I was recently talking to a friend of mine, Rachel, who works in the field of higher education at the University of Utah, and I mentioned a presentation that I was beginning to prepare for on the role that technology plays in the mental health of young adults. My co-presenter (Tim Mullins with Evoke Therapy) and I had come up with some ideas that we wanted to explore and flesh out, and I was talking to Rachel about these still unhatched ideas. She was very excited to hear of the topic we were presenting about, and she told me of a book that she had recently read called iGen by Jean M Twenge. Let me clarify: Not only did she tell me about it, but she also said I HAD to read it. So read it I did.
A year after I graduated from high school I found myself flying home from a 7-week backpacking trip in Thailand. On the way, our plane hit heavy turbulences while over the Himalayans. At one point, the aircraft fell into an extreme descent and, I was certain that we were going down. I thought to myself, “this is it”—luckily it wasn’t. If it had, I wouldn’t be here writing this. We continued in the unstable air for hours. That experience has made an indelible impression, rising to the surface whenever I am once more at 36,000 feet. I have anxiety. Fear creeps into my bones, I can hardly breathe whenever it gets bumpy.
Several years ago I started to notice this sense of free-floating anxiety. As I explored it deeper and worked with my own therapist, I recognized that my anxiety was connected to needing to be in motion. I felt the constant need to be doing, completing, and accomplishing. Slowly I began to recognize my struggle with just being, sitting, and really feeling. With being, came self-judgment. I made the realization that my sense of self-worth was tied into my ability to be productive and my fear that if I am not productive and purposeful then I won’t be good enough. As I built this awareness, I was able to explore new ways of showing up in the world. I began to push against my own discomfort, fears, and insecurities in order to embrace just being. This was no easy feat and I cannot pretend to have mastered it. However, I will say that I no longer believe I need to be productive in order to feel good about myself and I no longer feel that free-floating anxiety.
It is common for people to ask therapists, “Are they mentally ill? Is it a mental illness?” This question comes up often from parents asking for their child, who is struggling. If the answer is “Yes,” and if a diagnosis is provided with some root causes added, the parent often feels some relief and is more apt to respond with empathy rather than frustration or anger. I hear this same question raised when people are talking about a public figure like a celebrity, politician or mass shooter. In these cases, the therapist does not have the ability or license to formally diagnose the person but may talk about behaviors consistent with a specific diagnosis. With the diagnostic manual and our training, our license allows us to weigh-in on a diagnosis after personal observation or testing. There are clear lines drawn that delineate if symptoms reach the clinical level qualifying the individual as “mentally ill.” Yet, rather than thinking of mentally healthy and mentally ill in a binary way—mental health goes in one pile and mental illness goes in the other pile—I have found it helpful to think of the mental health-mental illness distinction as a continuum and one that we are all on. In this way of thinking, we all have some mental health and some mental illness. This takes some courage and we must walk past the shame and stigma which would have us externalize any of the bad we see in us, dismissing or at least minimizing it. I heard one person describe it this way—mental illness is anything less than ideal in the way we process, respond to, or treat another person.
“We’re all neurotic, by the way.” I say smiling to a class of yoga students, as they sit on their mat, looking at me expectantly. Some of them smile and chuckle with me, others nod eagerly at me and others seem to be having a difficult time paying attention. I continue: “So if we can just accept that for what it is, we will be able to find more compassion and acceptance for where we are, which leads to a little less suffering.” They’re expecting to start moving or practice some kind of meditation or breath-work, but probably not expecting to have to sit with a statement like that. I laugh because I know this idea to be true in my own life and work. They chuckle probably for a few reasons- they might be thinking: “What is she talking about?” or “Everyone else might be, but I’m not,” or they laugh knowingly because they have encountered their own neuroses and are working on accepting themselves exactly as they are, with varying degrees of success. True healing requires us to pause and seriously consider our own wounding. Yoga is another tool for healing, so I often bring topics like this up in the yoga room as well as in therapy sessions with clients. Neurosis, in this sense, is not as serious or as awful as we might have previously thought, and it certainly does not indicate or point to a life of misery. it simply refers to the conditioning, internal suffering and defense mechanisms most human beings develop as a response to everyday life.
Why do some people succeed while some who are equally talented do not? What is it about wilderness that can produce such dramatic results? The foundation from which both answers arise is one of mindset. Mindset, in this case, refers to the mental, emotional and cognitive structures used to process one’s experience. Another way of understanding this idea is asking this question: “What kind of meaning is being created out of any given experience?” Yet another question to help clarify is: “Is learning occurring from a given experience?” The concept of mindset is germane to both answers.
The other day I was stoked to go out for a run in a new pair of running shoes that I really liked. As I jogged, I could feel signs of the shoes not quite fitting me, which I hadn’t wanted to face before because they were on sale. Upon getting back home and taking off the shoes, I found some good-sized blisters. I really wanted to like the new shoes, but these blisters were telling me something that I’m better off listening to.
Field staff at Evoke are required to attend and complete several different types of trainings throughout their career in the field. Initial medical training includes First Aid and CPR training, which is required of all staff members working in the field. As staff work toward their development as a Senior, they are required to get their Wilderness First Responder training, which requires attending an off-site 10-day training from a medically accredited company. This particular training equips field staff with the ability to respond to a majority of wilderness related injuries and illnesses in a wilderness setting. In the rare case that an injury or illness happens that requires more intense medical attention, our staff are also trained to prep and evacuate clients in collaboration with other medical professionals.
Why the Adage to be a Parent not Your Child’s Friend is Actually Flawed
I often hear parents or parent educators utter the adage, “You should be a parent, not a friend, to your child”. I think this goes largely unchallenged in our culture. And the current ubiquitous criticism of parents as helicopter-parents or snowplow parents describes a parent who spends every ounce of their energy to remove discomfort and struggle from the child’s life and wants the child to approve of them. I believe there is a problem with this blanket criticism and the problem may start with our understanding of what it means to be a friend and only partly to do with our understanding of the role of a parent.
Working with clients that suffer from addiction and all of the co-occurring issues that come with addiction is indescribably rewarding and incredibly taxing. We have the duty and the privilege to walk with families through this journey. And there is no “silver bullet” answer to cure the disease of addiction. We have seen a lot through the years and the outcomes run the gamut from miraculous to tragic. Recently I had the pleasure of welcoming a former client back to the field so he could share his experience, strength and hope with group 3 here at Cascades. Upon returning back to the front country we discussed how all of this has turned out. We chuckled as he shared, “Yeah man… this wasn’t the plan”. We hear this a lot. It is a part of my story as well. I am supposed to be teaching high school history and coaching wrestling somewhere. Alas, my plan didn’t pan out and I couldn't be more grateful for that fact. I think of Joseph Campbell’s words, “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” That is what recovery means to me… If I let go of “my plan” and become honest, open and willing there is no telling what kind of amazing gifts I might find… granted they are amazing gifts that no one ever wanted. This just wasn’t the plan.