Storybrook in Ecuador

Stop for a moment and look at this woman.

What do you imagine she is thinking about? What kind of life do you think she leads? Would you have anything in common with her? What similarities and differences might there be between your life and hers?

Three years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Ecuador for a missions trip. Before going I was asked to speak about grief to a church in a small Quechua mountain village. I did my best to present information that would fit cross-culturally, and it went well. I also prepared a little reflective, art exercise for some of the women to do in a seminar the next day. I was happy and quite relieved when all of the things I had prepared were done. That’s when the pastor said, “I thought you were going to do one-on-one counselling as well.”

So there I was a few days later taking a taxi up a bumpy mountain road with a friend who is a pastoral counsellor, and we met with women for two days straight. Women dressed just like the lady in the picture. A lot of the younger ones came in with babies wrapped on their backs. I was in one corner of the concrete church sanctuary. My friend was on the other side. We each had a translator. The women came in one after the other for those two days.

I remember wondering (yet, surprisingly, not feeling worried) about how I would be able to help them — their language was different; their lives looked so different.

But guess what?

Their worries and struggles were the same.

They worried about their teenage kids and their husbands who worked away. Some of them struggled with anger. Some were lonely. A lot worried about what the future would hold. The external circumstances might look a little bit different, but inside it was the same, human story that we all have.

Wonder and worry. Stress and struggle. Fears and follies.

————————————————————————

At the end of this month I get to go back to Ecuador. Two doctors, two nurses, and two counsellors will be travelling to do women’s clinics in two parts of the country. I am excited to be able to sit and hear these women’s stories again. To listen with my heart and give them some tools. But, mostly, I want to remind them that they are not alone.

Our stories and struggles connect us when we have the courage to share.

Stay tuned for more as Dixie from Storybrook goes back to Ecuador!

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!