The Recovering Farmer

Monday, November 24, 2014

Would I know?

A number of years ago, when I began to share the story of my journey, I recall one of the first articles that were written about that. It mentioned that “On the outside, he was a successful Wawanesa-area farmer and pork industry leader. On the inside, he was drowning in a black hole.” I chuckled when I first read that. Perhaps a nervous chuckle. Perhaps a shameful chuckle. My first inclination was to declare victory. I had fooled people on both counts. Nobody knew. But then the reality of that statement sunk in.

As I “came out” I began the conversation with people around me. I came to a quick realization. I was able to mask the darkness I felt within. At least I thought I had. I really had not fooled anyone. Others recognized that there were issues. However most, if not all, had no idea on how to approach me or the situation. Concerned? Yes. Able to help? Not so much. Did they care? Absolutely, without any question.

There is a stigma about mental health. People that are experiencing mental health issues are loathe admitting it. People that see someone experiencing mental health issues feel helpless. Don’t know how they can help. Many times the signs are not clear. Someone you may know comes across as being lazy. They may seem withdrawn. They are irritable. They isolate themselves. There may be an increase in drug or alcohol use. They have a litany of physical ailments. Often times you feel like giving them a swift kick and telling them to “get over it”.

Allow me to bore you with some statistics. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association mental illness affects 1 in 5 people. In 1998 it is estimated that the cost to the economy was 7.9 billion dollars. That is mind boggling. An additional 6.3 billion dollars was spent on uninsured mental health services and days off work. And to think that 49% of those that feel they have had mental health issues have never sought help.

How would I know, whether at home, with extended family, friends or in the workplace, when someone does have mental health issues? How can I recognize the signs? With increased awareness many of us feel we should recognize it. We watch. We make our own diagnosis. We have this pressure on us to be a mental health expert. We feel an increased need to watch for it. And when we meet a friend or colleague who is not “up to par” we are quick to jump to conclusions and make the diagnosis.

Let me give you my two cents worth. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t put that pressure on yourself. It is quite simple. When something is beyond our field of expertise, but we want to make it that, we have a tendency to become judgemental. Often times that is not helpful. Rather try to become curious. Part of being curious is to become interested. Become interested in others. Practice your listening skills. Become more adept at constructive communication.

I recall, and never quit telling the story, a neighbor who dropped by when I was going through an exceptionally bad time. He sensed that I was not okay. He asked a simple question. He asked how I was doing. Instead of giving him the usual “not bad” answer I spilled the beans. I told him why I was feeling down, why I was feeling helpless and alone. He listened. He did not pass judgement, and with my story he might well have, he normalized and validated my feelings. It felt good. It helped. It literally set me free.

There is a lesson here for all of us. Whether we are the one suffering in silence, or whether we know of someone who seems to be, we need to engage in conversation. We need to show curiosity. We need to recognize the benefits of curiosity, being interested. It is that simple. So if you know someone, or you are that someone, let’s get talking. It helps. I know. I have been there. Make it a good one.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Am I Ready For This

There have been a few headlines recently that have scared me. There was talk of an Arctic Vortex that was returning. I remember that monster from last year. Perhaps it is fitting that the threat comes the same week that finds Halloween on the calendar. I don’t think anyone has fond memories of the Arctic Vortex. It was brutal. It was long. It was ugly. It was scary.

Then I see a headline in the paper talking about old man winter making a return. Just a question. Why is it old man winter and not old woman winter? That, by the way, was a rhetorical question. Don’t answer that. I will get enough flak on that one as is. There is a threat of snow. Temperatures have plummeted. We are in for it.

On November 7th I saw a news story that brought back some strange memories. Perhaps it was fitting that I was involved in a workshop dealing with Trauma and PTSD. On November 7, 1986 Winnipeg received 35 centimeters of snow. That is significant. It was a blizzard not often experienced even in Manitoba. Interesting how I recall most of that day, that night and the following day. I recall being at my parents that evening for supper. I was going to be playing hockey that night but also knew I needed to venture home. There was livestock that needed caring for. As the snow fell my father asked what would happen if we did not make it home. In a facetious moment I made the comment that even if it took twenty four hours I would have to go home. Little did I know. The trip home was much more than I had bargained for.

Here we are years later. Feels like yesterday that last year’s winter ended. And now we are in for another one. There are all kinds of signs out there that it will be brutal again. Never mind what nature is telling us. Pine cones higher up in the trees than usual. More acorns. The warning from the Farmer’s Almanac. Climate change. El Nino or is it El Nina? Can’t remember which is worse. Even wood piles are higher (as if that has anything to do with it). All things point to a long and brutal affair. An affair I would just as soon avoid.

I suppose it could be worse. Just heard that Buffalo, NY has had 6 feet of snow and are expecting another 3 feet today. That is monumental, to say the least. Then their forecast calls for warm temperatures and rain on the weekend. They can have it.

Again, and I know I am singing a tired song, I feel a certain amount of dread. This week we have had more snow added to the skiff we had before. This morning the temperature dropped to a brisk -20. That means it has begun. When will it end? Perhaps not a question I should ask. In a sense I seem to be wishing away my life by hoping spring will soon arrive. I need to find some way to endure.

And endure I will. I will make it through another Manitoba winter. I have a grandson that helps me with a new perspective on life. As I write this I know another life has entered this world. A granddaughter. How can I not be enthused with what the world is offering me? I will survive. I will enjoy. As I circulated the news of this new arrival I lamented about the fact that being a grandpa the second time around aged me. One colleague responded that having grandkids at my young age, yes you heard right, gives me the opportunity to enjoy them for a long time. And enjoy them I will. They will help me survive. And, perhaps, a week in the sun will help. I will work towards that. Make it a good one.

Monday, November 10, 2014

It Is Within Us

Over the course of the years, dare I say over the course of my life, I have had countless conversations with a friend and mentor. As kids we used to spend holidays together. Sometimes at his house, other times at mine. His father was a teacher. My father was a preacher. He followed in his father’s footsteps. I did not. After high school we actually ended up in business together. We ran a construction company. Details will not be shared as they are probably sketchy at best and open to wrong interpretations at worst. Although we were only a year apart in age our maturity levels were significantly different. Due to varying factors in our lives he decided, in all his wisdom, and maturity, to get married at an early age. Me not so much.

I recall so vividly the day we decided to go into business together. We were sitting at G. Willikers in Winnipeg. We had actually gone for tux measurements that day. After all he was getting married and I had the distinct privilege of being the best man. Over some drinks, and I suspect they were Singapore Slings, we decided to go into business together. We were young. We were naïve. But our plans were grandiose. Perhaps we can blame it on the Slings.

We did go into business together. We did complete some projects. There were certain challenges on the way. I could tell you about the guy that wanted to pay us with pot. Might have made the journey more pleasant. I could tell you about the expertise that I brought to the company. Some worked, some did not. Through all of this my friend and colleague stuck with the program. Only now do I understand the difficulties that this arrangement created for him.

I will share a story with you, without his permission, because I know he will go with it or he will forgive me. That is just who he is. Earlier this summer he and his significant other joined us on our deck on PEI. They had ventured out for our daughter’s wedding. Tells you how close we are. Over drinks and pizza that night my wife asked him what had happened to the construction company that started so many years ago. His answer was quick. His answer was short. His answer answered the question. An answer that still elicits a chuckle.

You see, he was sick for a week that fall. Had a bad cold. The good news is he quit smoking. The bad news is he was not happy with the work that was done while he was sick. When my wife asked him about that he said he realized it was a lost cause when all I had accomplished that week was putting up two sheets of plywood. I now get it.

He has moved on. Good for him. He pursued a higher education and has become a teacher that is helping kids find their potential. He has written a book and I had the privilege to attend a book launch recently. It made me proud to be associated with him. Knowing he had influenced me in so many ways. In a weird way I was also happy I had only put up two sheets of plywood way back when. In some small way my ineptness helped him find a different career path, much more suited to his expertise. His wisdom.

A number of years ago, as we were sharing stories after a round of golf, I asked him about teaching. He shared with me the fact that he did not necessarily teach the kids; rather he helped them discover the knowledge within. That resonated with me. And through the years, as I have continued on a journey of recovery and discovery, I have come to realize that I have the knowledge in me to grow, to recover, and to learn. That knowledge comes from talking to others, sharing experiences and discovering anew, on a regular basis, that I know this stuff. I just need guidance to discover it and make it part of my life. He has helped me. You have helped me. And for that I am thankful. Make it a good one.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Two Containers

I attended a workshop this week that dealt with Trauma, particularly as it concerns PTSD. My quest to pursue further training started about a year ago. I felt that I needed to do something to stimulate further knowledge. To challenge me. To help me broaden my horizons. So earlier this year I registered to participate in training through the Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute. It has been an interesting venture. The good news is that I am now certified. Completed my obligations. The bad news is that I am having a difficult time remembering what I learned. Perhaps it is my age catching up to me.

In my training this week we talked about the stressors all of us have, whether we have experienced trauma, deal with people that have been traumatized, or simply live a life that has over whelming stress. The trainer used the example of a container. She had us visualize the container inside of us where we store the stressful or traumatic events of our life. As long as these events stay in the container we have the ability to cope. We have the ability to function. To live life as it was meant to be lived.

However there may come a time when that container overflows. That can happen for numerous reasons. Perhaps a container is smaller than most. (I suspect mine is) Perhaps some people experience an inordinate amount of stress. Perhaps it is a single traumatic event in life that is unbearable and difficult to deal with that causes the contents of the container to overflow. And when that happens a person goes into crisis. Recovering from that crisis can be an arduous task. Something that takes time and effort, and has the ability to overwhelm. Literally pushes us over the edge.

As I sat there and reflected on this analogy, I know, I should have been listening, I thought of something I wrote about back in January of 2011. My emotional gas tank. I talked about how a car needs to have gas in the tank to operate. Our bodies need fuel (nutrition) to operate effectively. Our minds need to be rejuvenated to think clearly. The point being that when the emotional gas tank runs dry we invariably cease to function. So we need to keep gas in the tank. This can be done through a variety of ways. Through involvement in support groups, participating in sports, becoming socially active, spending time with friends and family, taking a vacation. We all have our way. I like to golf. So for the next six months my tank will be running on empty unless I find another way to cope.

As I contemplated this further I realized that these two containers are directly related to each other. Bear with me. Picture two containers side by side. The emotional gas tank and the stress tank. Each one is half full of a liquid. Let’s assume that is the way we were born. May differ for different people. As we experience life the stress tank level goes up while the emotional tank goes down. As we utilize various tools we find the emotional tank filling up and the stress tank going down. (I suspect the concept of liquids in two containers connected like that was covered in grade 9 science. I didn’t listen back then either.) The danger we run into is when the stress tank starts overflowing and the emotional tank runs dry.

In a roundabout way, through an over simplified analogy, I am talking about creating balance in life. What does that look like? My stress tank maybe almost full when something really serious happens. How can I avoid that? For many of us it becomes a matter of being self-aware. Know what is going on in your body and in your mind. Take the steps necessary to maintain balance in your life. For others whose stress tank is overflowing take the time to seek help. It is out there. As I have often said, there is hope and there is relief. Make it a good one.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Third Person Approach

Sometime ago I heard an interesting discourse between my kids. One of them, trying to be silly, kept talking about himself in the third person. It can be funny as much as it may be irritating. Just imagine if you were having a conversation with me and each time I had something to share or ask I would begin the sentence with “Gerry is wondering.. . . . “ or Gerry would like. . . . “ or any other variation of that.

My grandson is getting quite vocal. He says so much with me understanding so little. He talks incessantly. It is neat to see. Parts of it are neat to hear. Other times you simply look at him and have no clue what he is saying. Because he repeats what others say it often comes across as a third person.

I have often alluded to the work I do. I deal with conflict. Simple. Two or more people in significant disagreement. So I listen. I explore. I counsel. Most anything that will help to resolve the conflict. That is what I do. If ever everyone in the world decides to get along, communicate properly and actually care about relationships, I will be out of work. I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. Perhaps I am okay till I retire or die. Whichever happens first.

Have you ever taken note that dealing with other people’s issues are simple? You recall sitting around the table with your partner, spouse, friend, neighbor? Sitting and passing judgement or suggesting helpful advice when others are in conflict? At least in your mind it is helpful. Bottom line? It is easier to solve conflict when you are removed from it.

So as a mediator you would think that Gerry would be able to deal and manage his own personal conflicts as well. For some strange reason that is not the case. Gerry’s wife will sometimes suggest that Gerry likes to create conflict. Whether that is true or not Gerry often finds himself frustrated, irritated, agitated, and even angry when having interactions on a one to one basis with others. The tools he utilizes in mediation seem to have been lost. If not lost left behind in his office.

As you will have noticed I wrote the last paragraph in “third person”. Quite honestly I found it much easier to characterize my conflict management styles by viewing them through the lens of a third person. It was easier to recognize who I was. Often after having been involved in conflict I will analyze what just happened. Normally I am filled with guilt and remorse because I see how that conflict could have been managed better and, perhaps, even avoided. In my analysis I am able to see where I went wrong. Where I could have done better.

Try this. Next time you are in a passionate discussion (read argument) remove yourself and view the conflict from the third person perspective. Perhaps at the outset you can analyze after the event. At some point you may want to call for a time out just to see where things are at and when you continue you are likely to have a completely different perspective. With enough practice you will be able to incorporate this approach in the heat of the moment. Try it. You may like it. As Dr. Douglas LaBier writes in The New Resilience, “. . . research found that you may think about a conflict more wisely if you consider it as an outside observer would”. Now if only I could teach this to the people I am in conflict with most. Might make Gerry’s life easier. Make it a good one.