Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The comfort of the cage

The other day I was running around Lake Merritt in Oakland. It was sunny, the sky was, well, sky blue with no clouds. The light was glimmering off the waves and a cormorant flew low over the water. My Oakland peoples were out running and walking their dogs. It was Springtime and life was in the air.

But I didn't care. I was worried, and I kept thinking about whether she was going to call. I would only feel better if she called. Or should I call her? Should I be honest and upfront about my needs because that is who I am, honest and upfront? Or should I play it smart, let her come to me, knowing that this strategy is probably more effective?

All of a sudden, I got pulled out of this tizzy of thinking and I realized where I was. I saw the water shining, I heard the rhythm of my footsteps, I smiled at a guy running in the opposite direction. I felt a part of this day, connected to the lake and the sun and the other people. I felt alive!

And then I remembered I was worried, and just as suddenly, I was back in my anxious little head, worrying and strategizing. As unpleasant as it was, it was as if a part of me actually preferred the worried thinking to the freedom of letting go.

This part of me said, "hey, yeah I know you are digging on the scene and and the sun and the lake and just being and all, but you have a life to worry about, so get back to worrying, bitch". And like a good bitch, I obeyed, worrying my little head off the rest of the run.

This is what I call the comfort of the cage: when we actually choose a crappy state of mind over a more free state of mind because somehow feeling good is scary and feeling bad is safe.

In my experience, there are three reasons we do this:

1. We are scared to not think about our lives. We feel like something bad will happen if we are not worrying, planning, analyzing. "Can't let go into the moment, because then the house of cards might topple". This is what happened to me when I was running around the lake.

2. Feeling good is scary because we might lose it and feel bad again, so instead of dealing with this fear, we decide to just get it over with and feel bad again. This happens a lot with people who are starting to get better from depression. They are so scared of falling back into depression that they can't enjoy the new, good feelings and end up exactly where they don't want to be - depressed again. It's like flying feels really good, but shit, I might crash, so I better go ahead and just land the plane.

3. We find ourselves feeling really good, and then part of our brain wants to figure out exactly how we got here, so instead of just enjoying, we start thinking again, and dammit, the good feeling is gone. This one happens to me sometimes during meditation. It's hard for me to enjoy the new scenery, I want to go back and create a map.

In each of these instances there is the underlying sense that uncertainty is unbearable, and we actually prefer unpleasant states of mind that we are familiar with to the uncharted terrain of being more alive to the moment.

I don't know of any foolproof tricks to stay in the moment. I just keep reminding myself to let go, that it is ok to get out of my head and enjoy what life has to offer. Maybe one day, I will no longer be my mind's bitch.

What about you? How do you get out of your head and let yourself be in the moment?

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Happy Relationship with Alcohol

Drinking too much will mess up your life. It will rot your liver, hurt your self esteem, get in the way of your relationship, destroy friendships, even cost you your job if the problem goes too far. 

Nothing new here.

Recently though, a friend told me a reason I never thought of for making sure I keep my relationship with alcohol healthy: If drinking becomes a problem, I may have to stop drinking. That would suck, because alcohol is fun and part of my sane lifestyle. Hell, I’m on a plane right now enjoying a Jack on the rocks. The alcohol makes my space invading neighbor’s elbows more tolerable and keeps the reality that a few inches below my feet is 37,000 feet of air pleasantly fuzzy.

As you can probably attest, alcohol has a great variety of uses including lowering inhibition, decreasing awkwardness, and increasing fun. It enhances meals, improves conversation, and makes cooking more enjoyable. Plus, mixing drinks can be a creative and tasty art.

But if you drink too much, you sacrifice all this. When you realize you have a problem, you will have to cut down. Then, you will no longer have license to get drunk. See, if your drinking is under control, every once in a while, in the right situation, with the right people, its fine to get a little ripped. But once you have a problem, you loose the right to get drunk. Now you probably shouldn’t have more than two, because well, you know what happens once you start down that road…

And if things get really bad, you will have to give up drinking all together, and forever. You will have to dance, go on first dates, attend weddings, reunions, and family functions completely sober. And then even if you have one drink, you will have relapsed. You will feel bad about yourself and have to go acknowledge what happened at a meeting.

You don’t want this. You want to be able to drink and have it be a good thing not a bad thing. So, keep it under control. Find other ways to cope with stress, so alcohol is not your go to stress reliever. Don’t drink every day. Make alcohol an addition to fun times, not the point of fun times. For college-aged readers: don’t funnel, shot gun, use a beer bong, or engage in drinking games – this is dumb. Only get drunk once in a while and then in circumstances where you are with people who won’t take advantage of you and where you don’t have to drive.

With a little maintenance, you can enjoy a lifetime of happy times with your good pal, booze.

Friday, May 6, 2011

How did that make you feel?

"How did that make you feel?" is such a cliched therapy phrase that I try to avoid asking anybody this question.

On the other hand, "how do you feel right now?" is often therapeutic gold.

I was halfway through a first session with a woman in her mid thirties. As a therapist, I am trying to do a lot in that first hour: understand who this client is, identify why they are coming to therapy now, rule out any emergency conditions, and above all, establish rapport. The session started well, but when I began asking her more questions about her marriage, the vibe changed. It was almost as if we were arguing a little bit, me curious about her marriage, her not wanting to go there.

"It's not my marriage, I've been sad for years before this."

I tried to explain how relationship dynamics can reveal how people relate to others in general, then I backed off. I was getting heady, a bad sign. I remembered one of my favorite therapist acronyms - WAIT - Why Am I Talking? 

"Ok. You've been sad for years..." I said. Neither of us was sure where to go next.
"How do you feel right now?" I said.
"I feel anxious. I hate feeling this way."
"What happens if you let yourself just feel anxious without trying to push it away?"
She didn't want to do this, but I convinced her to try it for 30 seconds.
"Now I feel sad."
"How is that?"
"It's better than feeling anxious. I feel calmer."

The whole vibe in the room had also changed. I felt calmer, less frenetic. I felt like my energy had come down from my head and into my body. The rest of the session flowed with a natural rhythm.

Feelings can sit on top of other feelings. They call this primary (underneath) and secondary (sitting on top) emotions. Particularly when someone is anxious, there is often another feeling underneath. Even though the primary emotion is probably something difficult, it almost always feels better when it has a chance to breathe in a safe environment.

This is something I practice myself when I feel all jumbled up inside. I find a quiet place and let whatever it is I feel just be there for a while without pushing it away and without trying to figure it out with my head. Usually, in time, the mud settles and I can see a little more clearly what is actually going on inside me. This doesn't "fix" the problem, but seeing clearly is often the first step to fixing something.