The Winding Path

Counselling Services provided by Barb Zacharias

September 2023: Biker Babe

Posted on Sep 26, 2023

September 2023: Biker Babe

Disclaimer: Hang onto your hats/devices, this is a long one!

I am not a fan of country music, per se; but I do enjoy the music of certain country musicians. In fact, there aren’t too many music genres that I don’t appreciate at least in part. However, when I am unpacking some emotional baggage, usually it is a variety of the blues-rock genre that helps me process. It took me by surprise to find it was the 1998 self-titled album by Faith Hill that came to the forefront starting with the lyrics of Me. But I am getting ahead of myself.

If August was a turn on the Tilt-a-Whirl, then September has been that ride that suspends you high above reality only to plummet you back to earth, jerking you skyward again before landing back on solid ground. I don’t know its name, nor have I experienced that firsthand…only the healing journey variety. From the highest of hopes to the depths of despair. The month started off well, but took turns for the worse as it progressed. The usual flow of clients dried up (hopefully temporarily 😉) and things escalated from there. As it turns out, the lack of clients was a catch22: while I could’ve used the distraction (and income), I wasn’t in the best head space to help anyone else. However, it also triggered my financial scarcity mindset which, combined with other factors, spiralled into a major depressive episode.

While I work hard to manage the anxiety, it does require effort when I don’t have extra to expend. As noted, the inexplicable lack of clients ended up being an act of grace given the many “interruptions” this month: an eventful long weekend filled with activity and people, plumbing fiascoes, and hormones wildly gone awry. My thyroid had its annual ultrasound session; and some of the numbers I saw the technician type in were a bit concerning. Results next month. Any potential concerns have to be tabled until then. But if it’s gone off the rails, that might explain some of the health challenges I’ve had lately. When I get stuck in the financial scarcity mindset, I’ve had to remind myself that the Universe is limitless.

The hopelessness in the midst of a major depressive episode is the hardest to manage. It’s been a while since I’ve experienced one that severe. Not sure what made it finally break. Maybe it ran its course, or it was the coping strategies of the ‘one thing’ rule and focusing on what is in my control instead of what isn’t. Daily walks in nature with the dogs also keeps me grounded when life is chaos. Abbie is definitely my unofficial emotional support dog. Every dog I’ve had the honour to call my own has served this purpose for me. They have been my life savers each in their own way. The Faith Hill song, You Give Me Love is playing as I write this paragraph. Very apt lyrics, especially the chorus.

When the world is cold
And I need a friend to hold
You give me love, you give me love, baby
And when my hope is gone
And I feel I can’t go on
You pick me up
You give me love, you give me love…

Sometimes I wonder what my brain and life would be like if I had had a safe and secure upbringing. Those dang unmet attachment needs. Fortunately, the Universe sends emotionally corrective experiences along the healing journey. I talk about them quite a bit with clients. It’s a tad unsettling when I have to process them for myself. Luckily, the heavy clouds of my major depressive episode had cleared by the time I had an opportunity to go for a short motorbike ride, even if the actual sky was overcast.

It was a fairly emotional outing for me for a few reasons. The most evident was missing my brother and motorbike rides with him. It’s been 20 years since I’ve been on a bike ride with my brother. We also used to mountain bike together when we both lived in the Yukon. Life has pulled us in different directions (geographically and metaphorically). I miss the closeness we once had. So, it was a bit nostalgic for me. It was also weird because I haven’t ridden with anyone else. I had to work hard not to let my brain obsess about what would be the ‘right’ way to ride with another person (not screwing up, embarrassing myself, that sort of thing). Somehow I managed to quelch the anxiety, and for the most part, be in the moment. I thoroughly enjoyed that short bike ride! I lack the words to describe the sensation being on the open road surrounded by the vibrant colours of fall.

Putting this profound moment-in-time into shareable words is challenging as it was an emotionally corrective experience on many levels.

  1. Someone being kind and attentive out of the goodness of their heart;
  2. Staying in the moment and not giving in to the shame spirals;
  3. Side stepping the people pleasing coping mechanism;
  4. Showing up instead of hiding;
  5. Reclaiming abandoned dreams.

Essentially, an emotionally corrective experience is one that challenges or corrects the pattern of behaviour you have come to expect or a no-longer-helpful core belief.

It was an emotionally corrective experience to have someone attend to me for a change without any ulterior motive (no strings attached and/or not being a burden, an imposition). And I need to savour it—to feel the feels and not push them away as self-indulgent or undeserved. Usually in therapy, we have to feel the feels of grief and pain. This is bizarre for me to feel the feels of positive experience. My instinct is to shut it down in an effort to prevent a shame spiral or avoid internal angst. And it is mind blowing to consider that it could have been a pleasure for the other person to provide this experience for me. That idea messes with my head. It is easier for me to believe that I am now beholden to this person for going out of their way for me or that the gig is up. They have glimpsed the real me and will vanish from my life. I still have to process that one a bit.

One of my conditioned beliefs is that anyone doing something nice for me either wants something or they’re just being polite (not sincere or genuine). The coping mechanism to counter my suspicious mind has been to become a chameleon, adapting to every situation as I sensed what was required. Also known as people pleasing. Some of the inner thoughts I battle when experiencing something new usually start with the following. You may recognize some from your own experience.

  • When they really get to know me, they will reject/abandon me…
  • Always needing an escape route…
  • Not giving the wrong impression…
  • Not misreading a situation/”stepping in it”…
  • Acts of kindness can’t be trusted….
  • Being teased, shamed if I show up…
  • Being too much, not good enough…
  • Not imposing…

So when the offer of a bike ride was made, something I really wanted to do, I was tempted to turn it down in order to avoid dealing with the internalized shame messages. To hide, instead of show up.

Attachment needs of consistent attention and affection as well as the development of mirror neurons are critical to developing a healthy sense of self. I never knew where I stood with either of my parents. And neither parent ever provided positive feedback in the form of reflecting back the good they saw in me. What my mirror neurons received was that I was the bane of their existence. I learned to be overly considerate of others—anticipating needs, moods, and desired behaviour—in order to prevent bad things from happening (such as rejection). Hence, my sense of self has always been based upon perceptions: what I sensed (rightly or wrongly) from others. I am still working on strengthening my sense of self.

Showing up (not hiding or blending in) means being open to rejection, as well as acceptance. I am conditioned to anticipate rejection, judgement, criticism (believe me, it’s been circulating in my cranium). I am not as well prepared for acceptance. Being a chameleon is easier. But as I strengthen my inner core and practice showing up, the words to Faith Hill’s Me begin to become my own:

That’s all I have to give
What you get is what you see, yeah
No second guessing, no pretending
… all I ever have to be is me

Another layer of this emotionally corrective experience is the resurgence of dreams. It occurred to me on the morning walk that I still don’t believe I “deserve” to ask for things or accept them when offered or visualize more in my future. Always paramount is the other person’s experience (making sure they are not inconvenienced). This morning’s realization was that I do deserve to have my early attachment needs for consistent attention and affection to finally be met. I have been hyper-focused on the grieving of losses to the exclusion of dreams. Another catch22: grieving the loss of attachment needs, yet too guarded to have any of them met. While it may appear to some as just a bike ride, for me it was a crack in my armour and an opening for hope that all may not be lost.

My dream to obtain my motorcycle license was shelved due to health and balance issues; but with the new trikes on the market, I may have to put that back on my imagined vision board. It’s just in my head right now; but I may have to develop a tangible board to remind myself of this juncture on my healing journey. I had also given up on having my need for consistent affection and attention to ever be met (partially or completely). Believing it was out of reach, not meant for me. The image came to mind of raising my hand to say ‘yes’ to something I want and having my hand swatted down. I have more work to do in addressing the shame associated with taking advantage of opportunities let alone being honest with myself about what would bring me joy. But there is a crack, an opening. The challenge lies in being terrified of humiliation while remaining open to emotionally corrective experiences.

From my journal:

Genial invitation to go for a ride. No strings attached. But I look for the strings, the ulterior motives, the hidden agendas. Best way to avoid embarrassment and shame and rejection and disappointment is to keep to oneself and not participate. Limit expectations. Maybe it’s time to expect more from life, not less. Open myself to joy and emotionally corrective experiences that break the old patterns of being. Life isn’t all or nothing. There is kindness and generosity still to be found. It might be exceptional instead of common, but it is there.

If I keep myself closed, I cannot experience it when it surfaces. I can only attract what I am open to. From hiding in the shadows to stepping into the sunshine. There remains a ways to go, but at least I know I still have love to give, and life to live. Far cry from what I was thinking and feeling in the depths of my depression. Winds of change blowing away the brain fog and self-doubt and self-limiting beliefs. There are many more of those to unpack yet. But at least I can own my needs and wants, hopes and dreams. I can ask, leaving opportunity for both no and yes. No does not mean rejection or failure. Yes can be pure and not tainted with baggage.

I don’t know how my dreams will one day be realized, but at least there is renewed hope. After the month I’ve had, it’s nothing short of a miracle that I can sing along with Faith Hill that better days are coming.

Better days are comin’ around
I know you feel like
The whole world’s gone and let you down but
Better days they’re comin’ for you

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August 2023: Glimmers

Posted on Aug 29, 2023

August 2023: Glimmers

The month of August has been like riding a Tilt-A-Whirl at the amusement park. Exhilarating, terrifying, disorienting, frustrating, fulfilling, confusing, rewarding, depressing, satisfying. You name it, I felt it. The whole gamut of emotions. No wonder I feel worn out. And now I ask myself, where does this leave me on my healing journey?  I think I’ve made progress. Deep internal wounds have been opened, but so too, opportunity for healing. Clarity did emerge out of the confusion. Fulfillment out of the frustration. Glimmers amongst the triggers.

New concept that crept into my social media feed: Have you hear about glimmers? They are the opposite of triggers. A glimmer is a tiny micro-moment of happiness; a sign of hope. One you begin to look for them, they will start to appear everywhere. And appear they did. But first I had to make the discovery of an underlying core belief that came flying forward on my Tilt-a-Whirl ride.

The month began with a heaviness that I just couldn’t shake. Early morning musings revealed a sense of being judged and found wanting. Disappointment in me, my dogs, my work, my preferences, my choices, my actions. Pressure to perform. Pressure to make others happy, meet the needs of others. But it was the word judged that really resonated—which translates in my brain into not good enough and that pervading sense of shame. Fear of disappointing others is a heavy burden to bear.

I think it was a sense of judgement from several sources that triggered this trauma-like response. Still that dang need for external validation to counterbalance the shame and judgement. As I was processing what I needed in order to heal this deep wounding, the image of dad with us two kids at mom’s graveside came to mind. Watching her casket being lowered into the ground. I think that impacted me more than I’ve given it credit. I left for the morning walk mulling this over…

Realizations surfaced one on top of another. The first was that dad was supposed to “be there” for me—his little girl, when her mom died—not the other way around. Dad was supposed to help with the confusion and sadness and shame; but he didn’t—and sadly the pattern continues to this day, unless I set boundaries.

The next realization was that no one has ever shown up for me. People I thought were my allies turned out to have ulterior motives—and only saw me through the lens of my birth mother or as a problem child. No one was there for that frightened, confused little girl—and later, adolescent and young woman. I feel compelled to gaslight myself and say it wasn’t that bad/actually like that, etc. But the more I sit with it—my lived experience—there really wasn’t anybody “there” for me. Not in ways that I desperately needed.

That’s when I realized I was a huge disappointment for simply existing. People wanted my birth mother, not me. And people did NOT want to be reminded of their loss every time they looked at me. Supposedly, my loss of a mother paled in comparison to their own sense of loss. That hurts to the core. Now I understand why I felt unwanted wherever I went. I was a symbol of what had once been—not what I was or could become. Didn’t matter that my birth mother was unwell—that was her shame which was literally and figuratively passed onto me.

All those thoughts and feelings I was told to deny were really true. And the sense that I wasn’t good enough was repeatedly reinforced in school, church, college, peers, marriage, in-laws. I could never shake it. How does one heal that sense of insufficiency? How do I complete the trauma response? I understand that little girl cannot be abandoned by her mother and father ever again. Or by the myriad of adults who failed her. I sense there is something unfinished in recognizing dad’s failure. Dad can’t abandon his little girl ever again—but he has repeatedly done so through every stage of life. It’s hard to heal a wound that keeps getting reopened.

However, maybe I can complete the trauma response to the belief of being a disappointment for simply existing. That one, too, is tough because I remind so many people of the wife, sister, aunt, friend, other mother, and their own loss and pain. A belief that spirals into: I am a scourge upon the planet. I perpetually remind people of someone I am not.

And once again, it was a social media meme that gave me pause: It’s not who you are that holds you back; it’s who you think you’re not. However, I had to apply it differently than intended; namely that I am not my birth mother even if our lives and personalities have run parallel to each other. What’s holding me back is a significant sense of “not-ness.” People are equal parts relieved and disappointed that I am not my birth mother. I have never known who I am because I have never been given the gift of being my own person.

In my journal I was able to itemize my “not-ness” from the obvious to the subtle, the general to the specific— such as, I am not: my birth mother, a symbol of all that could’ve been, a representation of betrayal, a scourge, a complete and utter disappointment, a perpetual existential crisis, just to name a few. I might remain a disappointment to others as a symbol of their regret; but it is NOT my disappointment nor my regret.

I need to find a way to shed all that not-ness and walk into the brilliance of my own beauty and grace and light. I am a work-in-progress with my own healing journey to traverse. I am not the be all/end all for everyone else and their pain. In my journal, I also listed what I am including: imperfect and make adjustments as needed, a spiritual being having a much-flawed human experience, a person with legitimate needs and concerns. A few “nots” filtered through; but they were validating: I am NOT a dutiful daughter, nor a drama queen, nor a performer of any kind. I am my own person, loved and lovable as well as seen and heard by a few, dismissed and neglected by many. I simply am. I exist. Embraced in grace.

My compulsive need for external validation of my existence makes much more sense now that I’ve delved so deeply into the wound. The wound is still raw; and I remain susceptible to craving external validation. Time to cherish my Self which doesn’t mean unlimited self-indulgence, but nurturing my well-being. My existence IS valid simply because I live and breathe. I could be a forest nymph that never encounters another soul and still be “valid.” It is my choice to make something of my life—no one else can deem that valid or not. No other human being can validate my self-perception or unique existence. The proverbial “they” can enhance or hinder my lived experience; but they are not a parking authority validating the space I use.

As I look back, how did I survive? Nothing short of divine intervention—even if it didn’t come when or how I expected. My life has had a trajectory to follow for it to be truly meaningful. So many lessons learned that had to build upon each other. Always sprinkled with those glimmers of grace and hope. They appear more frequently now; or at least, I see/recognize them more.

Dealing with the triggered core belief of being a disappointment for existing created an opportunity for a glimmer to appear: a sign of hope. Seeing myself as all the things I wasn’t will hopefully free me to be all that I am, delving into deeper being (inspired by Madeleine L’Engle’s words: “…the Maker of the Universe who has Named us into being is there, waiting for us, calling us into deeper being.”). I have felt more alive these past few days then ever before. Now that’s saying something. I had to bear (& bare) the burden of heaviness so that I could set it down and walk away from it. As I tell my clients, you have to hold it to let it go.

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July 2023: Discomfort

Posted on Jul 21, 2023

July 2023: Discomfort

How much discomfort am I willing to endure to get what I want? This is the question that popped into my head while I was picking wild raspberries at the edge of the woods near where I live. I was surprised when my brain connected it to the blog idea that has been percolating this month.

I have been working as a counselling therapist for over a decade. In that time, I have seen little, if any, improvement in accessibility to mental health services. Whether that be subsidies, income tax benefits, insurance reimbursements, or attitudes and stigmas. We all know systematic change occurs at a glacial pace. Plenty of lip service has been given toward making mental health services a priority and/or accessible to all. It’s an empty political promise. But my frustration isn’t only directed at governing systems. I am also fascinated by society’s attitude that mental health services are only for the insured, wealthy, and/or desperate.

We treat our vehicles, houses, and pets with better care than our own psyches. Mechanics have been known to charge an hourly rate higher than my counselling fee (which is on the low end, to be fair). And while folks complain about vehicle and housing maintenance costs, they do follow through with takin action and paying the bill. People save up, go into debt, or splurge on houses, vehicles, motorized toys, clothes, beauty treatments, etc. We don’t bat an eye on spending money to look good; but many balk at the idea of investing similar amounts of money into their own Selves. I wish we could normalize the idea of seeking assistance for, splurging on, or investing into our mental and emotional well being as easily as fixing a car or getting our hair and nails done. I know for many there really isn’t any “extra” money for the “luxury” of counselling which is sad on so many levels. For the remainder, the funds are technically available, but spent on “normal” or “socially acceptable” expenses like clothes and cars.

So how does this relate to berry picking? Focusing on our mental and emotional well being makes people uncomfortable, and spending money on it, even more so. We don’t, as a society, value improving how we think and feel or relate to others. We take daily functioning for granted. I wish it were normal for folks to see a therapist on a monthly or even quarterly basis. Just to check in with ourselves and see how we’re really doing. I wish it wasn’t considered an odd or unusual thing to do. I wish people were comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable. Short term pain for long term gain.

As I picked berries, I thought of all the ways that berry picking resembled the counselling process. For starters, one must be prepared for discomfort by anticipating it. Insect repellent if there isn’t a breeze to keep the bugs away. Dressing appropriately, as I don’t recommend berry picking barefoot in a bathing suit. 😊 Picking in the bush, not a groomed orchard, means long pants, socks, and sturdy footwear (like hiking boots for the ankle support). Footwear is key given the terrain where I live in the Boreal Shield. Rock outcroppings. Hidden holes. Tangled underbrush. At one point, I slid onto my bottom down a rock embankment in order to reach the tantalizing red fruit. The biggest deterrent for most berry pickers is the prickly thorns.

So, to answer that initial question, I am willing to endure the discomfort of insects, awkward picking positions, and prickly thorns to acquire fresh, juicy raspberries! They are my favourite fruit, next to Saskatoon berries—which also require most of the above (minus the thorns).

Like berry picking, accessing the benefits of counselling requires anticipating discomfort and being prepared for it: be it financially, mentally, emotionally, relationally. The berry picking process is fairly straight forward once you are prepared with a bucket and appropriate attire. See ripe fruit. Pluck it into the bucket. Usually a gentle tug will do. If it doesn’t loosen readily, it is either unripe or dried out. In the case of unripe, move on to the next berry. If hardened from age or the elements, it can be picked and discarded. For the more a berry bush is picked, the more it will produce the following year (weather permitting) plus sweeter and juicier! I was taught at a young age to pick “everything” for this reason. It didn’t matter if the rejects fell into the bucket or onto the ground because the next step is “cleaning” the berries in cold water. Not individually with a tiny brush, mind you. 😊 But a sorting process. Scoop a few berries into your palm. Pick out the bugs, leaves, twigs, and “bad” berries (Bird taste tested or bug infested. Dried out or under ripe).

And to all my fellow OCDers and over thinkers out there: for goodness’ sake, don’t try to actually pick ALL the berries. And if some escape to the ground (it’s usually the perfect ones), let them be! Some ground dweller will be delighted with the unexpected treat at their feet. And the birds will find the remainder. Yes, these are notes to self. 😉

Also, be sure to practice gratitude. Thank the bush or tree and/or mother nature for providing this delicious and nutritious fruit for you. Treat its branches with respect. Pull weeds that may choke it out. Make its life easier in whatever way you can. I even apologize when branches get trampled or bent. I somehow think that if we treated nature with more respect, maybe that would translate into treating human beings better.

So, to summarize, in counselling as in berry picking, we need to keep adapting and tweaking to be our best Selves. We need to be mindful of our inner workings and outer surroundings as well as be open to new opportunities. Just as berries can be many things (jam, pie, eaten fresh with ice cream…), so can human beings if we attend to our well being. Discard that which isn’t working for us, allow time and space for what needs to mature or come to fruition, adapt to our surroundings (bend a little or stand our ground), and become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Growth isn’t easy or pain free; but it is worth every discomfort for what we can become.

What discomforts are you willing to endure to get what you want out of your one precious life?

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