Tag Archives: Mental health

3 Helpful and 3 Unhelpful Things You Can Say to People Suffering from Anxiety

anxious woman

(Image/Verywell Health)

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from my friend and colleague, Jenee Day.

Jenee is a long-time anxiety sufferer who now shares her experiences in an effort to help others via her podcast, YouTube channel, and through her coaching and writing. Jenee is the author of “Fear Itself: How Battling Anxiety Brought Me Inner Peace.”

The Fear Itself podcast is also available now on most podcast platforms. 

It’s 2 a.m.

My heart is racing and I shoot out of bed, unable to sit still. My breathing is ragged. My skin feels clammy to the touch.

Wild-eyed and frantic, I pace my bedroom. Back and forth and back and forth, squeezing my eyes shut tightly in the hope that if I just ignore this feeling, it will go away. It doesn’t.

What is happening?  Why do I feel this way?  How can I make it stop?

For someone who clings to the illusion of control in my everyday life, this is my worst fear being realized. Last night, everything was fine. And tonight, I opened the door to my closet to find that there really is a boogeyman. I feel ashamed. Guilty. Broken.

After an hour or so of pacing with no end in sight, I know I need to wake my husband. I need help, but I am terrified to ask for it. I am afraid he’ll think I’m crazy. I’m afraid he might be angry. I’m afraid he might leave me because of my sudden—maybe permanent—break.

Neither of us knows it yet, but how he responds in this moment of crisis will be critical to my suffering and my recovery.

How do we love others well when they suffer from anxiety?

If you are in a relationship with someone who suffers from anxiety, it can be difficult to know what to say.

Here are phrases that were not helpful (even insulting) when I was having an anxiety attack. I strongly encourage you to avoid saying them if you genuinely want to help.

 

, and some that I found to be hugely supportive and encouraging.

3 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Feeling Anxious

1. ‘Everything happens for a reason.’

I don’t like this one because it’s so trite and dismissive. What’s the follow-up to this? What possible reason could explain what is happening right now? Simply put, it is not helpful and it is not true.

2. ‘Just calm down.’

This probably doesn’t require much explanation for those who have anxiety.

For everyone else, I’ll explain in two points: 1.) If it were that simple, I’d have already done it and, 2.) Anxiety really has nothing to do with calmness. The logical brain already KNOWS that nothing is going on, but the logical brain isn’t driving the bus here. Telling someone to “calm down” trivializes pain and sounds condescending. No one needs that.

3. ‘You just need to have faith.’

A phrase that still rouses rage when I hear it.

When a “friend” said this to me, I felt like she thought my panic attacks were my fault; suggesting that if my faith in God was strong enough, I wouldn’t be panicking.

It was confusing and hurtful, and made me question a lot of things I thought were true about myself and about my creator. In hindsight, I can see that this person had her own issues to sort through and was projecting judgment on me, but at the time I was crushed and bewildered, thinking that I was somehow not doing Christianity the right way or with enough sincerity.

In reality, I was more sincere and more of a truth seeker than I had ever been. Bottom line: This is just a mean thing to say. Please don’t ever blame someone for their trauma.

3 Helpful Things You Can Say to Someone Suffering from Anxiety

Most people out there with loved ones suffering with mental illness do genuinely want to help.

Here are examples of things you can ask or say that are actually helpful.

1. ‘How can I help?’

This question is great, because it removes any pressure. An open question like this gives me—or the anxiety suffer—the power, and a little bit of a voice in a situation where I (or they) feel like no one can hear us. Sometimes, the only thing I need is for someone to listen.

2. ‘My sister/brother/uncle/dog walker had anxiety.’

Absolutely, positively, tell me all the stories and bestow on me ALL the knowledge.

Researching during The Terror was a daunting task. I would listen to anything anyone had to tell me about anxiety cures. I don’t think that all people suffer from anxiety for the same reasons or due to the same triggers, but I am always willing to try something to find out what works for me. It may be something I can add to my anti-anxiety arsenal.

Relating someone else’s struggles, successes, and methods of coping are always appreciated.

3. ‘Yes.’

Just say yes.

This was one of the most helpful and selfless acts my husband could do for me on a daily basis.

If I asked him to drive me around and look at houses all day (because it calmed me), he said yes. No matter what the request he said yes. He even got us cable TV, which we didn’t have previously, because having the local news made me feel like I had a connection to the outside world.

It may sound silly, but it made sense to me at the time, and it made me feel less trapped. So he said yes and made it happen.

Similarly, my dad said yes when I wanted to sit in his living room and rock in his rocking chair until midnight because I was afraid to be home alone. My stepmom said yes countless times when I needed company, allowing me to pace in her sewing shop for hours while she worked. She said yes to FaceTime chats and yes to bike rides.

When lack of control is a trigger, allowing an anxious person to make small decisions—what to eat for lunch, whether to drive to the store—can help us feel steadier on our feet.

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How to Feel Successful, Increase Self-Esteem and Eliminate Envy

all-i-do-is-win-win-win-no-matter-what

I know a guy who almost never loses a game of pool.

He’s one of my dad’s closest friends. He’s awesome in all of the ways which matter, and I love him like family.

But if you didn’t know him and love him like family, he might seem to you like just another guy. He manages a hospital maintenance staff. I’m not super-familiar with his financial status, but I’m not under the impression people who care about net worth would be overly impressed.

My father’s social circle has a lot of three kinds of guys: Guys with really nice cars who race as a hobby, guys who are awesome golfers, and guys with—at least by Midwestern terms—kind of a lot of money.

But the hospital maintenance manager isn’t really any of those things.

I don’t know whether he sits around thinking about this. As if he’s somehow deficient because he isn’t up to the same standards in those super-specific silos as most of his friends. I hope not, and doubt it.

When I was younger, I—objectively speaking in the context of 1980s Americans—didn’t have money in my family. My parents were young, divorced, and at best, lower middle-class. I ate a lot of free school lunches in my early years.

Some of my friends did come from families with—at least from my narrow perspective and life experience—a lot of money. Big, awesome houses I’d visit and sleep in on weekends, and nice, expensive cars.

Maybe feelings of inadequacy and insecurity started back then. I’m an only child and didn’t have a big brother or sister to help prepare me for The Things That Happen Next in your growing years, and I did a crappy job being transparent with my parents, choosing to live inside my own head rather than talk things out with people who loved me and probably knew Things.

But I don’t remember feeling particularly inadequate or insecure back then. In fact, I feel as if I had a charmed childhood and social life through my school years. Whatever my neurotic hang ups might have been, I can’t recall a time I felt intentionally excluded from anything that mattered to me. I felt well-liked and reasonably popular, which are fun things to feel.

It was during the slow death of my marriage where I developed some insecurities and self-confidence issues which are very un-fun things to feel.

Some combination of failing to rise to the level of Very Successful, Special and Unique Snowflake I’d always imagined for myself, and losing my job with a new baby at home, and feeling my wife pull further and further away while seeming to like, respect and want me less with each passing day, turned me into someone else.

Every Facebook or Instagram update from someone I knew with their smiling and happy family on another vacation or in their super-nice home proved to be another reminder of what a loser I’d really turned out to be.

Must be this tall to ride.

Before the hospital maintenance manager and family friend I know was someone who I knew and loved, he was a total stranger. Several years ago when I met him, he was a new addition to my father’s vibrant social circle.

I didn’t know a thing about him, except what a few guys in the room were telling me: “See that guy? He never loses at pool. He’s an absolute badass. One of the best I’ve ever seen or heard of.”

I’m not a particularly skilled pool shooter. I’m okay. I’m kind of okay at everything. I tend to be average at most things, and great at none. But if there’s an impromptu pool tournament, sure, I’m in.

My dad has a couple tables. He’s good, as are many of his friends. They all have their own, expensive cue sticks, rarely miss shots, and never take them unless they know where the cue ball needs to be to make the next one or two. They’re high-level players.

But none of them are like our friend, The Badass. The unassuming hospital employee. When he’s on, he’ll make other awesome players look average, and average players look weak and pathetic.

Generally, if you miss even one shot against him, you’re finished.

Ignoring that material and superficial things lack meaning and rarely move the Happiness needle on our lives, he can’t hang with the other guys on the golf course, nor can he buy a bunch of expensive cars, nor is he going to elicit financial envy from any of them.

Compared to them in those very specific areas, he might appear or even feel lacking.

But at a billiards table? You’re in his world.

A world where he’s king.

Who Would You Trade Places With if You Had to Take All Their Baggage, Too?

James Altucher, one of my favorite writers, was having dinner with another excellent writer, Ryan Holiday.

Holiday asked Altucher whether he ever feels envious of others.

“Yes,” Altucher said, “I’m envious of people.”

Holiday shared his mental strategy for eliminating feelings of jealousy or envy, and Altucher wrote about it in his recent post, The One Cure For All Envy and Jealousy:

“Here’s what you do, Ryan said. If you are envious of someone, you can’t just pick one or two things about them. Because it’s their entire history that has got them the one thing you are envious about.

“So, he said, picture that you can change places in every way with them. But then it’s forever.

He said: Would you do it?

“While he asked that, the hostess of the restaurant came up to us, She looked at me and asked, are you on TV?

“No.

“You’re Ted Mosby, right? From the show ‘How I Met Your Mother.’

“No, I said, but I’ll take it as a compliment.

“She kept staring and then walked away.

“Let me think, I said to Ryan. What about X, would you change places with him? – And I named someone we both admired.

“No way, he said, look at A, B, and C with him. Would you want those?

“Hmm, no.

“Who else do you admire? he asked.

“I had to think for a long time. There’s a lot of people I admire but which among them do I envy.

“I named some more people I envied but for each one, he named some attributes that I would definitely not want to have for myself if I switched places for that person.

“I guess you’re right, I said. I’m happy being me. Otherwise I wouldn’t be having such a fun dinner right now with you!”

I often wonder why it feels like I know several people in real life who would make AMAZING political leaders, but I often find the people I actually have to choose from to be deficient in several areas. I know people who you’d want to run through walls for in an effort to elect them President of the United States. People with unquestionable leadership skills, charisma, and as much integrity as you’d require from a public figure.

But they’ll never be president. There are a TON of brilliant and amazing people out there. Entrepreneurs, doctors, educators, business leaders, etc. But nobody like them ever runs for president.

Why?

I figured it out several years ago: Because none of the really smart people want the job.

It’s shitty! Have you ever studied the gray-hair quotient of presidents entering office versus leaving it? It’s a stressful, shitty job where half the world hates you, where you’re headline news almost every day, where your private life is almost always on display, where people don’t believe good things which are true about you, where people believe bad things which aren’t true about you, where you receive death threats all the time, and aren’t even paid particularly well in the context of being that famous and powerful.

In many ways, being President of the United States is one of the best jobs in the world.

In many ways, it’s also one of the worst.

Would you trade places with someone else? Even if you had to take on all the bad parts, too?

Bring Others Into a Place Where You are Master

Another of my favorite writers and thinkers, Tim Ferriss, taught me how to stop comparing my life to the highlights of other people’s lives I might see on social media, and feel more gratitude and pride about the things which make me, me.

This is The Secret to Feeling Successful, and you can start RIGHT NOW, and all you have to do is ask yourself a better question.

Ferriss’ focus was on business success, but it won’t take a business degree to understand how this mental trick can apply to ANYTHING in your life, and essentially be summarized as Enjoy Being the Big Fish in a Small Pond.

From Ferriss’ New Research and a Dirty Truth: Read This Before Chasing the Dollar:

“What to do? There are a few ways to use the currency of time, and awareness of positional economics, to your advantage to beat the Joneses on new terms:

  1. Focus on “relative income” — defined as hourly income — instead of “absolute income,” misleading annual income that doesn’t factor in time. If you assume a 40-hour work week and 2 weeks of vacation per year, estimate per-hour income by cutting off the last three zeros and dividing in half. Thus: $50,000 per year –> $50 divided by 2 = $25 per hour. Relative income can be increased by increasing total income for the same hours, getting the same income for fewer hours, or some combination thereof. More options with more life.
  2. Determine your precise Target Monthly Income (TMI) for your ideal lifestyle — the goal of most rat-race income competition — and focus on structuring mini-retirements to redistribute retirement throughout life. There’s an excellent Excel spreadsheet here for calculations.
  3. Determine your “where” of happiness. It’s not necessary to permanently move to a country with depressed currency, but even temporary relocation to a domestic (check out Forbes’ publisher Rich Karlgaard’s Life 2.0) or international location with a lower cost-of-living resets your peer group and positional economics barometer. Being perceived as rich often translates into perceiving yourself as rich. Neat trick and a hell of a lot of fun. Two of my top picks for positional resets are Argentina (see “How to Live Like a Rock Star (or Tango Star) in Buenos Aires”) and Thailand.
  4. Develop appreciation in tandem with achievement. Subjective happiness depends on appreciating what you get as much as getting what you want. The first step to true appreciation is perception: cultivating present-awareness. I recommend experimenting with lucid dreaming as tested at Stanford University, in particular the “reality check” exercises of Dr. Stephen Laberge.
  5. Develop competitive social groups outside of work. Participate in games outside of income mongering. Train or compete in a sport where income is a non-factor. That dude makes $1,000,000 a day as a hedge fund manager? I don’t care–his golf swing sucks and he has love handles. Here, it counts for nothing. Oh, and her? I know she just got promoted to national manager for IBM, but so what? I just scored 5 goals on her. In this world, I rule.

“Don’t let rat racing be the only game you play against the Joneses,” Ferriss wrote. “There is always someone willing to sacrifice it all to earn more, so let them. Just remember: it is entirely possible — in fact, common — to be a success in business and a failure in life. Take the red pill and think different.”

I’d like to believe that how we feel doesn’t really matter, since our feelings wax and wane all the time, and it’s hard to trust our own emotional swings.

But the truth is, how we feel DOES matter. Our feelings affect pretty much all of our decision making, and our decision making affects pretty much everything that happens to us.

Some people might roll their eyes at the idea of using Jedi mind tricks to feel better about their life. Like it’s fake. Like they actually have to do something more or different or better to ACTUALLY be better.

And I’m saying that’s bullshit.

Go chase whatever sets your heart on fire. I’m not suggesting we all sit on the couch, do nothing, and celebrate it.

The truth is true no matter what we believe: We’re already tall enough to be Jedi.

We already win. And we might as well enjoy it.

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The Death of Manhood

The Suicide by Edouard Manet

“The Suicide” by Edouard Manet (Image/Public domain)

I made fun of my gay friend in high school for the same reason I was afraid to tell my father about this blog.

It’s also the same reason I was a shitty husband, and the same reason millions of men—even ones who are pretty good guys—are shitty husbands.

Somewhere down deep, in places we don’t like to talk about, most men are afraid of losing their identity as men. They’re afraid of being rejected by their male peers. They’re afraid of not being respected or sexually desired by women. They’re afraid of disappointing their fathers, their coaches, their male mentors.

Men are so afraid of these things that we don’t seek help when we need it in matters big and small, for fear of projecting a lack of “manliness.” We sometimes won’t even admit there’s a problem.

I can handle it. I’m a man.

Men won’t admit that they are bad husbands and fathers, even with all the evidence in the world staring them in the face. Sad, angry, emotionally bent or broken wives. Jacked-up kids with daddy issues. Feelings of shame, dealt with in silence and pretend-stoicism. We grow our shame piles but hide them behind masks. Behind alcohol, and behind sex, and behind work, and behind escapist video games, and behind a whole bunch of pretending to be happy while feeling something else.

Our behavior drives our wives and girlfriends away. The ones we secretly want to rescue us. All we need them to do is tell us how great we are and want to enthusiastically take our pants off all the time. But they won’t. Because they don’t feel that way and because they’re twisted-up too. They’re just more honest about it.

So we feel even more shame.

You did this to me, bitch, thinks the broken, damaged man who feels like he gave up his old life for her.

I was happy. I felt good. People liked me. I had friends. My life was amazing.

And I gave up virtually all of it and promised you forever, and all you do is treat me like a failure every day. As if I’m a constant disappointment to you. As if you’re so perfect and amazing, and I’m the loser piece-of-shit. And now you want to pin our shitty marriage on ME?! Go to hell.

But he knows she’s a little bit right. The proof is in the shame. There’s no shame when we gave all we could.

The shame is proof we’re a little bit guilty.

I went to a small high school in a small Ohio town. We played football and called things “gay” when we meant “stupid,” and called each other “fags” as a slang bro-out locker room putdown.

So when one of the kids in our small class exhibited occasional voice-inflections and hand movements most of us guys made fun of him behind his back, because he was obviously gay, which is obviously the worst-possible thing to be because it meant you weren’t a real man like us!

By the time senior year rolled around, he had suffered silently and mostly alone for the lack of acceptance he felt from many of us. He was one of the student leaders on a retreat half of my class attended that year, and admitted during a prepared talk in front of everyone that he’d considered killing himself several times.

This guy who had NEVER—near as I could tell—mistreated me or anyone else, was so uncomfortable at school, that he thought being dead might be better than being around for what are often referred to as the best years of our lives.

You might say I almost killed a kid in my class. An awesome and kind one.

And it wasn’t because I disliked him. I was never mean to him in any obvious or direct way. It was because I wanted to be acknowledged by my friends as a “man” while we cracked private jokes more than I wanted to treat a good person with respect and dignity.

But at least I had my Man Card.

The potency of this male-identity thing is the primary reason wives can’t get their husbands to read relationship books, or my blog posts, or visit a therapist. This male-identity thing from which I also suffer. It makes me part of the problem.

In that vein, your broken marriage or divorce is kind of my fault, too.

Men Won’t Seek Help to Avoid the Appearance of Weakness

I imagine I love my country as much as any generally satisfied citizen living in a developed nation. I think the United States is an excellent place to live, and the day I believe there to be an obviously better choice is the day I’ll want to move elsewhere.

But many Americans suffer from something I’ll call America Is #1 You Foreign Losers!!! Syndrome. While I’m a proud American and will gladly defend my homeland verbally and otherwise when called for, I don’t think you can look around with intellectual honesty and say that all things American are somehow demonstrably better than things we observe elsewhere.

In fact, it’s nonsense. In 2016, we have data available to anyone with internet access which proves that other countries are better at [insert public policy of choice here]. Some places have more successful schools. More effective transportation. More thriving economies. And, it pains me to say, but maybe even people who, as a whole, are infinitely more pleasant to be around than, as a whole, a random same-sized sampling of people in the U.S.

My favorite recent example of America Is #1 You Foreign Losers!!! Syndrome is learning that U.S. students are just whatever at math performance, but lead the world in being confident about their math skills. In other words, American students think they’re awesome at math, but they’re actually a little bit shitty.

Sound familiar?

Men are confident in their abilities as husbands and fathers, or at the very least, demonstrate confidence by actually getting married, and actually fathering children. And it’s because they’re a lot like American math students. They’re not actually good, but they think they are, or at least are damn sure going to tell you they are. Like a man.

It starts to get ugly when wives who have detected the danger, try to get their husbands to give more to her and their marriage or family.

Oh, so now I’m not good enough for you, Miss Perfect? I gave up my fun life for this?

Men Are 300% More Likely Than Women to Kill Themselves

I kept this blog a secret from my parents and most people I know until about a month ago.

I kept it a secret from my mom because I didn’t want her to read my profanity or read her son write about sex, pornography and masturbation.

I kept it a secret from my dad because I didn’t want him to read about me crying about my divorce, or my newly discovered convictions about empathy, or the fact that I spend so much of my time writing about relationships. You know, “girl stuff.” You know, so he didn’t think his son was a candy-ass pussy.

For the record, both of my parents (they don’t live together) have been amazingly supportive and I’m a little bit embarrassed how afraid of telling them I was. Since I’m thirty-freaking-seven and stuff. But I still haven’t told anyone else. Maybe I’m afraid.

The fear is real. And it’s the same fear many men you know carry around behind their veils of stoic machismo.

Even though women are more likely than men to report suicidal thoughts and tendencies, men are statistically THREE TIMES MORE LIKELY TO KILL THEMSELVES.

This phenomenon, the Gender Paradox, is observed in every race, culture, religious affiliation and country in the world.

Why?

Because men don’t want to lose their Man Card. It’s something we joke about with friends, but when we REALLY feel like we lose it because our wives leave us, or hair loss, or erectile dysfunction, or a job loss, or we just slowly lose that Successful Man feeling we remember from our youth?

We’re afraid to seek help. Because that’s tantamount to admitting weakness or that we’re not man enough.

So, when shit really hits the fan? That noose or gun trigger after a bender starts looking like a viable escape plan for broken men.

The really scary part is how most of these feelings are self-inflicted. It’s no different than how most men and women accidentally destroy their relationships through a series of incorrect assumptions about how their partner thinks and feels due to an absence of effective communication habits and skills.

Men are worried about what other people think of them. But it’s not actually rooted in fact. It’s rooted in assumption. We GUESS what other people think about us, and then react emotionally to whatever we guess that is. And because we tend to be afraid of negative things more than feel pleasure or excitement over positive things, we usually make things worse in our own minds.

A person may have not thought about you AT ALL. But you are afraid because they were in the area when you did or said something which embarrassed you that they now think you’re a huge loser, and that will somehow matter five minutes from now.

From “Why Men Kill Themselves in Such High Numbers” in Pacific Standard:

“Even in the developed world, where gender equality is not as bad as in developing countries, most men still see themselves as being responsible for providing and protecting their family. Of course, some women are social perfectionists too. But men’s social perfectionism is much more harmful.

‘A man who can’t provide for the family is somehow not a man anymore,’ said Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University. ‘A woman is a woman no matter what, but manhood can be lost.’”

Men need help in the mental and emotional health space as much as anyone needs help with anything.

But we refuse, because we don’t believe we need it, or simply won’t admit it.

Why, men?

To appear strong?

To be fake-strong?

Not unlike the weak-boundary daters who care more about the people they meet liking them than they do about whether a healthy and successful relationship is actually possible, men often choose the appearance of strength or the appearance of success over ACTUALLY pursuing strength and success.

It’s really hard to win, or even competently play, games in which we don’t know the rules.

In our own minds and bodies, men don’t know the rules.

So we accidentally destroy our marriages.

And we accidentally ruin relationships with friends and family.

If it makes us feel shame, or feels like something in which we can’t succeed, we turn around and walk the other way, but we make sure it looks like something manlier than fear.

We never just say: “For the same reason I don’t know how to design rocket engines and navigation computers for space shuttles, I also don’t know all there is to know about how to feel great about my life and have successful relationships with my wife and kids and friends and self.

We choose the bottle or a gun or a pill or a mask, instead of what we should do.

Learn the rules of the game so we can have fun and play competently.

Then, just like back in the day: Practice makes perfect.

Then?

We win.

More On Why Men Won’t Seek Help

From PsychCentral: Real Men Don’t Get Help

From Everyday Health: Why Depression is Underreported in Men

From HealthDay News: Many Men With Mental Health Issues Don’t Seek Help

…..

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Unidentified ADHD Probably Ended My Marriage

(Image/cognitivetherapysf.com)

(Image/cognitivetherapysf.com)

Okay. How do I explain this so people can understand?

Favor request: Please set aside any preconceived notions, biases or opinions you have about ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ADD. Less than a year ago, I thought it was a bullshit, totally made-up thing drug companies used to sell pills to kids who were just being kids, or undisciplined, irresponsible adults who didn’t want to grow up.

But then I was introduced to other explanations.

For this post, maybe imagine that “ADHD” is a generic umbrella label to describe common behaviors you may believe to be nothing more than immaturity.

Is that too boring of an intro? Should I maybe just write about how I experience life? Probably. But I’m out of time. Dammit.

I write about marriage and relationships a lot because my parents divorced when I was little and I got a divorce a few years ago and it was all very bad for me. Because of how bad it was, I’ve worked almost as hard as someone like me can to figure out why it happened, because I never want to go through it again.

I look around and see things that should be better than they are: the political process and how elected officials conduct themselves (I’m American); our public education system; the insane economics of the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries; silly rules at my job, or the inefficiencies I run into unexpectedly just living daily life. You know the ones I’m talking about. Like when a company screws you over with crap service or an accounting error, and then when you call their customer service line, you have to give your full name, phone number, and account number to the automated system only to have the person who picks up following 35 minutes of ‘80s-pop-song elevator music ask for your full name, phone number, and account number a second time.

“Why don’t you already know this, Call Center Person!?” God.

In many industries, there are accepted “best practices.” After trying something a kazillion different ways, the people with the most knowledge and experience conducting a particular process or task compared notes and settled on a mostly universal “best way” of doing whatever they’re doing.

Because there are—forgive the expression—multiple ways to skin a cat, there are sometimes many very good ways to do something, which is great. All good ways are probably good.

I feel like with today’s technology and global mobility, we should be able to easily figure out what those good or best ways are.

Take the United States for example. Our biggest and most-debated problems are what? National security. Government debt. Illegal immigration. Public education (including the insane and financially unworthy cost of higher education). Health care. Environmental policy. And all the social issues people scream about.

There is a country that is “the best,” or very good at national security.

There is a country that is “the best,” or very good at managing finances.

There is a country that is “the best,” or very good at handling immigration, or the education system, or achieving high citizen satisfaction in (insert thing you care about here).

And at the risk of oversimplifying complex issues, I’m always dumbfounded by the deliberate choice people or organizations make to NOT do things in a way proven to be successful. Why not just round up the five leading experts on any given subject, or study the five most successful governments or organizations at whatever problem you’re trying to solve, and model solutions after them? I don’t get it.

Good God. Look how long this ranty tangent was! Over 350 words! Just so I could make a silly point about marital best practices which wasn’t even the main reason I’m writing this! People sometimes complain that I write too much. Maybe this will help them understand why. No. They probably stopped reading already, or ignored this altogether. I wonder if the people who called me fat, boring and pathetic this morning are reading. They probably still think I’m boring and pathetic. Fine. But, fat? I only weigh 173 pounds fully dressed with stuff in my pockets. I wanted to tell them, too, because: Screw those bastards, but then even more people would see how defensive I am. Which is what’s happening right now. Dammit.

There is a “best way” to behave in marriage. Just like there’s a best way to manufacture corrugated polyethylene highway drainage pipe, and a best way to design emergency stairwells in high-rise buildings, and a best way to prepare and bake angel food cake.

There is—taking into account the differing needs of our partners, children, and lifestyle—an optimum way to treat those we love, and give our relationships the best chance for success. Best practices for dating and marriage, if you will.

I think it’s worthwhile to try to figure out what those best practices are. That’s why I write about this stuff all the time. I don’t know anything, so I try to write in the first-person to make it clear that I KNOW I don’t know anything.

I just think things.

And I’m mega-ADHD! Are they getting this? I can’t believe how long this is getting. That’s what she said.

Because I write a lot about relationships, people sometimes ask me questions I don’t have answers for. I created the Ask Me Stuff page because I thought it might be a cool way to interact with readers and generate good writing topics, not because I actually know enough about anything to help people. But still, people ask me stuff. One frequently asked question in comments and emails following the new and unexpected attention this blog received from a recent popular post focused on to what extent I thought my ADHD behavior contributed to my divorce.

I didn’t even know enough to ask that question before last spring when I was diagnosed.

The most honest answer I can think of is: No matter how real ADHD is, I exhibit a series of specific behaviors consistent with the ADHD diagnosis which I believe not only doomed my marriage, but also damages many of my other relationships. I tend to have great relationships with people I see regularly, people who love me unconditionally, people who exhibit patience and don’t take personally my erratic and infrequent communication, and everyone who totally relates because they’re the exact same way.

Everyone else gets inconsistent attention from me, and that sometimes causes friction and hurt feelings for some people, and sometimes that ends with me never talking to them again, which isn’t ideal.

I think if my wife and I had more knowledge about, and respect for, ADHD (along with everything I’ve learned about relationship dynamics in the past four years), I’m pretty sure our marriage would have survived, and maybe thrived, with fewer fights and headaches.

We’re 1,000 words in, and I haven’t done what I set out to do. Maybe some of the people who don’t think I’m fat and pathetic and boring will keep reading. Do I really look THAT fat in the photo? Maybe I should have a new one taken. I totally should. Maybe I’ll look skinnier. Probably not. Dammit.

Does Your Partner Have ADHD?

Here are some things that have always been true about me, and because I didn’t know there was another way to experience life, I never wondered whether it was weird that these things happened.

Through the prism of hindsight, I remember all these little moments where my wife must have thought I was a stupid moron, but since she can tell by things I say and think that I’m sometimes smart, certain ADHD moments must have felt to her like I was doing them intentionally, or at best, mindlessly as if I didn’t respect her. You know—like leaving a glass by the sink, or forgetting about some event on the calendar she had mentioned three times, or putting off a home-improvement project she wanted me to do or help with.

You can be talking directly to me and I can be paying attention to you, and then you’ll see my eyes sometimes wander off because something you said triggered another thought, OR something weighing heavily on my mind overpowered your story for a second and I accidentally thought about it instead. She used to say: “Please look at me, and not through me.”

I, along with most people with an ADHD diagnosis, have a superpower. We can sometimes “hyperfocus.” It happens a lot when I’m writing. It happens when I’m meeting a girl for the first time. It happens when I’m reading a good book or article. It happens when I feel particularly motivated to finish a project or am up against a deadline. And because we can demonstrate competence, attention to detail, and the ability to complete complex tasks successfully, it must appear to some during other times as if we are bored, disengaged, thoughtless, stupid, high, mean, or neglectful. Maybe even some other bad things. Sometimes I’m awesome at stuff. And sometimes, I feel overwhelmed in ways hard to describe.

But I wanted to try (and totally failed) in this post! I guess I’ll try again Monday. Maybe if I can accurately capture how I experience a day, or an event, or life management tasks, something will make sense to someone.

I’m sometimes awesome at idea generation but bad at execution.

I misplace things.

I sometimes forget a portion of a set of instructions, making something harder than it needs to be, or failing altogether.

I often avoid things requiring sustained mental effort (long conversations I am not motivated to have, reading and answering email, making phone calls for personal or professional reasons that will take a lot of time, including my parents and other family).

I talk a lot.

And the most interesting (to me): I have trouble estimating how long something will take. I struggle with time perception. People with ADHD often do not develop the ability to accurately gauge the passage of time. Like, moving from task to task at an appropriate speed when getting ready for work or my son ready for school. Or mapping out a future schedule where I block out time necessary to accomplish something (like writing a book). Or remembering to make restaurant reservations or doctor appointments with sufficient time clearance.

I read one neurologist say: “To an ADHDer, there are only two types of time: NOW or NOT NOW.” And yeah, that sounds about right. I procrastinate in ways I imagine most people could never believe or understand. (My navity set is still out from the holidays, and just this morning I found some unopened Christmas cards in a stack of mail in my kitchen. Seriously.)

Maybe it’s the way my brain naturally works. Maybe it’s just a lifetime of bad habit formation. I won’t pretend to know.

But ADHD behavior is commonly interpreted by people who don’t understand as self-centered and/or narcissistic.

And it makes sense to me why spouses dealing with those behaviors without information they need to manage it effectively can find their lives and relationships spiraling out of control and ending in painful, messy failure.

In my experience, having an explanation or reason for why things are a certain way can make all the difference in the world in my ability to deal emotionally or psychologically with things that suck. Maybe if ADHD is affecting you or your relationship, and then you connected those dots, you’d feel better and maybe as if you now have some control and the power to make things better.

They say knowledge is power. So, if any of this makes sense to you? Get powerful.

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The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done

face-in-hands

Between acting like my wife should hurry up and get over the unexpected death of her father because it was damaging our marriage, and my nonchalant denial of her postpartum depression following our son’s birth, I can’t decide which is my greatest failure on my journey toward divorce.

I wake up every day believing I’m a good person, but maybe I’m not.

My failure to adequately support my wife after losing a parent was largely a function of a million previous tiny failures culminating in her breaking point in the midst of grief. When everything hurts, you need someone you can trust to help take some of the pain away. I’d stopped being that a long time ago. I just didn’t know it yet.

I thought she had been nitpicky, overly emotional and occasionally unfair for the previous seven years. Like most guys, I was selfish and clueless.

So, here’s a secret I’ve never told anyone: I have a sociopathic trait. I lack the ability to empathize with the physical pain of others.

When I read books, or hear someone describe something I’ve never seen, my brain dials up images, but what I visually imagine is almost never what reality looks like when I get to see whatever the thing is. And maybe that’s why I struggle with relating to the physical pain of others. Because I can’t properly imagine it.

I am quite sensitive to emotional pain—especially if I’ve been through something similar to a hurting person, or can adequately imagine what it would be like to.

That matters for two reasons: I wasn’t appreciating how much physical discomfort my wife was experiencing during pregnancy, and because I was an ignorant mook, I also failed to grasp the fear, stress and anxiety she might have been feeling worrying about both child delivery, first, then the following 18 years of being responsible for the safety and wellbeing of an actual person.

I was texting friends from the chair next to her bed while she was in labor. I was updating them on her and the baby’s status, so I thought I was doing something important. My wife expressed displeasure with my choice. She wanted me to be fully present and engaged with her, demonstrating my commitment to her, and reinforcing in her mind and heart that I would always be at her side through life’s difficult moments.

These are things I understand today. They make perfect sense, because today I am less of an ignorant mook. But on that day seven and a half years ago, none of that made sense.

The mere act of marrying her demonstrates my commitment to her forever, I thought.

OF COURSE she knows based on thousands of conversations how much I value being a good father.

OF COURSE she knows she’s loved.

OF COURSE she knows she can count on me.

She knows me well enough. She knows I’m a good person.

I wasn’t illogical for assuming and believing that. I was just profoundly ignorant. I think most guys are because no one ever explains it to us in a way that ever computes and resonates.

I would never consider something more important than the birth of my son. But texting friends while my wife was in labor—no matter how uneventful or undramatic it seemed to me—felt to her precisely like I cared more about doing what I wanted than being there for her in her most-vulnerable moments.

I would never physically abandon my crying wife. But that’s exactly what I did. She cried. She asked me not to go. But I’m stubborn and moronic and had it in my head that I needed to be well rested for the days ahead per the advice of other fathers.

I left my crying wife alone in a hospital room just hours removed from an emergency C-section where she struggled to breastfeed a screaming child who didn’t want to with nurses who made her feel like she just wasn’t trying hard enough.

Why?

So I could sleep, shower, send photos to family and friends, and revel in the amazing feeling of being a father to a newborn son.

I hope you believe me when I tell you how reasonable it seemed at the time.

In the context of my nine-year marriage? It’s the single worst thing I’ve ever done.

Then I Made it Worse By Suggesting Postpartum Depression Wasn’t Real 

My wife developed postpartum depression.

My lack of education about hormone loss and the psychological impact of childbirth on a new mother, combined with my lack of respect for mental and emotional health issues across the board, were just the ingredients needed to make me a profoundly negligent asshole in the early months of our son’s life.

I thought postpartum depression amounted to mental weakness.

I thought it was something “crazy” people feel, like Andrea Yates who drowned five of her children in the family bathtub.

I thought it was tantamount to my wife not loving our infant son.

This is just a phase she’ll get over, I thought.

She’s emotional sometimes, but I know she isn’t crazy!

I know she loves our baby.

Instead of reading books, talking to other parents, researching PPD or even just actively seeking ways to help my wife in whatever way I could make the difficult adjustment to parenthood, I played a lot of online poker and watched football and convinced myself I was a good husband and father because I have a kind heart.

I hope when she thinks back on those days, she remembers at least something positive about me, but I can’t say with certainty that she can, or that she should.

She tried to talk to me about it later. About the PPD. About how sad and afraid and alone she felt in the hospital when I’d left her there. About how she wanted me to actively participate in the planning and organization of our new life as parents.

But instead of apologizing with heartfelt sincerity for hurting my wife so badly, I’d get angry with her and accuse her of looking for yet another reason to complain about me even though I was such a good guy. Good guys are well liked and get told what good guys they are all the time, so when their wives point out their shortcomings in a relationship, all the “good guys” resort to the old: “How is it that the person I married is the one always bitching about me?” Because if no one else is bitching about you, they must all be right, and your crazy emo wife must be wrong.

Postpartum depression, according to the Mayo Clinic, typically requires professional treatment, including therapy sessions and, when applicable, anti-depressant medication.

The Mayo Clinic lists the following things mothers suffering from PPD can do to speed up recovery:

Make healthy lifestyle choices. Include physical activity, such as a walk with your baby, in your daily routine. Try to get adequate rest. Eat healthy foods and avoid alcohol.

Only a mother with a thoughtful and attentive husband can realistically expect to get the sleep, healthy food preparation, and time (not to mention energy) for physical activity to achieve a healthy lifestyle and overcome PPD.

Set realistic expectations. Don’t pressure yourself to do everything. Scale back your expectations for the perfect household. Do what you can and leave the rest.

A new mother only feels like she has to do everything when her partner doesn’t have her back.

Make time for yourself. If you feel like the world is coming down around you, take some time for yourself. Get dressed, leave the house, and visit a friend or run an errand. Or schedule some time alone with your partner.

There are only enough hours in the day when all of a household’s responsibilities are tended to. Time alone with a partner only works when the partner makes himself available for such things.

Avoid isolation. Talk with your partner, family and friends about how you’re feeling. Ask other mothers about their experiences. Breaking the isolation may help you feel human again.

When my wife tried to talk to me about it, I basically invalidated her condition and dismissed it as a figment of her imagination. “You’re a great mother,” I kept saying, as if you can’t be a great mother AND feel uncontrollably depressed due to a variety of hormonal and psychological conditions I was largely responsible for creating in the first place.

Ask for help. Try to open up to the people close to you and let them know you need help. If someone offers to baby-sit so you can take a break, take them up on it. If you can sleep, take a nap, or maybe you can catch a movie or meet for coffee with friends.

She tried to talk to me. Several times. She asked me for help. And I denied her my help by suggesting there was nothing to worry about. Instead of trying to understand how she felt and working diligently to figure out what more I could do to help, I pretended everything was fine and left her to fend for herself.

Maybe I did that because it was easier than working hard.

Maybe I let my wife run the show because I didn’t want the responsibility or the hassle.

Maybe every single thing about our lives would be different had I made the right choices.

There were countless little moments where I failed my wife. Where I didn’t work harder to understand her or speak to her in ways that conveyed my sincere desire to be a good partner.

But until I ditched my crying wife at the hospital to catch a few winks, left all the new-parenting heavy lifting to her, and never once apologized or took responsibility for it, I hadn’t actually destroyed my family.

There’s no such thing as time travel. And there’s not enough Christmas magic to rewind clocks and unflip calendars.

But if anyone’s wondering what I’m most sorry for in my entire life, now you know.

…..

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I Might Be a Narcissist

(Image/University of Michigan)

(Image/University of Michigan)

Gill B. asked: I usually hate psychobabble. What’s done (really done) is done, and all that. However on reading these insightful posts through – I wondered if It was at all possible that you have narcissistic personality disorder? The warm, gentle, reasonable, charming, just a lovely decent (abandoned) guy phase?”

I won’t lie. My first reaction to this was: Who the fuck does this guy think he is? (I’m assuming it’s Gill, the male name with a hard “G” sound, and not the nickname for Gillian.)

And then I remembered reading that narcissists are super-defensive and hypersensitive to criticism and I thought: Oh crap. Maybe I AM a narcissist!

I don’t know whether Gill is trying to be helpful, or passive-aggressively making an accusation. In either case, he asks a perfectly fair question: Is it possible that I have narcissistic personality disorder, and maybe that’s why certain things in my life have gone wrong and not for all the reasons I’ve come to believe and/or are still exploring?

I wish he had worded the question differently. Because the phrase “anything is possible” exists because pretty much anything is possible.

Yes. It’s totally possible I’m a narcissist.

I have never, and will never, claim to know anything for sure. I might be living in The Matrix right now. I may be dreaming all this, and will wake up one day to discover I’m a 7,951-year-old alien living on some planet 39 parsecs from the Milky Way. I may be a freaking Who and living on some dust particle on a mega-giant old lady’s rug, and as soon as she invests in a new vacuum cleaner with water filtration, I’ll drown. It’s hard to be certain of anything.

But it’s not hard to take really solid educated guesses at things that hold up to scrutiny and bear out as likely truths over the long haul. Like evaluating trends via massive sample sizes, versus jumping to conclusions based on things that might be anomalies.

Everything I write about is my best attempt at solid educational guessing (or question asking) based on my life experience and observations, the experiences of others based on what I read or am told, and any other information I might have at the time.

So I wish Gill had asked: “Do you think you have narcissistic personality disorder?”

The Potential Narcissist Investigates Himself

(See what I did there? OMG, narcissist!!!)

Snark aside, I try to keep things real. And I like this question because it is a plausible hypothesis for why a seemingly decent guy would end up in the life circumstances I’m in, especially combined with this blog, which Gill might interpret as one, big Hey Everybody! Look At Me! festival.

To conduct my investigation, I did what any self-respecting psychobabbler would do: Base my conclusions on limited, hasty research supplemented by biased opinions from people who like me.

“Do you think you have narcissistic personality disorder?”

No, Gill. I don’t think I have narcissistic personality disorder. For three reasons:

1. My ex-wife would have totally hammered me with that during the most combative periods of our marriage and separation had she believed it.

2. Maybe crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. Maybe psychopaths don’t know they’re psycho. And maybe narcissists don’t know they’re narcissistic. But I work pretty hard at the whole self-reflection thing in an effort to have a better life and not repeat mistakes. And maybe I lack self-awareness, but I don’t think so. And that’s all I have to go on. What I think and feel. (Plus two of my friends were like: “No way, man! I know narcissists, and you’re totally not one!”)

3. I dove into a few online resources on narcissistic personality disorder, and found some good stuff from the Mayo Clinic, where they list the 12 attributes most commonly associated with narcissism:

Many experts use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, to diagnose mental conditions. This manual is also used by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.

DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include these features:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

One of the friends whose opinion I sought highlighted (at my request) the bullet points she thought applied to me. She highlighted two of them and qualified them as being “remotely” applicable.

They were “Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate,” and “Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.”

And yes. Those things totally apply to me, but I’d need a psych expert to tell me whether my versions of them qualify for checkmarks on the Is This Guy a Narcissist? evaluation form. (You reading, Dr. K? Feel free to be like: “Yeah, dumbass. Near as I can tell, you’re the biggest narcissist, ever, and also I’m dating Gill.”)

Success? Yes. I would really like to be “successful.” I’ve never spelled out exactly what I think that is, but it’s some healthy combination of financial freedom, entrepreneurial success, and at least a few people saying I helped them.

Power? No. If you offered me the U.S. presidency or the head seat at the table of a massive crime family, I would politely decline. My top priority is freedom and flexibility (career-wise), and “power” is somewhat useless to that end, and most likely a hindrance.

Brilliance? Hell yeah! I want to be the smartest I can possibly be! I spent most of my life squandering the educational resources around me and neglecting to pursue knowledge when I was immersed in academia for five years. If I could download every book that interests me into my brain and have the ability to recall all that information on demand? Totally rad superpower.

Beauty? Yes. I absolutely want girls to like me and want to mate. Sue me.

Perfect mate? Ehhh. I don’t know what that means in the context of narcissism. Do I have “high” standards? Probably. But I’m not sure where the flaw is in that life philosophy. I want to be attracted to my partner. I want to have fun with her. I want to be comfortable with her. I want to have long conversations and enjoy being together. I want my son to have an exceptional woman influencing him. I want to share similar life philosophies and shared interests so that, combined with all of those other things, we will have an excellent chance at achieving all the good, and avoiding all the bad, that we talk about in the comments of these posts.

As for having an inability to recognize the needs and feelings of others?

Hell. That’s the entire premise of my Here’s Why Divorce is so Common theory. Guys are oblivious to the needs of their partners, exhibit self-centeredness, and spend years defending themselves against their wives’ charges during arguments because they don’t understand that what she sees and thinks and feels in response to something happening can differ so radically from what he sees and thinks and feels. She always thinks he’s an insensitive asshole. And he always thinks she’s menstruating. Some people finally figure it out, but most don’t.

And it’s not because everyone is a narcissist or because everyone secretly hopes their marriages are horrible and end in painful divorce. It’s because they are accidentally oblivious to the needs and feelings of their partners because NO ONE learns about this stuff at home or school throughout their childhood and teenage years. Many get married in their 20s. All of them experience the consequences of ignorance. Most of them never solve the problem because their partner, by that point, is causing them intense pain, and it goes against our nature to want to invest the rest of our lives in something that only hurts.

Divorce feels easier than the surgery required to hold it all together, so people quit. And when they don’t learn from it, it tends to cycle back around in their future relationships too.

I did a bad job in my marriage, and now I never want to divorce again because it’s unpleasant.

I’m the only person who knows what I do, think and feel when no one’s watching.

And I’m not sure we can trust narcissists to tell us whether they are one.

But Gill asked a fair question, and I wanted to think about it and answer. And if that Mayo Clinic list is an accurate representation of how we’re defining a narcissist, then I really like my chances of not being one.

I have all kinds of problems, Gill. Shortcomings on display in several facets of my life. And everything I think and write about is part of me trying to figure out how to overcome those things, and maybe accidentally helping someone like me along the way.

Maybe narcissistic personality disorder is one of those problems. Anything’s possible.

But do I think so?

No, Gill. I don’t.

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The Pursuit of Happiness, Vol. 3

Image courtesy of EW.

Image courtesy of EW.

“Happiness comes in small doses, folks. It’s a cigarette or a chocolate chip cookie or a five-second orgasm. That’s it, okay? You cum, you eat the cookie, you smoke the butt, you go to sleep, you get up in the morning and go to fucking work, okay?” — Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer

Is Denis right? Is that really all there is?

At 35, there aren’t many people who have been household names my entire life.

Actor and comedian Robin Williams, dead of an apparent suicide at 63, is one of those people.

When someone dies, you rarely hear: “That guy was an asshole! Good riddance!”

People tend to focus on the good and honor the departed. So, it’s no surprise there is an outpouring of praise being heaped upon Williams.

None of us know what went on inside Williams’ mind and heart. But in more than three decades of knowing who he is, the worst thing I’ve ever heard about him is that some people didn’t care for his brand of humor.

By all accounts, he was a kind, decent, hilarious and generous man on and off stage, and on and off camera.

Which begs the question:

If Robin Williams, worth an estimated $130 million (according to Business Insider), beloved by millions worldwide, who reached the pinnacle of a career as a Hollywood actor and comedian, wasn’t happy, what chance do you and I have?

If a man with seemingly everything would rather be dead, what are we living for?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way:

Robin Williams reportedly suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. But I’m not going to let people get away with writing off his suicide as some anomaly. Just another case of mental illness that happens in this faraway place to people who aren’t like me!

Depression is a word.

Just like bipolar.

Words we use to describe conditions we observe in people. Conditions, I suspect happen to all of us in varying degrees at varying points in our lives.

People are afraid to talk about it.

I don’t know why.

Maybe it’s because some of us equate “mental illness” to “crazy.”

I’m not crazy!, we all think.

I used to be sure I wasn’t. And now I’m not. Now I know I can never really be sure of anything. I felt a lot better about my life the day I let go of trying to be certain about everything.

It’s okay to not know.

Try it. “I. Don’t. Know.” And you don’t have to. Now take a deep breath and go do something that makes you laugh.

I grew up in this “normal” little life, in this normal little house, in this normal little town. I grew up convinced I was about as typical as a person can be.

Maybe we all feel that way because we don’t know any better when we’re young and our brains don’t work very well because we don’t have enough data.

Life was simple.

And I remember thinking that when I grew up, I’d get married and have a couple of kids, and live in a normal little house in a normal little town just like that one.

And I’d be happy.

My wants got a little more ambitious as I aged. I began to crave certain material things and career achievements, but the end product of my happy-life fantasy still looked mostly the same.

A simple life in the suburbs with a wife and children and a job I could be proud of.

Eventually, I achieved that life.

And it wasn’t enough.

Everything broke. I lost my family. And then I got a taste of what depression really feels like.

For the first time, I discovered what it feels like to not recognize your own reflection. To forget what it feels like to be happy. To forget what it feels like to be you.

It changes everything.

Because that’s when you finally learn to prioritize. That’s when you finally figure out what matters versus what doesn’t.

I once needed the house, the car, the wife, the kids, the money, the job, the friends, the love, the life. To succeed. To be happy.

And now I don’t. I no longer believe there’s some magical Life Ladder that you climb and when you reach high enough you pump your fist and say: “Yay!!! Now I’m happy!!!”

There’s no finish line. No mountaintop. No end credits upon completion.

If life’s a video game, there’s no beating the game.

It’s just repeated attempts to set a new high score.

And I think it’s important to come to terms with that reality, or else we set ourselves up for enormous disappointment—high expectations that cripple us when life fails to satisfy.

Great Failed Expectations

I thought my life was going to be awesome because it pretty much was most of the time. Things got a little better all the time, every year, for the first 30 years of my life.

It set the expectation that things would continue to progress that way. So, when all the shitty things started to happen, I fell hard.

Your brain has trouble processing.

It poisons your insides. Fucks with your soul.

Maybe all of the really happy people started out with hard lives and thought their futures would be shitty, and then eventually climbed their way out and realized how beautiful life can really be.

I don’t know. It’s okay to not know.

I think this is what happens to all of these people—people most of us look at and think: Wow! They have amazing lives! I bet they’re so happy!

Rich and famous people. People who are beloved and worshipped. People just like Robin Williams.

What could they be missing?

I can only make an educated guess.

They’re missing some or all of the same things that elude any of us who feel dissatisfied with our lives.

Peace.

Contentment.

Balance.

Love.

Hope.

We all want good health. And fun. And money. And friendship. And love. And sex. And to feel good. And safe.

But what makes us happy?

Is that not the most-important question? Aside from taking care of those who love and need you (partners and children, etc.), do we have a more-critical job than identifying that which makes us truly happy?

Than immersing ourselves in that fountain? Over and over and over again?

Everyone suffers from varying degrees of brokenness.

Can love heal the broken?

Everyone has demons. Guilt. Regrets.

Can hope, faith, forgiveness bring us peace?

We all just want to feel like most of us did when we were kids. Laugh! Run! Play!

Is happiness really just an orgasm and a cookie?

Is all we get that short burst of joy we feel while laughing at the punch line of a Robin Williams joke?

Is that all there is?

Is that happiness?

Yeah, I don’t think so either.

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The Dream Weaver

We can learn how to be unbeatable.

We can learn how to be unbeatable.

As the clock ticked down on my marriage, I was a total wreck of a human being.

I faked it well. To friends. To family. To co-workers.

I can fake a lot of things well.

But every single day was shitty. Suffocating. All I wanted was to feel like the person I married wanted me in her life. But that almost never happened anymore. It had been going on so long, I forgot what the old “normal” even felt like.

Sometimes she’d be extra-cold in the morning and I’d stand in my kitchen and cry before driving to work.

Sometimes she’d be extra-cold at night and go to bed without saying goodnight and she’d walk around our bedroom above me—each footstep a kick to the face. Sometimes I’d cry then, too.

It was extra pathetic.

But I like to talk about it because it’s embarrassing and I think it’s important to unload that stuff. I spent so many years not crying that I think I was saving it up for moments just like that. Similarly, I spent so many years wearing masks and hiding things about myself that I think I was saving up these embarrassing stories for moments just like this.

Men aren’t supposed to cry. Not the tough ones anyway.

Maybe I’m not tough.

The Karate Kid wasn’t tough. Daniel was getting his ass handed to him by the Cobra Kai until Mr. Miyagi morphed him into the champion of the All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament.

Maybe I can learn The Crane Technique like Daniel.

I’m being obnoxious. But I’m also being serious. I don’t know whether I’m tough. Probably depends on how we define it.

But I’m beginning to believe very strongly that we can be anything we want or need to be.

So if the world needs me to be tough, I will be.

After all, I don’t cry much anymore.

The Wrong Side of the Bed

I felt super-shitty when I woke up this morning. And it’s not because I drank too much for St. Patrick’s Day. (I did not.)

It was because I had a very lucid dream about my ex-wife and she was upset with me.

It felt just like all of those mornings and nights where I was desperate to earn a smile or a hug or some kind of acknowledgement or approval, but never did.

I don’t remember even one detail from the dream. I only know she was upset with me. But more importantly, I cared.

I cared so much.

So, I woke up this morning a total wreck. Just like I was a year ago in the final hours and days of our dying marriage.

Why do I care?

I don’t know why I care. Habit? Programming I haven’t fully purged?

It’s really not important. I got cleaned up and started focusing on my day and I feel fine now.

But the memory of feeling horrible stuck with me. All because my ex-wife, whose approval I could never win, was living in my subconscious.

You’re not good enough!

This is good news.

That I can go from innocently living my life to feeling absolutely horrible because an imaginary version of someone was upset with me.

THAT’s how powerful my mind is.

It can take something that isn’t real and make it real.

I’m not a huge fan of Tony Robbins-like rah-rah speeches about the power of positive thinking. I don’t like corny things.

But I’m right about this.

I must be.

I wish you could have felt it, too. These extraordinarily powerful feelings because of something that didn’t even happen.

It’s good news.

It means I can choose how I feel.

It means I get to decide who I want to be.

It means I can live my dreams.

It means I can make the impossible possible.

And I don’t know much.

But I think it means you can, too.

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The Pursuit of Happiness, Vol. 2

People in Bhutan are happier than you. Because, there? That's always the goal. They choose it.

People in Bhutan are happier than you. Because, there? That’s always the goal. They choose it.

There is a small country in South Asia—Bhutan—where the government measures its success based on the collective happiness of its population.

The Bhutanese government has officially dubbed the measurement the Gross National Happiness Index.

Economics. Education. Health care. Crime.

These are all factors in much the same way most of the developed nations evaluate the state of things. Bhutan simply frames things differently. Bhutan’s government exists to create an environment for its citizens where they can pursue happiness. Not temporary measures to feel good. Not drugs. Not sex. Not alcohol. Not amusement parks. Not quick-hit entertainment. Not fake happy.

But, real happy. Long-term contentment.

The Gross National Happiness Index measures:

1. Psychological wellbeing

2. Health

3. Time use

4. Education

5. Cultural diversity and resilience

6. Good governance

7. Community vitality

8. Ecological diversity and resilience

9. Living standards

I didn’t know about this small country (less than one million people) with big ideas. A complete paradigm shift in the way we measure what’s really important.

Not money.

Not material things.

Not status.

Not fame.

Not “success” in the way western culture tends to superficially define it.

Just… happy.

Wisdom: A Byproduct of Experience

I’m not wise. I’m not.

But compared to my high school and college years? Yeesh. I’m like a Master Jedi now.

It never dawned on me until after my wife left and I had so much time alone to evaluate who I was and who I wanted to be.

I’ve been chasing this dream of having stuff for so long. Chasing this idea that if I just had enough money, I’d eliminate all of my problems.

And I was lying to myself. And everyone chasing the dime is lying to themselves, too.

I knew it before last night. But last night really drove home this point for me.

While most of the country was tuned into the Academy Awards, I was watching a documentary I’d found on Netflix called “Happy.”

This film taught me about Bhutan. And it reinforced something I had already heard, but didn’t believe until now.

A person with an appalling lack of income—someone without the money to have their basic needs met—can increase their happiness quotient by a lot simply by coming into a salary or a pile of money that will allow those fundamental needs to be met: Food, clothing, shelter, safety, health care, transportation, general comfort, etc.

But once your basic needs are met? There just isn’t much to be gained from increasing your financial place in the world. Not from a “happiness” standpoint.

The research data suggested that there is an enormous amount of happiness to be gained between annual earnings of $0 and $50,000. But that there was very little change between someone making $50,000 versus someone making $50 million.

I would have never believed that 10—even, five—years ago.

But I do now. I believe it strongly.

Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whitney Houston. Kurt Cobain. Junior Seau. Judy Garland. Heath Ledger.

And we can go forever.

People who had what so many of us think we want. And they were absolutely miserable. So miserable, that they felt the only choice was ending their lives or doing enough drugs to make the pain of the real world go away.

According to the film, 50 percent of an individual’s ability to be truly happy comes from their genetic makeup. I thought that seemed pretty unlucky, if true. That people are genetically predisposed to feel sad.

And I instantly counted my blessings because I believe I’m genetically predisposed to feel happy as I have most of my life. I just never appreciated it like I do now after having gone through my worst few years.

An additional 10 percent comes from all of the stuff most people spend all of their time chasing: The money and the sex and the fun and the fame and the experiences and the stuff.

Wait. What about the other 40 percent?

According to the researchers from Baylor University consulted in this particular documentary? Intentions.

Our intentions make up 40 percent of our ability to feel or actually be happy.

The filmmakers zipped around the world capturing images and interviewing people in impoverished conditions in Asia and Africa and in poor regions of the United States.

And a lot of these people were VERY happy.

I thought it was a pretty effective film, and I’m glad I watched it. It provided some data to back up what I’d already been thinking about for several months now.

This idea that I no longer am interested in chasing the large bank account and big house. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t want those things. They’re just no longer on my list of goals.

All I want in this life is to feel true happiness and contentment. And I’d like to live a life where I can help other people achieve that, too.

I don’t want to make this about feelings. I just don’t have the vocabulary to word this differently.

But what really matters besides our health and happiness?

I submit: Nothing.

How to Feel Happy

Choose it.

Deliberately be happy. That’s the choice we’re faced with. Choosing to be happy, or choosing to not be.

Bad shit will happen. It will. But when our happiness muscle is fully flexed, our ability to show resiliency and bounce back will be on full display.

The chemical compound most responsible for our feelings of happiness is a substance called dopamine. Stimulants like cocaine, amphetamine and methamphetamine amplify the effects of dopamine.

Our brain’s ability to create dopamine decreases naturally as we age. Which might explain why so many of us miss being kids. We were LITERALLY happier then.

Researchers recommend engaging in healthy activities that increase dopamine levels in our body.

It’s all the stuff you already know about:

  • Regular exercise.
  • Being spiritually connected.
  • Having active relationships with friends and family.
  • Community involvement.
  • Acts of kindness.
  • Achievement, in all its various forms.

These are the things you need to focus on if you want to feel happy.

It begins with gratitude.

It ends with living for something greater than yourself.

And being connected every step of the way.

Somebody stop me if you think I’ve got this wrong.

But what matters more than this? Big-picture faith questions, aside. What, here on Earth, matters more than achieving long-term contentment?

I’m trying very hard to take a look at my life and make better choices that can lead me to this place. This state of being where I’m not just running around chasing the next short-term good time, only to feel shitty and unfulfilled the rest of the time.

I want what these truly happy people have.

And I want that for you, too.

Smile.

Because we’re going to get there.

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It’s Okay to Hurt

hurtheart1Sarah was just a child when she lost her big sister.

A gorgeous 17-year-old. Stricken with cancer. Died in her bedroom in her father’s arms.

I’ll never forget it because it was my first funeral.

Second grade. Sarah was 8. I would turn 8 a couple weeks later.

Sarah watched her parents lose their first born. And she watched her four younger siblings struggle to make sense of it all.

Thrust involuntarily into the eldest-sibling role, she was forged in pain. In loss. From some of her earliest memories.

Now, Sarah’s a mom. She gave birth to two children. And after learning she would never bear children again, she and her husband adopted a child in 2010. Not two weeks old.

Baby M.

He was a beloved member of their family before he even got there. A brother to an adoring big sister and big brother. And the pride of two parents who felt immeasurable joy being able to love and raise another child.

But Baby M’s birth mother lied when going through the adoption process. Hiding the identity of the birth father.

The birth father discovered he had a son and eventually filed for custody of Baby M.

The court had to choose between a biological parent whom the child had never met, and a loving family who had raised Baby M for more than two years—his entire life.

The judge awarded custody to the birth father in a case that set legal precedent in their state of residence.

Sarah watched her two children lose their brother.

She watched her husband crumble under the weight of it all.

And she watched her baby get taken away, and handed to someone else.

Her marriage disintegrated.

And she’s now separated, too. Just trying to figure it all out. Just trying to keep her children in one piece.

She recently attended Baby M’s fourth birthday party. She maintains an as-pleasant-as-possible relationship with the birth father.

She watched her son—who doesn’t remember her as his mom—open presents. Play. And do all of the things she must imagine him doing in her quiet moments of reflection.

And then, at the end of the evening, she had to crouch down in front of him. Say goodbye. And hope that she’ll get to see him again next year.

I don’t have many friends that I’ve known longer than Sarah. I certainly don’t have any I respect and admire more.

As such, we have a close relationship, where we talk about all of the messy stuff.

All the stuff that really hurts. 

The Hurt

The first thing to go is your breathing.

What you do reflexively about 15 times every minute of your life becomes work.

The chest and stomach respond accordingly. Tightening. Unforgiving. A reminder of our weakness.

Our muscles tense. Our heads ache. Our eyes water.

Our hearts break.

Not in pieces like we watched in cartoons back when life was simple.

They simply stop functioning properly.

They break down.

Then we break down.

When it hurts too much.

Then We Reach Out

Because that’s what people do. We connect.

To not feel alone. To not be alone.

Sometimes we scream. Sometimes we hug. Sometimes we cry.

Almost always, we talk.

We write.

The most tried-and-true forms of therapy since the dawn of the mental health profession.

Sarah and I reach out to one another when it hurts.

And that’s when it always hits me.

I’m crying about losing my son 50 percent of the time.

But she has LOST her son. Someone took him away. Forever.

I’m crying about divorce, isolation, loneliness.

But she has had it so much worse. And now divorce may be on the table for her, too.

I’m crying about financial concerns as I continue my adjustment to my one-income life.

But the legal fight for their son wiped them out completely.

Sarah would NEVER try to one-up your story. That’s not who she is. But she can always do you one better.

Sometimes I realize the absurdity of my whining relative to all she has been through.

And that’s when she stops me. Because she really dislikes that.

“It makes me sad when my friends minimize their troubles or pain because they think mine are greater,” she said. “There is no need for that. I don’t hold the monopoly on pain.”

And while she’s being noble and selfless, she’s also, just, right.

Your Pains Are Yours

I’ve never lived in a place without running water before.

So it was hard for me last week when my pipes were frozen and I had to go a couple days without indoor plumbing at home.

It is frustrating when you’re without electricity for a long time.

It is challenging to not have internet access in 2014.

When that’s all you know.

You just broke up with your girlfriend? Your dog needs surgery? You have expensive car repairs?

Your pains and fears are real. And it’s okay to hurt. And the people that love you will invite you to talk about those things and not trivialize them.

You mustn’t either.

Sarah’s so tough, I could go on a weekend Vegas bender courtesy of her credit card and it would only be the 27th shittiest thing that’s happened to her in the past few months.

Kurt Cobain. Junior Seau. Ernest Hemingway. Countless others.

Beloved celebrities. Adored by the masses. Had all the financial resources in the world.

How is it even remotely possible for their lives to suck?

Yet, they sucked. So much so that these people took their own lives because being dead sounded better than feeling hurt all the time.

Everybody hurts. In their own ways.

And people shouldn’t be ashamed of that. People shouldn’t have to apologize for the pain they feel.

I broke after my divorce.

Broke.

Now what am I supposed to do with my life?

Who will want to date me?

How will I trust again?

I miss my son.

This house is so quiet.

The empty bed, so cold.

Who do I want to be?

Am I strong enough?

When will this go away?

There’s no fast-forward button.

The shit hits. You have to eat a bunch of it. And then you make your next move.

The clock ticks.

The Earth spins.

The calendar flips.

Then one day you wake up and the bed isn’t so cold anymore. The right person will show up.

The house isn’t so quiet. Because you’re comfortable in your own skin. Because you’re living again.

You find purpose in other things.

You give all the love you can to your child during those precious moments together.

And then you cry less.

Or maybe not at all.

You find your smile again.

Laugh.

Discover beauty.

Find joy in the little things once more.

The scars form.

And you emerge from the fire a little stronger than before. A little braver than before.

Like my friend Sarah.

Maybe even like me.

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