Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Coyotes and Bears and Ladders, Oh My

When I moved to Whistler last summer I worried about my cat, Stan.  With snowy winters, he wouldn’t be able to go out year ‘round like he’d done when we were living at the coast.  How would I acclimatize him to indoor living?      

Sometimes these things have a way of working themselves out.
One sunny but crisp fall day, Stan goes out into the ravine behind our house.  After about an hour I call to him like I normally do; he doesn't do our usual call-and-response.  No big deal - he might be hunting, I think.  An hour later I call again - nothing.  That's odd.  
I walk into the ravine.  After twenty minutes, I see a coyote running out of the ravine and I chase it.  Now I am looking for a cat body.  But I find nothing.  No fur, no blood.  And Stan would be easy to spot - his tuxedo jacket stands out against any natural background.  I walk in increasingly larger concentric circles around where I spotted the coyote.  Two hours of calling and walking.  More calling.  Then, crying.  
Finally, I go to where I often see Stan - near the pond - and for no apparent reason I look up.  Stan's high up in a tree.  I call to him.  His eyes are giant yellow discs.  He makes no noise.  His legs are shaking.  His tail is the size of his entire body.  I call and try to coax him to come down.  
He is walking around and around the tree because the branches are all at the same level REALLY HIGH UP and he hasn’t figured out that he’d going to have to take a leap of faith to work his way down.  So he keeps going 'round and 'round.  Occasionally he freezes, then looks off to the left.  I ask, what is it, Stan?  And he keeps freezing and looking off to the left and it’s distracting him from the task at hand so I tell him I’m going to check it out.  
I march off in the direction he was looking and I stop when I see, not twenty meters away, a black bear lying in a hollow tree stump.  I back my way over to Stan and continue to coax him down - quietly now - and it’s become a bit more urgent, but he's not coming down because he's SMART.  So I fall into this rhythm of calling to Stan to come down and then running over to where I can see if the bear is still lying down and then running back to call to Stan.  
After about fifteen minutes of napping (probably made less restful by all the whisper-calling and scurrying nearby), the bear rises and moves off up the ravine, silent and graceful despite its size.    
Which is great, but I still have a cat up a tree going around and around.  It's then I hear someone unfold a ladder somewhere nearby because, in my hyper-vigilant state, my hearing is bionic.  I walk up the ravine to find this ladder.  In another area of our development, there are two young men painting a patio.  I say I want to borrow their ladder.  They say it's their only way down.  I say I’ll only be a minute.  
I take the ladder which turns out to be a heavy, telescoping ladder which keeps folding and unfolding.  The quickest way down to Stan’s tree is a 60-foot-high semi-terraced rock wall, so I start to drag the ladder down the rock wall but first I need to get it through a narrow part between the wall and a metal fence.  The ladder makes a TERRIBLE scraping sound as I jam it through, and I yell to the young men (who can hear all this but can’t see anything because of the angle): ladder's fine, ladder’s okay!  I am almost at the bottom of the rock wall and getting closer to Stan’s tree and the ladder unfolds one more time making an ungodly sound and then I hear what could only be a cat... clawing-sliding his way down a tree.  

I drop the ladder and run over to the tree.  Yep, Stan's down.  Safely, I assume.  And now I need to get the ladder back UP the rock wall.  I do, though it almost kills me.  I set the ladder up again below the patio for the young men and one of them says, did you get your cat down?  And I say, uhm.. in a manner of speaking.  

So I get some banana bread out of the freezer and give it to the two young men and they say thanks and then I find Stan.  And the interesting thing is that he hasn't really wanted to go out since then.   

Stan's X-ray

Friday, 2 March 2012

Be Your Own Best Friend: See Yourself Whole

Recently a friend of mine - let's call her Barbara because that is her real name - got into an argument with her partner as he was leaving for work.  At one point her partner said there wouldn't be any problems in the relationship if Barbara didn't start them; she was the source of all of their problems.

Now normally Barbara would become inflamed and then race up her ladder of inference and stand at the top of that ladder like King Kong, grasping a very small woman dressed in tatters (though in this case it would be a medium-sized man in business attire).  But she's been reading this book called "Working with the Law: 11 Truth Principles for Successful Living" by Raymond Holliwell.  And while there are many things that caught her eye in this book the one that got activated at that very moment is the Law of Least Resistance: when you encounter an obstacle, flow around it.

So, when Barbara heard she was the source of all of their problems, instead of engaging and defending (e.g. I am NOT!  You cause problems too, you know!) she said: "if that really is true for you, then: 1. this sounds like a terrible relationship for you, being with someone who causes problems that you can do nothing about, and, 2. you must be Jesus Christ."

Granted, her emotions may have gotten the better of her with that second point.  BUT, what's great about her response is that the two of them didn't fall into their usual pattern - they didn't escalate.  And, after a brief (surprised) silence her partner said, "I have to go to work."  Barbara pictured him strapping on a cross as he headed out the door, but instead he just got in the car and backed down the driveway like always.

Her partner gone, Barbara replayed the conversation over (and over) (and over).  She started lining up clever come-backs like: "I'm not the source of all of our problems, YOU are."  Then she started thinking about how he never takes responsibility for his role in disagreements.  Furthermore, she thought, his therapist doesn't seem to be helping him with this... his therapist probably doesn't take responsibility either... probably blames everything on his partner... how convenient.  I know Barbara, and this went on for longer than she'd want to own up to.

While putting the finger puppets away, it occurred to Barbara that it didn't matter if her partner thought that she was the source of all of their problems because it's untrue, mainly because it's impossible; in any relationship both people contribute.  So why did it get traction?  Turns out that while she knows it's technically impossible that she causes all of their problems, often she feels like such a big mess that she wonders if they wouldn't have so many issues if she just got herself together.  On some level she believed it.  It's then she realized she needed to change how she feels about herself and how she presents herself in relationships.

So how does Barbara present herself in relationships?  She is willing to talk about her issues and her process.  Great!  Sort of.  But it's lop-sided: it looks like only Barbara has issues.  And with all the focus on her and her issues, there's no opportunity for her partner to look at his issues (not that he minds this).  Plus, he can feel good about supporting her in working through her issues.  Great!  And a problem.  It shows each person as only half of what s/he is: Barbara is not all issues and problems and her partner is not all rainbows and puppies - each is a mix of both.

This was a turning point for Barbara - a new way of looking at herself, her partner, and her relationship.  And she took comfort knowing that new beliefs make way for new behaviours.    

Barbara's a close friend; so close, in fact, that some people have said it's almost as though we're the same person.  So I've decided I'd like to take a page out of Barbara's book and see myself more clearly too.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Safety First!

A few months ago, as part of my work with the RespectED Program (within the Canadian Red Cross) I took a multi-day course on child abuse and neglect.  Given the heavy nature of the material, the instructor had us start by thinking about a place where we feel safe, in case we needed to take a mental break from the material.  We were handed pieces of coloured construction paper and asked to draw our 'safe place' using coloured pencils.

Now for the record, I feel a bit ridiculous when doing exercises like this and yet, I almost always end up finding them helpful once I'm underway, and, naturally they're a great source of material for self-reflection.  So I thought about it and my safe place is from my childhood, when I'd go to my friend Jo and Sue's place and play.  Specifically, I drew a picture of their big blue rectangular in-ground trampoline.

When we were done, the instructor invited us to explain what we'd drawn.

I said that my safe place was Jo and Sue's trampoline.

I went on to explain that because it was the only trampoline in the neighborhood (possibly in town) lots of kids would come over and jump on it.  And we would take turns, two of us going into the crawl space under the trampoline.  Then we'd poke our heads up against the underside of the trampoline, while the kids up top would try to jump on our heads.  Of course, we'd try not to get jumped on so we wouldn't have to go to the hospital.  That was how you won.

And I went on to explain that sometimes on summer nights, older boys from town would sit by the edge of the trampoline with their lighters and try to light our nighties on fire while we were jumping.  We wore a lot of polyester in those days so you had to be careful.

And, while I hadn't drawn it, there was also the tire swing over by the shed.  It was two heavy car tires suspended on thick chains from a metal bar ten or fifteen feet up - the bar was suspended between two telephone poles.  There was a sturdy grey plank inserted in the tires and that was the seat - we could sit four of us across, sometimes five.

We'd swing, trying to get as high as we could, and it was only a matter of time until someone fell off.  If this happened, it was better to just lie there, because if you sat up you'd get knocked out by the swing coming back down; it was a heavy swing and it's not as though we had any way to stop it.

Another thing we liked to do was twist the swing 'round until it was wound so tight it was high off the ground.  I'm not sure how this worked exactly, but in the untwisting, usually one end would work its way out of the tires longer than the other end and it would catch one of the poles and the swing would jerk to a complete stop.  Of course, if you were on the swing, you'd keep going.

And I remember one time Jo and Sue's dad bent an aluminum lawn chair leg into a triangle and hung it above the plank on another thick chain.  Sue was the first to climb up and hang upside down off that triangle before the chair leg could take no more and released her head-first onto the plank below.  I remember watching and thinking, "boy, she sure did fall fast."  And then, "chair legs aren't very strong."

At this point, I realized I'd gone on for quite some time talking about my safe place so I thought I probably shouldn't mention the time I fell backwards into the empty hole left by the trampoline when it was taken out of the ground for winter.

God I loved that trampoline.  If I ever have kids, I hope they have memories like that to cherish.


Tuesday, 27 December 2011

You Can't be Anxious and Relaxed at the Same Time

The day I signed out "The Worried Child" (Paul Foxman) I also signed out "The Optimistic Child" (Martin Seligman).  At checkout I said to the librarian "wow, I have the whole spectrum here."  To which she replied, "well, it's important to learn these things when you're raising kids."  I said, "Yes!  Now all I need is the kids, ha ha ha."  The rest of the transaction was in silence.

Not surprisingly, worried (anxious) children become worried adults, so therapist Paul Foxman has decided to go to the source and teach kids how to deal with anxiety.  The Worried Child looks at the profile of kids who are susceptible to worry (they sound a lot like Highly Sensitive People or HSPs).  It then looks at stressors that can tip these kids over the edge (family issues, school stress, social pressures, etc. - actually, he goes into a LOT of detail about stressors - it got a bit hell-in-a-handbasket-ish).  Finally it's into strategies to help kids cope and become more resilient (from medication to 'natural remedies' to changing thinking and acting).

Now this might surprise you - especially given how well we've gotten to know each other by this - what is it?  third post? but I can be a bit of an over-thinker and sometimes this dips into worrying so I thought there might be something here that could help me.  Huzzah - there is!  Four key points for dealing with your own worry or helping a kid deal with hers:

Worries start with "what if..."  If you're coming up with a lot of "what if" questions (e.g. what if my partner really is a complete monster and this has somehow escaped me?) then it's probably worry.  In my meta moments, one of my biggest worries is that I'll dismiss a worry thinking it's just a worry, when it's actually my intuition trying to warn me of a real danger.  Turns out using the "what if" test helps sort this out some of the time.  You may think that I created this sample worry, above, for comedic effect.  'Fraid not.  (Lesson: it's "interesting" to be Desi's partner, a la "may you live in 'interesting' times.")

Worrying doesn't do anything.  This is my new mantra.  When I've identified that it's a worry, I remind myself that worrying (thinking these thoughts) won't change the past (the past is my usually focus though I also do this thing where I worry about the past being the future - hard to explain, but very advanced worrying I assure you, and it doesn't even require a Delorian).  Oh - and worrying won't change the future - though planning might.  Is there something you can do to plan?

Many anxious kids can't ask for what they need.  Yes, adults too.  It turns out I can be forceful, but I'm not always good at talking about how I feel, or asking for what I want (or I ask, expecting that the request will be denied so I go in ready to rumble which amps up the anxiety).  Foxman offers a simple formula for learning assertiveness: empathize with the other person, then state how you feel or what you need, then you can propose a solution and ask if the other person can agree with it.  Tried it.  Works.

When you're having anxious thoughts or repetitive thoughts: 1. re-label it ("oh, that's my worry about a monster-partner again"), then 2. refocus on what is going on around you ("right, I was just about to make that incision into the patient's left ventricle"), then 3. relax.  You can't be anxious and relaxed at the same time so key in on where you're tensing up and consciously try to relax that area of your body (mine's the gut).  A lot of the things we do: OCD behaviours, obsessive thinking, etc. because on some level we think they will provide comfort and we will be able to relax.  So go to the source.  Practice helps.  

After reading this book, I realized I'd never truly relaxed before (even on vacation in Barbados last year).  It's pretty great!  Relaxing, that is, not realizing I'd gone almost four decades without experiencing it.

I don't know about you, but I never learned these strategies for dealing with worry or anxiety when I was growing up; in our family we dealt with worry like a hot potato: toss it to someone else so they can carry it for a while!  Seems these are pretty important skills though, and I intend to teach them to the kids I know.  Of course, I will use them too.  

What I liked the most about this book was it got me wondering: are therapists just parenting us?



Stepping Out: Going Public with a Personal Growth Obsession

You would not believe how long it's taken to "go public" like this; or "go potentially public," I should say: it's not like I expect crowds of thousands to descend on this blog...

Still, even with just my one follower (who is likely me, under a different name) there's something about going public that makes me anxious.  More grist for the mill, I suppose (if anyone even knows what that means anymore in this day of iPads... not that iPads replaced mills); a chance to examine why on earth I'd be reluctant to post my deepest fears and my enormous personal shame.

So what is this blog?  I like to dig into past and present experiences to see what I can learn.  I read a lot of books and some of them I like to share with others.  What I write here is driven by two things: 1) wanting to make sense of life, and, 2) my quest to tame personal demons (including anxiety and rage).  Some of the things I've learned over the years might be useful to others.  If not, I hope at least they're entertaining.

Who am I otherwise?  For the past eleven years I worked at a university teaching people how to teach, present, and facilitate and now I am a consultant doing the same.  I also teach kids about social violence (preventing it, mainly...).  I'm fascinated by relationships and by groups and I'm especially keen on conflict, which is lucky, as I seem to generate a fair amount of it, especially in my romantic relationships.  If I'd been smart about my schooling, it probably would've been in psychology rather than forestry.

So if you enjoy single clapping hands or are big into symbolism or are so reflective that you are, in fact, a mirror, then there may be something here for you.

Octopus Laundry