifth I’ve been to in the last two years. As well, a good friend of my wife’s took her own life not too long ago. And more recently, a good friend of mine lost his brother to the battle with depression. Day in and day out I work with people who have tried to kill themselves. It’s a very real thing, and we ignore it. Suicide is not something we talk about in our culture, we ignore and deny it’s existence until it affects us directly. And chances are, we all will be affected by it in one way or another in our lifetime. So why do we keep turning a blind eye? Because, if we talk about it it seems too real. However, it is real. Suicide happens every day, on average about 120 per day take their own lives.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015:
My last article was about helping others who are struggling. After re-reading it, I feel things were left unsaid. It’s important that we understand that we can’t stop someone from dying. If someone wants to to die, they will take their own life. But there are things that we can do to help those who struggle with suicidal ideation (thinking about, considering, or planning suicide.)
One of the bravest things I’ve ever seen anyone do took place at the funeral I attended recently. It was bold and beautiful, and it brought me to tears. The young teenage daughter of the woman who took her life got up in front of the very large mourning crowd and, through sobs and tears, boldly called us all to action. She wisely proclaimed, “Suicide is not a joke. We joke about it all the time, and it’s time to take this seriously.” She went on to invoke action from the audience. Chastening us for ignoring the problem. As she, and what seemed to be the entire congregation, openly wept, she admonished, “there is more we can do to reach out to those who are struggling with depression. Don’t ignore what is right in front of you.” Cries for help are not cries for attention. They are the pleadings of a human suffering so intensely, they feel their only option is death.
This holiday season the number of deaths by suicide will increase, there is often an uptick in suicide at the end of the year each year. This time of year people are reminded of their loneliness and pain. At a time when others are boasting about their joy and abundance of “stuff” on social media, some of us look and see what we are missing in our lives. We’re reminded of what we have lost. What we no longer have. It’s easy to be insensitive to this, but as we are more mindful of how our boasting and bragging affects others we can be moved to compassion and eventually action.
This is a call to action for all of us. Be aware! Look around you! Raise your head from your self-indulgent holiday stupor and reach out to someone in need. Giving gifts is always great, please give more than just from your wallet! Give kindness! Give understanding! Give love!
We need more kindness and empathy. Refrain from judgment and accept others for who they are. Embrace the way they choose to manage their struggles, though it might not be how you would do it, it’s the best they can do.
We need more openness about our own struggles. We need people to stand up and be brave, sharing their stories. Stepping into your truth seems scary but feels so freeing. Don’t mask your pain and put on a happy face, go find someone who is struggling like you and connect with them. The more we wallow in our loneliness the more others who suffer as we do, continue to suffer.
Let us follow the Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted
There is no greater threat to the critics
and cynics and fearmongers
Than those of us who are willing to fall
Because we have learned how to rise.
With skinned knees and bruised hearts;
We choose owning our stories of struggle,
Over hiding, over hustling, over pretending.
When we deny our stories, they define us.
When we run from struggle, we are never free.
So we turn toward truth and look it in the eye.
We will not be characters in our stories.
Not villains, not victims, not even heroes.
We are the authors of our lives.
We write our own daring endings.
We craft love from heartbreak,
Compassion from shame,
Grace from disappointment,
Courage from failure.
Showing up is our power.
Story is our way home. Truth is our song.
We are the brave and brokenhearted.
We are rising strong
– Brene Brown, from her book Rising Strong
This Holiday Season let us not worry so much about stepping into the light so that we can be seen. Instead let us go into the shadows where someone else is. Let us be brave as we stand along side someone who struggles to be seen. Let us, alongside the struggling, help them to step out of the shadows and into light.
If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Imagine you are sitting alone in your room and it is dark. You’re not exactly happy in the dark, but you’re content. As you’ve sat in the darkness, your eyes have adjusted to it and eventually you’ve become accustomed to it. The darkness is now comfortable. But just as soon as you settle into the darkness, I burst in through the door and flick on the light. What happens in this moment? Immediately, the comfortable, dark space becomes invaded by light. Your eyes squint and you look up at me with a hazy look of confusion. I look down at you and say, “Why are you sitting in the dark? Didn’t you see the light switch right there?”
This is the situation many of us find ourselves in day, after day, after day. Perfectly content sitting in our dark room, our eyes adjusted, everything’s fine. All it takes is one person to barge in and shine the light in our eyes and we are flooded, overwhelmed by their disapproval of the dark room we livein.
This is how most of us deal with the people in our lives who struggle with mental health issues and addiction. We insist on bringing light into the room they sit in. Let’s be real here, that is way more about our own discomfort than theirs. We hate watching them suffer but we are actually more concerned with how their discomfort make us feel than with how they feel.
People who suffer from mental illness and the disease of drug addiction, truly suffer; but we only exacerbate that suffering when we judge their suffering as worse than our own. We all suffer, that’s kind of the point of life. Suffering is the thing that creates meaning in our lives. When we can sit with someone suffering, in their darkness, and just be there, the comfort we provide is unmatched. We don’t need to minimize the pain or ignore it, just acknowledge their humanity and how we relate to their suffering, as we too have suffered.
People who suffer from mental illness and the disease of drug addiction, truly suffer; but we only exacerbate that suffering when we judge their suffering as worse than our own.
Ways we “turn the light on”
There are many ways to minimize the pain someone is experiencing. The most common way is rescuing. When someone shares with us their suffering or opens up about their pain our natural response often seems to be to give many reasons why they shouldn’t feel bad. This might sound like, “but you’re so beautiful” or “it could be worse…” or “at least… ” We search for reasons why their suffering isn’t suffering at all! When, in reality, the humanity within all of us just wants to be understood. This is showing sympathy not empathy. Brene Brown has a quick animated short on this subject that is wonderful! Click the picture below to watch it:
Another commonly experienced minimization of pain is pity. When someone’s grief is too difficult for us to bear we pity them. This might sound like, “oh you poor thing.” Or, “I could never do what you do.” Or, “I don’t know how you do it, I’m just not that strong.” Pity sends the inadvertent message, “I’m so glad that’s not me…” When one is grieving or suffering the last thing anyone wants to feel is lonely. And when we tell someone your pain is too great to bear, the loneliness showers over them.
Shaming is the most blatant form of minimization of pain. This is unbelievably common when it comes to addiction. Many people see someone struggling with addiction and quickly judge. “I would never do that.” Or “How could she do that to her family?” Or “It’s pathetic how selfish he is.” Or the coup de grâce of all addict judgments: “Why can’t he just stop?”
Other’s suffering is unknowable
Let me be the first to tell you, we have NO idea how much someone is suffering. We can only guess at how much pain someone is feeling. We have no clue what they’ve been through. In an earlier post I cited that if someone is, in fact, struggling with severe addiction, it’s likely due to having suffered a traumatic childhood. Dr. Gabor Mate, a renowned authority on addiction explained why this is.
“The human brain itself, is shaped by the environment… Brain development occurs in reaction to the environment. The necessary conditions for healthy brain development are healthy relationships with responsive parents. When the parenting environment becomes distorted or hostile and abusive, you’re actually distorting people’s brain development. This means they are going to be more likely to want to use substances to feel better in their brain in order to achieve a different state of the brain.” – Dr. Gabor Mate interview with thefix.com in 2016
When children are traumatized the physical makeup of the brain changes. It is “rewired” in such a way that it is primed for addiction. Some of us are predisposed for addiction simply because of what happened to us when we were most vulnerable.
In my practice working with addiction this is overwhelmingly the case. It never ceases to amaze me how often I sit down with someone and they break down right in front of me in a matter of a few minutes. Through sobbing and shame they explain to me about when they were molested or raped, or when their dad would beat them mercilessly. My heart breaks for those who struggle with addiction. The suffering they experience is intense. Their brains are wired in such a way that it believes the only escape it can get from the unceasing and intrusive memories of being victimized as a child, is through drugs and alcohol. We must suspend judgment when we don’t know why someone does what they do. All that judgment does is create barriers and isolation for people who already feel alone and worthless.
When children are traumatized, the physical makeup of the brain changes. It is “rewired” in such a way that it is primed for addiction.
Sitting in the dark with someone is the start. Being empathetic is the most powerful way to connect with those who suffer. But often we want to do more than just be there with someone. However, that is likely all we need to do. Addiction is fueled by the shame that comes from isolation. When we pull the suffering members of our society in close, instead of pushing them away we are doing the very thing they need most, creating a connection.
If you don’t feel like you can do that, I get it. Someone in a full-blown addict binge is hard to love. They lie, they betray, and they are incredibly selfish. But take a step back, look at why they do what they do. Do they push you away because being close is scary and unfamiliar? Do they lie because they’re afraid to hurt you? Most addicts are doing their very best with the hand they’ve been dealt. The sooner we can understand that the sooner we will begin to put a dent in the greatest health crisis in recent history.
Addiction is the greatest health crisis of our generation
Some may be surprised by that last claim. However that is not hyperbole. Drug overdose deaths continue to climb every year. “For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses now are the leading cause of death,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the DEA recently as he revealed projected numbers of overdose deaths for 2016.
In reading the above table you’ll notice that the number of deaths in 2015 was just above 50,000. The number of deaths rose by just about 10,000 last year. That’s right, in 2016 nearly 60,000 people overdosed and died. That equates to upwards of 160 deaths per day. There were approx. 20,000 more deaths from drug overdoses in 2016 than there were from car accidents in 2016.
“For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses now are the leading cause of death” – Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
Open your eyes and do something
We can no longer be blind to the epidemic. This affects all of us. And it’s only getting worse. Projected numbers for 2017 follow the same trend, we stand to lose 60,000-70,000 people this year to drug overdose death. Chances are you know someone who has OD’d and died. The news is riddled with stories, it is much closer to home than we care to admit.
If you know of someone who suffers with addiction or mental health issues you can do more than you realize. Be with them as they suffer, don’t reject them. Try to understand why they do what they do, love them more despite how they treat you. Try to see their humanity. Doing this does more than you could ever realize.
If you have someone in your life who is struggling and needs help, there is help. Drug treatment centers are getting better and better. Insurance companies are now required to pay for treatment. The suffering can be alleviated. Each year we understand more and more about the link between trauma and addiction. If you know someone who needs help please don’t hesitate to reach out to a local drug treatment center and ask what you can do to help your loved one get the help they need. A quick “Google” of ‘Drug Rehab near me’ is a great place to start. If you need more guidance than that, please don’t hesitate to reach out : Contact Matt.
In my practice I run into a couple of issues more frequently than others. One of those issues is anxiety. It seems that the Americans of today are programmed to operate just a little more on edge than those of generations past. As a result, we are now a Nation dependent on medications that numb our feelings and we are chronically addicted to avoidance. Of my clients who walk through the rehab doors, I’d say that well over half were, at one time, simply trying to manage their anxiety, and lost themselves along the way. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health the prevalence of anxiety is at an all time high, 18.1% of American adults have been diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder. What’s more, the average age of onset for an anxiety disorder is 11 years old! We are hard wiring our children to be laden with worry!!!
What fuels this seemingly unceasing battle against our own ill conceived worry? The prevailing school of thought that we shouldn’t be anxious. It is a common belief in our society that feeling“bad” is wrong. That’s part of the reason the number anxiety diagnoses has skyrocketed. We all want to feel good all the time and if we feel anxious at all, we will do anything to numb it.
The anxiety we feel is not “bad” at all. It just is. We feel anxious for a reason. Numbing it out only creates a chronic pattern of avoidance that exacerbates the anxious symptoms. In fact, anxiety, itself, is an evolutionary development that puts us a step above other species. Our ability to benefit from anxiety has helped us to become more aware of our surroundings in an effort to keep us alive in an increasingly dangerous world. It’s what sets us a cut above.
How we choose to manage, or deal with, our anxiety is the problem. How we think we should feel is the real issue. If we can learn to “befriend” our anxious minds, settling them as we feel a rush of worry, we can live freely. Fortunately, I have some helpful tools to help do just that! But first, let’s look at the problem we have created.
I recently read a very interesting article in NY Times on how the drug Xanax has grown immensely in popularity among Americans. It is now one of the most heavily prescribed drugs in the U.S. This is largely due to onslaught of anxiety we feel we must avoid. Xanax, like other substances, is simply a way to numb out the Anxiety. And yet, we crave it we feed on the anxiety provoking media and alarmist social agendas. Talk about a paradox! We chronically attempt to avoid the thing we crave. One of the most interesting sections in the article was this, “Anxiety is starting to seem like a sociological condition… a shared cultural experience that feeds on alarmist CNN graphics and metastasizes through social media… It seems we have entered a new Age of Anxiety. Monitoring our heart rates. Swiping ceaselessly at our iPhones. Filling meditation studios in an effort to calm our racing thoughts.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote Our nation is transfixed on the next fad that is just around the corner and obsessed with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Both things that are completely out of our control. And we wonder why tweens can’t handle a routine exam anymore without a mental breakdown, or why trophies are handed out like candy? We have done this to ourselves.
THE UNKNOWN AND THE FUTURE, ANXIETY’S FUEL
How we feed our Anxiety is rooted in several things, there are two in particular that I want to focus on: the unknown and the future. Both are very similar and both we are unable to grasp at the present moment, therein lies the problem. We focus on what isn’t happening right now, instead of what is happening right now. This is our response to feelings of anxiety. We provoke the anxious response by focusing on the unknowable and uncontrollable.
Think about the last time you felt worried. Why were you anxious? Was it about something you could control? Or were you transfixed on a future something-or-other that plagued your inability to deal with the unknown? I’m guessing it was the latter.
Not too long ago, I had an awful run in with anxiety that nearly knocked me down for the count. A few years ago when I was in grad school I was overwhelmed and overworked. I was working full-time as an administrator at a residential treatment center for struggling adolescent boys, attending full-time graduate school, and working as an intern at Adult Probation and Parole as a part-time therapist. Needless to say I was anxious mess. Just as the school year was finishing and things at my internship were winding down, the end was in sight. I focused on what I presumed was my future, as if it were the only thing that could calm the whirring noise anxious thoughts in my brain.
Just when the end was in sight, something completely unexpected was dropped on me. I was let go from my long time employment of seven years, the place I planned to spend my future. I had originally entered graduate school so that I could be a therapist at the treatment center. I felt so betrayed and blindsided. Suddenly all of my future plans were obliterated in a matter of seconds! I had placed all of my eggs in one basket and that basket was just lit on fire. My anxiety was out of control! What would I do now?
This was a moment of reckoning for me, only the unknown lay before me and I had no way to fix this. I felt broken by uncertainty. All the years of helping others deal with their own fear and anxiety, and I felt completely unprepared to deal with my own. I tried all sorts of ways to manage my anxiety: I blamed everyone else, I avoided my responsibilities, I isolated myself, and I was meanest to the people I love most. My anxiety had morphed into depression.
THE ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION LINK
If anxiety is focused on the future, depression is focused on the past. The two are interconnected in such a way that one begets the other and visa-versa. I was so hyper-focused on my past and how I had failed, that the only thing left for me to do was to focus on how to fix my failure. And in doing so, I completely missed out on where I was at that moment. I would jump from ruminating on why I had lost my job, what I should have done better… back to what I needed to do to keep that from ever happening again, what I needed to do to “fix” what I perceived as broken, myself. This is the essence of anxiety.
You can’t fix what isn’t broken, and every time we try something new to “fix” ourselves, we inadvertently send the subtle, yet powerful, message of “I am broken.” My feeble attempts to control what I couldn’t, the future so I could fix the past, were only creating more turmoil and reinforcing my belief that I was broken, that I was damaged.
I was soon forced to accept my situation. I soon adopted the mantra of, “This sucks and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it.” I accepted that I was in an awful situation and blaming others or avoiding doing something about it was not working. I soon learned that as I focused on what I was actually doing, in the moment, I was happier and better equipped to manage my situation.
There is a reason why Step one of the 12 steps is all about “acceptance.” (If you’ve never read the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, click the hyperlink to read them.) Accepting powerlessness is the foundation to overcoming anxiety. If we insist on believing that we can control our discomfort, instead of accepting it, all we do is resist and create more discomfort for ourselves.
WHAT CAN I CONTROL?
After accepting my situation, I then learned to focus on knowing the difference between two things: 1. what I could control and 2. what I couldn’t. One of the most helpful tools for managing anxiety is the following graphic. To this day I use it with every one of my clients and in my own life. I actually used this in two sessions today!
If one can understand the difference between what one can control and what one can’t, anxiety becomes helpful. In my situation at the time, I was too heavily focused on what I couldn’t control. I was focused on other’s actions. I was angry that I had been let go from my long time job. I felt that I was owed my employment. I was letting the actions of others and my own mistaken beliefs take over my feelings. I had lost sight of what I could do about my own situation. I realized that I needed to focus on what I could control in the moment. That’s the key, one needs to focus on what is happening right now to be able to manage an over active, anxious brain.
When we oscillate our thinking from the past to the future and back to the past, we miss out on what is going on right in front of us. We lose sight of what we have control over. What a miserable existence that is. When we focus too heavily on what we need to do to fix our problems, we miss out on what we can do to learn from our feelings right now. All we do is ignore the messages our feelings are trying to send us.
OUR ANXIOUS FEELINGS CAN BE HELPFUL
Our anxious feelings are there to help us, not hurt us. Left unchecked by an overactive focus on the unknown and the future, anxiety is no longer helpful. When put in check, our anxiety creates understanding and clarity.
Once I figured this out, my anxiety became not only manageable, but helpful, and my depression withered away. Today I still struggle with knowing how to use my anxiety to my advantage but I’m learning. Anxiety is helpful in many situations, think about competition or sports. Our anxiety is there to sharpen our senses, so that we can hit the ball at the right time or sprint as soon as we hear the starting gun, in those situations anxiety is helpful. Why should every day life be any different.
Now, I challenge myself to notice my anxiety symptoms and instead of trying to get rid of them, I “lean into them.” This looks like, feelings stress and using that stress to help me focus on what I’m doing in the moment rather than needing time to calm down. This looks like, feeling my heartbeat increase and breathing more deeply to slow it down all while focusing on how it feels in my chest when I breathe in and out. All things are there to keep me focused on this moment. It helps. We can “flip the script” on our anxiety and learn to use it to help us understand the world around us and to live more freely.
A great book on this subject is entitled Come to Your Senses by Dr. Stanley Block. He teaches us how to focus on the here and now using our five senses. It’s pretty remarkable stuff, you should check it out.
If you struggle with anxiety and need help managing it, contact me and I can help you get the right resources to help you end being crippled by it.
THE SOCIAL MEDIA FACADE
When you open social media these days what do you see? I’ll tell you what I see… I see a whole lot of happy people. Their lives look fantastic, and if I do some “measuring up” I begin to feel like I’m falling far short of the social status marker. I’m not in Tahiti. I don’t have a 500 lbs back squat. My kids are a mess (the baby literally has food all over her face as I write this.) My house isn’t as big, my cars aren’t as nice, and my abs aren’t as…. wait a second, I don’t even have abs! What am I doing wrong??? I don’t know about you, but I feel all sorts of pressure to put on a facade that “I have it all together.” And so most of the time what I put out into the world is that, I do have it all together.
Think about the last time you responded when someone asked, “How are you?” What’s the typical answer we give? I know what I usually say. It’s almost always one of two things: “I’m good” or “I’m so busy.” Both answers imply the same thing, “I’ve got it together.” “My life is so busy because it’s filled with all of this great stuff.” But that’s just not reality people.
If I were more honest when I’m asked that question, I’d probably answer differently. Something more along the lines of, “Well s***… Today is hard. I feel inadequate and I’m pretty sure I’m failing.” In my experience, most days are tough. Most days are filled with disappointments and failures. Most days… are not what you see on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or myspace. (Remember myspace? It still exists! Who knew, right?)
Why do we feel compelled to put on masks and create an image that isn’t real? Why do we have to lead on that we’ve got it all together? Well I have a theory. And luckily, this theory is backed by the research found in many books on this topic, most specifically in any of Brene Brown’s work.
SHOWING HOW WE FEEL IS NOT WEAKNESS
I want to focus on those italicized words in the last paragraph, “feel compelled.” We “feel compelled” to fake it, for a really good reason. We’ve been taught our entire lives that it’s not okay to feel a certain way. It’s not okay to be sad or scared. As little girls and boys we are taught to “suck it up” and “be tough.” To “put on a happy face,” to quote a familiar primary song I sang regularly at church growing up.
The pervasive school of thought in our culture is “Your feelings are not welcome here. Smile, damn it!” The world around us teaches us that there is weakness in showing fear, weakness in showing sadness. People who show how they really feel, are weak.
“We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” – Brene Brown
GENDER NORMS THAT KEEP US NUMB TO EMOTION
Emotions can be broken down into the four basics: Sad, Mad, Glad, and Scared. Little boys are taught differently than little girls, but we grow up basing our emotional awareness believing similar myths. Men end up believing that they are allowed to feel/express when they are glad and when they are mad. Women are raised to think that they are only allowed to show that they are happy. There’s no room for those other feelings.
Think about it… As a boy, if you show that you’re scared you’re labeled a wuss, or p*ssy. (I hate that word, but it’s so commonplace I couldn’t avoid including it.) I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “Don’t be a p*****!” or “Man up” growing up. The two phrases are synonymous with, don’t be weak! There is a strong stigma against expressing fear as a boy and that stigma is even more prevalent as a man. If you’re scared, your weak. If you’re sad, you’re broken. We are required to put on the mask of happiness, regardless of what we’re going through. Unless you’re mad, you sure as hell can be angry. Think about how often the media normalizes aggressive male behavior and stigmatizes men who express emotions of sadness or fear as being less of “a man.”
For women it’s even worse, they can’t even get angry! If a woman shows any anger she is labeled… a bitch, or it’s “that time of the month.” Nor are women allowed to be sad. If woman is depressed she’s got “the baby blues,” is a “poor thing,” or is… again, on her period. And fear??? Heaven forbid a woman shows any fear. If a woman expresses that she’s scared, don’t worry, a knight in shining armor is right there to fix it for her. Proving yet again that women are nothing without the men who rescue them.
These are the stereotypes pushed on us day in and day out by the media, our culture, and the societal norms that aren’t ever questioned. We must wear the mask of happiness, or else! We have been taught from such a young age that showing emotion is weakness and we will do anything to avoid being weak. So… a challenge arises. Do I take a risk and be vulnerable or do I continue to numb my feelings with addictions and avoidance?
In our society the answer is always the latter. Numb it out! “You can feel this, but you can’t feel that. So pop some Xanax and make it go away.” Living like this only creates a disconnected and lonely society that feeds on comparison and shame. We need to make a change.
FEEL DEEPLY, EXPRESS OPENLY
How do we change? How do we move away from the story we are told, that showing emotion is weakness?
It starts with vulnerability. Being more vulnerable with our families, being more more vulnerable at work, and yes, even being more vulnerable with our partners! (Imagine that, instead of just being pissed off all the time, we actually talk about feelings of sadness and fear, and feelings of inadequacy, shame, and guilt. What would that relationship look like? It might even be one that is… I don’t know, safe!) Sharing how we feel and expressing when we are scared or sad, is the only way to do it. If we want deep meaningful relationships filled with love and joy, we need to express the darker side of our emotions also.
Men, when you’re angry recognize it, label it, and see what’s really there. Most of the time, it’s fear. When we men feel scared, we show anger. Challenge that urge and let the people around you hear that you are afraid. When something tragic or awful happens, cry. Better yet, cry with someone. Don’t put on your mask, be real! Actually emoting is one of the most freeing experiences we can have as human beings. Be brave and show how you feel. Be vulnerable!
Women, get angry and don’t apologize. Cry with your head held high. Share when your scared and let people around you see that being afraid and anxious is normal. There is nothing wrong with your feelings, your emotions are what make you beautiful and human. Feel them deeply and express them openly!
IT’S UNCOMFORTABLE, BUT SO WORTH IT
Don’t get me wrong this isn’t an easy thing to do. Being real is hard. It’s also not the norm. So when people get freaked out when you respond to the question of “how are you?” with “I’m having a tough day” or “I’m feeling a little sad today,” just smile. Eventually you’ll get used to the discomfort. You’ll start to find even more comfort and more freedom as you stop living the facade and express what’s really going on. Try it out and who knows, maybe the more you do it the less compelled you’ll be to feel this, instead of that.
Please share this if you feel “compelled” to do so. And leave your experiences with being real in the comments below.
Matt Quackenbush, CSW, is a Primary Therapist at Deer Hollow Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center in Salt Lake City, UT. He has nearly 10 years of experience in the mental health and substance-abuse arena, and supports healing in the clients he serves from a trauma focused, client centered, and family systems approach.
A fantastic book on this subject is Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, much of what is written above is based on her findings of 12 years of research on shame and vulnerability.
Pick up the book here: Daring Greatly
Follow Matt of Social Media: Instagram
“I wish I loved anything as much as my kids love bubbles.” – Pete (Paul Rudd), in the film Knocked Up.
Bubbles are a fascinating thing. They live in suspended animation for these fleeting moments. Moments, that bring joy to the hearts of all children. I too appreciate the iridescent beauty of the bubble as if floats past; but the wonder my children experience as they gaze at floating bubbles bouncing over their heads… escapes me.
The world I live in appears to be vastly different than the world of my children. Their world is small and limited; mine, large and full of possibilities. As well, their priorities differ from mine. I have all sorts of fears and anxieties and they live more carefree than I ever could. But in reality, my world is pretty is not too different from theirs. My children feel safe and loved, and so do I. I live in a beautiful town where I can leave my doors unlocked and, most likely, nothing will happen. So I like my children, perceive my world as safe. In my “bubble” I’m safe.
My bubble is based on my own experience, it’s my perception. I grew up in a bubble that wasn’t full of crime and so my view is, the world is generally safe. Because I am a white male in my 30’s, I perceive the world around me as there to help me. Things are pretty good for me.
This is such and important principle to understand. I make judgments based on my bubble. My bubble tells me that I am safe and things should come easy for me. But what happens when my bubble “pops” and I am forced outside, forced to step into someone else’s bubble? What happens when some else’s bubble rubs up against mine and suddenly, my reality is no longer “my reality”?
I am very fortunate, I get to do this every day of my life. I work with drug addicts. People who’s bubbles are scary and awful. They will do anything to escape their reality, that’s why they have turned to drugs and alcohol, to escape the memories of the past.
Did you know that there is a stronger correlation between childhood trauma and addiction, than there is between obesity and diabetes? Meaning, if I’m obese, I have a very high chance of becoming diabetic, but if I was molested as a child, it’s more likely that I will become a drug addict. Yes you read that right. 66% of all addicts were raped, molested, or otherwise abused as children.１
Does that compute? We wage the “war on drugs” against a bunch of traumatized children who are all grown up. Children who have never learned how to deal with the memories of their traumatic childhood without using substances to “forget,” even for a brief moment, what happened to them.
Learning this has changed my perspective, it popped my bubble. And when my bubble popped, I chose to change my life and dedicate to helping addicts overcome their pasts. I’m not looking for praise here people, I just want to convey that when I stepped out of my bubble, I learned something I didn’t know. I stepped outside my bubble and I gained more empathy and understanding than I could ever imagine.
So maybe if we all took some time to step out of our bubble and into another person’s, we might learn something. Even more importantly, we might become more understanding of why someone does what they do. We gain empathy.
Here’s the challenge I am extending to us all: Walk off your path for a day. Spend some time with someone who doesn’t look like you. Get to know someone who you don’t understand. If you have some resentment toward someone, ask them about who they are. If you disagree with someone, find out why they think the way they do. If you see a homeless person on the street, instead of thinking “get a job!”, go ask him his story and buy him a sandwich.
I’m willing to bet that if we all took a moment to ask a few questions and understand the people around us before we try to pass judgment on them, we’d all be a hell of a lot happier. Give it a shot, and let me know how it went in the comments below….