Is it a common occurrence for you to pay attention? How much of your day is spent in the here and now? When you add up the countless hours of television, mindless tasks, ruminating thoughts, and mind-filled wonderings, it can illuminate just how removed from reality our existences can be. We have replaced ritual and meaning with efficiency and tension (the primary factor in attraction and growth) with convenience. In 2015 Microsoft published a study on the attention span of the average American. It might surprise you to learn, says this study anyway, that the average attention span is only 3 seconds. What does this mean? It means that on average, every 3 seconds the human mind is bombarded with a distractor. Could this in part be due to this information age and the replacement of the sensory world?
The Harsh Reality of Our Psychological Desert
Our attention span is shrinking and our chronic distraction behavior ever increases. Distraction has become our oasis and the sensory world the harsh reality of our psychological desert. What can be done? For week 2 of Suicide and the Soul, I want to offer us a way into experience. Namely, the experience of the soul. We use this word often at Barn Life and it gets thrown around in religions, too. But what is the soul? In short, the soul is that which experiences. Soul can be defined as the convergence of the spirit and the material world. This can exist in the body, in the imagination, in the emotional terrain and in our stories. Why do we consider work with the soul to be the primary task in mental health? Soul, when sought after, produces movement into awareness where our truest most meaningful journey can take place.
Listening to the Still, Small Voice
Suicide and suicidal thinking can be understood as an act of the soul. This writing exercise will ask of you a bit more than 3 seconds, and distractions are sure to pry there way in. I want to encourage you to set aside some time for this practice. Stay open and return to the moment. Listen to the still, small voice beneath the noise and remain open to what it has to say. You may find what wants to be said strange or unclear. The secret to the exercise is flow and trust. Be vulnerable enough to go where the pen takes you as if a force beyond your mind’s eye wants to lead the way. Let go and stay with it.
Writing Down the Soul
The exercise is simple. Writing down the soul consists of setting aside a time to observe. To sit or walk or stand without distraction to notice, we allow the experience to enter in. This doesn’t have to take very long. Soon a sensation, physical object, a color, or memory can come to us. Giving attention and naming our experience is a movement from self-rejection to embracing the self as you are. This writing exercise is a way to get past the feeling that you have to fix it. Instead, writing what is as it occurs to you acknowledges the relationship with what comes in and what goes out. Here, with a free hand, we become present to the inner world through the outer world.
Writing to Regain Perspective
Naming our experiences helps to shape our perspective. I offer you a resounding assurance that the unconscious is patiently waiting for you. Through a playful opening to what reveals itself, no matter how trivial, the part that is curious in each of us that wants to live begins again. Writing in this way can help us to regain a perspective. Furthermore, should your pen take you to the worst in you and the harsh or despairing voice find its way to the paper, understand that this, too, connects us to healing and turns us toward the light. Another Stanford study showed that it is better to feel sadness than to feel nothing because to feel is to carry us forward. When feelings take form, it offers us a way forward – an expression that so desperately needs to get out.
Enter Into the Experience
In suicidal thinking often it is the big fantasy that dies. What we need is the experience and story of something smaller and more human. The soul is not gone, lost, or beyond our reach. What we must do is enter into the experience without grand expectations. Pick a place and put the phone down. Turn off the television and the easy consumption. Breathe and look around. What grabs your attention in this moment? Begin to write and relate. Whether the words make sense to you or not, the sharing of an honest moment holds great power. The soul gets to speak, and the experience gets to find meaning. I leave you this week with a poem by David Whyte that I feel captures how we can find meaning in the space around us as we open to the here and now.
Everything Is Waiting for You
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you. –David Whyte
Here at Barn Life Recovery, we receive a lot of inquiries from folks dealing with anxiety. And a couple weeks ago, a blog of ours laid out some strategies for dealing with anxiety and we’d like to pick that thread back up. A recent piece in O, The Oprah Magazine delves into the topic of anxiety and fear at length. It also includes many of the ideas we’ve discussed previously in these blogs. Over the next few weeks, we’d like to take a closer look at the piece, starting with the first article, “Creature Comfort.”
A Quiet Spot
First, we need to “get in the now” and set the mood, so to speak. To do this, we need to find a quiet spot and, with the quarantine going on, that may be difficult. Many of us have kids are home from school, spouses working from home, roommates laid off from work, etc. If this is true for you, the article suggests perhaps taking an extended bathroom break or waiting until everyone has gone to bed. Next, shut off your phone and take a deep breath. Now we’re going to bring our attention to five things we can see and four things we can hear. Follow this with three things you can touch, two you can smell, and one you can taste. This is a technique we teach to people who suffer from panic attacks and it’s a great way to center yourself in the moment.
Let It Be
Now that we’re quiet and living in the now, things are better, right? Well, not exactly. This is one of those things where it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Furthermore, this is something that requires practice and repetition, but don’t worry! We’re going to get there. With the panic gone and our breathing regular, we’re able to start thinking clearly about things. However, this is also where our capacity for abstract thought can derail us and worries start seeping back in. To combat this, we’re going to take an approach that may seem counterintuitive to some of you. We’re going to let the worry in. We don’t feed it and we’re not going to react to it. We’re just going to let it be. The article mentions some mantras that may help you in the process. But what we’re doing in the bigger picture is taking the emotional struggle out of our relationship with fear.
Rehabilitating Our Relationship With Fear
Our next step is going to sound a little goofy or hokey to some of you. However, we need to remember that fear is a primal feeling. Furthermore, as we mentioned earlier, it’s a necessary instinct. If we’re going to rehabilitate our relationship with such a fundamental presence, we’re going to need to appeal to visceral emotions. The article talks about imagining your fear as a wild animal like a wolf or a lion and thanking it. I think of fear as a big Italian mastiff. It may be a little annoying when he barks at the mailman. But getting angry and yelling at him for doing what he was bred to do will only confuse him and exhaust you. And when a shady character comes creeping around, you’re going to be glad he’s with you. Give him some love and let him know he’s a good boy.
Love Life Again
Barn Life Recovery, now offering telehealth therapy, combines an evidence-based approach with ancient Eastern healing methods such as tai chi and qigong. It’s all part of our holistic solution to mental health issues. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety or depression, please give our admissions office a call today to find out if Barn Life Recovery is right for you. Call now and learn to love life again.
Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love… Life always says Yes and No simultaneously. Death (I implore you to believe) is the true Yea-sayer. It stands before eternity and says only: Yes. ― Rainer Maria Rilke
What a profoundly poetic way to say, “YOLO!” – Kevin
Rilke muses on the invaluable recognition that life and death are one and the same. Our nearness to death creates the very ground for new life. As we look to the sensitive subject of suicide this week, I want us to be mindful that this can occur at precisely the time when new beginnings can emerge. As longing pulls us to despair we may consider how ending things might provide relief. Only, as we process these hard instincts, we come to find that the misery cannot be sustained. Something must indeed die.
Morbid and Necessary
The subject of suicide is aptly morbid. It is full of the weight-bearing narratives that produce a fantasy of life’s last attempts to take charge. However, the phenomenon is not altogether easy to conceptualize. Talk of suicidality reminds some of us of proper protocols and they are surely drilled into us as clinicians. Or perhaps you recognize, even empathize personally with suicidal thinking. Either way, this week we want to make room for the psychological experience. As it exists itself in the psyche, an instinct made conscious needs the necessary center-stage and expression. Otherwise, it continues to haunt us in the background of life. In other words, our suicidal thoughts belong.
From Longing to Despair
The underlying crisis of meaning that can lead to dire thoughts present a unique opportunity to seek understanding and meaning. It can be helpful to recognize that our story of suicide begins and ends with exactly this: the story. As Victor Frankl once said, “The saddest despair is despair without meaning.” Further, James Hillman reminds us that literal death and symbolic death are two different things entirely. What needs to die is an inhuman story that cannot be lived. I ask clients to share their stories, what is the narrative of the one who longs for death? Where did the longing for something turn to despair? Without exception, these early longings have turned to inflated ideas of a partner, a superhuman capacity for greatness, or an impossible eternal bliss.
A Word of Consideration
In short, when something beautiful can be realized in the experience of grief, loss, and failure, the soul has a place to live. That invokes a relationship with the life of the problem. For this week and next, we will use our group time and therapy to unpack and express our longings and the despair that consumes and overwhelms. Should we encounter the story with space and room, with validation and exploration, we may just uncover the lost meaning.
I close this week with a word of consideration:
If you can’t get what you want you may have to settle for something better
Early in my depth-psychological studies, I was drawn to the artwork of John William Waterhouse. His paintings capture the great drama of many mythic and fairytale images. I’d sit in a sort of meditation looking at the orchestra of expression. This amplification practice helped me experience vivid psychological structures both universal and personal. These were the archetypes personified after all. During this time, I started to collect reprints of some of his more popular paintings. My home and office displayed radical instincts and narratives of psychological life that felt quite charged. My home and office had become an external display of the process of individuation where unconscious contents could be contained and expressed through these images. Well, let’s just say that this got out of hand. in fact, with time my own restless existential occurrence paralleled and was exacerbated by my home and work environments. Spaces became psychoactive!
The Externalized Object and the Psychoactive Image
I start our theme this week on the subject of the externalized object and psychoactive image because, as we look to the myth of Narcissus, I think it an interesting consideration how we decorate our worlds around us with the familiar, the provocative and the taboo. What world do we create around us through others, art, and more? If you take a look at the clothing we wear, the symbols we gather, we begin to see where we find our reflection. Does this not say significant things about ourselves? Our fantasies? And our desires? When, for me, the desire for individuation and reconciliation of scattered parts dominated my life, Waterhouse brought some formations to light.
Synchronistic Trickster Experiences
The unconscious often comes through as synchronistic and as trickster experiences we can find frustrating or even humorous. The last reprint I ordered of Waterhouse’s work was Echo and Narcissus. I intended to order a small reprint, roughly 2 feet by 1 foot. When the painting arrived, to my utmost surprise, it was huge! Here I wanted a small example of the narcissistic drive and I end up with the largest canvas of them all! I laughed hysterically as I hung giant Narcissus himself above my mantle. A fun topic between friends and my partner! He stayed with me for over a year!
Echo and Narcissus
Waterhouse illustrates the Greek story of a young male possessed by his fascination with his own reflection. On the other end of the painting, his counterpart (often the other aspect of the archetypical whole figure) gazes in longing toward him. She is desperate, her breast exposed. It’s an available and nurturing compassion paired with great longing and despair. Our arrested obsession with our image can introduce great insight, understanding, appreciation, and even love of our own features. However, in compensation, relationships feel estranged, emotional life, comfort, and nourishment often unattended. Who is this other figure? She is the nymph Echo, heartbroken that all Narcissus can hear and see is himself. Rumor has it she dies of heartbreak and loneliness in nearby caves. Today we hear our own Echo and remember her ghost.
The Experience of the Narcissistic Psyche
This divide captures the experience of the narcissistic psyche. On one hand, healthy narcissism lets us see ourselves. For example, attempts at finding the positive and studying our personhood can bring us insight and confidence. In contrast, when in excess or possession we lose intimacy. Indeed, like the sun at the center of the universe, our own subjective perspective dominates all. Things, others, and ideas are no longer real to the narcissistic. Instead, all falls to personal preservation and must be controlled. In narcissism, the fragile parts cannot be soothed therefore must be rejected. In fact, to feel vulnerable is to bounce the ideal image back into view as compensation. To be ordinary, unknowing and a part of the human experience, in exchange with the existential crisis of life proves overwhelming. Echoes are safe, predictable, and controllable. In a full-blown diagnosis, one cannot live outside this terror.
The Inflated Presentation of Rightness
I think it important to look at narcissism from the perspective of disorder. We can benefit greatly both for ourselves and our work with clients when we consider the severe fragility of the ego that lies behind the inflated presentation of rightness. Like all personality disorders, the defenses are inherently necessary to maintain any sense of self at all. Just like emotional deregulation and the Medusa-defenses of borderline personality disorder, we cannot confront, bring this down, and expect a catharsis. One must confront the narrative entrapment and recognize there is need for dissolution and reformation of ego identity. In many ways, that giant painting on display personifies the need to hold the image close and in eyeshot of our daily life.
The Vulnerable Behind the Inflated
In short, narcissism hides the vulnerable behind the inflated. Narcissism looks like strength but masks a Gollum-like soul, often starved, mistrusting, and neurotic. Cliché as this may sound, love is our best medicine. The reformation of ego identity comes only through the dissolution of the illusion. In therapy, we have to tread softly while strengthening our own sense of boundary. Agree where we can and come to the narrow bridge, walk the tight rope. The way through is by the subtle confessions that presenting veneers are not the whole expression of a person.
This week, let’s work with the following questions:
1. Who do I present myself to be?
2. Who do I want to convince myself I am? (My best)
3. Who am I afraid to admit that I am?
4. What does the voice of the inferior in me want to say to me?
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and it couldn’t come at a better time. In some parts of the country, shelter-in-place orders are being lifted and some folks aren’t happy about it. In other parts, the orders are being extended and people aren’t happy about that, either. And through it all, regardless of argument, the coronavirus pandemic continues to run its course while unemployment is at an all-time high. The country is collectively dealing with the anxiety of an uncertain future, the depression that comes with isolation and loneliness, and the mental fatigue and burnout from working in hazardous conditions. Here at Barn Life Recovery, the phones have been ringing off the hook with folks looking for help in navigating these strange times. In an effort to help as many people as we possibly can, we’d like to offer some simple self-care strategies to provide some much-needed relief.
Get Busy (and Organized)
During the beginning of the quarantine orders, it seemed like the lattice providing structure to many of our lives disappeared. Gyms shut their doors, work and eating schedules became erratic and disordered, sleep became difficult or far too easy. Let’s get back on track by establishing a new structure and a new routine. Sure, there are still activities that are still off-limits but there is also still plenty to do. Getting active and organizing is a great way to provide a sense of normalcy.
Find an Attitude of Gratitude
We hear this one a lot from our clients who have experience with the twelve steps but it’s something we all can benefit from. There are plenty of reasons to be negative right now but as long as we’re breathing, we also have things to be grateful for and awareness of those things can give us hope. An easy way to practice gratitude is by starting a gratitude journal. Every morning, take the time to write to five things you’re thankful for. You’ll be surprised at the change in feelings after only a few weeks.
Take a few deep breaths and acknowledge five things close to that you can see. Then four that you can touch, followed by three you can hear. Finally, finish by acknowledging two things you can smell and one you can taste. This is a grounding exercise we teach to folks who are prone to panic attacks and it’s an incredibly effective way to bring awareness and return oneself back to the present.
Cut Out the BS
The number one goal of cable news shows is advertising dollars and they reach it through sensationalism and agitation. While that’s great for their shareholders, it’s doing absolutely nothing for your mental health. Try to limit your intake and stick to local and reputable news sources.
Love Life Again
Barn Life Recovery, now offering telehealth therapy, combines an evidence-based approach with ancient Eastern healing methods such as tai chi and qigong. It’s all part of our holistic solution to mental health issues. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety or depression, please give our admissions office a call today. Find out if Barn Life Recovery is right for you. Call now and learn to love life again.
You may never see it coming. The defenses can be aggressive, frigid, fiery, slithering, and destabilizing. Not too long ago I entered a women’s mental health inpatient to run a weekly group. Client rotation is common so meeting new faces is part of the job. I wore a t-shirt under my blazer with the image of the Greek Medusa displayed on my chest and introduced myself. A new client asked what I meant to say by wearing the shirt. I said that I guess it’s a reminder that sometimes our defenses come from deeper wounding. That attacks like these can make us feel like stone and that for any of us that have gone through traumatic mistreatment we can benefit a great deal from getting to know the slithering serpents in our hair.
A Twisting and Passion Filled Assault
I did not expect the response I received. Her face was bright red. She accused me of being insensitive and an “asshole.” I tried to listen, apologies and clarify but it was too late.There was no room for repair. I felt frozen. Turned to stone. My words fell on deaf ears. She rejected outright my strong care for her emotions and I met a twisting and passion-filled assault. How incredible that 10,000 years later and the mere image of Medusa invokes a psychoactive response! Her story is the story of the overactive defenses of the wounded. I start this week’s theme with my story because it illustrates what working with some trauma survivors can feel like. While a diagnosis can offer us the nuts and bolts of a disorder, I want to focus instead on the idea of disorder itself.
The Personification of Borderline Personality Disorder
We might say that Medusa personifies a borderline personality disorder. Of the 9 criteria for the diagnosis, she demonstrates in her story at least 7 of them. But what I’m interested in this week is not the criteria of borderline personality disorder, but the pathology. Pathology refers to the sequence, the phenomenon, the experience rather than the behavioral criteria. A disorder is a more appropriate word in my view than diagnosis. Because to be “dis-ordered” is to have all the right pieces, only out of reasonable or functional order. Disorder implies not that someone is broken or missing pieces but instead has a tangling of parts. All the parts are there, and somewhere in-tact. What is lacking is the tact itself.
Our Delicate and Sensitive Work
In personality disorder, our delicate and sensitive work revolves around the recognition that the decision to overprotect oneself has turned pathological. That is, gone to such extremes that we are not experiencing relationship with self and others in healthy intimacy. Instead, defenses distort and prevent secure attachments. Stability comes in the form of defenses and prevents us from thriving in constructive relationships. Can we heal borderline traits? Studies on intensive DBT treatments tell us yes. With proper trust and safety, telling someone they meet the criteria for borderline personality disorder is ultimately constructive. To be clear: untangling the connection between empowerment and defensiveness is tricky work and belongs to the slow ego re-formation that comes through empathic understanding.
Medusa and Perseus
Let’s look in brief at the arc of Medusa and Perseus. Perseus is charged with the heroic task of obtaining the head of Medusa. To put it another way, by mastering the monstrous defenses of emotional trauma the hero then has access to her power. We can see Perseus, too, as an inner figure. The one who confronts and strives to overcome our disorders must square off with Medusa. I think it is important to note that this is not about conquering her, though that is the popular seasoning. Instead, Perseus shows Medusa herself- offering no interpretation, no aggressive attack, no attempts to overpower. A silver mirror presents a simple, voiceless reflection of her own image.
The Skill of Medusa
Perseus gains the skill of Medusa and shows her face to the monster of Poseidon – the Kraken. The sea of our emotions has many monsters and to win the gift of Medusa’s stare is to know when and how to freeze lethal enemies. She is a gift. Our wounding and our defenses have worth and will support us in the right ways once dislodged from the body of terror. The trick is in knowing the difference between a lethal enemy and an imposing reality. In other words, when Medusa runs the show, all are threatening. When the inner ego (hero) gains her strengths and can be shielded from her wrath there is great power and healing that can take place.
The Silver Mirror of Perseus’ Shield
Today, we know Perseus by many names. He goes by cognitive restructuring, emotional regulation, the spectral chart, emotional transference therapy, and many more. Any practice in mindfulness is a look into the silver mirror of Perseus’ shield. Learning to observe and self reflect IS THE SKILL. As staff, I am encouraging us to work with the emotional deregulation of clients with a softer eye. Rather than attempting to interpret, learning to be grounding and curious. To join with activated dysregulation may sometimes not be an option. In defensiveness, all we can offer is our own boundaries. This week I will be teaching on maintaining healthy relationships with borderline tendencies as partners, therapists and family members. I encourage you all to make some extra room in your relationships with clients (for staff members) and with staff members (for clients). The only way through disorder is untangling the story and the only way to untangle the story is to give it our undivided attention. May we all find the solutions in our symptoms and the passions in our wounding.