THE BLOG

22
Sep

Micro-trauma.” My ears perked up when I heard the name for what exercise scientists call the process of breaking down our muscles when we push them past their capacity. It sent my mind in a hundred different directions, but continued to synthesize what was already becoming very clear in my work as an integrative body-psychotherapist. The more I listen to and learned about my body the more I could understand the processes and movements of the human mind. What our minds hold metaphorically our bodies hold in actuality and to get close to one is to begin to understand the other. Everything is interconnected.

The class I was sitting in was a part of my education as a personal trainer. We were talking about the principles of weight training and muscle growth. I was learning that in order for something in the body to grow a person must follow a particular path or set of rules. This wasn’t surprising information for me after spending most of my life in competitive athletics where weight training was essential to performance. It was, however, surprising that it included words that I had strictly associated with the world of psychology. I began to see that there was a lot of wisdom waiting to be transmitted from the body to the mind if I was willing to tune in to it. I thought I’d share one such example below…

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_______Two Types of Growth ______________________________________________________________________________

There are two types of growth that we observe in the body. One of is a growth of “coordination and integration” and the other is a growth of “breaking down and rebuilding”. The more our bodies work in coordinated effort the more we are able to utilize our power. This type of growth is more about the mind than the body. What I mean by this is a person doesn’t even have to physically move the body to begin growing strength through coordination. In fact, a handful of studies have actually shown that a person can begin to improve strength solely through mental rehearsal. In other words, we can become stronger by just imagining a movement in the body and playing that movement out repetitively in our mind. These studies have shown up to a 22% increase in strength from simple mental rehearsal! This is incredibly surprising to most people who associate non-movement as useless and “lazy”. The general science behind this growth is that our ability to utilize our body is contingent on our current structure AND the way in which our structure communicates with itself. Imagine the difference between a person who was employing his entire arsenal of muscle in a concerted and coordinated movement and a person who only employed portions of his makeup while large portions were unaware of the plan or told not to participate. If you were to pit those two armies against each other, the coordinated army would win every time because the mission was clear. Everything would be moving towards accomplishing the goal. We move when our brain communicates this message to our muscles. Our muscles are grouped in little battalions that receive the signals and move accordingly. What often happens is we isolate portions of our muscle and leave others out. The more we do a movement, or even imagine it, the more the other connected battalions of muscles begin to coordinate to find the most efficient and effective way to move. In the world of strength building this type of growth is referred to as a “neural gain.”

Moshe Feldenkrais began to learn about this in the experiments that he conducted on his body that eventually turned into the Feldenkrais method of structural integration. Part of the brilliance of Feldenkrais is its ability to focus attention on the muscles while slowly and gently exploring different ways of doing the same movement. Feldenkrais was always wondering how he could make a movement easier in the world; searching out the ways he could employ unused parts of himself to create ease of motion. These mini-experiments begin to awaken different parts of us that have been dormant and alert our mind to new possibilities in our skin. These adjustments literally reprogram the brain through the exploration. As time goes on the dedicated practitioner begins to move towards greater balance and synchronicity in their bodies which produce stunning results in strength and power. This curious exploration creates integration, which as we will see in both body and mind, creates a powerful force.

The first way of change is very gentle and non-forceful. It begins with an acceptance of what is and moves towards integrating all that is into a whole force. It takes what we have and finds the best way to utilize it in the world through the use of attention, listening, understanding, and creativity. The other way of change involves “breaking down and rebuilding” our structure. The general idea of this way of change is a movement from what is to what could be. If the first growth is one of acceptance and integration, the second way is one of desire and longing. It sees what is and deems it “not enough” to satisfy what it wants to be and become in the world. Words that come to mind around this process is tearing and rebuilding, death and resurrection. Strength in this context is acquired through a process called “micro-trauma”. In order for us to change what is into what could be we must push past what our bodies can handle. This, in the world of strength training, is called the principle of overload. When we push our bodies to the end of their capacity to support the demand, we traumatize it. When the body is traumatized it breaks, or tears open. Our body then sends little repair teams (nutrients that bandage our tears) and they build up what was torn a little better each time. This is how a muscle grows larger. It tears and is rebuilt a little bigger, then the slightly larger version, when it is overwhelmed, tears and grows a little bigger. Each successive time we amass new muscle and create new capacity to hold more weight. This type of muscle growth is called a “hypertrophic gain.”

What is important to understand here is that a degree of trauma is actually inherent in the process of this type of growth. We cannot grow more of something unless we allow something to be broken apart. The key to this process is in the pacing, thus the word “micro-trauma”. If we shock the body with “macro-trauma” we are going to severely injure it. When weightlifters don’t slowly build up towards a limit they can tear muscles, shatter bones, or destroy ligaments. This type of “trauma” debilitates the body, as it does the mind. To rehabilitate from such trauma is long and exhaustive work.

The art of building muscle comes through paying attention to how much one is pushing and overwhelming the body. We naturally heal when there is appropriate attention given to warming up, cooling down, resting, and caring for the body after it is small t traumatized. If a person does not prep and care for the body after it has been overwhelmed, injuries will begin to pop up chronically.

Let’s take these concepts and apply them to the practice of psychology and therapy. The strongest individual is one that can employ both principles of strength. A coordinated, integrated self is more flexible and balanced and can withstand the process of breaking and rebuilding. In other words, an integrated, “secure” self is more resilient when confronted with demands from outside it. This is unsurprisingly the exact conclusion of attachment and human growth researchers over the past decade. When a self, or muscle group, is fragmented and disintegrated pushing it past its’ limitations will only serve to widen and intensify the issues already present in the body. You can see this visually at the gym. Notice individuals who have focused their concentration on a specific part while leaving the rest of them neglected. You see arms that appear to belong to a different body because the individual has focused all his energy on increasing something at the expense of other parts.

If we don’t create a solid foundation of acceptance and “neural” integration, attempting to push a person towards any “hypertrophic gains” will only further split their mind and body. In order for them to be their most powerful self they must first come to love what is already present. Each person must begin to see and value the ways in which their body and mind has adapted to the stresses of its past environment. These adaptations have limitations, but even in the harshest of examples, every behavior, emotion, and mental process has an adaptive function. Even the ones that we come to therapy to get rid of.

The initial movement of therapy then is always around acceptance and integration. We must learn to listen to our behaviors, emotions, sensations, and beliefs with a renewed curiosity. Instead of trying to destroy the presence of a symptom (the voice of our body), our work is to befriend it and learn what it is trying to communicate to us. If we aren’t trying to get rid of something we can start learning how to play with it. Like the Feldenkrais Method, our task is to pay closer attention and learn the most efficient methods of being us. There are all kinds of acceptance therapies that focus on this coordination.

The process of moving into desire, however, opens us up to a different kind of therapeutic reality. We cannot desire more for ourselves without experiencing the pains of childbirth. We always ache as we become. We push the boundaries of what is so that we can open up new possibilities in mind, body, and relationship. To do this a person must decide to step out of the safety and security of what they know and walk towards what they don’t. To breakdown, rebuild, and expand. In theological language, we enter the process of death for the hope of what could be more glorious (resurrection). To be transformed. Not because we hate ourselves and our foundation, but because, in the words of my priest, we want “to become more of who we already were.”

26
May

I have a folder in my computer that is littered with unfinished creations.  Songs, blogs, book chapters, PowerPoint presentations, marketing plans, and lifeplans.  It is not that I don’t have enough to say or that I run out of ideas, it’s that the combination of my ideas and expectations grow so large that my excitement at expressing my voice becomes a burden.  Something about that burden eventually destroys my impulse to create and I walk away from myself frustrated and disappointed that I failed at accomplishing my task.

Over the years this frustration has grown increasingly concerning especially as I’ve noticed places where the use of my voice could bring something good and healing in the world.  It has also caused me to panic when I set aside time to “create” and I am left with yet another unfinished work.  These themes have been intensely highlighted recently as I made decisions to more deeply pursue the my unique voice as a therapist.  I found myself thinking “if I don’t start writing and publishing things I’ll lose my opportunity!”  In response to this pressure I tried forcing myself to finish what I had started but only found that I lost my momentum and focus…this only increased the pressure and accusations.  It’s a vicious cycle full of shame, regret, and doubt that breeds only more of the same.

I’ve had the great privilege of sharing meals with and getting to know a guy by the name of Garth Lien who practices Feldenkrais, a method of body awareness, acceptance, and healing.  Our conversations are always really impactful and creative.  These encounters together inevitably ignite our imaginations and passion for life, our work, and the world.  More profoundly though, they serve us both as reminders of who we really are.

As we sat together recently he asked me how my transition was going and I named some of the difficulties I had been experiencing in trying to do what I was hoping to do in life.  I told him about my unfinished creations and my struggle to actually push through those blockages and finish what I started.  As I rambled on and on about my deficiencies and the ways I’d come to understand them he asked if he could interrupt.  I gave him permission (even though I had more evidence to present about myself).

Maybe those blogs are all done, maybe they are good enough.”  He said.  “Maybe you should stop pushing and just put them out there.  They are good enough.

This sentiment was one of the things that drew me to the Feldenkrais method and Garth in particular.  It was a reminder of a truth that I had begun to encounter several years prior in the writings of Henri Nouwen.  I could feel that it was genuine and that he wasn’t just giving me some line to encourage me.  There was something of rest in his words, yet, another part of me had built up quite a case against myself.

In the briefest of spaces after this invitation my mind cascaded through a landslide of thoughts.

Nobody is going to listen to me if it isn’t amazing…I might only have one shot to get their attention!…I don’t want to just be another voice lost in a sea of voices…They might not find me worth listening to if I don’t say something profound!… I’m scared that my voice won’t be good enough if I don’t get this right!!!”

I could feel the panic growing even as I just wondered about this possibility.  This was very familiar territory that I realized was impacting me in the same way I could see it impacting the voices of so many of my clients.  I began to think about the amount of pressure and expectation I felt as I created and how this pressure was functioning as a theif.  Shame and judgement kill our voices.  Our bodies and minds are made to fight, flee, or shutdown in the presence of these qualities, not thrive.  The more we feel like there is some expectation that we need to fill to be worthy or accepted the more our whole being rebels against the idea.

I could suddenly see how my “writers block” was actually communicating to me about the overwhelming expectations and perfectionism that I was placing on myself.  The energy and excitement that precipitated each creative act was being destroyed by the amount of judgement that I felt to create something “worthy”.  This environment was so intense that my body wouldn’t allow me to finish without addressing the fears of my heart.  Deep down my heart has always wondered if my real unedited voice would be good enough or if inevitably I had to take the offerings of my heart and make them more acceptable.

Isn’t the heart of perfectionism just a bargaining with these questions?  Our striving to be perfect just a commentary on what we have thought about the worthiness and value of our real true self?  Isn’t the demand for perfectionism in our lives just a mirror that reflects the environment that our true self has lived through?

The freedom once inherent in our vulnerable/creative/unashamed voices has often felt the pain of judgement and criticism and learned to protect itself.  This memory of the past reminds us so often in the present that we need to find some way to somehow appease the figures that our hearts long to be blessed by.  We experientially and tragically come to know that our best is not good enough in these relationships…and we begin to salve this pain with a new possibilty.  “If I’m perfect…will you finally accept me?”

The illusion of perfection offers a false hope in the midst of the pain and confusion of anothers judgement.  It fools us into thinking that acceptance is a response that we can, or could have, controlled if we were just more of something we were not.  It also offers absolution to those who don’t deserve it at the expense of our heart and energy.

As I write this I inevitably find myself afraid of the judgement that might arise in reaction to my voice.  However, I am slowly learning to soothe that fear with my own growing self-acceptance and compassion.  Not surprisingly, I feel like for the first time in nearly a year I am all done with this creation :)

You are good enough, you are good enough.

03
May

 

To begin exploring this idea of exercise and movement in eating disorder treatment, I need to give you some back story.  Several years ago I had an idea. I was working at a shelter in downtown Seattle at the time with a group of people struggling with addiction and homelessness – and we were watching a lot of movies. After several months on the job I found myself beginning to sink into a cycle of depression and numbness that marked so many of our clients’ lives. I wanted to find something to inspire and enliven the community; I thought there had to be more for them, and for myself. So I decided to change things up one day and I pulled out paper, pens, pastels, watercolors, and brushes and announced to the community that we were going to have an art day instead of watching Die Hard with A Vengeance again for the fifth time in two months. I was hopeful that something of life might emerge if we pushed into it.

 

The idea seemed perfect in theory but I quickly found it was nearly impossible to get everyone out of their routines, even if that routine consisted of merely staring at a wall for three hours before dinner. I got all kinds of different responses to my invitation but, ultimately in a room full of artistic possibilities, very few clients felt free to make art. Most did not believe that they were “creative” or that anyone would want to see their art. Something about my invitation seemed to brush against an inner pain, a deep sense of self-criticism and self-hatred inside of them.

 

handsIn the midst of this reality, however, there were a few men and women who had the audacity to join me. I had big plans for this small contingent in the beginning. Although I was not conscious of it at the time, I felt an inner responsibility to make this gathering into something more than just making art. I wanted them to get better and progress, both as artists and as people. My hope was that they would change and heal and in my mind that had everything to do with what they did. I tried to force things towards that end and grew more and more frustrated at the members of the community who did not participate. I began noticing that the more I forced them towards my hope, the more I ended up making art alone.  So instead of trying to manipulate everything, I eventually started paying attention to what the clients chose to create. There were stick figures, mountains, rivers, houses, happy faces, curse words, poems, flowers, boats. There were colorful, dark, mysterious, and terrifying masterpieces. They were all different and unique. Each beautiful in their own way. Most importantly though, as I learned to put down my own distractions and look closely, I found inside these art pieces the precious breadcrumbs of each person’s story. The images of their past experiences and the colors of their longings and fears. Each canvas willingly offered what so few were used to finding in their relationships; a safe space for their true voice.

 

Suddenly, each piece of art was not “good or bad”, it was telling. The more I focused on what was instead of what I thought should be, the more I found myself captivated by each unique artist and their way of communicating their lives truth. Placing a judgement on a piece only served to separate me further from the faces and truths being declared. In the end, it was this journey into this deeper truth that became the point. Instead of blocking these stories with a judgement we learned that healing could only come when we were allowed to finally speak the unspeakable. To honor our voice and story in a way that might finally make sense of all the confusing scenes and characters.

 

Now you might be asking yourself, “What does art therapy have to do with exercise and sport?” Great question. My job now as an Experiential Therapist for clients struggling with eating disorders at Opal is to help them begin to explore and understand their relationship to sports and exercise, and the lessons from art therapy years ago are actually still relevant to my work today. At Opal, we don’t just talk about the relationship to exercise and sport, we actually make room for it to speak. I often frame this exploratory process with clients through the analogy of painting, which so deeply impacted me years before. Sport and exercise is merely a canvas that has the ability to open a space for us to communicate. Therefore, my work with clients is not primarily to arrive at some new place, but to listen together to the impulses, compulsions, emotions, and behaviors that emerge as we move, play, and exercise together. The goal is not to judge the movement, but to make room for the experiences that clients long to convey through their movement. With this developing posture, our hope is to provide the very thing that was so often lacking in clients’ formative years – a safe space to process what feels confusing, incongruent, and scary.

 

What I always find is that nobody does what they do for no reason. What each client “paints” on the canvas of sport and exercise actually makes sense of the experiences of their life. Often times, the very places we try to cover up in shame are the places that shine a light on the path towards freedom in recovery from an eating disorder.

 

So, it is from this posture of listening and acceptance that we are able to dispel the grip of shame and begin experimentingIMAG0298 with new ways of being…and doing. If we aren’t being distracted with what should be we can begin to make peace with what has been and move towards a new world of possibilities. The heart of this process is ultimately rooted in each client beginning to love and honor their body and its experience more expansively. The more they are able to accept that they are worthy of care and attunement, the more the possibilities for movement, exercise, and sport begin to expand and transformational recovery becomes more possible. Their desire in movement once again becomes merely a reflection of the changing world inside of them. More flexible, more free, more playful, more alive.

 

It is in this spacious place that we can allow the weight of judgement and shame to fall away so we can begin to enjoy the rich feast of possibilities open before us. Maybe here we can feel free to enter into movement and tell a new story.

 

03
Feb

I must admit that even though I’ve only spent a fraction of my life living in Seattle, I’ve become pretty emotionally invested in the Emerald city’s crown jewel, the Seahawks.  

And last night game…was rough. 

It’s not like I’m a stranger to heartbreak, I’ve participated in or watched as my team has lost championships in the last second several times.  I’ve felt the agony of defeat in many different contexts…but this game was different.  It affected me in some ways that I’m still processing.  Few times have the collective hopes of a place been more unified and apparent than in the moments building up before the end of Super Bowl XVIX.  All the tension of a strange and complex season was held in the balance waiting to be released.  The fireworks and confetti, champagne and celebration, all awaiting one final yard before we could all break out into a joyous exhale.  

2nd and goal at the 1 yard line.   20 seconds, one timeout………………………………Interception!?

Wait…

No.  Was there not a flag….please?

NO!!!

What played out on the field after Russell Wilson’s interception seemed to symbolize exactly what every Seahawk player, coach, and fan was struggling to deal with; how do we hold all this confusion and disappointment?!  How do we deal with all the tension that just moments before was almost certainly going to be allowed to release!?  It was like we were all waiting for some great revelation that would finally affirm our identity.  Like somehow the victory would secure something in us that had come into question over the past year since we were last able to call ourselves “champions”.  Suddenly, all we had hoped in and for was over and we were left with nothing but, well, ourselves. 

What played out for each of us in this aftermath is quite different, but all of us who allowed ourselves to invest in the foolishness of hope were left to deal with the pain of this disappointment.  I don’t mean to be crude, but the experience in almost every way mirrored an emotional “blue balls”.  The building excitement and fantasy, arousal, dopamine, the immense tension and expectation…and then!!!…nothing.  Nothing is not what any of us were hoping for.  This was not the revelation that any of us knew how to comprehend. 

This morning I walked my normal route to work and found myself so very aware of the reality that this game had invited me to.  I didn’t know what to do with the game, but much more deeply, the game had revealed that I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself.  I was not released into the identity of a “champion”, and because of this, was once again invited to deal with regular ole me.  In that place I have to begin answering a question for myself that no championship could ever answer. 

And the power of that question, if I let it sit long enough, invites me to take another step into this mo(u)rning and the day that is in front of me. 

16
Feb

IMAG0492For the last two nights my wife and I decided to bundle up and watch the primetime NBC broadcast of the Sochi Olympics.  This year the Olympics are featuring a couple of new events including a sport called snowboarding slope-style which is essentially a snowboarding competition that involves both jump elements and rail elements.  Each athlete tries different combinations of tricks on these elements in order to attain the highest score from a panel of judges.

The sport is quite entertaining to watch, but it wasn’t the actual competition that captivated my attention and left me in awe.  I’ve played and watched sports for long enough to have seen most things under the sun, but what shocked me during this high stakes competition was what transpired between the competitors during the event.  The only way I can describe the environment was that it was full of celebration.

Now this makes sense to me if you have just won.  Everyone loves winning and the emotional cocktail that is a sporting victory is a potent party mixer.  Most sporting celebrations are filled with a certain kind of relief that is unique and different from what I witnessed between these Olympic athletes.  This relief is heavy and exhausting, it is an exhale not unlike passing a final exam.  The celebration on the faces of these snowboarders was not filled with exhaustion though, it was filled with freedom and pure pleasure.

Every single time a rider would come down the hill, whether they nailed their run or crashed, they would be greeted with hugs and congratulations from all the other competitors.  One rider (from an opposing country) ran out to celebrate her competitor who just beat her to win the Gold.  That doesn’t happen in the sports I know…disappointment, regret, and shame happens when you are defeated in the sports I know.

In the major sports that dominate the American cultural landscape there are clear messages that are given about competition.

Second place means first loser. 

Nobody remembers the first loser.

Win at all costs. Etc…

In the sports I played, if someone celebrated the victory of another they would have some serious questions to answer in the locker room.  Did they really care at all?  Obviously if they are okay congratulating the other team they must not have really given their all…lower your head and think about how to make sure you never fail like this again.  This is what I remember.  You either get to exist in the minds of others or you don’t…this is your fight.  You will be deemed valuable depending on your performance.

As I watched the strange, beautiful, counter-cultural display that was slope style I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like to feel celebrated regardless of outcome.  These riders were not burdened as they flew through the air.  They didn’t seem concerned with proving their existential value or inherent worth through their performance.  From the look on their faces throughout the competition all they seemed to care about was having fun.  You know…fun…that thing that used to highlight the reason we played sports?   Most of us got to have it for a while until some adult told us sports were really about winning.  “What is important is that you win, Knox…nothing else matters.”  I believed this and have let it guide my play ever since, but something about watching these snowboarders reminded me of another reality.

Believe it or not, I actually used to be pretty good at slope style myself.  We didn’t have snow in South Carolina but we had sand and rails and big jumps!  Every day at recess we would all run to the playground to begin to create our routines.  We incorporated twists and turns, grinds and grabs, jumps and slides.  We were all really talented, come to think of it pretty much everything we did on those sand hills was awesome.  We were young and we were free from pressure and performance and the demons of others shame.  We were alive…oh so alive…and full of reasons to celebrate!

This is what I know of celebration, it is always sweeter to be celebrated when you haven’t done anything to deserve it.  Or said in a different way, when others applaud you regardless of the outcome because the object of celebration is you…not what you have done.  In this reality your inherent value always outshines your best and worst performance because you are what is glorious.  You.

I long for the day when I can allow the joy of play to find its way, once again, into the fields of my heart.  When I can celebrate myself and others regardless of the quality of our play because we, God’s glorious beloved children, are worth celebrating. IMAG0494

15
Dec

A year and a half ago my wife and I had the privilege of doing some underground cave exploration near Cancun Mexico at a place called Rio Secreto.  The underground caves or more correctly “cenotes” were believed to be a holy place to the Mayans that once inhabited the land centuries before.   The Mayans came to understand and describe this underground world as a sacred realm that influenced and mediated the land it sat beneath.  As we wade inside the belly of the earth we saw sights that an unaided human eye would never be able to see.  There were roots that seemed to stretch from eternity in search of any drop of water deep below.  There were animals that lived inside the pitch black sanctuary without eyes, living entire lives without coming into contact with another living being.  It was amazing to realize that a whole world existed beneath the one that I knew and understood and what I saw was only a small portion, only the tip of the iceberg.

During our initial descent our guide asked us how long we thought people had known about this particular cenote.  We all assumed it was found decades prior, believing that a discovery of this magnitude couldn’t have escaped modern man for long.  Upon hearing our guesses the guide, with the kind of smile that holds a secret, told us that the cave was found by accident by a man who was chasing after a wild boar.  The ground had given way and one of the largest underground cenotes in the world had been discovered…a discovery that had happened just 4 years prior!  4 years!!!  I was baffled that something could have existed in our midst for so long undiscovered.  In my surprise was a sense of disbelief that modern man could have missed something so huge and important for so many years.  I thought to myself, “How was this not explored long ago?!”

I don’t feel like it is necessary to craft some hyper-meaningful comparison between this reflection and the psyche of athletes other than the simple thought that I continue to be amazed at how little research and exploration has been done around what lies beneath the world of athletics.  As I’ve turned my attention to this work I have often found myself thinking the same thoughts as when I left Rio Secreto.  “How is it that we have missed these realities for so long!?”

One of the goals that I have set for this work is to begin telling the stories of this hidden world to those who have never seen it.  The words of this blog are my first attempts at narration.  Thus far it has been a collection of stories and insights from my own history and those I’ve worked with…but I want it to get bigger.  My hope is that by categorically naming the realities of sports and sporting culture we can begin to truly see the impact participating has had on so many of our lives.  Instead of just blindly continuing to play out these realities in the lives of the next generation, we can hold athletics up to the light to see what parts of it are pure and what parts are marred.  This is how generational cycles are broken, with courage and the freedom to question the status quo.

The link below connects you to one of many surveys I’ll create over the next few years.  Most of them will be very short and all of them will be anonymous.  My hope is that they will help us draw a map of sorts to a very new and unexplored world.  One filled with darkness and glory…a world full of secrets.  One that demands the efforts of many to map the whole.

Will you help us explore?  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/DBQSV92

781098_29873883

30
Nov

This past weekend I found myself in the company of an old foe.  To some extent I’m still trying to put together all the pieces of what happened.  All I knew at the time was that I was alone somewhere in a thick bog of shame and that I wanted, dare I say needed, to make myself pay for ending up there again. 

 

Potential

590637_18797563Ping!  The ball exploded off the aluminum bat toward the bag at third and I knew my only chance to make a play was to spring out of my stance into a full dive.  My body extended just in time to reach out and snatch the speeding ground ball before it was past me.  As soon as I felt the ball in my web I glanced towards first base to see how much time I had to make a throw.  The runner was almost to first base so without hesitating I reached into my glove and threw the ball from my knees with all my strength.  Caked in dirt and barely able to see through all the shimmering dust I awaited the umpire’s verdict…”You’re OUT!” 

I remember the play so well almost 20 years later because it set in motion a sequence of events that would change my life.  After the game my dad and I were approached by a man in his early twenties.  He was a local basketball coach who mentored young kids at the community center nearby.  He complimented me on my game and was amazed at my ability to make such a difficult play.  My athletic ability caught his eye and he eventually asked me if I had ever considered playing basketball.   He asked if I would come down to the gym with him and shoot some hoops.  “You have so much potential and natural ability…trust me when I say you have what it takes to become great.”

The next day my Dad brought me to the gym to meet him.  I was greeted at the door and introduced to a handful of other kids who were playing pickup.  This wasn’t a normal introduction though, it was more like an announcement of my arrival.  He yelled out to everyone, “this is the kid I was telling y’all about…get ready cause he’s coming for all of ya.”  Every time I walked in the gym this would happen in some way or another. 

I was this man’s “boy” (this title alone provides an interesting commentary on what this man became in my life).  To be in his camp was an honor that every person in the gym wanted.  It meant you were special.  It meant you were chosen.  He was the king of the gym and I was his chosen understudy.

I wasn’t long before this honor and delight was repIaced with a pressure beyond anything I could ever explain.  My place of honor came at a price.  I quickly understood that my success would bring him pride and serve as proof that I was worthy of his continued honor and attention.  My failures would inevitably bring into question whether I deserved to sit next to the Kings throne. With every year, every game, every shot I was playing to prove I was the kid he believed I would become.  Every time I laced up my sneakers I wasn’t just playing to win, I was defending an identity…I was either the best or a disappointment.

There were moments when my performances seemed to live up to the hype.  There were games when I didn’t feel ashamed of myself for letting down expectations.  In my mind though, my good games were supposed to be the norm.  With every average game I lost more control over peoples thoughts about me.  With every missed shot I felt less and less able to convince all my critics that I was the person I was supposed to be.

In my Bones

A couple of months ago I started getting asked to play drums at a local church for money.  I had developed a little bit of a reputation as a good drummer and received lots of compliments from musicians and church members about my abilities.  When the church offered to start paying me I felt the need to take the gig a little more serious.  I thought to myself “I want to live up to their expectations as a professional who deserves to be paid so they will continue to schedule me.”  This weekend I found myself behind the drums performing a rather complicated set of music.  Before the set began the head pastor remarked, “Oh man, we’ve got the all-star band tonight!”  I still love the feeling of being noticed and really wanted my performance to confirm his expectations. 

Everything was going great until I noticed that I had cut out too soon during the first song.  As the song ended I mouthed “sorry” to the worship leader and mentally shook off my embarrassment as just a silly mistake that wouldn’t happen again.  As the second song started I began a difficult drumbeat with ease; everything was back in control again.  Then unexpectantly, during an easy snare roll, I stumbled again.  As soon as it happened I could feel myself start to panic…I started losing confidence and subsequently forgot my parts and our place in the song.  After a brutal and sloppy finish (to my standards) I noticed the face of the bass player on my left…he looked embarrassed to be sitting next to me.

All I could think was, “oh no, they are going to realize that I’m not as good as they thought.”  “You are letting everyone down.”  I felt sure that if I didn’t nail the next few songs that they would never invite me back.  My only hope was that they wouldn’t remember my failure if I played exceptional the next time around.  With the stakes at a fever pitch, I put on my best face and walked back onto the stage just praying that I wouldn’t do anything to further embarrass myself.  Just hoping I could make up for lost ground and prove that I was worth another vote of confidence.

Past in Present

In these moments I feel an almost irresistible compulsion to punish myself.  I’ve punched walls, kicked furniture, verbally assaulted myself, and even hit my own face as I channel the events of an age old drama stored in my very bones.  It is this penance, and the subsequent promise to do better, that allows me to move on from my errors.  I’ve done this dance so many times in my life I go ahead and make myself pay for mistakes even when there is nobody telling me to. 

Long gone are the days when there was an actual taskmaster who demanded that I undergo re-conditioning for every error committed.  It has been years since the last time I was actually yelled at for missing a basket.  I know these stories and have worked extensively to lessen their influence.  But, after a while these voices of accusation become your own. Your body remembers the way you felt when you failed and it remembers the ways you alleviated that suffering.

331062_7357We all have these feelings.  We all know this limbic pain.  And we all have rituals to help escape the shame we felt when we were young.  These memories, these experiences, are stored in our bones.  Our strongest cognitive allegiances are so often powerless to fend them off because we often mistake what these moments are actually communicating.  In reality these moments are actually narrating a brokenness that was active long before our birth.  When we look closely at the essence of these memories we end up seeing and learning more about the faces of our tutors than any contemptuous trait in us. 

Without such reflection it is so easy to judge these tender parts of ourselves, “If only I had been better…smarter…different…etc…”  But, in doing so, we continue to fuel a lie as broken as the men and women we got it from.  A lie that has the power to cripple even the strongest amongst us.  That somehow we are only as good as our diving throws.  

15
Nov

For the past several weeks I’ve been discussing the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), concussions, and brain trauma on athletes.  I wanted to finish up by talking about the complexity of what is happening in the minds of many athletes suffering from CTE.  In order to do so we must start by looking at the functions of the effected parts of the brain and then place that into the existing psyche of an athlete.  There are three functions of the effected brain that are particularly interesting in this discussion: 1) Emotion and emotion regulation, 2) Empathic response, and 3) flexibility.  I highlight these three because of their importance for the mental stability and health of a person, especially a person who has undergone extreme stress, trauma, and abuse and is trying to transition into a new phase of life.  This last part feels particularly important to note because I believe this may be where we see the impact of brain injury come to life.

Regulation, Empathy, Flexibility

O880737_86187705ur brain is divided into different regions that have different functions for our overall health and well-being.  One of the regions of our brain is called our reptilian brain and it is responsible for our most basic needs and desires.  This “reptilian brain” tells us to eat, sleep, have sex, and warns us protects ourselves when in danger (fight or flight).  It is the first part of our brain to develop and we have it in common with all animals.  In comparison, the neo-cortex and limbic system develop later and give us the ability to be controlled, to be mindful (empathetic) and to change our minds (beliefs) among other things.  A subsection of these two latter areas is called the frontal lobe which is located behind our forehead and is connected to other important parts of our brain that narrate emotions and help us understand our identity.  CTE primarily effects the frontal lobe and these surrounding areas of our limbic system and neo-cortex.  The impact of CTE, then, effects some very important facets of our mental health.

I believe the effects of CTE are most visible when a person is going through a season of disruption or transition.  In athletics some of the most notable disruptions and transitions happen when an athlete can no longer perform due to injury or lack of ability.  Through understanding how our mind functions to cope with disruption we get a fuller picture of what an athlete is up against.

In seasons of disruption or transition our sense of who we are comes into question.  Who we have believed we are is countered with evidence to the contrary.  In order to make sense of the ego-dystonic information we are faced with a choice to either integrate this new sense of who we are into our pre-existing identity or we have to protect and barricade our pre-existing identity from a perceived “threat” in order to ensure its’ survival.

[Theological Side Note: The work of integration is often about facing our own idolatry (our belief that we are/can be God).  In facing idolatry, we must come to terms with the frailty and fragility of our humanity in the face of our inability to produce a desired outcome.  In the language of the Apostle Paul, the process of Integration begs us to mentally “die” to self in order that we might be “raised” into a new identity.  The process of mentally dying is something akin to the experience of a depression in that it destroys our hope and ability to imagine goodness and life.  We feel lost, frustrated, and unsure of the point of our lives in the face of a major identity-disruptive event.  However, our desire to avoid this painful process during disruption most often leads us towards an attempt to salvage ourselves and escape our identity’s “death”.  We try whatever we can to hold onto what we believe about ourselves and our identity.  The mental pain involved for an individual will vary depending on how important that aspect of their identity is to their self-worth and perceived value.]

731447_90740785For most athletes their sense of self-worth is directly tied to their ability to perform in athletics.  Sports has afforded them a type of attention and adoration that many are starving for in their lives (see: “Now I have your eyes…).  Like I’ve said before, the madness of sports is that it fosters this belief and provides feedback that you are only loved when you play well.  This drives most athletes to great lengths in order to survive disruption and transition.  It also drives many athletes to seek out people and places that provide ego-syntonic feedback to affirm their sense of self.  There are few things more painful than the realization that you are not who you thought you were, so the logical thing to do is avoid this pain at all costs.  Unfortunately, every single athlete that has ever lived has had to come to terms with this bind.  The unavoidable reality of this bind often leads to an identity collapse for those who have made it to high levels of competitive athletics and who find themselves unable to perform any longer.  The subsequent firestorm of emotional turmoil is as varied as each athlete’s story, but the most common struggles manifest in feelings of anger (first step toward grief a loss), depression, addiction, insecurity, and even suicide.

The good news is that the brain is naturally built to help an individual along in this process of integration in three primary ways: 1) A healthy brain helps us deal with and regulate our impulses and emotions, 2) A healthy brain allows us to connect with and understand others through empathizing, and 3) A healthy brain is malleable and allows for us to integrate new experiences into our internal world and identity.  Some of the primary functions of a psychotherapist is to help an individual begin to progress in these three areas of functioning.  The enemies of these markers of mental health are each person’s experiences of trauma, abuse, and neglect.  Trauma, abuse, and neglect essentially create internal pockets of bondage and fear that begin to guide our behaviors and relationships.  These pockets, informed by our past experiences and relationships, come together to form our internal world which in turn directs our behavior, beliefs, and style of relating to others.  In other words, our internal world, if left unknown and unexplored, will influence and guide our actions and beliefs in the external world.  Our ability to understand the narratives that have shaped our internal world in the present gives us the ability to act, believe, and respond in new ways.  [Spiritually this work is the process of putting on the Spirit of freedom and putting off the spirit of the flesh/bondage].  Needless to say, the ability for us to do this work is paramount to our mental health and we need our brain to help us in this process.  Like I said earlier, the good news is that our brain is built to integrate and change….the bad news for sufferers of CTE is that the hardware essential to the process…just so happen to be primarily in our frontal lobe.

What brain researchers are beginning to find in patients with CTE is that Tau proteins are acting as a tar of sorts that inhibits our frontal lobe.  In other words CTE effects a persons’ ability to deal with their emotions, understand and connect with others, and integrate new experiences into their internal world and identity.  Anger is multiplied because we can’t mediate it normally, our ability to connect empathetically with others is impaired, and our ability to integrate our identity during seasons of Self-disruption is impeded.  The mental effect is like asking a runner to run a marathon with a sprained ankle.  It can be done but it will be very, very difficult.

The normal process of integration for an athlete is hard enough as it is and requires a lot of love and support from a caring community (therapists, family, friends, etc…).  The problem with the disease of CTE is that it damages the parts of our mind that we need in order to begin doing this hard work of integration in community.  The combination of all these things are leaving athletes stranded in a mental health “perfect storm” in which they are often unable to survive.  I don’t believe that it is actually the disease of CTE alone that causes player decline and suicide.  Most players would attest to the fact that there are a whole plethora of other issues that seem more causative when it comes to player decline and death.  I wonder, though, if the most debilitating factor of CTE is that it makes the sufferers ability to regulate emotions, understand and empathize with others, and integrate new experiences into their internal world and identity extremely challenging.  The part of our minds meant to respond can’t because of traumatic brain injury.  And since the enemy is inside of a players head, the presence of self-condemnation and shame will be very powerful.  An athlete’s difficulty in conquering these obstacle will only serve as a reminder that they are not who they thought they were…a fact that may lead many into a type of death that won’t allow for a resurrection.

 

[If you or someone you love is struggling with any of the above symptoms please call Knox Burnett @ 425-202-5716]

 

05
Nov

A717339_61226081 couple of weeks ago PBS: Frontline released a documentary entitled League of Denial: The NFL Concussion Crisis that chronicled the controversy surrounding concussion research and its potential impact on the game of football.  The documentary exposed the NFL’s decade long negligence around concussions and put into question the safety of a billion dollar industry.  The NFL has spent millions on trying to reduce the impact of this on the general public and spent hundreds of millions on lawsuits from former players wanting compensation for damages suffered.  Amidst the off the field firestorm however, the actual game of football continued without a hitch.  Outside of a couple of tweets from current players questioning the integrity of the NFL brass there seemed to be little interest in the findings from former or current players.  What we have seen and heard is that even if the head trauma suffered results in long term damage for players they are willing to take the risk.

This shouldn’t surprise you if you have ever been an athlete because one of the early lessons learned in sports is to tune out anything that could hinder your ability to perform.  I wrote about this on an entry called “Superman”,  The further up the competitive stream you go the more you will find individuals who are willing to do almost whatever it takes to tune out their fears.  If they paid attention to the risks they would never be able to reach the heights needed.  Some players are more aware of this than others, but all players must tell themselves that their worst fears (whatever it may be) won’t happen.  This is how an athlete survives the abuse of a sport…at any level.

Do athletes cognitively understand there might be consequences to playing?  Yes.  Will that stop them from playing?  No.  If it could have it would have stopped them a long time ago when their bodies were asked, for the first time, to perform in ways that brought them close to the fragileness of their humanity.  Similar to a soldier in war, anything that keeps an athlete from completing their mission must be sacrificed…or conditioned out.  So whether we are talking about head injuries, career-ending knee injuries, neck injuries, or even death, rest assured that an athlete will rarely if ever heed these warnings of danger.  To do so they will have to engage in a much more difficult and grievous war against the voices of influence that have told them to numb and ignore their pain.  They will have to eventually question why nobody intervened on their behalf the first time they had a concussion and were told to get back on the field.  They will have to question why those who were entrusted to protect them from harm did not speak up against abuse at the hands of a trainer or coach.  People learn to question because they have been allowed to.  People have freedom to say no as adults because they had the freedom to say no as a child.  To expect a player to quit playing for safety reasons is ridiculous in this context.  My question is however, what responsibility do those in power (parents, teachers, coaches, organizations) have to these players who have been mentally conditioned to ignore what will later impact them?

I came across a commentary of a grandfather who had watched the troubling documentary on football and concussions and his response was telling in this regard.  “I love my grandchildren and all four of them play football.  I am really upset and worried that if I don’t say something to their parents, they’ll suffer.”   This response is quite interesting is it not?  It is almost like there is something in the heart of this man that is causing him to question his desire to speak up and protect his grandchildren.  I have to wonder why.  Why would he struggle to name this?  What forces are against him?  It seems that whatever they are, they must also be competing at the heart of a league that has tried to ignore this issue for decades.  Sadly, this silence marks the lives of many athletes very early on.  The people who have power and responsibility to protect life keep silent at the hands of unknown forces for some known or unknown reason.

Simultaneously, what is confusing about advocating for player health is that I would imagine very few athletes appreciate these voices of protection now that they are grown.  The negative responses by players to new rules and regulations around safety seems to indicate this quite well.  Whenever there is a safety concern addressed by the league and reflected in the rules you end up hearing more frustration from players than appreciation.  Why would someone react negatively to something or someone trying to protect their health?  What could be worse than the devastating effects of a degenerative brain disease?  There is obviously something also in the heart of many athletes that is at war and causing them to silence those advocating for their physical health.

A professor of mine once said “mental pain is always worse than physical pain.”  There is something in this that opens a window into the lives of athletes and the rest of humanity.  I would argue that  there is something much more painful about losing a sense of who we are than there is about suffering physical harm.  These defining characteristics hold so much power because they often name our worth.  People will do whatever it takes to hold onto what gives them worth.  If being an athlete is the defining characteristic of your life, any event or reality that calls this identity into question will be countered with every bit of energy available.  Athletes don’t risk their lives and health for a game…they risk it because they believe being an athlete is what makes them worthy to be loved.

There is a huge bind here.  If one chooses to pursue competitive athletics they will be asked with each increasing level of competition to numb and disavow parts of themselves meant to thrive and speak.  They will have to be willing to sacrifice their mental and physical health for the god of athletic success.  It seems that this is the cost required to make it in sports, and the lessons learned in these trenches will keep you alive on the battlefield.  In a strange turn of events, it is the abuse and trauma that makes an athlete able to withstand the conditions on an unforgiving business.  And it is their longing for worth and purpose that keeps them from saying that they would have it any other way.

21
Oct

880737_86187705
It has been quite an interesting few weeks in the world of sports. It seems the more I turned my focus towards investigating the impact of this world on its participants the more I have noticed just how much is boiling underneath its’ surface undiscovered. For reasons nobody is ready to confess, the world of sports has been vastly unexplored and tragically un-critiqued. Few examples are more evident than the recent headlines exposing the impact of sports related concussions. PBS Frontline released a documentary detailing the impact of concussions on athletes called League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. Headlines have been alive with commentary on this issue and the question of whether or not playing football can have long term health consequences on participants. The NFL is working hard to downplay this latter question, but the answer is unquestionably YES. As is the case with most culture challenging inquiries, it often takes the “hard” sciences years longer to discover what the “soft” sciences have theorized about for years. Fortunately for those of us in the mental health field, the body has a way of communicating the “mysteries” of the mind in data that nobody can ignore.

When I first heard news of the documentary and its’ implications on the game of football I was filled with competing emotions. One part of me was relieved that this information was being released to the general public and that the NFL’s powers that attempted to hide this information from players and the public could no longer do so. On the other hand I was terrified. I love watching football. Heck I even get together with a bunch of guys every Sunday and play tackle football with no pads! I felt sick to my stomach even thinking about not being able to watch my Auburn Tigers on Saturdays in the fall. So was it hard for me to imagine why people are not just afraid of this but maybe even angry at anyone who is pushing the conversation? That answer is No. I would expect this reaction from anyone who loves the game. I can understand this reaction from anyone who is seeing something very important to them begin to slip away. We are seeing the grieving process on a massive scale…and we all know that the first step is denial. With every new study we see more clearly that there is something toxic to what we are playing, coaching, and cheering. There is a price to pay for anyone who longs for glory and fame.

308201_7286One of the reasons I began pursuing this work with and for the mental health of athletes was birthed out of this research on concussions and its linkage to the struggles and deaths of several current and former players. It was Junior Seau’s death in particular, and the firestorm of concussion related news that followed, that made me wonder about what else contributed to the decline of such a beloved figure in sports. At the time, my understanding of concussions, CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), and their effects on the health of a person was fairly limited. I had little knowledge of what neurologically was happening to sufferers of CTE and was unaware of what such a brain disease would expedite. At the time I simply found an interest in the fact that someone was finally talking about the dark side of sports and I knew that there was more to the story than just CTE. The repetitive brain injuries incurred in sports like football or boxing can impair and destroy extremely important parts of our brains. Brain trauma deeply effects mental health. However, this is not the only thing happening in athletes that cause their decline.

To get a glimpse of what many athletes are facing, I’ll just include some baseline realities that come with pursuing this dream. There are the effects of years of psychological and emotional abuse, years of having to use pain killers or other substances to ease chronic pain (not everyone but many), the anxiety that accompanies the pressure of performance, and the deep confusion and shame each athlete suffers as they try to come to terms with losing a core sense of identity. I do not know an athlete who has not had to deal with every single one of these listed above…and these psychological, emotional, and physical abuses are just the tip of the iceberg if you look at the spectrum of experiences that come with pursuing competitive sports. But through relationship, particularly through the process of psychotherapy and counseling, an athlete can begin to move towards awareness and healing. What is most troubling about the effects of TBI/concussions/CTE is that it seems to impair the parts of our brain that allow for this other healing to take place. So what you have are a bunch of athletes who have been through an intense amount of trauma and abuse; experiences and effects not unlike what veterans experience after fighting in battle. These alone (and there is much more than just this trauma to deal with) could send any person into depression, mania, and/or crisis, but with CTE a person will find these issues more severe and unavoidable in everyday life. So these players find themselves angrier, more confused, more disconnected in relationship, and less able to deal with the impending storm of losing their identity as an athlete and celebrity.

Over the next few weeks I am going to be looking at several aspects of this discussion on concussions and CTE. The Sporting Psyche will take a look at the effects of Traumatic Brain Injury on our ability to express and mediate our emotions, empathize with others, and be able to change (the ability to be flexible in our identity). I’m also going to take a look at the interesting and telling reactions of NFL players who are now learning about the consequences of sports on their health.
Stay tuned…