Last year was a shock to my system: losing three friends in a short period, then my favourite uncle, and soon after my 92-year-old aunt – last of my father’s siblings, end of an era. And as if to ‘add insult to injury’, my home-away-from-home Alternative Grounds café closed after 19 years of enriching the community. There at least I could have ‘licked my wounds’; but instead I felt thrust into a state of suspension, lost, powerless.

I blocked on the fact that I was in mourning. For several months it was as if someone had tapped me with a magic wand and rendered me neutral. One result was a ‘failure to post’ since mid-January. My heart just wasn’t into it. The blocking resulted in depression, and once I realized that, I knew I had to take action. Shake myself off and do something, anything, to gain back a sense of control over my life. That something was a drive to Florida, and a nourishing visit with my sister.

There in the warm sunshine I began to regain my perspective and a renewed sense of purpose.   Now tears rise more easily, occasionally (a good thing); and I am re-energized, focused.  ‘Fearless’ is back 🙂

Posted in depression, losses, mourning, personal growth | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Brave parents & the progress torch

I’ve just finished reading a special chapter in a special book* – and it still shimmers in my consciousness.   Chapter One – Dancing in the eye of the Storm – was written by Kathy Witterick, someone I’m proud to call a friend. She is a co-parent with David Stocker** in a family you might have heard about.   Certainly, many regulars at the late, lamented Alternative Grounds would recognize them.  I would bet my bottom dollar those kids will grow up to be confident, creative, exceptional adults.

Kathy and David were talked about around the world – often angrily, emotionally, judgmentally, critically – when the Toronto Star published an article** on their approach to parenting what I think of as ‘gender-free’ children.

People would stop them in the street, lecturing them right in front of the children. When I remember the anger of strangers around the world accusing them of inflicting a harmful ‘experiment’ on their children, my mind instantly goes to a memory I have of Jonbenet Ramsey, the miniature ‘beauty queen’ of front pages in the 90s, murdered at 6 years of age.  In all the newspaper or television coverage, I don’t think I ever saw a picture of her as a ‘gender-free’ (i.e. ‘natural’) child.  Quite the opposite: she was — along with countless other tiny, innocent American princesses — obviously being groomed to role-play ultimate “femininity”, as early as possible after birth.

"perfect femininity"

“Perfect Femininity”

Now I do believe parents who gender-stamp their kids don’t intend anything anti-social or destructive.   I believe they just don’t know any better.  I imagine they just feel that if their daughter is female, they should do everything they can to ensure she is among the best in that role.   And role it is — for the most part learned, not biologically determined.  We don’t think of that as a harmful experiment, for the simple reason that ‘we’ve always done it’, so we don’t look at it objectively.

As Kathy Witterick says in the book, “Children should learn that the gender status quo changes based on historical period, geography, family environment, community, culture and context.”  So social context has a huge impact.  Our role as “female” varies.  Likewise, how any given individual feels about gender depends on his or her own experience – and reaction to it.

I wish someone told me this when, as a 20-year-old, I totally believed that my 17-year-old brother would learn to drive easily and that I, being female, would find it difficult.   Starting around puberty, I became increasingly frustrated with my gender ‘limitations’ and a resulting sense of general unfairness in life.  This kind of powerlessness often produces depression and self-defeating behavior in people, and so it did with me, in a classic example of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

When I remember those days – the so-called ‘fabulous fifties’ – I am torn between laughter and tears.  Those memories are balanced by the 70s – when I had the luxury of going back to school full time.   At the forefront of social awareness – and my own education – were women’s rights, the history of it all.      Life seemed full of the excitement and potential of it all, and opportunities like we women had seldom experienced.  We were changing, and I was confident we would keep changing. My mother, who didn’t work because father felt it would make him look bad, didn’t live to see those changes.

Often referred to as a “women’s libber”, I didn’t care.  What I was learning about women, ‘the movement’, the history, and theories in both women’s studies and psychology (my major), were so exciting.

I was sure the human race was in a progressive trajectory that would make all things possible – above all that people would be free to be the unique beings that they are.  At a minimum, it should be possible to raise children unhindered by social attitudes towards their gender.  I certainly came out of it ‘determined’ to raise my own children with the confidence of ‘equality’, and the new career opportunities.  No doubt in my mind that they wouldn’t have to be a nurse, secretary or teacher — the ‘approved’ choices in my teen years.  No, they could be astronauts and presidents, should they choose to be.  But naiveté goes hand in hand with optimism.  (Probably of necessity).  I didn’t anticipate a backlash.

A little pocket of learning does not a revolution make. I guess all the social changes,  personified in events like Woodstock, ‘love-ins’, some counter-culture ‘in your face’ attitudes, then in “change” periodicals like Ms. Magazine, provoked a steadily increasing negative reaction.  Social change has to happen more subtly, more gradually, so the rest of society won’t feel threatened or angry.  Eventually, the reaction was overtly hostile, and people with alternative ideas and dreams stopped being open about it.  I guess that’s always a bad sign – when people don’t speak out, debate, or challenge power — in a supposed democracy.

Having won legal “equality” we made the mistake of taking further progress for granted.   We didn’t anticipate that Hollywood and television would influence a new over-sexualization of our children.  Much of it in the name of “freedom of speech”.  Instead of instilling in the next generation pride  and confidence in one’s unique qualities.

We didn’t even get it, when the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, begun in 1971 as a feminist lobby group, shape-shifted subtly into more of a poverty action group.  Movements or trends are sometimes hi-jacked by well-intentioned people with a somewhat different agenda.

I was reminded of all this when I read Kathy’s chapter.  Social values, of course, don’t just change, and remain changed.  For that to happen, they have to be actively transmitted to every generation.  That doesn’t happen if a movement goes virtually underground.

In the heady days of the women’s movement, people, partners, parents, changed their behavior spontaneously and openly, at least in urban areas, in universities, and in a few laws.  But as the backlash became more overt in their criticism and disapproval, many in the new movement lost some confidence.  Even those who understood the need for change, and wanted to raise their children with a broadened consciousness, did so much more subtly and cautiously.   Experimental living and schooling and programs of the seventies and eighties reverted to a diminished shadow, buried under shouts about ‘saving hardworking taxpayers dollars’.  We’re still hearing those shouts.

Huge cutbacks in spending for social programs, education, housing, and so on, occurred.  Almost any kind of ‘study’ or ‘experimentation’ in living became sneered at.  So when Kathy and David, in this reactionary period, dared to go public with their intelligent child-rearing approach, I wasn’t that surprised at some of the vitriol that rose up.  Just disappointed, once again.  The low proportion of thoughtful or encouraging reactions seemed to me to be another depressing indication of a ‘dumbed-down’ western world.  Or perhaps it’s always been relatively narrow-minded and un-receptive to different perspectives – just a little more so these days.

It’s a scary time to be open about any ‘alternative’ perspective, so I doubly admire those who do.  It’s essential to have some with that courage, if society is to evolve.  And as George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change.”

I am inspired by all this, and ask myself: “What can I do more courageously to support the need for change?”  As I ponder, I’ll keep on blogging.

* Chasing Rainbows: exploring gender fluid parenting.  Ed. Fiona Joy Green and May Friedman.  Demeter Press, 2013.
Posted in gender, parenting, progress, social change | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Yes, it is our job to feed our neighbour’s child

Once again, a typical Conservative statement of values (with apologies to Hugh Segal): Minister James Moore says “Well, obviously nobody wants kids to go to school hungry. Certainly we want to make sure that kids go to school full bellied, but is that always the government’s job to be there to serve people their breakfast? Empowering families with more power and resources so that they can feed their own children is, I think, a good thing. Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.”*

Wrong, I say. The government is us.  And it is our job to help nourish our neighbour’s kids.  It’s all very well to talk about “empowering families” so they can feed their own children.  Nice and vague.  That’s a fairly typical right-wing perspective.  It lets them off the hook.  But how do you ‘empower’ alcoholic, or gambling-addicted or mentally ill parents, in a way that guarantees their child will be fed.  And that child needs far more than feeding in any case.

If not feeding the child is one end of this perspective, building bigger prisons is the other end. I think of that as punishing an already wounded child who has become a still wounded adult.  Increased funding for prisons, cutbacks on funding for vulnerable youth programs, housing, etc.

Practical reality suggests strongly that as a society, we’d save a fortune if we provided supportive housing at $25-31/day, instead of mere shelters, at $69 a bed.  But reality is not what conservatism is about.  These days it’s about critical-judgmental perspectives, selfishness.

People do not become homeless because they made ‘bad choices’.   Or because they  refused to memorize their timetables.  Oh they’ve probably made some mistakes along the way, but who among us has not?  To dismiss the lifelong impact of their childhood experience is ignorance of the worst sort.

“Bad choices” are the only choices you have left when “wiser” options have been precluded by your actual ‘life story’.  You get to make ‘good choices’ when you’ve had a childhood of relative privilege: unconditional love, education, security, a good vocabulary, an ability to communicate, to charm people.  And a soul that’s relatively peaceful.

No, people end up without permanent addresses – or in extreme poverty — because of ‘stuff’ that has happened to them.  Stuff that makes for nightmares, not to mention an inability to concentrate – or perhaps even a chorus of voices and noises in the head that would drive most of us to distraction.

Take my homeless ‘senior’ friend D.  By the time he was fourteen, he’d already been precluded from the possibility of inner peace.    ‘Career development’ would have seemed a joke.  With his drunken father alternating between his – or his little brother’s – bed at night, he couldn’t take his living nightmare any longer and left home.   So at fourteen, he had to not only continue raising himself, but also figure out on his own how to deal with all the crap that life would throw at him.

Was that a ‘bad choice’?  “Should-haves” are easy to say about someone else, when we can’t imagine what their daily life is like?   Surely it doesn’t take that much imagination to guess at the agonizing life he had to live at times.

My father might not have been the greatest dad for me, but he certainly never crawled into any kid’s bed. He certainly never abused anyone, and he did set a conventional ‘good example’.   He regularly said, “There but for the grace of god, go I.”

As a Christian, when he said, “Judge not that ye be not judged,” he meant it.   He believed in compassion and charity, and lived it – more or less.   He was what selfish conservatives call, generally with a snear and a voice dripping with sarcasm, a ‘liberal’.  As if it meant giving away the family jewels.  My friend D would have appreciated a father like that.

The point is that anyone growing up in a conventional family is not in a position to judge a homeless person.  So why do I often hear the question, “Why should I pay for some else’s bad choices or mistakes?”  Just ignorance.   People aren’t homeless because of bad choices.  They are homeless because of circumstances beyond their control.

Many are homeless because of mental illness, addictions and other ailments, and on average, homeless people die in their forties.  I think it’s fair to say that many are homeless because of official government policies.

They are homeless because, for starters, there aren’t enough homes:  For example, “Michael Shapcott* notes that in 1982, all levels of
government funded 20,450 new social housing units. By
1995, the number dropped to approximately 1,000, with
a modest increase to 4,393 by 2006 (Wellesley Institute,
2008)”  (I recommend checking out

“Supportive housing programs can also reduce the costs associated with health care and the justice system. One study found that investing in supportive housing costs $13,000 to $18,000 per year; in comparison, traditional institutional responses like prisons and psychiatric hospitals cost $66,000 to $120,000 per year.”

We already know from experiments in a number of cities with “homes first” policies, that money is saved in shelter and emergency costs, with some shelters shutting down through lowered demand. But I believe it’s becoming obvious that general improvements and cost savings would be even more dramatic, if we went “all the way” as a society, and provided not only homes, but professional support as well as all basic needs.   It just makes sense.

Of all the reasons that exist for poverty and homelessness, surely we could eliminate the most significant one: regressive policies, a byproduct of social attitudes that need changing.  This will only happen if enough of us keep speaking up and pointing out what should be obvious.


*                                                                                   ** Canadian activist and   Director, Affordable Housing and Social Innovation, Wellesley Institute

Posted in compassion, Hugh Segal, James Moore, poverty, social commentary, social justice | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Ode to Victor Lawson

How do you fail grade eight?   You fail grade eight by being a child whose body language includes slumped posture, and downcast eyes.  You don’t look people in the eye because you have such low self-esteem that you can’t.  That would be a bold and confident act.  It’s almost as if looking someone straight in the eye would make you vulnerable to losing whatever spirit you have left.

You fail eighth grade by pretending you’re sick on days when you’re supposed to be getting marks for public speaking in your grammar class – what we once called ‘Language’.  You simply can’t face being that visible.  You know you’d rather die.

You fail eighth grade by pretending you’re sick on exam days.  You fail because you can’t concentrate on what the teacher is saying about the causes of the first world war.  Your mind wanders out to greener pastures.  You fail because when you are trying to study, you are yearning for that cute boy in the class across the hall.  Hopes and daydreams keep you going.

You fail, because you have trouble remaining in the present, which is not warm and fuzzy.  It is critical, judgmental, full of hopeless despair. You fail because you believe girls are dumb — and you are dumber than most.  You fail because you have become self-defeating.

In those days, when you failed, it meant you repeated everything.  It also meant that the smart kids and many teachers looked down on you, avoided you.  Almost as if they might catch your state of mind.  Ironically, some of the subjects become more familiar the second time around, enabling you to scrape through and move up a grade.  But this does not necessarily improve your self-image.

In my case, it actually felt as if I were cheating: my improved marks were only because I was a failure.

The reality was slightly different from my self-image.  In my “steno” classes, I was very good – probably one of the faster typists, and good at transcribing notes taken in Pitman shorthand.  The curves and lines and dots of Pitman were strangely fascinating.

And there was Mr. Lawson.  Mr. Lawson spoke to me with the same respect and consideration he showed to everyone else.  And he didn’t have me merely repeat.  He said I ‘didn’t need it’, and gave me new challenges, like “Rapid Calculation”.   He introduced me to the “Man from SPEBSQSA”  (the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America) as ‘the girl who could do the job’.  They paid me to type (and ‘edit’) their monthly newsletter.

“Vic” eventually made me the producer of the high school newspaper.  And when an open-house was held, he had me show parents around and explain our various activities, machinery, etc.  There I had knowledge, skill and confidence.  There I was comfortable being visible.

I swear that when I walked into Mr. Lawson’s “commercial class”,  I felt lighter.  I stopped feeling as if I were tripping over my own feet.  When I eventually graduated from high school, that I was able to get the first job I applied for, was due to him.  That I was able to move up in the business world – even in an era when that was almost impossible for women – was his doing.

At some point in my adulthood I realized that  “bachelor” Lawson was probably gay, and knew very well what it was like to be a miserable kid.  He probably spotted me a mile away.   At our high school’s 40th anniversary reunion, I was so excited that I’d have the chance to thank him.  But he was too frail and ill to come.  He died not long after.

I’m not religious, but I feel an impulse to say, bless him.  Bless John Victor Lawson.  And I thank him in my heart by ‘paying it forward’ – by trying to make a difference to someone else now and then, by never forgetting what a miserable adolescent feels like.  What else can a grateful girl do?

Posted in adolescence, compassion, education, empathy, encouragement, enrichment, teacher, the fifties | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

A is for Antoinette*

It’s six months since my friend Antoinette died, and I think it’s probably okay to ‘tell her story’ now.  I mean it’s not likely that breaking confidentiality is relevant.  The chances of someone who knew her discovering I’ve ‘told’ are about one in ten million, so I’ll take my chances.   Her story relates to things I’ve learned about trauma – that it’s a relative thing, and can be ‘subtle’.

I still do remember how shy and sensitive she was in her twenties.  I didn’t know at the time that she’d already had an unreasonable amount of traumatizing experience. She only told me about those hidden parts of her life – the wounds – two years ago.  I did suspect, though, that her mother was a controlling one.  She came across as a rigid, perfectionistic person, and not surprisingly, her children behaved very formally in her presence – almost as if there were a police officer in the room.

As Antoinette and I were normally together in other contexts, the difference in her behavior with her mother was quite noticeable.  So I was not surprised when she told me a few years ago, that when she was young, her mother regularly slapped her face whenever she ‘stepped out of line’ – by mother’s standards.

Antoinette always felt as if she was nervously looking over her shoulder as she lived her life.  Her mother was not affectionate, and demanded order and cleanliness.   I imagine she was living out her own childhood traumas, having been through the second world war in Europe.  The most positive thing she ever said to Antoinette was when she was dying.  She said, “You were a good girl.”  Like a concession.

So Antoinette spent her life always trying to be good and kind and innocent – very ‘Christian’.  She tried to stop all ‘wrong’ thoughts.  So for her, when a young woman came onto her sexually, and she had no idea what to do, she experienced this as traumatizing.  Even as she told me about it perhaps a year ago, she cried.   She still assumed it meant there was something ‘bad’ about her.   Back then, in the middle of her shock, and dealing with guilt, lo and behold her ‘perfect’ parents split up.   Her father joined a cult and constantly hammered her with his beliefs.  She had no mental defenses – having lived her life largely in fear and insecurity – and became an even more vulnerable person.

Poor Antoinette had also been the victim of an extremely ‘permissive’ phase in education, so graduated from high school unable to do fractions or percentages – or even typing.   In the seventies, in her late twenties, she sat in my back yard and confided in me that she generally had a hard time finding jobs because of her skill deficit.

She was grateful in her early thirties when Ben fell in love with her, and became beautiful, sweet Antoinette’s protector.   Shortly afterward, her parents died, and she began to hear voices.  Ben took his terrified wife to a hospital, where she experienced her first admission, and received a diagnosis of ‘schizophrenia’.

For the next few decades Ben was her rock as she was in and out of hospital.  To add insult to injury, in her forties she had a major heart attack, and quadruple bypass surgery.  Can life be unfair?  You bet.   Ben died of cancer about seven years ago.

She landed back in the hospital, and from that time until her death in April, she was on a variety of anti-psychotic medications, shots, and fifteen minute visits with her psychiatrist every six to eight weeks or so.  As with most conventional psychiatrists, he was in the ‘chemical imbalance’ or ‘biology’ club.  So in all those years she didn’t receive talk therapy.  She needed some.

Over the last few decades at home, she never left the house unless someone came to get her, help her down the stairs, to drive her to a mall or a doctor’s appointment.  With little physical activity, she gradually gained weight until she was over 200 pounds.  She was less and less able to get around, often losing her balance.  Toward the end, she was often unable even to get to the bathroom fast enough.   She was essentially immobilized by her anti-psychotic medications, chronically terrified that the voices might come back, or that she might be hospitalized.   And we’ll never know if Antoinette, could have learned to live with her voices like countless people around the world have done.**

If Ben had not left her well taken care of financially, she might have been among the homeless we so often see, with shuffling gate, perhaps talking to an imaginary being.  She didn’t choose her state.  Like all of us, she was once an adorable, innocent baby.  But life conspired against her, to all intents and purposes.   Life can be more unfair to some, than to others.  And we are not nearly as far from the street ourselves, as we like to think we are.



Posted in Alternatives, child abuse, compassion, mental illness, parenting, perfectionism, schizophrenia, trauma | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

An Uncle like Harold

Harold passed away yesterday morning, which I’d been anticipating for a few years.  But it still seems unfair – as if certain people should live forever.

My earliest memory of him goes back to the summer I turned 13.  He’d been in the airforce, so seldom seen.  But here he was in our home, escorting my grandmother on her first visit since my grandfather had died.   How like him to want to take care of her.

In those days – the ‘fabulous fifties’ – I was known as a ‘difficult teenager’.  My parents had arranged for Harold and Grandma to take me out west.  I was oblivious to the fact that they needed a break from me and my ‘emotionality’.

We travelled by car for three days, through the U.S. around the Great Lakes – a great adventure, to my mind.  And thus I began to know ‘everyone’s favourite uncle’.   He fuelled that trip with laughter and I am left with the memory of lightheartedness I seldom experienced in that phase.   He mentioned once, casually, that I was pretty —   as if it could be ‘casual’ to a young girl with a completely negative self-image.   This was the emotional equivalent of winning a lottery, I suppose and I never forgot it.

Throughout my adult life, he would come and go, always warm, smart, witty, and open-minded.   He was an important player in all family gatherings – especially the extended family reunion in Manitoba in ’92.  He was the star, in a never-to-be-forgotten schoolbus ride around locations of family history, with his educational – and hilarious – commentary over a megaphone as he drove.   I have video of that adventure, worth replaying occasionally, for the happiness it evokes.

By that time, he had been through a broken marriage, and the tragic accidental death of his only child.  I was sure this would change him; but he remained the same uncle: caring, generous, open-minded, philosophical.  I was so lucky to have him in my life from time to time, like spice, or a glass of great champagne.  And there is a large group, and a whole new generation of relations, who would have loving stories of their own to add.  I hope they will.

I imagine the world would be a better place, if everyone had an uncle like Harold.

Posted in family culture, generous, kindness, loss, Memories, mourning, reflections, relationships, remembering childhood, uncle | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Avoiding vulnerability – friendship lost + found

There is value in being open and vulnerable*, and a price to pay for avoiding it.  When I look back, ‘avoiding’ is what I was doing when I tried to cover up my imperfections, or tried to make a good impression on friends.

Madeleine and I met in the 70s at a women’s ‘assertiveness training’ group.  In those days, most women actually had to learn to stand up for themselves, as they had generally been conditioned to be humble, to ‘know their place’.   We were also both from somewhere else, still trying to understand and adjust to Toronto.  She was from Singapore via Australia, and I was from Montreal.  So we both had some struggles with building a feeling of ‘belonging’.

We quickly became friends, with our equal love of passionate discussions about everything from relationships and psychology to politics and world affairs.  It turned out that when we socialized with husbands in tow, we could have formed a ‘foodie’ club with our interests and the pleasures of each other’s company.

The friendship grew and went on for years, until I became a mother.   Within a few years, the theme of parenting two children became dominant in my life, interfering with everything. For various reasons, I felt quite incompetent.  As challenges increased, so did my sense of inadequacy.  Fewer and fewer people were welcomed into my home – after all, ‘what would they think?!’

In those days, at times, it often seemed as if we parents were in some kind of competition, sharing and comparing parenting theories.  I waffled between a variety of theories,  or having no idea at all what to do next.  For a long time I felt lost in a swamp.  I returned phone calls less and less.

So when Madeleine moved back to Singapore,  I didn’t pursue or nourish that relationship, and we lost touch.  I often thought of her over the decades, and felt sad to have lost such a special relationship.

In recent years, with a little more insight, I eventually realized that (a) I wasn’t as terrible a parent as I thought, and (b) the parenting isn’t over.  It’s never over.   I have lots of gray hair and  I worry very little now about how others see me.   Some wish I’d worry more!

So it was quite a thrill the other night when the phone rang, and the voice on the other end was none other than Madeleine.   I invited them for dinner, and that night   we did a few decades of catching up.  And lots of passionate discussions, just like those evenings decades ago.

How lucky I have been lately!  Again, I had a ‘second chance’ – the chance to make amends, to explain, to ‘correct mistakes’, to make up for lost times – and missed hugs.

I allowed my vulnerability to be present, talked about things I once thought better hidden behind my pretensions.  Madeleine listened with compassion and wisdom. We’ve both come a long way, and we both have long valued this now renewed – and refueled – friendship,  for good reason.


Posted in appearances, friendship, Insight, open, parenting, vulnerability | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

World Hearing Voices Day

Tomorrow is September 14, “International World Hearing Voices Day”.  Who knew?  Talk about turning a ‘negative’ into a positive!  And in honour of the estimated 230 million folks in the world who hear voices, I am reflecting.

I’m thinking about how the meaning of hearing voices has evolved in me  over the past two years as I have been introduced to a whole different “alternative” way of understanding the concept.

I first learned that there were people who heard voices at 19, when Mom decided it was time to mention her brother Norman.  He was about to be released from the mental institution where he’d spent the previous 20 years as a “schizophrenic” who heard voices.  Unfortunately, his voices had been telling him to kill a famous person**, so he was locked up.  It’s probably debatable whether prison would have been better or worse.

My – as usual — compassionate mother, being about 50 years ahead of her time, believed his psychosis was the result of emotional bullying he had experienced since early childhood, when a teacher had his brother bring a doll into school and place it on his desk to embarrass him.  A teacher.  At the time he might have been ten years old.

The ‘alternative’ stream on the subject of hearing voices (sometimes called ‘auditory hallucinations’) is finally beginning to be heard, but it’s been a long, tough battle with the powerful pharmaceutical industry dominating the conventional view.

No doubt it was my mother’s stories that leaned me in the direction of ‘humanistic psychology’ over the subsequent decades.   But even so, I did eventually capsize in the face  pharmaceutical marketing success, buying into biologically-based theories of mental illness, which could be dealt with by taking pills.  Ah, modern miracles!

Over the past two years, thanks to some wonderful, highly functional, voice hearers who introduced me to a whole world of alternative perspectives, my consciousness has been raised – along with my anger at the harm that has been done to countless people by the dominance of the pharmaceutical industry in mental health.

Just for starters, the next time you notice a homeless person, choose to wonder if they once were part of a “normal, middle-class” family.  Were they, perchance, one of the victims of the brain damage which can be caused by anti-psychotic drugs – drugs which could render you, me, or anyone, incapable of working or supporting a home and family?   Were they people who could have been assisted, instead, in learning to understand and live with their voices –  living fully functional lives, with their voices in tow?***

And think on this: there is a very high probability that you have known people who hear voices.  Stigma, and the widespread belief in conventional theories, make it too risky for them to tell you.


** No point mentioning who, as they’ve been dead and gone for many decades!


Posted in Alternatives, causes, Hearing Voices, injustice, mental illness, psychology, schizophrenia | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Listeners

The other day in my favourite café, I was listening to a friend who’s been dealing with mental illness all the decades of her adult life.  Diagnosed long ago with so-called ‘schizophrenia’, she clearly needs to talk about her feelings, issues and events.  How important it is to feel heard.

As I thought about how psychiatry changed under the domination of the pharmaceutical industry, and how all of society and government just rolled over and accepted that wave,  I found myself getting angry all over again.   Talking to a skilled professional about one’s distress, actually helps change that distress in the process.  And some therapists can even help a client evolve, grow, mature, even develop wisdom and insight.  It sure changed my life!

I am astonished at how lucky I was, and how many of my acquaintances had the opposite experience.   A shocking number of them have had one kind of emotional distress or another over the decades without ever experiencing ‘talk therapy’.

How was I so lucky that whenever I went through an identity crisis – which happens to most people from time to time – I was able to access professional support?  And I took it for granted at the time.  Having read many humanistic psychology books, I guess I took it as a human right.   Progressive psychiatrists, psychologists, encounter groups, ‘transactional analysis’ groups, psychological workshops, assertiveness groups, women’s groups — I could go on.  Perhaps I was simply part of a brief enlightened era.  But underlying all of that, essentially, was the experience of feeling heard and understood.  What countless friends and acquaintances got instead: pills.

We all have the need to be heard – and maybe at some times more than others. Some people do a lot of talking, but somehow can’t release what they really need to say, so their need is never fulfilled.

And on the other hand, there are people who would love to be supportive listeners, and could be effective, but aren’t sure exactly how to get into it.  These two groups  remind me of dancers gazing at each other across the dance floor, listening to the music, but not sure what to do about it.  And some have the best of intentions, the will, and the caring, but just can’t seem to ‘listen’ without getting into trouble.

What we’re talking about is not a regular conversation.  We’re talking about special times with deep needs, that could be filled in a mutually beneficial way. We’re talking about pairing those who have the need to be heard, with people who can do the helpful, active, effective listening that’s needed.  People who have time – for listening takes time.  People who want to be supportive and helpful, who appreciate how meaningful this kind of listening can be.

What perfect ‘volunteer’ work, I think, for a retired baby boomer, for example, looking for a meaningful activity.   If she’s always been a ‘good listener’,  she might only need  some tutoring on active listening skills.*   Just a little tweaking.

‘What do you mean,’ I can hear some saying.  ‘Anyone can listen, can’t they?’  Not so fast.  Not everyone can listen ‘actively’ and ‘non-judgmentally’.  Some feel compelled to react, to argue.   And worse, some feel compelled to gossip about what they heard.  In this role, we have to take it to the grave.

In an ideal world, our health care system would cover psychological help for just about any kind of distress.  It’s in that field we find tools and strategies that can be fairly simply taught, for coping  — or changing.  After all, whether you are only homesick or in a mild depression, for example, or at the other extreme perhaps a long period of suicidal feelings or violent urges, most people on occasion could use some trained help with changing their feelings or their thinking – finding some inner peace.

A skilled professional can help us develop insight, help us grow as a person, much faster than the painful method of  a lifelong experiment with trial-and-error, or accidental wisdom gained slowly through life into old age.  But how many psychiatrists offer ‘talk-therapy’ these days?  It’s fifteen minutes, and pills.  How grateful I am that I had ‘therapy’ back in a time when it meant something.

But life’s just not like that.  We need people operating at different levels of skill, somewhere between ordinary listening, and full blown professional help.  A ‘volunteer listener’ might just fill the bill.  And imagine a whole team of them, in a community, functioning like a self-help group, sharing their learning, helping each other become better listeners – and hey, maybe even becoming advocates.

There are many people in my life who have inside what I call “a wounded child”.  Some of these wounds are pretty severe, to the point of interfering with their living a satisfying life.  Yet feeling free to talk about it, and feeling heard, can bring some relief and peace and a clearer mind.

There are a few potential, pleasant, by-products I can imagine, from a sharing/listening activity like this.  One is that some people who have tended to talk a lot about trivial impersonal things without observing how the listener was receiving it, would begin to be more appreciative.   Even respectful and considerate, realizing that this person was actually sharing a valuable skill.   And there’s a good chance that he or she would eventually have satisfied the need to be heard, losing the compulsion to speak

And the Listener, on the other hand, might feel the self-respect or self-esteem that comes of knowing she is giving something of value – something that can be life-changing for the other.

I began to think of this years ago when my husband started working at home.  He had a big load and no colleagues to share it with.  It took awhile to understand all he was talking about, but eventually my listening was a regular activity.   At some point

I also heard about the Shoa project**  One could say it formally acknowledges the importance of telling the story, for the person telling it, as well as for posterity.

Then I was recently listening to an acquaintance talk about his childhood, and could hear in his voice what I can only think of as a repressed sob, as if he were on the verge of doing that.  It felt to me like an ocean wave of needing to get it all out, and I suggested doing it on video as I had done with others before.

Suddenly all these ideas seemed to crystallize into the one about active listening teams.   If someone takes it and ‘runs with it’, that would be incredible.  And no doubt I will continue to explore the idea with other interested people.   I sure do see a role for caring volunteers – at least until the psychiatric field comes to its senses – or governments come to their senses and begin covering psychology!



Posted in active listening, baby boomers, depression, empathy, psychology | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Where’s the protest?

Okay, is it time to come out fighting yet?   Some would say it’s overdue.*  Talk about the emperor having no clothes!   For example, the number of people who still believe that privatization of everything is the answer, is ridiculous.  Pathetic!   But then, that’s beliefs for you!  Never mind evidence.

I sometimes suspect that many are governed more by their embarrassment at not understanding the situation, than by their fear as they see their bills mounting, the  middle class vanishing, the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer.   What if we’re wrong, they worry.  Haven’t they been warned?  The ‘Occupy’ movement vanished; is that because they felt inadequate to the task?  Intimidated?

They were endlessly criticized for having no ‘leadership’, no clear direction.  And individuals who speak out might be accused of being unpatriotic – accused by the right, of course.  Which is the worst accusation?  Being anti-American, or anti-Christian?

The  suffering often think they’re alone in their misery.  Do they feel that somehow they brought it on themselves?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  We need more media setting the record straight and talking about the realities.  Like the good old Guardian** in the U.K.   They have their eye on the ball.   And programs like PBS’s Frontline.***  And alternative news media like Common Dreams.*

Why do I obsess about American behavior?  After all, I’m Canadian.  Why should I worry?  Well, anyone who’s paying attention realizes that Harper and his ‘Reform movement’ are trying to move us into the great American way, to join most countries of the western world.  Despite the evidence.  So if we want to know our future, watch the U.S.

The symptoms of this are everywhere.  Affordable housing has become increasingly scarce through much of the world – especially over the past several decades when ‘trickle-down’ or ‘supply side’ economics has been the dominant theory.  And privatization.  The consequences of  Reaganomics and Thatcherism.  ‘Governments don’t manage anything right’, and ‘governments waste our tax dollars’.   ‘The private sector will do it more efficiently.’  That’s as irrational as any other belief system.

Governments of the western world for decades have been selling off public housing, crown corporations, etc.  As a friend says, it’s like “selling the family jewels”.   Why would you sell off your equity?  Short-term thinking I guess.  Ignorance about the meaning of ‘equity’?  Ulterior motives?

There are so many things that need changing, that I could go on and on.  Like disgustingly low minimum-wage jobs with no benefits***– well no benefits for the worker – clear benefits (higher profit) for the boss or the shareholders.

Like building more prisons and introducing longer sentences, when crime has been going down.  Like refusing to lower crime even more, by sensibly providing free drugs to addicts as well as shelter – because we want to punish them instead of acknowledging root causes.  As I said, I could go on….

And of course that’s the problem.  It’s overwhelming to most folks.  So the vast majority give up even trying to understand – especially in areas like economics**** or finance.  And the moneyed powerful like it that way.  They can weave magic spells of fear and wonder, counting on peoples’ passive gullibility.  So people get sick and lose their homes because they’ve been taught to fear ‘socialized medicine’ so much.

I have to ask myself sometimes if the ‘reduce-taxes-privatizers’ are really that dumb – or just cruelly selfish.   As the rich get richer and the poor***  get poorer, I wonder how bad things have to get, to trigger a revolution.

*                                                      **                                                                                                                 ***                      ****

Posted in American, awareness, capitalism, consciousness, democracy, ignorance, personal power, social commentary | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments