Month: March 2010

A ridiculously earnest reflection on psychotherapy

a leather couch

Of all the events in my month, there are few I look forward to more than Shrink Day.

Finances and time conspire to keep me from going more than once monthly these days, but in a way, that’s a good thing. It forces me to think very carefully about what’s really important, and to differentiate what I need help with from what just needs attention. As I run through the never-ending list of Ways to Improve on Colleen, many potential shrink-agenda items fall off when I rehearse them as questions in my head; when you’ve been seeing the same person on and off for over eight years, it’s really a pretty short hop from What the %@# should I do? to What Would Leslie Say?, and even to an answer.

Mostly, what I find myself doing these days in shrinkage is calibrating my barometer (which is a great thing to do when you’re not busy mixing your measuring metaphors). It’s not that my upbringing was Dickensian or anything, but there was a little brain-scrambling that happened around self-worth and how one goes about acquiring it, as well as how much giving and ceding is appropriate. One of the reasons I ended up in the hospital 7+ years ago is because I have two default settings: “off” and “full-bore.” Learning that it’s okay to say “no”, not to mention training myself in the how of it, has been a long, boring, painful series of fail/fail/fail/inch-ahead/fail/fail.

Strangely and possibly non-coincidentally, the problem has become much easier to deal with since I gave it a snarky name, my “Lack of Entitlement Issues”, and learned to joke about it. It is surely not everyone’s cup of tea, but a long time ago, I pledged my allegiance to the almighty and far-reaching healing powers of humor. The Youngster and I coined a saying while we were together: “The Joke is King!; All hail the Joke!” This didn’t mean that being funny gave you carte blanche to be a dick; it just meant (to us, anyway) that painful truths were more easily escorted from one of us to the other on the gentle, hilarious wings of humor. (Although as I recall, each of us was occasionally a dick when we were sure the joke was very, VERY funny.)

I bring up shrinkage because while I take for granted its awesomeness, I realize that for some, there is still a stigma attached and for many more, there is fear around it, fear that is not entirely unfounded. As I am fond of saying, you can’t cherry-pick change. While its settings are definitely not “off” and “full-bore,” chances are very good that if you make a move in one department, stuff will start moving in others. For some people, this is unacceptable, and I get that. It was unacceptable for me until I was so desperate, I was willing to risk having nothing to rid myself of even part of what I was carrying around.

On the other hand, I can assure you, well, a layperson’s assurance, that you will not essentially change. On my initial visit to Leslie’s predecessor, the shrink-slash-astrologer whose office I found myself in during the darkest days of my 20s, I laid down what I considered the law: she could muck around in there and fix the broken parts, but under NO circumstances was she to change my sense of humor or any other part of the modus operandi that got me through my hateful days in the fiery pits of advertising. When she was done laughing at me, YOU WISH, CRAZY COPYWRITER GIRL!, she explained that she didn’t think any of us really changed, essentially; we just got better and better at understanding our parts, so that we could recognize and do an end run around them faster and faster.

Some 20-odd years later, I can attest to the truth of this. More than anything, what therapy has done is give me back the hope and optimism and childlike curiosity I had when I was 10, back before I consciously started compartmentalizing and conforming and adapting to deal with the crap life started throwing down.1 I have gotten better at calling myself on my own b.s.: not perfect, not even close, but better. Enough so that I’ve been able to unstick myself from stuck spots because I can actually see that I’m not moving. Enough so that while I am still afraid to try new things and make a fool of myself and fail and all of the other things most of us mere mortals are afraid of, I can still (eventually) (usually) bring myself to do it.

Besides, change will happen, regardless; it’s Nature’s default setting. So why not have a hand in it, and the kind of life you dream of?


1I understand there’s probably a bunch of stuff I did to adapt before then, and we’ve dealt with a few by using EMDR, but fortunately, I really did have a pretty normal and easy childhood as childhoods go, with enough of the basic building blocks for non-insanity that I’m mainly dealing with garden-variety, talk-therapy-treatable neuroses.

Image by Jason Spaceman via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Book review: The Color of Water

author James McBride and his mother Ruth McBride Jordan with book cover

I am sure I was doing many valuable and useful things with my time back in 1996, but it’s clear to me that one thing I was not doing enough of was the reading of excellent memoirs, nor even the reading about the reading of them.

How else to explain my egregious oversight in picking up one of the most engrossing, uplifting and flat-out amazing stories of true life to have hit the bestseller list so late that the 10th anniversary edition has already been in print for four years?

Fortunately, I’m fairly sure it’s never too late to read The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. For those of you who weren’t of reading age when it first came out (or who, like me, simply had your head stuck somewhere it shouldn’t have been and missed it), The Color of Water tells the story of one Ruth McBride, née Ruchel Dwara Zylska, redubbed Rachel Deborah Shilsky by her Polish-Jewish immigrant parents upon their arrival in the U.S., a name the Orthodox-raised Ruth further Anglicized when she did the unthinkable for a rabbi’s daughter born in the early part of the 20th century and broke away from her family. To marry a black man. And, after his death and the death of her subsequent husband, ultimately raise 12 children on her own, putting all of them through college.

Such a break! Such a story! And most of all, such a woman! At the core of Ruth McBride’s story is the animating truth of the universe, love, love, love, which she freely admits and burns so brightly with, it’s positively dazzling, dazzlingly positive. I confess to a certain grudging determination when I picked up the book from a stack of autobiographies at Bart’s: I’m reading to learn, I told myself, and I can’t learn about what makes a good memoir work unless I read the good memoirs.

Happily, steeling myself for an earnest-but-plodding slog was not only unnecessary, but a dazzling reminder of what a jackass I am, still making assumptions at the ripe old age of almost-49. “Page-turner” barely does this book justice; The Color of Water bubbles, crackles and glows with life, as much because of the brilliant writing skills of Ruth McBride’s journalist/jazz musician son, James, as it is because of Ruth’s own story. McBride flips between the stories of mother and son, the older story lending perspective to the modern one, the two intertwining in a vivid, real-life display of how our most difficult earthly clashes can become our most glorious heavenly gains.

It’s a brilliant accomplishment and a huge gift to the world. If I could travel back in time to have read this 14 years ago, I would. The next best thing I can do is recommend that if you haven’t yet, pick up a copy and read it today…


Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Photo of James McBride and Ruth McBride Jordan © Judy Lawne, via Oberlin College’s website; image of book cover © Riverhead Books.

The power of tiny pieces

close shot of someone drawing fine pen & ink detail

When I was very, very sick, my body served as its own governor.

I could not push myself further than I should, because I’d be overcome by a sleepiness that would stop me in my tracks. There were times before I learned this that I literally had to lie down right where I stood to rest a bit and gain enough strength to get myself into bed. And this, in an apartment with less than 800 square feet of livable space.

Now that my body is stronger, my mind has gone back to playing tricks on it. Do this thing instead of that other, it will say. We can get to that ugly bit later. Depending on the bigness or ugliness of the thing my mind senses it’s up against, I can end up squeezing myself into timeframes that are ridiculously taxing, both because they are so condensed and because they were mostly avoidable.

Last Thursday, for example, I’d committed to performing a new story at the Porchlight series: eight minutes, memorized. But an eight-minute story is a long story, and memorizing it takes even longer. I knew I should have gotten started writing it weeks ago, but I didn’t. And didn’t, and didn’t. The “why” is simple: fear. Nothing more, nothing less. I had plenty of time; I frittered away large chunks of it on nonsense and worry, worry and nonsense.

Most of the worry was about not being good enough. That’s old hat, and not particularly interesting. The nonsense, however, is where the gold lies.

In the nonsense, there were the following gems:

  • You have an outline; the story will write itself. NONSENSE. Nothing writes itself. Nothing. Not one thing. An outline may or may not speed up the process, and is certainly a fine thing to have. But in terms of story, it represents nothing more nor less than some thought devoted to the story, which might translate to some work completed.
  • You’ve memorized longer stuff before, 8 minutes will take no time! NONSENSE. It takes as long to memorize something as it takes. There’s no mathematical formula, and no guarantees. The only guarantee, in fact, is that a poorly-written piece will take longer to memorize than a well-written one.
  • You can quit! NONSENSE. I mean, of course I can opt out. People do; people did that night. It always happens. But I know I am not just telling these stories as a lark. I’m writing and telling them as training for telling bigger stories, i.e., going pro. And pros don’t flake. Not if they want to be hired more than once.

I ended up writing and memorizing the entire story on Thursday, the day of the gig. The entire day of the gig, which is a luxury I have now, on sabbatical, that I will not always have. And I was still a nervous wreck, because I didn’t have the story in my bones, so I wasn’t much able to enjoy the experience, either.

On the opposite end of the planning spectrum, there’s the newsletter I’ve been editing for BLANKSPACES, a co-working space here in Los Angeles. In the five months since I took over responsibility for the project, this is the first one that’s gone smoothly, actually enjoyably. Why? Because I worked on it incrementally, rather than waiting for the last minute. I broke down the process into a kind of system, worked that system, and came out the other end with a product delivered on time, in good shape and without anguish. (I can’t wait to tell my friend (and client, and mentor), Sam.)

I’ve read 25 books out of the 52 I’d planned for the year, just by reading 40pp per day. From an investment of 15 minutes or so a day, my apartment has gone from a depressing, cluttered and filthy wreck to something that looks like it might be ready to move out of on less than a year’s notice. My half-hour of daily Nei Kung practice has wrought changes in my body that continue to astonish me. Why I persisted in thinking that stories (or blog posts) would magically write themselves even when, especially when I was exhausted from working crazy-sporadically rather than slow-and-steadily is beyond me.

The solution is not. Seek the smallest move forward. If there’s a hard out, put it in the calendar on the far end and the Smallest Move Forward on the near one. Stick the other small moves in between. Arrive at destination rested, refreshed, and excited about the next challenge ahead.



Image by Vanessa Yvonne via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Poetry Thursday: Door #3

woman reaching up to open an enormous, cartoon-like door

Change is a bitch
who plays by rules
she makes up
as you go along

Change is a roller coaster
with no tracks

an amphibious flight plan

a troll with a prince
inside a troll
inside a prince

a dream
where a roomful of maiden aunts
and former professors
stand guard
before the invisible elevator
that will surely take you
to Heaven
(with stops at
Ladies’ Lingerie
and summer camp)
just as soon
as you come up with a quarter

then scatter
with the sound
of your clock-radio,
leaving you nothing
but bewildered
and eight hours older.

How did you get there from here?

One foot
in front of the other
and a boat that arrives
just in time
or a missed connection
that doesn’t
but results in the ride
of your life.

Maybe it will make sense in the end
or maybe you fix your resolve
and open your heart
and pack a lunch
and go


Image by Joe Marinaro via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Do wrenching things actually get easier?

an empty stage with lights on

An old analog relationship washed up on my digital shores a few weeks back in the form of an old college professor reconnecting via email.

We’d exchanged letters just once, shortly after I made an abrupt decision to leave upstate New York earlier than I’d planned and strike out for New York and whatever came next. My own memory of that time is hazy, it was, after all, over 25 years ago, but if you’d asked me how things were in that space between leaving one place (college, or at least, the town that it was based in) and finding another (my first job-job, and hence, to me, my next potential identity), I would have summarized it as “Hot. Dull? Mostly hot.” (It was, after all, New York City in summer, and the boroughs, and a tumble-down, non-air-conditioned portion of one, at that.)

What a shock, then, to read this letter from my former self, this barely-22-year-old girl who had so much and so little going on at the same time. How had I forgotten how lonely I was, and how scared? And over what? Not having a job for a whole three weeks? Some mishegoss with Citibank? Having to tough it out in a sublet with a friend’s sister that had been pre-arranged before my friend, Dave, drove me from my door in Ithaca to my (temporary) door in Park Slope?

I was scared, though; it’s all there in the letter, between the bravado, heavily shaded in purple. I was, and am, scared to leave one place for another, one perceived harbor for another, with all that scary water in between. I was scared of not succeeding and even more so of “succeeding”, there’s a hilarious line in there about my fear of “the pursuit of money becom(ing) the be-all, end-all of my existence.” As if. (Or even better, “You wish.” I’m just grateful that my smarter, capitalist friend, Vic, explained the Magic of Compound Interest while I was still young enough to benefit somewhat.)

Mostly, though, it was clear that what I was scared of was not fulfilling my potential. I was scared that my writing would deteriorate, or deteriorate further, a re-read of old college essays (yes, I keep them) had proven that my discipline and clarity of thought were already on the decline. Who knows if it that was true? I leave it to my biographers to sort out.

What is clear, clearer now than ever, is that The Resistor, that rat bastard, that cocksucking-boulder-heaver who didn’t have the goddamn courtesy to make himself known until a few years ago, has been shadowing me my entire life, and it’s unlikely he’ll decide to knock off anytime soon. With such an investment? Pfft. Fugeddaboutit. He knows from compound interest, too.

So I will write, I will doubt what I write, and I will continue to write anyway.

I will wish for the next scary thing to appear, and it will, and I will put it in my calendar, prepare as best I can, and show up on the date I’m supposed to with my teeth brushed, my nametag on and my hand outstretched.

I cannot begin to guess what forms change will take, only that it will likely be, as I explained to young Mr. Guillebeau down in Austin, more than I’d bargained for. You prepare by accepting it may be difficult, and you will likely make mistakes, and you will likely learn from them if you survive. (Which, in many cases, is also likely.)

In the meantime, shore up your resources. Preparing for me has been a long, slow, as in “20+ years’ worth of slow”, process of reading, studying, stretching, discarding. I hadn’t realized how big a role the discarding was playing until I stopped: regular upkeep is as much about learning to let go of what no longer serves as it is seeking out what will.

For some, old papers don’t make the cut. They’re not illuminating beyond the realization of how in the dark we once were; they’re artifacts that can be released. (For more on helpful processes of discernment where artifacts are concerned, visit my friend and clutter-busting mentor, Brooks Palmer.)

For me, for now, there are still answers in those papers. Being able to visit my long-ago brain helps me to gain perspective on the journey to date, which provides some direction on the journey ongoing.

As does The Resistor. Because whenever he shows up, I know I’m headed in the right direction…


Image by Max Wolfe via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Book review: Improv Wisdom

watercolor of trees and mustard field by Patricia Ryan Madsen

Every once in a while, you read a book you wish came bundled in stacks of 11, so that you could keep your own copy but immediately, or maybe even upon finishing Chapter 2 or 3, share the experience with a solid two handfuls of people.

Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson is exactly that kind of book. By her own admission (an adorable mea culpa in the epilogue, reflecting on the irony of taking 20 years to write a book about improv), it’s the work of a lifetime, her own lifetime of learning and teaching improv to a variety of students, “civilians” and thespians alike, and folding into it the other modalities of learning and living she picked up along the way: tai chi chuan, Zen Buddhism and Constructive Living, to name a few.

The book fuses all these modalities but uses 13 core tenets of improvisation to suggest a simple, sturdy framework for living. “Just show up” winds faith and action together into something more useful and beautiful than either is on its own (and, as any adherent of Woody Allen knows, is 80% of success). “Pay attention,” a chronically underutilized tool that will change almost anyone’s game in startling ways, makes for what is probably my favorite chapter: in addition to some especially useful (and illuminating) exercises, it includes a moving story of epiphany and a number of surprises that absolutely got my attention.

I think that was the biggest surprise of the book, how delightfully light and unexpected the lessons were. As a survivor of the improv-as-career-propellant school, I girded my loins for Chapter One, which of course draws on the cardinal rule of all improv: “Say yes” (or, as the game goes, “Yes, AND…”). But rather than a heavy-handed, in-your-face talking-to about the necessity of throwing yourself off a cliff over and over again, it is a series of simple and slyly compelling nudges towards taking the kinds of small risks which will instantly and forever change your world. The words took me back to the pure joy of those early days of improv, when glory was so non-imminent the only sane reason to do it was for fun, and reminded me that when I apply those lessons to my daily life, waking up, releasing attachment to outcome, turning my attention outward rather than inward, how much more joyful and rich are my experiences.

Some chapters will resonate more or less, depending on where you’re at in your journey. Some people will want to use Improv Wisdom as a guidebook, doing the exercises chapter by chapter, turning their focus to a different aspect of awareness-sharpening each week (or month or day). Some will read it all the way through for inspiration and insights; some will dip in here and there for the same reasons.

I’m hard-pressed to think of the person who could gain nothing from reading this wonderful little book, though. It’s gentle, kind and inspiring in exactly the way you’d expect the work of a lifetime to be.


Watercolor ©2010 Patricia Ryan Madsen.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the book in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Hungry, angry, lonely, tired

puppy crashed out on floor

Most acronyms make me cringe a little, but from the first time I heard it, I loved the 12-step acronym used to help keep adherents, well, adhering: H.A.L.T.

Hungry. Angry. Lonely. Tired. As in, when you’re struck by an urge to use (or drink, or use, or what-have-you that you shouldn’t), STOP (or, you know, HALT!) and see if maybe you aren’t one of those four things.1 I am not sure if the next step in the protocol is to do what one can to edge one’s way out of whatever state one is in, or to call one’s sponsor, or both. Or neither. The main thing one is supposed to do is a not-doing; however you accomplish that I’m guessing is fine and dandy, provided you’re not breaking any laws or hearts in the process.

I’m not in the Program, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fall into some bad, bad habits when my level of awareness dips, or my basic needs are left unmet. Food was and is the easiest fix; between the abundance of good-for-you snacks readily available when I’m being good and the abundance of horrible-but-delicious fast foods available when I’m not, it’s almost impossible to get hungry anymore. Anger is less of an issue than an effect when hungry or tired kicks in; loneliness is even less of an issue, as it’s almost impossible for me to get enough time alone anymore, and rare that I feel lonely when I do.

Tiredness is my thing. Tiredness is probably every workaholic’s thing, because there is always, always, always more one can be doing, and almost never anyone to order you to sleep. Not that you’d obey, anyway.

This past trip to Austin got me thinking deeply about the need for rest. When else do you dream of water but when you’re in the desert? Even with the Nei Kung to bolster me (I was worlds better off this year, all things being equal, thanks to Nei Kung), I could feel myself slipping further and further into the Dark Place as I got more and more tired. Or rather, I was keenly aware of the additional effort it took to keep myself up, to stay buoyant and lively, to prevent my brain from racing to the judge-y, lowest-common-denominator, knee-jerk awfulness it will when I am tired.

For a while, I even toyed with the idea of changing Goal #1 for the year, to get back on SCD 100%, to “Get 8 hours of sleep per night.” When I am deeply rested, not only am I at my gracious, nimble-thinking best: I actually like doing all the other good-for-you stuff like eating well, exercising and giving traffic nimrods the benefit of the doubt. (Believe me, in L.A., where 3/4ths of the population drives like crap and the other 1/4 is loaded for bear, it’s a highly salubrious act.)

Then it occurred to me that I can fold that goal rather neatly into the SCD goal, thereby gaining two bangs for my buck. In addition to helping me create a strong foundation for resisting tempting treats like, oh, everything, increasing my nightly sleep load from six hours to seven hours to eight hours is a much cleaner metric than “avoid bread more often” or “try not to hit the drive-thru window for 99¢ tacos at Jack in the Box.”

More on this as I sort it out, but for this week, my goal is “lights out by 11pm.” For now, anyway. If you’ve successfully adjusted your own sleeping/waking hours to include more of the former, I would love to hear how you did it, and what the payoff has been.

Oh, and for the record, this entry was set to post automatically just after midnight, a full hour after Me-of-the-Future (who will be known as Me-of-the-Past by the time you read this) went to sleep…


1Or some combination, I suppose. These four things, they mix and match very well.)

UPDATE: Just read a great piece by publisher Michael Hyatt about the sources of work creep (as it cuts into sleep/rest time).

Image by corrieb via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.