Other Selves: On Problems, Struggles & Addictive Tendencies

I have realized over the past year that I enjoy shopping. Correction. I have always known I enjoy shopping. What I’ve realized in the past year is that this “enjoyment” was starting to lead to some problems, some addictive tendencies, and some secrets.

When I really don’t want to say something, I’ve learned to see that as the sign that I really should say it.

And so I did. I explained to my husband what I thought was going on. He recognized it in me too. And we made a plan. It was not an easy plan, nor did I follow it perfectly all the time. But over these many months I have seen positive changes in myself and a shift in the way I approach shopping and the acquiring of things in general.

There is a large outlet complex called on the outskirts of a city near where we live. It is the first place we drive past when we get to the city. It is also the place where my daughter and I spent the better part of a day shopping for school things for her this winter. That evening when we got home from the shopping, I was able to see clearly how I’ve changed and how far I’ve come this past year.

I could see how I’d changed because the manner in which I approached and lived out that day was different than it would have been a year before.

This is the picture that came to my mind:

As you enter the outlet centre, there is a major turn off from the main road. I imagined standing at the side of the road by that turn-off an “other self” of mine: the “shopaholic Dixie”. When I let myself reflect on what this “other self” looked like, it was not a well put-together, stylish woman standing casually at the side of the road with a number of shopping bags in both hands. Rather, it was a tall man, empty-handed, in a long, dirty trench-coat, who was very sneakily (but also desperately) looking to jump into my vehicle unsuspected as I drive by.

Do you see the difference? One is neat and in control. The other is sneaky and desperate.

This was the difference that I saw in myself when I had my first full day of shopping since a year of working on my shopping and purchasing habits. I was no longer secretive. I was no longer desperate. I could let things go. I was in control.

This “other self” isn’t just about shopping, of course. We display different versions or aspects of ourselves in lots of different areas of our life. You likely don’t talk like an accountant when you get home to your toddler. You probably don’t talk like a kindergarten teacher when you meet your friends for drinks.

We are not talking about multiple personalities. We are talking about how different parts of who we are become more evident in certain situations. And, I think it bears special value to look– really look– at those parts (who we become, how we think/act/behave) of ourselves that come out in areas of our life where we struggle. The struggle could be an addiction, a difficult relationship, or it may be a lack of authenticity. We all struggle.

Exercise:

The following is meant to help you to become mindful of what’s going on right in the middle of your struggles. It will allow you to create a picture in your mind of what you become and what you desire in the moments when it is all too easy to give into the struggle and whatever temptation it offers. Slowing down that process, becoming curious about yourself in that moment, and listening and reflecting on what you experience is in itself a new posture to the struggle!

See what you can learn about yourself in the following questions:

Think of something that you struggle with.

Is there a particular place or time when the struggle is more apparent, more difficult, more overpowering?

If you were to imagine a picture of who you are at the moment you give into that struggle, what would that image look like? What does this “other self” look like? What is its mood? What is it saying to you? What is it doing?

Now, imagine that when you give into the struggle it is like you are listening to that “other self” and allowing it to get into your vehicle and accompany you in that moment, maybe even sit in the driver’s seat! What does this other self do for you in that moment of struggle? Where does it take you? How does it change you?

Now, imagine being in that moment where the struggle is real, but driving passed that other self. Not letting it join you. (It’s hard. I know that those other selves can be very sneaky, they can grab onto your bumper without you even suspecting!)

Imagine being in that moment and remembering this path of struggle is not the one you want to take. Can you drive passed without letting the “other self” in? What might that look like for you? What will you have to do or say or think? What will you have to not do or not say or not think?

How would that make your experience different?

Bonus: Is there a way that you can look at that “other self” with compassion? What does he or she really want standing there?

Why counselling?

Our world is s-l-o-w-l-y getting there, but a pretty big stigma still surrounds mental health and wellness. We are starting to talk about things like depression and anxiety and even addiction. Most of us are probably more comfortable talking about our feelings than our parents were. But there is still a lot of discomfort, unease, and even shame around our mental health. And then there are the voices of our governments, health care systems, insurance companies, and even our own pocketbooks: often we just aren’t willing to put money into these areas.

So why counselling? 

Here is an analogy I’ve been using with clients for a while:

Imagine you have an accident and cut up your knee really badly. You go to the ER to get it checked out and the nurse takes one look at it, gasps, and says, “Oh my God! That is so disgusting! Here. Let’s just wrap this bandage around it real quick and forget about it.”

Ridiculous, right?

And yet, isn’t that often what we do with our emotions and our own mental health? Sometimes we just don’t want to look at it. It might be too scary or too confusing or we might just not have the time or energy to look at our stuff. We do that with our mental health– our emotional wounds, but we would never do that with our banged up knee– with our physical wounds.

What do we do to take care of that messed up knee?

We let the nurse get really close to it. Pick out the gravel and the glass. Put iodine on it, even though it hurts so much. Let the doctor stitch it up… more pain! And then eventually when all that cleaning and work is done, get a bandage and go home and follow the doctor’s instructions on how to dress the wound until it is healed. There will probably be a scar there forever, but at least there won’t be an infection or an abscess or an amputation needed!

Do you see where I’m going with this?

We know and, for the most part, do the things that are required to manage our physical pain. But it is probably a completely foreign and frightening concept to think about letting somebody pick out the glass and gravel of our hearts and minds.

But it’s important.

When we ignore and suppress our emotional pain, all sorts of things begin to happen. Our feelings and thoughts don’t disappear; they get stronger. They want to be heard! They will seep out in our behaviours and actions, in our work and relationships, in our sleep and physical health. Often we have a tendency to cope with it all by numbing ourselves — shopping, drinking, food, Netflix. There are countless ways we numb ourselves and there are so many unhealthy ways to do it.

So, why not counselling?

I’d like to offer two reasons why people don’t go for counselling.

  1. Counselling is an expense. It is an expense that, as said above, is not often covered or subsidized by healthcare. And so a person has to really think, “Is it worth the money?”
  2. Which leads me to reason number 2, are you going to spend your time and hard-earned money going to talk to a stranger about painful, scary stuff? Really? 

It seems like counselling doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. 

Until you go back to that broken knee, and you think about all the broken, fearful, stressed out parts of yourself, your relationships, your life.

Would you go anywhere but the hospital for your messed up knee? Probably not. Because the hospital has all of the equipment and the people needed to deal with the knee. Now, when you think about your mental health, emotional wellbeing, and relationships, might it make sense to go to someone who has studied mental health, emotions, relationship patterns, family systems, addiction, the brain, etc.?

We often think, “these are my emotions so I can deal with them!” But it’s your knee too. You don’t have the equipment or knowledge (and likely the stomach!) to clean your own knee and stitch it up. And sometimes our own emotional stuff is just too hard for us to face alone.

We need each other. We need people who are caring and supportive to walk with us through the good parts and the hard parts of our lives. And sometimes we get to a point in our life where the fear or the stress or the relationship messes are just too much.

And if you, or someone you know is at that place right now, maybe the knee analogy will help you have the courage to make a phone call to connect with a good counsellor in your area. Not every counsellor is a good fit. But there are good ones out there. I know it!

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

… a very good place to start.

Does it sound strange to you (like it does to most of the people I tell) when I say that I feel like my whole life has lead me up to this moment in time where I begin a vocation that focuses on helping people deal with death and loss? Most of the people who hear this say, “that must be such a difficult job.” “I couldn’t do that.” But it’s never felt like that to me. It’s just felt like me.

Why me? What about me?

The first thing I know makes it “me” is how I grew up. My father was (and is) a wills and estates lawyer. I grew up typing at typewriter (carbon paper and all) at a desk in his office, my blonde head bouncing down the hallway and telling people which office they could wait in. My familiarity with death and dying started then, around age 3. It was just something that always was. People always died. And they always needed someone to sort out their estates — their monies and materials. I’ve always known that people die and when they die they have needs. The “observant me” was born in that law office.

The next part of “me” started in high school. I began to be fascinated by history and the stories of how people used to live, especially in difficult times or war time. I remember interviewing my grandparents about WWII and what it was like to have my Grandfather away as a medic in the war. I knew there must be so much that they felt at that time. How did they make it through? I also remember having such strong feelings of wanting to understand what it was like to grow old and to lose people that you love. While this is a natural part of being an adolescent, I really paid attention to these feelings. This was the start of the “feeling me”.

I went to university and double majored in History and Philosophy. History allowed me to explore the past (I even studied mostly social history: daily life and relationships, rather than politics and war). Philosophy allowed me to examine different ideas and perspectives, to see how they change over time, and that there is always more we can know about life and being human. Another part of the “me” was growing here — the “thinking me”.

After university, my husband and I had our three children. I was home during their early years, and there were a lot of years of diapers and lullabies and waking in the middle of the night. What was the “me” growing during this time? I would have to say it was the “compassionate me” and the “vulnerable me”. I learned that it’s hard to be a mom, to raise humans, and to have the energy and strength to care and love well. I had to be compassionate with my kids and their mistakes, and I had to be compassionate with me and my mistakes. You also really begin to recognize just how vulnerable life is when your children are born. The world can become scary, and fears and anxieties can become very real. The stakes seem higher; the losses feel so much greater.

The last piece of “me” — the “listening me” — came along when I decided to study counselling. My husband began attending seminary, working on a Masters of Divinity on the road to becoming a pastor, and since our children were into the preschool and school years by this time, I thought I could slowly start thinking of a career. I decided to study counselling and by the end of my first year I knew I wanted to focus on death, dying, and bereavement.

At that time, I looked back at all of the “me”s of my past and they all began to form a very clear picture of what I valued: helping people walk through their final days understanding who they are, where they find hope, and what will be meaningful for them to do and say in their final days. In fact, the book that started this whole realization was called “Final Gifts“.

Gifts.

That word has become the foundation of my counselling practice. “Storybrook Therapy: Where Your Story Is A Gift.”

And that’s what I believe and what I’ve always valued in my life. I believe that our lives and our stories are gifts. Some days these gifts may appear less like a Martha Stewart special and more like a clay ash tray formed by immature hands and hurriedly wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper. But there is still something beautiful in our stories — the good and the not-so-good.

We are all human and one of the most important things we can do, at any stage in life, is to share who we are. Just that. Simply who we are. Because it’s only in being who we are that we find true hope and real meaning.

And that is why I’ve shared these parts of me today. This work is so important to me. It has always been important to me, even years before I knew what an “end of life counsellor” was.

Our stories matter. And, when it’s time to live out our final chapters, our stories have new value. It takes courage to live them. It takes courage to tell them. And my hope is that Storybrook Therapy will help these stories be told… to help these stories go on.

There’s the STORY, you see: like the tree that has grown and changed over time.

And there’s the BROOK: the water that goes on and on and on, even after it’s left the source.

Storybrook Therapy. Here we go.