Monthly Archives: September 2012




As of today,

Bert has expanded

into cinema.


So put down that banana

and hustle your monkeybutt

over to

Mental Health Talk

for the premiere of our

very first





There you’ll find

Lesson 1:




Political Intrigue!


“The Monkey” has none of these.


It’s just a brief (3:27) introduction

to a secret part of you

that you really should

get to know better.



You can’t spare 3:27?

Boy, do you need

this slideshow.)


“The Monkey” is

the first lesson of six

to be published weekly

by Mental Health Talks.


Coming next week,

Lesson 2:

The Addiction.


Comments on Monkeytraps 101

are welcome

(nay, eagerly awaited)

both here

and at Mental Health Talk.


And while you’re over there,

be sure to browse around

Mental Health Talk.

It’s an awesome resource

(subtitled “Our stories.  Our wisdom. 

Making a difference”) 

created and edited

by my new friend Trish,

whose introduction to MHT

you can read here.


See you soon.




New client today.  His wife sent him.  She thinks he’s alcoholic.  He went to two therapists before me who agreed with her.  Plainly he’s looking for someone who doesn’t.

So he talks to me for forty minutes, explaining his family history and all the stresses in his life and why his use of alcohol is both justified and manageable.  Then he asks the question.

“Do you think I’m alcoholic?”

“I don’t know,” I answer.  “I don’t know you well enough yet.  But whether you are or not, I don’t think you’re ready for therapy.”

His eyes widen.  Not what he expected. 

“Why not?” he asks.

I tell him one of my favorite Zen stories.

A college professor visits a Zen master.  “I’ve come for your teaching,” he says.  He then proceeds to tell the master everything he knows — all the books he’s read, all the books he’s written, the lectures he’s delivered, the theories he’s developed over many years.  Finally he pauses for breath, and the master says, “Let’s have tea.”  He fills the professor’s cup, then keeps pouring so the tea runs over the brim and onto the table.  “Stop!” says the professor, “It’s already full!”  “So are you,” replies the master.  “And until you empty yourself you’re not ready for my teaching.” 

See, we spend much of our lives in pain.  And we spend a good deal of time explaining our pain to ourselves.

It’s inevitable that we do this. 

Why?  Because it gives us a sense of control over our emotional lives.

And, of course, there’s no shortage of explanations.  You’ll find them here and on a zillion other blogs and websites.  Then there’s books, and Oprah, and Dr. Phil, and pop culture, and cable news, and advertisers, and (god help us) politicians, and your bf, and Mom, and maybe your therapist.  All happy to offer their two cents.

And we can’t help but absorb much of it, and over time piece together a sort of explanatory patchwork that explains nothing but helps us feel like we know what the hell’s going on.

And we often cling to this patchwork, even after all evidence suggests that it’s inadequate and the pain it’s meant to manage persists. 

Hey, we’re human beings.  We’re the monkeys that control.  And we’d rather trust lies than feel helpless.

My new client left looking puzzled.  Don’t know if he’ll be back. 

I’m glad I met him, though, because he reminded me of the question we each need to ask and keep asking:

Would I rather be right, or healthy?  


* * *

If you do not

change direction,

you may end up

where you are heading.

~ From Lao Tzu Quotes  

a slideshow (2:04)

courtesy of




* * *

There is incredible pain,

and in some

profound way

all of our actions

henceforth are

an attempt to return

 [to a feeling of Oneness].

And we develop

a whole set

of techniques

that we say

make us

“feel good”…

~ From On attachment and addiction by Ram Dass (9:24).





The split-level relationship

There are two questions with which you must struggle if you want a healthy relationship:

How can I have you without losing me?

How can I have me without losing you?

You can’t really answer these questions, just struggle with them.

But it’s the struggling that matters.


Because they represent two essential needs each of us brings to any relationship:

Connection and freedom.

Acceptance by another person, and self-acceptance.

A real partner, and at the same time, a real self.

Most people I know are convinced you can’t have both at the same time.

Most came from families — alcoholic, abusive or otherwise dysfunctional — unable to teach them to balance connection with freedom.

What they learned instead was that having one meant losing the other.  That winning love and approval from parents, for example, meant sacrificing important parts of themselves, like the freedom to express feelings or take care of their own needs.

The family that raised us is where each of us learned our own personal answer to the two questions. And the answer we learned grew into a crucial (though mostly unconscious) part of our basic view of life and relationships, what I call our Plan A.  

Some of us decide, “Since I can’t have both, I’ll have me, and to hell with you.”  Shrinks call this the narcissistic answer.

Others decide, “Since I can’t have both, I’ll have you, and to hell with me.” This is the infamous codependent answer.

So the narcissistic partner says “Me first,” and the codependent replies, “Yes, dear.”

And the two personality types end up together with stunning regularity.  (Remember Archie and Edith Bunker?)

Watching such couples interact, one is struck by their predictability.  In every situation the narcissist finds some way to say “Me first,” and the codependent to reply “Yes, dear.”  It’s as if long ago they sat down and signed a contract.

Which in a way they did.

Their complementary answers to the two questions probably account, in large part, for why they felt attracted to each other.

In any case, the vast majority of couples I see for couples counseling follow this pattern — so many that I felt the need to give them their own name.

I call them split-level relationships.

Split-level relationships work for a while, but almost always break down.  Eventually one or both partners realize they’re not getting what they need.

Codependents usually notice first.  When that partner is female this can lead to the syndrome called the Walk-Away Wife.

But narcissists tend to be unhappy too. They often complain of loneliness, lack of connection to their codependent partner, or an absence of respect or affection.  They may feel impatient, frustrated, irritated, resentful. Sometimes they drink, drug, overeat, rage or cheat, and then feel bad about that.

All this happens because split-level relationship is inherently unhealthy.

Familiar, sure.  Comfortable, even, in the way the predictable may come to feel.

But not healthy.  The unbalanced answers on which a split-level relationship is based simply cannot fill the emotional needs of two adults.  So both partners end up feeling deprived, often without understanding why.

What does recovery for such a couple look like?

Put simply, a sort of role reversal.

Codependent partners must develop courage and practice standing up, asserting themselves.  Narcissistic partners must develop empathy and practice stepping down, giving instead of grabbing.

Easy?  No.  Not easy for either of them.

Just necessary to life on the same level.


* * *

One of Carl Jung’s longtime patients wrote to Jung describing the relationship between radical self-acceptance and self-knowledge:


By keeping quiet, repressing nothing, remaining attentive, and by accepting reality — taking things as they are, and not as I wanted them to be — by doing all this, unusual knowledge has come to me, and unusual powers as well, such as I could never have imagined before.


I always thought that when we accepted things, they overpowered us in some way or other.  This turns out not to be true at all, and it is only by accepting them that one can assume an attitude towards them.


So now I intend to play the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow forever alternating, and in this way, also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides.  Thus everything becomes more alive to me.

What a fool I was!  How I tried to force everything to go according to the way I thought it ought to.


~ From The wisdom of yoga: A seeker’s guide to extraordinary living by Stephen Cope.


* * *


One day you finally knew

what you had to do,

and began,

though the voices

around you

kept shouting

their bad advice —

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop…

~ Watch the rest of The Journey by Mary Oliver, a video (2:37) by Glenda Miles, with music by Gandalf.



(Bert speaking:)

I’m an addict.

Technically I guess you’d call me a polyaddict, since I’ve had so many addictions in my time.

They came in two flavors: substances and behaviors.

The substances included food and tobacco.  Sugar’s been my drug of choice since I was a kid.  In grade school I made white-bread-and-white-sugar sandwiches.  I drank maple and (when I could get it) chocolate syrup.  Halloween and Easter, the only times mom bought candy, left me in a hyperglycemic stupor.

Even now sugar can still trigger me.  Wave a York Peppermint Patty under my nose, I’ll follow you anywhere.

For a while I was addicted to pasta.  I’d mix it with vegetables and convince myself I was eating healthily.  The more stressed I felt, the more pasta I ate.  I was approaching Orson Welles proportions before I learned to beware of simple carbs.  But for most of my adult life there’s been too much of me.  

I did escape cigarettes.  But in grad school I smoked a pipe until cumulus clouds formed in my office, and my tongue morphed into raw hamburger, and other students made rude remarks when I went by.  

My addictive behaviors include

~ Watching television.  TV was the alternate reality where I hid out between ages twelve and eighteen, the years dad was drinking and my parents were divorcing and I was evolving a depressed view of life.

~ Reading books.  The alternate reality I still find preferable much of the time.  Books are great.  You can skim forward to see what happens next, reread parts you forgot or don’t understand, and skip over whole chapters if they’re confusing or uncomfortable.  Life should be more bookish.   

~ Writing.  In my thirties and forties I carried a series of cheap spiral notebooks with me everywhere, compulsively filling pages whenever I felt stressed, bewildered or scared.  I must have felt that way often, since  there are thirty-one spirals now gathering dust on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in my office.  I save them the way a veteran might save his dogtags.  But I never reread them.  That would be like dangling my toes in a cesspool.           

~ Working.  My current addiction.  Unfortunately I can’t write intelligently about it yet, since I’m still in denial.

These are just some of the trails I blazed to what Steve likes to call the Garden of Numb.

Steve, explain.

Addicts are people who can’t handle feelings.

Usually it’s because they never learned to as kids.  Usually because their parents never taught them.  Usually because their parents never taught them.

This sort of ignorance is uncomfortable at best, painful at worst.  So early on the emotionally undereducated kid seeks ways to make feelings go away.  To escape a jungle of unwanted, disagreeable feelings by entering the Garden of Numb.

Drugs and alcohol are popular paths to the garden, but anything that alters your mood temporarily can be turned into an addiction.

I believe everyone’s addicted to something.

And I believe, in the end, all addictions are the same.  Because they all share the same goal: to give the addict some control over emotional life.

That’s why when someone asks me, “What does control have to do with addiction?” I reply, “Everything.”

Because every addiction is an addiction to control.

But I love the Garden of Numb.  Such a great place to visit.

Yes.  The world can be painful and scary, and living a human life is no picnic.  We all need occasional vacations.

The problem comes when you find you can’t live outside the garden.

Right.  Which is what happened to me with each of my addictions.

My eating and smoking and tv-watching and reading and scribbling took on lives of their own. 

Each stopped being something I was doing and became something that was doing me.

In other words, I lost control of my need for control.

At which point I had to revisit my relationship with feelings.

Make friends with them, you mean.

Well, no.  Not sure I’ve done that yet.  But I did have to stop being scared of them.

That meant learning (and then relearning) the function of feelings, which is to help us perceive and interpret experience — provide feedback about what’s happening inside. 

And then to learn (and relearn) healthier ways of processing or digesting that feedback — mainly by identifying and expressing what I felt to other people — instead of trying to make the feelings go away.

I’m still working on all this.

So are you, I hope.

Because it’s something we each have to learn.  Because we’re all control addicts.  If you’re human and you’re breathing there’s no avoiding it.

Recovery from any addiction requires courage and work.  It means facing scary feelings, overcoming the habit of self-constipation, and learning alternatives to control.   

But the work’s worth it.

Because the alternative is worse.

Since living in Numb really isn’t living at all.


* * *


The problem is, like addiction, codependency is characterized by denial.


This means you may not even be aware that you’re codependent and are unwittingly teaching it to your children, despite your best intentions.


The most preventative steps you can take are to improve your self-esteem and communication.


Some of the main symptoms of codependency are:

  • Being overly focused on someone or something

  • Low self-esteem

  • Nonassertive communication

  • Denying or devaluing needs, feelings, and wants

  • Poor boundaries

  • A need for control

~ From Codependent children — What can parents do? by Darlene Lancer at




* * *


20 years ago:


“What are you feeling?”


“I feel upset”


“Upset? What does upset mean?”


“Upset! It means that I feel upset!”


“Upset isn’t a feeling. Are you sad? Or scared? Or angry? Or feeling loss? Or something else?”


“I’m not sure.”


Yes, I was so afraid of my emotions that I couldn’t even begin to identify my “negative” emotions.


That would have meant getting close enough to them to start to really feel them, which felt utterly overwhelming.


And I’m not only talking about feelings related to the abuse, I’m talking about the feelings related to every day life.


Thus began my education about emotions.

~ From I have to feel what? by catsmeow at Living While Healing.




* * *


Now, remind me again, good Rabbi, why does crap befall decent folk?

The compassionate author [Harold Kushner], who grieved the loss of his son Aaron, uses the Book of Job to present his case on how suffering happens.

Most readers of Job want to believe three things: that God is all-powerful, that God is just and fair, and that Job is a good person.

But those things can’t all be true. Not for the book to make sense.

~ From “When crap befalls decent people” by Therese Borchard at Beyond Blue.

What’s in you



* * *


Be who

you are

and say

what you feel,


because those

who mind

don’t matter,


and those

who matter

don’t mind. 


~ Dr. Seuss

~ From Show your true colors (3:48)

How to constipate yourself

(Bert speaking:)

Therapists, Steve tells me, see depression as the “common cold” of mental illness.

I’ve had my cold for six decades.

I caught it in grade school.  Nobody called it depression then.  This was the fifties.  Not sure if back then anyone even knew that kids got depressed.

All I knew was I always felt sad, shy, nervous, worried.  Different.  Inadequate.  Flawed. 

I preferred being alone.  Preferred books to people.  Preferred tv to real life.

“Moody,” mom called me.  “Difficult” was dad’s diagnosis.

I also felt guilty about feeling crappy.  It must be my fault, I thought.  Teachers were always writing on my report cards could do better if he’d try.  So I decided feeling crappy meant I was somehow doing Life wrong, that I’d feel better if I just tried harder.  I just didn’t know how.

Steve wants to add something.

Self-blame is common among depressed people, who often see their mood disorder not as an illness but as some sort of weakness or failure.

It’s the worst part of depression.  Hard enough feeling bad all the time.  Feeling guilty for feeling bad adds insult to injury.

I felt bad through high school, college, and well into adulthood.  Through courtship, marriage and fatherhood.  Through college, graduate school and starting a professional life. 

Along the way I got some therapy, and some medication, and read lots of books.  I mean lots of books.  The idea of happiness, always mysterious to me, became a preoccupation, then a challenge, then a sort of quest. 

I read everything I could lay my hands on that might cast some light on what had become my life’s central question: How do you feel good about life

But it was only after Steve began to work as a therapist that I found an answer.

It was his work with depressed clients that taught me I didn’t get depressed because dad drank, mom was unhappy, or they divorced when I was eight. It wasn’t because I never had as much money as I wanted, or the body I wanted, or wrote the book I always wanted to write.  Or because of anything that had happened to me.

I was depressed because of how I reacted to what happened.

Or, rather, didn’t react.

Steve, explain.

The best book I know on the subject is Alexander Lowen’s Depression and the Body.  Lowen explains that depression is a physical symptom  — an exhaustion that comes from fighting oneself by suppressing feelings that need and want to come out.

Depression, in short, is caused by emotional constipation.

Ever been physically constipated?  Notice how, the longer it lasted, the more uncomfortable you felt?  How the internal pressure and tension came to occupy all your energy, all your attention?

Suppressed feelings affect us in the same way.

It’s no accident that people in recovery use excretory metaphors (“my shit’s coming up,” “get my shit together,” “acts like his shit doesn’t stink”) to describe emotional processes.  Feelings are a kind of waste material, the emotional byproducts of experience, just as feces are the physical byproducts of what we eat.  And just as physical waste must be expelled from the body, feelings must be expressed — not hidden or stored up.

When they aren’t, we get sick, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Lowen writes,

The self is experienced through self-expression, and the self fades when the avenues of self-expression are closed.

The depressed person is imprisoned by unconscious barriers of  “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” which isolate him, limit him, and eventually crush his spirit.

In my family self-expression was no option.  Dad’s drinking and mom’s depression made that impossible.  Neither of them could handle their own feelings; how could I expect them to cope with mine?

So like all kids, I adapted to my parents.  I learned to avoid disappointment,  conflict and rejection — to control their reactions to me — by burying what I felt. 

I moved out of my body and took up residence in my head.  I developed a personality organized around this way of coping.

Now I’m a sixty-two-year-old monkey, and still organized that way.

Yes, despite everything I learned from Steve and his clients, my Plan A isn’t easy to leave behind.  Stuffing feelings is still my first impulse, especially under stress.  I still find it scary to give up overcontrolling myself and others, to surrender to feelings, to be myself without fear.  I probably always will.

But I rarely feel crappy in the old way anymore.  Because now I know I have a choice. 

I can express myself or I can depress myself.

Or, put another way:

I can fight myself and keep losing.  Or I can make room for feelings in my life and relationships.

And, at least some of the time, escape the common cold.


* * *

Feeling down from time to time is a normal part of life.


But when emptiness and despair take hold and won’t go away, it may be depression.


The lows of depression make it tough to function and enjoy life like you once did.  Just getting through the day can be overwhelming.


No matter hopeless you feel, you can get better. But first, you need to understand depression.

~ From Understanding depression: Signs, symptoms, causes and help at

* * *

A question for Monkeytraps readers:

Recently one reader wrote to complain that when he tried to leave a comment here, WordPress required him to register, which he found annoying.  As would I.

Has anyone else had that experience here?

If so, please let me know by emailing me at




Almost any person



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