Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Bad News in Threes: Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and the CDC Suicide Report

Rainbow 2017

My mother always said, “Bad news comes in threes.” That concept, along with many of her other superstitions, never made much sense to me.

In truth, the bad news never stops. She knew that. I suppose that organizing bad news into groups of three offered hope that the suffering might soon end—at least until the next set of three bad things came round.

This week we’ve had bad news in waves, with three particular pieces distinctly linked to suicide. On Tuesday, there was fashion designer, Kate Spade. Yesterday, there was the release of a new CDC report on Suicide. And then this morning there was Anthony Bourdain.

When people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain die by suicide, it’s hard not to be mystified. By all measures, both Spade and Bourdain were highly successful. They were passionate and fully alive. The dynamics that may have led them to choose death are opaque. We can’t see these dynamics. They’re not obvious.

Another thing that’s not easily seen or especially obvious is the fact that, along with Spade and Bourdain, 865 other Americans will die by suicide this week. Let that number sink in. Many of these other American suicides will be military veterans. These 865 Americans may choose suicide for reasons similar or different than Spade and Bourdain. We can’t know the deeply personal reasons why individuals choose suicide.

In honor of my mother’s desire to manage bad news in groups of three, I’ve got some other threes to share:

Three Things to Remember About Suicide

  1. As Spade and Bourdain’s deaths illustrate, suicide is unpredictable. Many respected suicidologists have thrown suicide risk factors and warning signs into the trash bin. Because we may not know if someone is suicidal, our best strategy is to treat everyone with kindness, compassion, and respect. This approach is all about connecting with others in ways that are meaningful and authentic. Then, from the context of your interpersonal connection, if you suspect or intuit that suicide is possible, ask directly in a way that normalizes suicidal thinking. You might ask something like, “It’s not unusual for people to think about suicide. Has that been true for you?”
  2. As the CDC report highlights, a person’s mental health may or may not be linked to suicide. In the CDC’s analysis, about 54% of suicides were not associated with a known mental disorder or pre-suicide warning signs. This implies that thinking about suicide or acting on suicidal impulses may be something that arises from challenging life stresses or circumstances. This information also means that you shouldn’t blame yourself for suicide deaths. We imagine suicide to be a terrible tragedy for the person who dies, but it’s also a palpable tragedy for many survivors. Of course, if you knew a person who died by suicide you deeply wish you could have known the right thing to say or do to save that person’s life. But the reality is, suicide is unpredictable, and so you and I shouldn’t beat ourselves up over not being able to effectively intervene. If you feel guilty after a suicide, talk about your feelings with someone you trust. Although it’s natural to blame yourself, there’s no point in being alone with your guilt, so please reach out for support for yourself.
  3. The deaths of Spade and Bourdain bring suicide to the front and center of our national consciousness. Although it’s good to shine a light on suicide, the deaths of Spade and Bourdain overshadow the 865 other Americans who have or will die by suicide this week. Many of these Americans will not have sought help. The irony of not seeking help is that there are several excellent talk-therapies that specifically target suicide risk. These therapies can be highly effective. Hotlines are a fine first step and medications might help, but the interpersonal connection that comes with evidence-based talk therapies, is profoundly important to positive outcomes. Effective help is available. Let’s bring the evidence-based talk therapies front and center in our national consciousness also.

Three Evidence-Based Therapies

Here are links to the three top evidence-based therapies for suicide.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): https://www.amazon.com/DBT%C2%AE-Skills-Training-Manual-Second/dp/1462516998/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528498109&sr=1-1&keywords=linehan+suicide

Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicide (CAMS): https://www.amazon.com/Managing-Suicidal-Risk-Second-Collaborative/dp/146252690X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528498077&sr=1-1&keywords=jobes

Cognitive Therapy for Suicide: https://www.amazon.com/Cognitive-Therapy-Suicidal-Patients-Applications/dp/1433804077/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528497986&sr=1-4&keywords=cognitive+therapy+suicide

Three More Resources

The CDC Report, although depressing, includes excellent information. You can read it here: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6722a1.htm?s_cid=mm6722a1_w  You can also listen to or read an NPR interview with the report’s lead author, Deborah Stone, here: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/07/617897261/cdc-u-s-suicide-rates-have-climbed-dramatically

A while back I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Missoulian newspaper. This Op-Ed emphasized core factors or dimensions that often drive suicidal behavior. Reading the article can give you a better understanding of suicide dynamics and could help you help others, but in no way will it make you capable of successfully preventing suicide amongst all of your family and friends. This article is available through the Missoulian: https://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/suicide-prevention-ignore-the-math/article_ce3c7f1e-ab86-587e-9505-310cc00b3355.html

In January I had a suicide assessment and intervention article published in the Journal of Health Service Psychology. This article is a good resource for professionals who work with suicidal clients. It’s an easy read and might also be of interest to non-professionals seeking to understand more about how professionals work with suicidal people. https://www.nationalregister.org/pub/the-national-register-report-pub/journal-of-health-service-psychology-winter-2018/conversations-about-suicide-strategies-for-detecting-and-assessing-suicide-risk/

I wish you all a weekend of connection and healing.

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Self-Regulation is Central

Scarecrow

Self-regulation is central to nearly everything in life. I suppose maybe that’s why Dr. Sara Polanchek and I have been ruminating on it so much in our Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast series. In fact, the podcast that became available today is more general and less parent-focused than is usual. Again, that’s because self-regulation or self-control in the fact of outside forces or stressors is so important for everyone.

To read my more general self-regulation blogpost, click here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2018/06/04/the-secret-self-regulation-cure-seriously-this-time/

To listen to the podcast on iTunes, click here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

To listen on Libsysn, click here: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

And finally, here’s a description of the podcast that’s live today!

The Secret Self-Regulation Cure (Seriously, this time)

For this Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast you should just let yourself relax, let go of all expectations, and tune in. You can even practice being bored, because one part of the secret to self-regulation is that it’s all about embracing your boringness (Spoiler alert, Sara gets bored at the end). Another way of putting this, is that the deep secret to self-regulation (which John shares in this episode) is to repeatedly focus on one comforting thing that is—or becomes—boring (for you science types, that means focusing in on one comforting stimulus). Another big part of the secret to self-regulation is mindful acceptance. Of course, you probably know that mindful acceptance is from Buddhist philosophy, but the concrete application of mindful acceptance involves accepting the fact that you will always get distracted and won’t ever be able to meditate or use progressive muscle relaxation perfectly. You can only strive to be imperfectly mindful (and you shouldn’t even strive to hard for that).

If you make it through this podcast episode without falling asleep, then you might be able to answer one of the following questions:

  1. According to Herbert Benson, What are the four parts of the “relaxation response.”
  2. What’s the problem with counting sheep as a method for dealing with insomnia?
  3. What was the spiritual mantra that John shared?

And if you can answer one of these questions and be the first person to post it on our Facebook page, then you will win something—something in addition to having that warm, positive feeling of having been the first person to post the answer.

Here’s the link to our Podcast Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/?hc_ref=ARRyCtUkbbKwI1usTfQpgCtCAHB3Pi4EVR3fikiq3gd5A-C07BjG7mY7Lqtel9x2jiA&fref=nf

 

 

The Secret Self-Regulation Cure (Seriously this time)

The Road“I’m in suspense,” Sara said. “I’ve been in suspense since the last time we recorded, because John said he had this big secret and I don’t know what it is.”

Partly Sara was lying. She wasn’t in much suspense, mostly because the “last time we recorded” had been only five minutes earlier. But, as I’m sure you realize, capturing and magnifying in-the-moment excitement is the sort of behavior toward which we Hollywood podcasting stars are inclined.

Sara stayed enthusiastic. When I told her that I thought every self-regulation and anxiety reduction technique on the planet all boiled down to a single method that Mary Cover Jones developed in 1924, she said things like, “That’s exciting!” and “I love Mary Cover Jones.”

[Side note] If you end up needing a podcasting co-host, be sure to find someone like Sara who will express enthusiasm even when you’re talking about boring intellectual stuff. [End of side note.]

Mary Cover Jones was the first researcher to employ counterconditioning with humans (although she rarely gets the credit she deserves—but that’s another story). Counterconditioning involves the pairing a desirable (pleasant or comforting) stimulus with a stimulus that usually causes anxiety or dysregulation. Over time, with repeated pairing, the pleasant feelings linked with the desirable stimulus are substituted for the anxiety response. Eventually, the person who has experienced counterconditioning can more comfortably face the undesirable and previously anxiety-provoking stimulus.

My belief is that counterconditioning is the first, best, and only approach to self-regulation and anxiety reduction. Put another way, I’d say, “If it works for self-regulation, then what you’re doing is counterconditioning—even if you call it something else.”

I know that’s a radical statement. Rather than defend my belief and philosophy, let me move on and describe how you can begin using counterconditioning to make your life better.

Let’s say your goal is for you to experience more calmness and relaxation and less agitation and anxiety. That’s reasonable. According to Herbert Benson of Harvard University, you need four things to elicit the relaxation response.

  1. A quiet place
  2. A comfortable position
  3. A mental device
  4. A passive attitude

Benson was studying meditation way back in the early 1970s. Okay. I know I’m digging up lots of old moldy stuff from the past. But take a deep breath and stay with me.

Let’s say you’re able to find a quiet place and a comfortable position. If you’re a parent, that might be tough. However, even if you find it for 12 minutes as you lie in bed, waiting for sleep, that’s a start. And really, all you need is a start, because once you get going, you don’t really even need the quiet place and comfortable position. On airplanes, I use this all the time and it’s not quiet and I’m not physically comfortable.

The next question that most people ask is: “What’s a mental device?” or, “Is that something I have to strap on my head?”

A mental device is a mental point of focus. In Benson’s time and in transcendental meditation, the popular word for it was “Mantra,” but Benson’s research showed that it can be almost anything. One mental device (that’s actually physical) is deep breathing. Another one is to sit comfortably and to think (or chant) the word OM. Benson also found that simple words, like the numbers “one” or “nine” also were effective. But, as I mentioned on the podcast, you can use other words, as long as they are—or can become—comforting. For example, I know people who use the following words:

  1. I am here
  2. Here I am
  3. Peace
  4. Shalom
  5. Banana

For those of you with religious leanings, you might want to use a specific prayer as your mental device. For those of you who are more visually inclined, you could use a mental image as your mental device. For those of you who are physically-oriented, you could use progressive muscle relaxation or body scanning.

The point is that all you need is a point . . . of focus.

Now comes the hard part. Because we’re all human and therefore, imperfect, no matter how compelling or comforting or soothing your mental device might be, you won’t be able to focus on it perfectly. You will become distracted. At some point (and for me it’s usually very early in the process), you’ll find your mind wandering. Instead of focusing on your prayer, you’ll suddenly realize that you’re thinking about a recent movie you saw or a painful social interaction you had earlier in the day or your mind will drift toward a future social situation that you’re dreading.

What’s the solution to the wandering mind?

Well, one thing that’s not the solution is to try harder.

Instead, what Benson meant by a “passive attitude” is that we need to gently accept our mental wanderings and distractions. More commonly, the words we use for Benson’s passive attitude are “Mindful acceptance.” In other words, we accept in the moment of distraction and every moment of distraction, that we are humans who naturally become distracted. And then, after the noticing and after the acceptance, we bring ourselves back to the moment and to our chosen mental device.

On the podcast, Sara asked, “What if, as I try to focus on my mental device, I notice that all the while I have an inner voice talking to me in the background?”

What an excellent question! The first answer is, of course, mindful acceptance. For example, when you notice the inner voice, you might say to yourself, I notice my mind is chattering at me in the background as I focus on my mental device. Then, without judging yourself, you return to your mental device. A second option is for you to find a more engaging or more soothing mental device. Perhaps, you need two mental devices at once? For example, that might include a soft, silky blanket to touch, along with your “I am here” mantra.

As Mary Cover Jones illustrated over 90 years ago, the counterconditioning process is a powerful tool for anxiety reduction and self-regulation. I happen to think that it’s the only tool for anxiety reduction and self-regulation. Whether you agree with me or not isn’t important; either way, don’t let anything I’ve written here get in the way of you identifying and using your own cherished mental (or physical) device. At first, it might not work. It will never work perfectly. But, like Charles Shulz was thinking when he created Linus’s special blanket, life is way better when you live it with a comforting counterconditioning stimulus.

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For more information about Mary Cover Jones, you can go here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2011/11/25/a-black-friday-tribute-to-mary-cover-jones-and-her-evidence-based-cookies/

Or here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2017/07/17/brain-science-may-be-shiny-but-exposure-therapy-is-pure-gold/

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As I write this (6/4/18), the podcast isn’t quite up yet . . . but will be soon!

To listen to The Secret Self-Regulation Cure on iTunes, go here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

To listen to The Secret Self-Regulation Cure on Libsyn, go here: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

To check out our podcast Facebook page, go here: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/

It’s Not Unusual: John’s Weekend Reflections

john-rapA stranger posted a comment on my blog today. As Tom Jones might say, “It’s not unusual” for my blog to stimulate reader commentary. After all, I’m expressing my opinion, distributing professional information, and often I specifically ask for reader feedback.

Mostly I get positive feedback. Occasionally, I touch a nerve with someone and get pushback or criticism. What’s most interesting to me is that the nerves I touch are nearly always nerves related to White privilege or feminism. I suppose that’s not unusual either.

Today’s comment started with, “Wow. All u do is wafle here. . .” and went on to provide a rambling critique of White privilege (I think). Three thoughts on this: First, to find my several year-old White privilege blog post requires significant effort and searching. Second, with the advent of spellcheck, typically it’s very hard for your computer to let you misspell “waffle” as “wafle.” Third, the critique, as is not unusual, didn’t seem to have much to do with the content of my blog post. Instead, the commenter was clearly focusing in on his own personal issues and history and not so much on what I had written.

The next part of all is also not unusual. In response, I felt disappointment, hurt, and defensiveness. To be perfectly honest, I wanted to counterpoint or counterpunch my commenter. I managed to stop myself. Instead, I labeled his comment as spam and moved on.

Upon reflection, my “spamming” his comment was probably passive-aggressive. And, it was (and is) clear that I haven’t moved on. Funny how criticism has a way of hanging on long after the party has ended and everyone should go home.

In conclusion, here’s the sort of thing I wish I’d written . . .

“Hello beloved fellow human. I’m grateful that you took the time to read my blog and make a comment. Thank you for that. Based on your comment, I think you and I probably disagree on this topic. Rather than arguing and trying to convince you that I’m right and you’re wrong (which likely wouldn’t work anyway), I want to say that I respect your right to a perspective and opinion that’s different from mine. I’m sure we’ve lived very different lives and so it’s not unusual that we would disagree on White privilege. Although I feel defensive about what I wrote, I can also feel a part of myself that’s way down deep and not defensive. That part of me wants to reach out and say ‘Hey. No big deal that we disagree. It wasn’t my intent to write something that offended you. I wish you health and happiness. I wish us a better and deeper mutual understanding. Wherever you feel hurt or pain, I wish you healing. I hear your disagreement with me and, in the future, although I know I won’t be perfect, I will try to be more sensitive and compassionate in what I write.’

If you like, you can read the offending blog post here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/09/14/a-white-male-psychologist-reflects-on-white-privilege/

Have a fantastic Saturday night.

John SF

Memories of Memorial Day: How to Use Memory Re-consolidation to Cope with Pain from the Past

Green Shadow II

Back in the 1970s, I remember singing the lyrics to, The Way We Were, along with Barbra Streisand. Using my best falsetto, Barbra and I crooned, “Memories, light the corners of my mind.”

These lyrics aren’t technically correct. But then Barbra and the song’s lyricists, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, didn’t have access to modern brain scans. Based on neuroscience research, it would have been more accurate for Barbra and I to sing, “Memories, light the center of my mind.”

Memories live deep within the brain. If you could magically poke your index finger down through the top center of your skull, you still couldn’t quite reach your brain’s memory structures, the hippocampus and amygdala.

Memories are a fascinating electrical, molecular, cellular, and inter-structural phenomenon. I won’t be providing scientific details about memory, because then I’d have to write something about how the interaction of glucocorticoids and noradrenaline in the basolateral region of the amygdala can modulate the strength of memories in the hippocampus and other brain areas . . . and by then our fascination with memory would doubtless give way to boredom and sleepiness.

Speaking of sleepiness, it’s metaphorically accurate to say that most of our memories typically just lay around dozing in their hippocampal bed until awakened. Not surprisingly, some memories are lighter sleepers than others; they can be easily awakened. Sometimes, when sleeping memories are rudely awakened (triggered) they tend to be rather grumpy and unpleasant.

Here are three examples:

Say you’re creeping around on Facebook. You see an old high school photo from 25 years ago. The visual stimulus of the photo is a memory trigger; several related images and narratives pop into your mind. These images and narratives aren’t grumpy or unpleasant. Instead, you feel warmly nostalgic. This is an example of a visual trigger that activates a mildly pleasant set of associated memories.

In contrast, if you’re a veteran who has experienced war trauma and you hear firecrackers on the 4th of July, your consciousness may flood with vivid, multisensory memories. These memories could link to deep emotional pain. This is an example of an auditory trigger that awakens or activates disturbing memories—memories that you might prefer to put back to sleep.

Now, think of the smell of coffee in the morning. For me, the scent of coffee is neutral. No clear memories are activated. But, when coffee smells are combined with the aroma of bacon on the griddle, I have instant flashbacks to my Grandma Lucy making breakfast. This is an olfactory stimulus triggering a pleasant memory. I see my grandma’s grey hair, pulled back with bobby pins. I can see my own small hands touching and feeling the textured floral pattern on her white milk glass china as I wait for breakfast, watching her. I hear the pop of bacon sizzling. I can imagine the pain I might feel if I get too close to grandma’s griddle. I instantly know the past and future of this memory. First, Grandma Lucy peeled the bacon apart, dangling each piece before laying them on the griddle. Later, she’ll save the bacon grease, for another purpose. She was like that. Another emotion emerges. I feel sad. I miss her.

In honor of memory science, it’s important to note that each of the preceding memories may be more or less historically accurate. Even more important is the likelihood that these memories, like all memories, have changed, shifted, and evolved over time.

How can memories change? Isn’t it true that humans have an experience and then store a record of it in their brain, ready for later retrieval? Not exactly.

As it turns out, new memories are more fluid than solid. Following a memorable experience, memories stay unstable for somewhere between a few minutes and a few hours. New memories are in flux and shaped or degraded by additional new experiences that immediately follow. More remarkable is the fact that, even after storage, every time memories are pulled out (or retrieved) they return to an unstable or vulnerable state, until they re-stabilize or reconsolidate. And when they reconsolidate (a process that involves cellular protein synthesis), they can include new, different, or less information. This is how and why memories change over time.

For many Americans, Memorial Day is an intentional memory day. For example, yesterday there were flowers, speeches, and flag waving. Yesterday, you were probably in the company of family, possibly kneeling at a gravesite, perhaps celebrating the life of someone whom you loved and lost.

Memorial Day is a memory trigger. It’s a time set aside to honor the lives of men and women who died in service of our country. It’s natural and good to engage in this honoring ritual. People also honor non-military family members with flowers and graveside visits. But, amidst the celebrations, as is often the case, the emotional side of life gets short shrift. Typically, we celebrate and move on, despite the fact that it’s equally natural and good to honor the grief that we feel in response to Memorial Day celebratory rituals.

It might have been the 21 gun salute or the color of the flowers or the taste of the potato salad or the smell of your uncle’s cologne. Whatever the case, yesterday you probably had old memories awaken and stroll past you in an internal memory parade. Some of these memories may have been neutral. Others may have been pleasant. Still others, felt angry, sad, guilty, or lonely.

But memories are open to change, and that fact begs for intentionality. What I mean is that we should all have a plan for Memorial Day (and then a plan for Memorial Night). Not only do we need plans for how to celebrate, we need plans for dealing with the raw emotions that Memorial Day can trigger.

I wish I could offer up a simple method for helping you to deal effectively with Memorial Day memory activation and reconsolidation. But you (and everyone) are a unique entity with layers of fantastic idiosyncrasy. Nevertheless, here’s a quick glimpse into the emerging science of memory reconsolidation.

In one research study, participants were exposed to negative emotional memories from watching a trauma film. The next day, these memories were re-activated using a trauma-photo from the film. Then, after a 10 minute-break some participants played a game of Tetris, while others didn’t. The results: Over the next seven days, the participants who played Tetris after having traumatic memories re-activated, experienced significantly fewer intrusive trauma-related memories. The implications? Maybe the Memorial Night solution is to establish a Tetris-playing ritual.

But painful memories are complex and unique. What works for one person, might not work for another. As Drexler and Wolf (authors of a 2018 scholarly review) were inspired to write, “Indeed, when the activation of selective L-type voltage-gated calcium channels or GluN2B-containing NMDA receptors in the hippocampus was prevented before retrieval, thus blocking memory destabilization . . . the interfering air puff had no effect” (p. 15). Reading this led me to conclude that reading more of Drexler and Wolf’s article might serve as another possible memory disrupting intervention to employ during the reconsolidation period. I’m guessing, if you’ve made it to this point in this blog, that you’re inclined to agree.

From a practical perspective, it’s good to know that, generally, memory reconsolidation can take up to six hours. And so, in addition to Tetris and reading intellectual research papers, there are other reasonable strategies you can use to facilitate healthy memory reconsolidation, not just on Memorial Day (or Night), but any time of the year—as long as you’re within the six hour memory consolidation window.

  • Talk with a trusted friend or counselor about the emotions you’re experiencing. Even better, don’t just talk about your emotional pain, but also talk about and focus on the strengths you have for coping with your challenging emotions.
  • Engage in a physically strenuous activity. This could involve some sort of strenuous physical activity like cycling, running, yoga, or weight-lifting.
  • Ritual is good. This could involve a culturally appropriate spiritual activity like going to a sweat lodge or attending a religious service.
  • Writing is a common and effective method for expressing emotions. In particular, writing about your loss in ways that are meaningful to you can be therapeutic.
  • There may be no better way to deal with problematic emotions than engaging in positive helping behavior. Alfred Adler called this social interest. When you’re triggered, consider ways in which you can shift the spotlight away from yourself and toward fostering wellness in others.

Memorial Day is an intentional memory day. We created it and we celebrate it. But you can have other, self-created memory days. And what we know about memory and the disturbing emotions that can accompany memories, is that they present us with an opportunity. Some researchers call this an opportunity for “updating.” Recognizing this opportunity and intentionally engaging in healthy and soothing behaviors when difficult memories are activated is good guidance. This might be Tetris. It might even involve singing along with Barbra Streisand in your best falsetto. The point is that we have power, albeit limited, to update our activated memories . . . and so I wish you the best in finding intentional and healthy ways to soften your painful memories. It’s the honorable thing to do.

The Graduation Speech They Didn’t Let Me Give (again)

Roni Aubrey John Grad 18 Better

This year, like all other years in the history of planet Earth, no one asked me to do a college or university commencement speech. I thought I had a shot at the University of Montana, but they settled on a Nike executive instead.

I puzzled over my lack of commencement speech invites, but only briefly. After all, at my most recent keynote (the Montana School Counseling Association), I spontaneously told my “Just Shut Up” story. It just so happens that my “Just Shut Up” story references a body part that typically isn’t mentioned in keynote speeches.

In my own defense, the “Just Shut Up” story is about adolescent development, and, because the entire experience of adolescent development is inappropriate, it’s impossible to say anything inappropriate when talking about adolescent development. This is so obvious that if you saw a Jeopardy answer saying, “A topic about which it’s impossible to say anything inappropriate” the correct question would, of course, be, “What is adolescent development?” I think I’m on solid ground here.

My point is that I’ve come to accept not getting asked to do commencement speeches. After all, they’re rigorous speaking gigs where you have to be ready to offer sage and complex advice like, “Be yourself” and “Don’t forget to give back.” That sort of sage advice might be somewhat outside my wheelhouse.

But then, the week before last Saturday’s University of Montana commencement, I found out that our graduating M.A. students in Counselor Education had requested a microphone for their post-commencement reception. I didn’t realize it immediately, but upon embarking on my one-mile walk to line up for the commencement ceremony, it hit me. My students were sending me a special indirect message. The microphone was for me. Knowing my penchant for speech-giving, they leaked the microphone intel, so I’d have time to prepare a fancy commencement speech, just for them.

When it comes to graduation speeches, preparation is key, so I spent the 15 minutes of my walk in a state of profound inspiration. I prepared a formal opening and closing, and then wrote two special graduation songs, practicing them along the way. The passerby seemed appreciative, even though they probably couldn’t understand why I was singing “Move your eyes” to the tune of “Shake it Off” or what inspired me to include the main refrain of “A date with Sigmund Freud” instead of “A partridge in a pear tree” when singing “The Twelve Weeks of Theories.”

Being uncertain as to whether I should focus exclusively on songs, I outlined an additional speech. This extra speech was all about the Gestalt of be-here-now and self-awareness, as I integrated the rising (and flooding) spring waters of the Clark Fork River as a metaphor for how over-activity contributes to the opaqueness of the self. To be sure that my commencement message would get through, I also included warnings about Narcissus and his fatal projection of the self. That’s the sort of mythical anecdote that can bring down the house.

Sadly, that afternoon, I discovered that the leaking of the microphone rental was nothing more than the flirtation of a ruse. During the WHOLE Counselor Education reception, the students completely hogged the microphone. All they did was go On and On and On and On (like Jack Johnson) saying nice things about each other and the faculty and the doc students, not leaving me a minute with the mic to get up there with my Poker Face (like Lady Gaga) to perform my freshly written songs.

Grad 18 Awards

In the end, truth be told, the Nike guy was pretty darn good, and likely a better choice than me. But, more importantly, our students were like they usually are . . . AWESOME. These graduates will be heading out to schools, mental health agencies, and intercultural destinations, where they’ll connect with and counsel youth and adults and make the world a healthier place.

Other than my amazing vocal performance, there’s one thing I wish I’d had a chance to say. It might have been something like this:

Take a moment to look around the room. See your classmates, your supportive families, and your faculty. Don’t just see them, SEE them as the multi-layered and profound beings that they are. In this irretrievable sparkling moment of the now, let’s remember a few things together. Remember your decision. You walked in this building to become a counselor. You dedicated yourself to learning how to help others. How cool is that? Feel the power of that memory. Remember our first times together. Remember when your professors kept having you awkwardly introduce yourselves to your new classmates. Feel that awkwardness and anxiety. Let it be with you, remembering that you OWN your future awkwardness and anxiety, because you worked through it, conquering it for now and later. Remember the painful viewing of video recordings of yourself doing counseling. Remember the painful feedback. Remember the tears and joys you experienced together. Remember getting to know the people in this room in ways you never could have imagined, until it happened. Remember growing in respect for yourself, growing your counseling skills, and deepening your respect for your classmates. Remember the late nights, the early mornings, the six straight hours of class, and that assignment (or two) that you pretty much hated. And most of all, remember this moment, right now, surrounded by friends and family. Remember the joy of right now. Remember why you chose this path and why you’re here today. Remember it all, and put it in your heart. Then, in the future, which might be now and might be later, commit yourself to combine your counseling skills, your empathic heart, and your thirst for continued learning. Let the joy of now flow back to the memories of then and the future of what will be. Recognize your new power; it’s like the Force; it’s in your hands, it’s in your heart, it’s in your brain. You take it from here, remembering also, that we are honored to have had time with you and to send you out to shape a healthier and happier society.

Oh. Yeah. I almost forgot. Remember this too, and be grateful: Never again will you have to date Sigmund Freud.

Hey . . . We’ve got a position opening for a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana

Let me begin with a rhetorical question.

Who wouldn’t want to work in beautiful Missoula, Montana along with fantastic colleagues? On most days, you can hike up Mount Sentinel and get this view (it’s better live) in less than 20 minutes.

From M

I’m using my blog to help spread the news that we’re looking for a full-time, visiting assistant professor in our department at the University of Montana. Why visiting? That’s because we just got permission to search and thought it would be easier to hire a nine-month visiting (mid-August to mid-May) and then we’ll be searching for a tenure-track person in early fall. Of course, it’s possible that the visiting person will apply for an get the tenure-track position, but not necessarily. To check out the details of the position, please click here: http://bit.ly/umt1915.

FYI, the University of Montana (which happens to be the coolest place on the planet right now) is an ADA/EOE/AA/Veteran’s Preference Employer.