Bill Murray (& Showing Up)

I’ve been a fan of Bill Murray since I was a kid. Growing up, he was a standout in Ghostbusters, What About Bob?, and my all-time favourite Groundhog Day. On screen there was always something compelling about him.  He doesn’t fit the mould and there is something magnetic about him. He is genuine, which seems like a strange thing to say about some who makes a living pretending to be other people.

One of my favourite Bill Murray movie quotables is from Ghostbusters:

Why worry? Each of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.

Even in advance of his current popularity that moment captured a little bit of Bill’s approach to living: in the moment, available, doing what he has to do, tongue in cheek, and never-mind the consequences.

Recently I watched The Bill Murray Stories on Netflix. The documentary by Tommy Avallone chronicles stories of the actor making incredible cameos in people’s lives: appearing in a couple’s engagement photos, showing up at a house party and doing the host’s dishes, serving drinks at local watering hole for the evening after befriending the bartender, or putting his hands over men’s eyes in a public restroom whispering in their ears “no one will ever believe you”. In the absence of proof it would be unbelievable that a celebrity of this caliber would just show up and be present, silly and playful, without security or worry, just to be in the moment with non-celebs.

I’ve since read articles speculating on the actor’s motives, not limited to: commentary on how technology has impaired our ability to connect, keeping his improv skills sharp, or a way for him to feel “normal” and momentarily escape his celebrity status.

Regardless of the legend’s motives, I find his actions inspiring. To me, Bill’s antics represent truly being open and available to experience life. As a chronic over-thinker I envy, idolize, and aspire to this state of being. I desire more than anything to just show up and participate without crippling myself with the details.

I think that’s what true freedom and success is about: showing up and making the most of it. Not how many dollars in your bank account, the size of your house, the number of countries you’ve visited, how many offspring you’ve produced, or how successful you are in your chosen profession. I don’t think it’s about grabbing every opportunity that is presented, but being open and available to experiences that enrich your life in the moment, in the present.

While I shuffle forward into my new life I keep Bill in the back of my mind as inspiration to not get so invested in the details and try to enjoy the moments as they come.

His Tao, in his own words:

I live a little bit on the seat of my pants, I try to be alert and available … for life to happen to me. We’re in this life, and if you’re not available, the sort of ordinary time goes past and you didn’t live it. But if you’re available, life gets huge. You’re really living it. – Bill Murray, From an Interview with Charlie Rose via Flavourwire

Our Love Affair with Substance Use

I grew up in a very small town.

My hometown consists of a graveyard, a community centre, a couple of convenience stores, a church and about 100 houses. It’s also a 15 minute car ride to the closest more substantial small town. It is part of a large but underpopulated county in southern Ontario, Canada. My high school had about 500 students, grades 8 -12, many of whom were bussed close to an hour to get there.

Admittedly, I was an odd kid. I was teased in elementary school for being quiet, shy, a bit too liberal for that small farming community, and well… we’ve chatted previously about my home life, I didn’t think I belonged there either.  By the time I made it to high school I had cultivated a tougher persona. I lacked confidence in my appearance and my self and I tried to disguise that by being disruptive, argumentative, opinionated, and a general pain in the butt.

It’s safer to be feared than loved.

– Machiavelli, the Prince

I remember the first time I drank excessively, I was about 15. A girlfriend, that had an equally complicated opinion of herself and desperate need for approval, flirted with an older boy to get us a bottle of pear liquor. It went about as well as you’d expect. I still associate pears with hangovers. However, I persisted.

By the end of my high school career I could out drink most of my classmates (male or female), snuck into bars, experimented with several gateway drugs, was a chain smoker, a master of several drinking games, and spent most of my time in a perpetual state of party. Through those actions, I had the illusion that I gained acceptance. People seemed to find me more approachable or maybe, like many drunks, I just had an inflated sense of self-importance.

At university, in my final year, my party life ended. I was 23 and developed a blood disorder. As a result of this, I have to maintain a moderate lifestyle. Drinking in excess and drug use carry the very real threat of death. It was a lot earlier than I wanted to accept my mortality but, looking at the trajectory of my life, I could have easily graduated to full addiction so I am somewhat grateful.

Following my medical crises, my ability to fit in got worse. While I’d been partying for years, many of my conservative small town friends were just getting started and there were very few social events that didn’t involve excessive use of something mind altering. I found people who were intoxicated hard to be around. It no longer seemed fun to me; there was always drama, someone crying, fights, and conversation that can only seem interesting to people in a similar state.

I kept getting polite invites but I noticed I made people uncomfortable. They would question why I wasn’t drinking and pressure me to join them. When I politely refused, they would appear uncomfortable, like I was judging them. I eventually mostly stopped going to bars and gatherings where the intent was to party and it started to feel like my presence was requested mostly to avoid cab fare.

Later, as my friends started settling down and having kids, I started going to more events. I noticed that the drinking and the drugs didn’t stop. Name the occasion and I was offered alcohol and/or a joint was being passed: children’s birthday party, christening, baby shower. Again, with the questions about why I wasn’t drinking more or why I didn’t want to get high.

Substances are widely accepted to punctuate many life events and are a common theme in popular media.

Bad day at work? Have a drink.

Broke up with your boyfriend? Let’s get stoned.

Got that promotion? Cocktails!

Engaged? Vegas binge till we blackout, y’all!

Over time I developed the ability to nurse a drink or two for an entire evening, but generally still find it easier to leave before people get too sloppy and start asking questions about my relative sobriety.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make here is that I feel like we need to seriously look at our relationship with substance use. Especially following recent changes in legislation in Canada that make it easier and easier to obtain various legalized substances. Notably, recent changes to provincial liquor law providing more retail options for purchase of alcohol and allowing drinking in public, which was previously regulated. This nips at the heels of federal legislation reform on cannabis.

While I don’t necessarily think that regulation is the answer to reducing addiction, I think that increasing the availability of these substances without more discussion on how Canadians relate to them is a mistake.

Getting drunk or stoned is not romantic, it doesn’t make you cool, it’s not for everyone, and ultimately it should just be for recreation. Substances do not solve your problems, they are not a valid way to cope, they don’t make you more attractive or desirable, and are they really how we want to punctuate our happiest events — by potentially not being present for them?

Everyone is entitled to occasional escape, being a human is at times complicated and challenging but I wish we would do more to remind ourselves that substance use is a privilege, a personal choice, and should be approached with in a healthy state of mind.

Andrea Owen (& Empathy)

I’ve always avoided the self help section of the bookstore. This was due to a lack of self-awareness, unwillingness to admit my vulnerabilities, and my natural jaded inclination to think that if people are happy or spewing rosy life advice they are probably full of garbage.

How fortuitous that the opening of my mind to the possibility of self-improvement came at a time when there is a plethora of self-help books full of curse words to comfort me, cushion my landing, and introduce me to healthy thinking.

Thanks to these foul-mouthed authors I’m getting a remedial education in basic human communication and connection. This week I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned about empathy.

In her book, How to Stop Feeling like Sh*t, Andrea Owen identifies some of the common ways that we react to people’s stories. In this case, romantic relationship issues:

  • The One-Upper: “OMG, That’s nothing! I’m almost positive my husband is cheating on me with his office manager.”
  • The Pooh-pooh-er: “It’s probably not that bad. I just saw you two last week, you seemed fine”
  • The At Least-er: “Well, at least you’re married. I’ve been single for ten freakin’ years!”
  • The Fixer: “Have you gone to counseling? Or read that book on relationships? What about date nights?”
  • The Gasper: “WHAT?! I thought your marriage was perfect! You HAVE to make this work!” (bursts into tears)
  • I’m gonna make this about me: “Ah, bummer. Yeah, so me and my husband got in this huge argument this weekend. He got drunk at a BBQ our neighbours hosted and I…”

I can admit I’ve reacted at one point or another in each of these ways, and also had people react in these way to me. In my experience, all of these reactions cause me to feel isolated, hopeless, and no better than I was before I opened my mouth and shared. The reason being that none of these are true empathy.

Empathy is about sitting in that mess. It’s about looking within, finding that feeling and sinking into it… with someone else! It’s really incredibly uncomfortable but boils down to being no more or less than a compassionate witness.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that those of us who have trouble bearing compassionate witness to our own feelings are really ineffective at doing it for others. However, like most skills, practice and persistence pay off.

It may not surprise you that I’ve been very selective in sharing this blog with people I know. I’m fearful of people’s reactions having not a lot of experience with giving or receiving empathy.

However, recently I did take a chance on a new friend. Having gone through a different, but not dissimilar life event, and after sharing some of that experience with me I decided to go against my normal instinct and gave her the URL. She surprised me, read all the entries and responded with the sincere and perfectly empathic response of thanking me for sharing with her and validating that I was justified in feeling pain.

Such a little thing, but so significant.

Unfortunately, it’s not always “safe” to be vulnerable. Like me, many people have a misguided idea of what being there for someone really means. Not all problems have solutions that others can help you find, sometimes the best gift you can get is someone that’s willing to sit there in the ditch with you and remind you that you can trust yourself to get out again.

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If you would like to learn more about Andrea Owen’s coaching, books, blog, podcast, or general awesome swing by her website, here.

You are not hard to love

About a month ago I posted a meme to Instagram from Word Porn, which stated:

To date, this post has had more attention than anything else I’ve shared: more views, more likes, more comments, more saves, and more shares. By far.

I shared it with the intent to draw awareness to the psychological damage that can be caused by emotional abuse. What I realize is that this is a message that more people need to hear.

In a lot of ways I had a privileged childhood. Both sides of my family are well-educated and accomplished. We weren’t wealthy, but I didn’t want for many things and there was no overt abuse. People were probably confused as to why I was not happier. We look great on paper.

I received the message that I was difficult to love as a child. This is not to say that my childhood was bad or filled with trauma, but there was a lack of affection and connection. I’ve mentioned before that there is addiction in my family, but I want this blog to be about healing and not about blame or the negative behaviour that accompanies this disease so I hope you understand why I keep the focus on myself.

I will make the point that if you are actively numbing yourself in one way or another to the world around you a wall is built. It is much harder to connect with people, be open to their needs, and connect with healthy intimacy. This can be an especially challenging situation for children who look to adults to model relationships, self-worth, and community.

As a child, I had the perception that the discord in our household was because I was not smart enough, active enough, social enough, thin enough, whatever enough. Positive achievement and events were applauded and then backhanded with suggestions on how I could be better next time. Negative events were blown out of proportion and over time lead me to conclude that no matter what I did, my deficits were glaring and insurmountable. I don’t have memories of discussion being encouraged and I recall my efforts to express my feelings being shut down, often with physical barriers as people stormed off and left me.

Interacting in this way was confusing. I don’t think the intent was to make me feel inadequate and unloved, I believe if anything it was to encourage, toughen me up, and ready me for high achievement in the same way that has been done in my family for generations.

In some ways, I guess it did.

I am driven, independent and strong, but I also have a crushingly low opinion of myself and have a lot of trouble being vulnerable and open. To this day, I shrug off compliments and achievements and push myself to the next goal. It’s hard for me to relax without feeling guilty and I am more invested in what other people think than my own opinion of myself. I sometimes feel that people aren’t being sincere when they give me positive feedback, like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop and for them to tell me what I could do to be better.

Although not a conscious choice, it has lead me to sabotage relationships with emotionally healthy people for fear that they would eventually see my flaws and reject me. I believe it has resulted in me choosing to maintain relationships with people who are also emotionally closed because it is more comfortable not to be seen.

Reflecting on my childhood, I was a good kid; I was smart, caring, and cute as hell. I wasn’t hard to love or deficient. Without understanding why, I’ve been angry for her for a long time. As I work through recovery, I’m also starting to feel sorry for the people who couldn’t show her that they loved her in a way she could have understood. Likely because they also had not received this message when they needed it most.

I feel compassion and gratitude for her for continuing to try to protect me by pushing people away and lashing out in anger. I’m sorry that a part of me feels the only way to survive life is to be perfect, invulnerable and alone.

As I patiently wait for my heart to accept what my brain knows I work on giving myself what I needed as a kid: understanding, encouragement, and unconditional love.

I tell myself I’m not hard to love now just like I wasn’t then.

Stop Hitting Yourself

In November (8 months post-breakup) I thought I was cured. That is to say I thought I was over my ex and the trauma caused by living with his disease for the better part of a decade. I thought all the changes that I’d made were strongly rooted and I was ready to be released into the wild. I started dating again and it just so happened the first guy I went on a real date with was just my kind of dreamboat: smart, caring, rugged, funny, and had a smile that made me forget how to talk.

I will give myself some credit. At that point I had made some amazing strides towards awareness, compassion, and self-love; but I still had some pretty large blind spots. Unfortunately for me, those are almost impossible to see until I get tested outside my comfort zone.

In this case, losing my wallet.

I was riding a wave of happy. I had a modest social life again, was developing some personal interests and hobbies, and that aforementioned babe to be excited about. In hindsight, I was manic. I was refusing to see any bad, everything was rainbows and puppies. In my defense, and not to be dramatic, it was more joy than I’d felt in years and I was holding on to every second with a vice grip.

The night I lost my wallet I went to a yoga class at the gym. I usually travel light and this particular evening had only my wallet, keys, and phone. When I got home, I must have put my wallet on top of the trash bins as I took them to the curb and forgot it there.

In the morning, I realized I didn’t have a wallet. I tore my car apart, I tore the house apart, I went to the gym in a panic and scoured the parking lot, I asked at the front desk.  It was no where.

At some point early in this frantic search I started berating myself. I called myself all kinds of unkind things not limited to stupid and worthless.

My mother, bless her, was trying to help me look and I was awful: impatient, angry, argumentative, anxious. I don’t lose things, especially valuable or important things. That’s irresponsible, imperfect, and human; three traits I’ve always had trouble accepting in myself.

Eventually, she wisely backed away from me and left me to my dysfunction.

I continued to obsess, panic, and rage for another couple of hours. I called my boss and told her I would be very late, I lined up at the bank to get new cards, I lined up at the provincial office to get new identification.  I called the city waste management services to see if I could sift through the load that the truck picked up (yes, I know…). I even called to report myself to the credit bureau after having visions of identity theft (yep, that too…). All this time I did not stop bullying myself.

Three days later I got a call at work from a guy named Rusty saying he’d found my wallet in a ditch. He told me that the wallet was pretty much destroyed but all my cards seemed to be there. I retrieved the wallet and it was as he described. It was shredded and soiled, like maybe it had been chewed up by a garbage truck and then spent a few days in a slushy and salty ditch; but nothing was missing. Miraculously a business card had survived enabling him to find me. I bought Rusty a $50 coffee card and went home with my tail between my legs.

That week I also stopped hearing from that guy I liked.

It took me another couple of months to really dissect what had happened. Like many other insignificant events losing my wallet had somehow become an embodiment of my self-worth. Looking back, that’s silly. If someone else had a momentary lapse and made a mistake I would be empathetic. Wallets can be replaced.

I still don’t totally understand why I had that reaction, but…

I suspect it was easier than admitting that I really liked that guy and I was terrified I was going to get hurt. That I knew he could hurt me because I hadn’t been attracted to someone like that in longer than I’d like to admit. That a bit of fear was probably realistic and understandable given what I’d been through.

I guess it was easier to flip out about my wallet than admitting my heart was still broken and that I wasn’t ready for a new connection. I didn’t want to face that I still didn’t love myself enough to have any real success being with someone else.

That’s life.

Sometimes you need to show up in order to see what you need to work on.  Sometimes you need to fail to push yourself to the next level. Sometimes it’s embarrassing and unfortunately you can’t hit reset. You have to deal with that sucky feeling that you missed out on a good thing.

It’s going to be ok.

You never know what great things are coming, you just need to be working on living the best life for you and try to be a little more open the next time.

So, do your best to let it go.

What’s really meant to be yours can’t be screwed up.

Gratitude

Some days just suck.

I burn the toast. The dog saves all her farts for the long winter car ride. Flat tires, computer issues, dropped my phone in the toilet, milks gone bad, who ate the last cookie?!?

The universe appears to give me an enthusiastic middle finger as I wallow in a sea of small annoyances and disappointments. Or if I’m especially unlucky, large seemingly insurmountable problems surface to drown me in suck.

As cheesy as it sounds, on those days I’m starting to put more energy into exploring gratitude; expressing appreciation for what I have, not what I want or think I need. I work at eliminating phrases like “I’ll be ok if…”, “I’ll feel better when…” because more often than not, these “if’s” and “when’s” involve events beyond my control.

The last few weeks have been especially trying. I’m working on answering a question involving a large life change which has no clear answer. Both the “yes” and the “no” have very heavy and very different pros and cons. I am confident that either way I will be able to forge ahead and neither outcome will be fatal, but I’ve never been that great at uncertainty.

Gratitude starts with an acknowledgement that life is good and rewarding. I remind myself that I live in one of the safest and most affluent countries in the world. That I have great friends and family. That I have a job, free time, a lovely canine companion. I have enough to eat and opportunities that a lot of the rest of the world does not. And – well, I’m alive, so there’s still time to change the things I’m not crazy about. That’s pretty rad.

I try to mix it up. I journal about gratitude. I speak it aloud to myself in the car. I’m social about it: I tell good friends about what I’m thankful for; especially if that is thanking them for their support.

When I take these moments, I find that it does work. I generally have less lows, I sleep better, I find it easier to practice compassion and kindness, and I feel healthier. I’m also able to rationally approach my problems and have constructive conversations about them where I am not defensive.

For the last week, as I’ve been wrestling with that life question, I have been kicking gratitude up a notch with some trust. I wake up with the exclamation that “everything I need will be provided today” and I repeat this to myself at intervals when doubt starts to creep in. I’ve even set myself a reminder that displays that message to me in the afternoon as a reality check.

Although I still don’t have an answer to my question I am confident that it will be revealed to me in the fullness of time. Until then, I know that I will get what I need, even if it doesn’t look like what I want or what I think I need.

Try not to worry, time cures all and is one of the few things in life that is totally reliable.

Lake Monsters and Jelly Shoes

My family has a cottage on a lake in rural Ontario, Canada. In lieu of travel and family vacations to exotic locations we spent most of our time off at this magical place.

When I was little, my extended family used to enjoy spending time up there together. I had four older cousins and I idolized them; I thought they were beautiful, animated and godlike. Unfortunately for me, with a significant age gap, they thought I was annoying, clingy and lame. I remember being very excited and nervous on those rare occasions when they chose to include me.

The lake is small and shallow. As an adult, I have to walk out at least a hundred feet for the water to reach over my head. As kids, we had access to a homemade raft made from solid wood which weighed a ton, nothing like the lightweight foam contraptions I see around the lake today. We would push it out to the middle with great effort so we could compete in jumping and diving off, something that wasn’t safely available closer to shore.

Even at that age I remember being scared of deep water. I used to imagine monsters and animated plant life with tentacle like appendages ready to pull me to the bottom. Of course I wouldn’t admit that to my cousins and did my best to hide my fear hoping that would somehow convince them that I was mature and cool enough to be around them.

It was the 80’s and plastic shoes were all the rage, most cottage seasons started with a trip to Zellers to grab a pair. They would be promptly christened as lake shoes on arrival.

Walking out from shore, as the water got deeper, the bottom would get murkier and your feet would sink into the clay and sand. It wasn’t unusual for someone to lose one or both shoes yielding shrieks from the victim and laughter from the rest.  They would then have to press their bare feet into the muck to help push the raft back to shore; one of my first experiences with the concept of “chicken”.

In hindsight, my cousins were also scared of deep water and the bottom of the lake. The jelly shoes were a sort of armour we all shared but didn’t discuss; an illusion of safety against imagined demons. At the time I was too absorbed in my own fear and trying to be cool and accepted that it didn’t occur to me that admitting my feelings probably would have brought us closer together and helped me work through it.

As an adult, I’m still not crazy about deep water. I feel momentary panic when seaweed wraps around my ankles or I realize I can’t see the bottom. But I also recognize this fear is mostly in my head and rationalize that I am fortunate enough to swim in lakes that are free of most monsters. I accept that I have these irrational feelings, I can’t change them, but I can choose my reaction. I can choose to acknowledge my fear and move forward bravely with awareness and without a crutch. I may even choose to share that fear with a trusted friend.

Sometimes, when I am lonely and feel disconnected and I desperately seek comfort in others, I remind myself that there are lessons in fear and am grateful they can help me stay safe. For example, if I ever go swimming in the Amazon I will be grateful for my apprehensive and fearful mammalian brain reminding me of dangers in the deep. But in the relatively safe lake of my youth my fear is irrational, outdated, and holds me back.

I calmly remind myself that I am strong, smart, and independent. I am grateful for jelly shoes for getting me in the water as a kid but I’m happy I’ve grown enough as an adult that I can swim without them.