1984 – Probably 15-20% of the reason why I became a Therapist

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA With Halloween coming up I felt it was time to engage in some disturbing good ol’ self disclosure. The running joke about therapists is that we get into this thing to fix ourselves and in my case this is at least 15% true.

Lets travel back to 1984.  I’m about 10 years old and you’re joining me and my family on a leisurely drive through a small farm village in Portugal.  I’m wearing my USA satin Olympic sweat suit in the summer because I was awesome…..sweating like all hell but awesome. My family and I are about three weeks into this visit and for about two of those weeks we’ve had to listen to this song at least twice a day.

Why?  Because my mom’s tape got stuck in the cassette player.

It wasn’t the only song on the tape, it was a mix of this type of gibberish – one of those Time-Life compilations.  I knew every lyric to every horrible love song ever created in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

This wasn’t the only thing that defined that visit (unless you want to call following my father to every bank in Portugal for half the day trying to perfectly time exchange rates a “vacation”), there were other special moments like,

(1) My Uncle (in his mid-60’s at the time) taking off on his motorcycle just as my Aunt was about to get on it. He did not realize she wasn’t on the motorcycle until he reached our house…..30 minutes later.  We weren’t sure at the time whether she ever got on or fell off.  Being that phones in Portugal, at the time, were still sort of a luxury we all had to drive back keeping our eyes open for an older Portuguese woman abandoned somewhere on a highway. I’m sure we were listening to Air Supply during our rescue mission. When we got there hours later (remember we had to drive slow) she was sitting on the curb in front of her house. She did not have keys to the house and none of the neighbors were home.

(2) Getting kicked into my grandparents outhouse by their cow, Estrela. I could hear my grandmother’s voice as I’m writing this – “She’s getting mad John….you should stop petting her”.  I was (again) wearing my official US Olympic satin sweat suit at the time and it was the last time I was ever allowed to wear it.  Being that it was covered in cow (and possibly human) manure my mother counted it as a total loss.

(3) Remember the uncle that almost killed my aunt?  Yes, well they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now, I have nothing against those folks but at that time in my life I was an annoying little jerk.  We would have dinner with them almost every night during our visit and almost every night I would beg my mother to make us blood rice (a common dish in my family).   I hated blood rice, it tasted gross and the whole idea of it made me sick…but I knew bringing it up would trigger a huge, yet comical argument between my family and my aunt and uncle.  They would yell about how we weren’t following God’s word and we would call them weird.  Good times.

(4) There’s this town in Portugal that is famous for its roasted pigs (Mealhada) and my mom had to get there at least once every time we went over.  This town is serious about pigs.  How serious?

 Sérgio Horta-Credit

That serious.

We knew we were in for a miserable experience on Leitao day because my father would always get lost.  It literally took us hours to get there and back and the more we drove the more my father would openly ruminate about gas prices in Europe.  Eventually, as a means of distracting himself (I think), he would begin do a review of things that we did over the course of the vacation that bothered him. His voice gently dancing above the music playing out of our car’s tape player is probably one of my fondest memories.

(5) Then there’s my all time favorite – my Dad and the village veterinarian/doctor/dentist/mechanic/spiritual advisor neutering my grandparents pig.  I’m really not going to get into any detail here. I will say that I was actually looking forward to getting back into the car and turning up that horrific music as loud as possible as we sped back home.

I guess when you saw “1984” you were thinking of Orwell.

Sorry about that.

I can assure you the experiences were equally disturbing.

Family Systems, Cognitive Distortions and Camping

Me and the family are going camping this weekend.  It was my idea.  I was looking forward to it until last night when I got out of my car, walked up to my front door and noticed this…

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In case you can’t figure it out, that’s a picture of approximately 5 million different types of insect life? species? gathering around my outside light.

I’m not afraid of all bugs, I’m just really grossed out by two types of bugs. Roaches and fleas.

BUT….in my mind every bug is assumed to be either a roach or a flea until I can determine, with certainty, that they are neither.

Growing up in a Portuguese household (or at least my Portuguese household) having a cockroach was one sign that your family failed and you were probably going to die because of all the diseases they carried.

A Portuguese mother (or at least my Portuguese mother) initially assumes that any bug she sees is a roach.

The bug would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it was not a roach before my mother would even reconsider her decision to move out and start a new life with a new identity.

That’s where my fascination with Canada begins.  As I got older I imagined my mother moving there  because it was my belief that they had very few bugs due to the climate.

Give me a break, the blog isn’t called “National Geographic”.

Side note- This is also where, I think, moving to Canada became my primary way of dealing with something that bothers me.

There is no greater insult in my family than “Her house probably has cockroaches.”  For many years I believed that everyone’s house smelled like Clorox, Lysol and fish.

Now with my mom, the whole thing would sort of transform when we were in Portugal.  Over there, fleas (pulgas) were the equivalent of cockroaches.  I swear I heard the word pulgas at least 30 times a day when we stayed in my Grandparent’s farm  house. They lived simply and fleas were the last thing on their minds. My mother became obsessed.

So, their house had fleas. No one (except for my mother) cared about it. There was no one she could talk to about it because the house only had three rooms. It’s the same house they raised 8 kids in.  Fleas were small potatoes compared to what probably went on in there.  Everyone else in that town probably had the same problem. There were animals everywhere on every farm spreading the joy of fleas to all.  So she began to take on some very strange behaviors in trying to identify and extinguish the fleas without making it obvious.

See, it is very rude to tell the person whose house you are staying in that they have fleas or even let on that you carry the suspicion.  It is perfectly acceptable to talk about it with 35,000 of your closest friends.

After making sure that none of the bugs congregating around my front light were roaches or fleas (thanks again, mom) I then began to think about the scene in a hotel we were staying at in Georgia when we found a roach in the room.  My anger only escalated when the manager refused to call it a cockroach.  He called it a Palmetto Bug.  I googled “roach” on my phone and showed him a picture of a bug that had a striking resemblance to the one in my room.

His response was “This is Georgia, get used to it”.

My response was “I’m from NJ.  I’m paying you. I don’t need to get used to it.”

Needless to say, after about 2 hours they agreed to fumigate the perimeter around our room daily while we were there.  I can deal with growing an extra toe as a result of being exposed to chemicals.

Where was I?  Oh Camping…. yes. That whole Georgia thing was important in an unnecessary sort of way.

I’ve only gone camping once.  I was maybe 11 years old and went with the Boy Scouts.  I had a horse shoe thrown at me because I really didn’t feel that merit badges were all that important. Honestly, I thought camping meant I got to get away from my parents for a week to do whatever I wanted. The Boy Scouts, apparently, did not feel this way about camping.  So that’s when the whole horse shoe thing happened  (I can be quite stubborn and unreasonable). It ended well enough, I got to eat some cheese and crackers around a fire but vowed never to go camping again.

“I shall never go camping again.”

I’m pretty sure that’s what it sounded like in my head.

In making this most recent decision to go camping I forgot about bugs and my prior experience with camping until I observed what you see in that picture. In case you forgot what it looked like…

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If you think that’s bad, I assure you that it was much more disturbing in real life.  It was like that scene in Pee-Wee’s Great adventure when he was saving the snakes from the fire in the pet shop. Except I wasn’t holding snakes. I was looking at bugs.

In that moment I gained an extraordinary amount of clarity as to the impact that family history and other past experiences can have in influencing present day reactions.

The idea of camping went from becoming pleasant to gross and boring. I forgot about the rewards or benefits that drove my initial decision making and added significant weight to the costs associated with the activity I was so enthusiastic about only minutes before.  These costs were not based on any credible evidence- they were apocalyptic fantasies that came out of some weird Sci-Fi novel involving Portuguese people and the Boy Scouts; and ended with me and my family living on a glacier in Canada feeding on penguins and snow for survival.

Again…not National Geographic.

So I stopped myself and thought….

“Hey.  I’m a therapist.  I have Degrees that tell me I should be able to deal with this.”

I decided to apply a simple thought record.

First I became mindful of the thinking going on in my head.  I found that my thinking consisted mainly of associations between the bugs and camping. Due to that negative association, I think, my mind went to supporting that association further by focusing on past negative memories of camping.  I was allowing one bad experience and my mother’s definition of what it means to see a bug, push the narrative around the camping trip from something positive to something more negative.

Next I became attentive to the emotions I was experiencing.  They weren’t horrible, just a low level sense of discomfort. Annoyance. Maybe a 20 out of a 100 on a scale.

My automatic reaction, something to the effect of “I really don’t want to go”, was probably the product of these two phenomena. I rated the strength of the belief at around 35 out of 100.

I thought about what a rational response to “I really don’t want to go” might look like and I came up with several:

-I get to fish with my daughters (using a loose definition of the term “fishing”)  

-We’ll be out of our usual chaotic environment for two-three days

-Bridget will able to really use the telescope I bought her as stars and planets would be more visible

-I’ll be able to spend time with my wife without the distraction of the late night push to “get stuff done”

-We won’t have to run to one of the 80 weekly activities that are scheduled for the kids.

These statements led me back to my pre-bug belief that “Camping will be a great experience.” I rated that belief an 80 out of 100.

I then looked at my post-bug belief of “I really don’t want to go” and re-rated it.  I came up with a 5 out of 100.

I know I took a really long time in explaining something relatively simple.  I do that all the time.  It annoys me as well.

I guess I should say I have nothing against Mom or the Boys Scouts of America.