Men, Loneliness, and the Substance Substitute

By Concentric Counselor Myron Nelson, LCPC

We know it is true when we take stock of our lives, although it is easier to simply ignore. We do not have the same number of friends that we used to. We definitely do not have the same number of close friends, friends we could call in an emergency. Whether it is technology taking up more of our time, a culture that promotes handling problems on your own, or some other reason, it is clear we do not connect in the same way.

Due to factors that will be explored in this blog post, half of the population is more vulnerable to the Great Friend Migration. Men, myself included, are bombarded with societal forces that encourage segregation. We are instructed to cope with problems silently, internally. Isolate yourself or be shamed. We are taught to detest emotions, push them down or aside but do not let them grow. Best to not spend time with other people if we are in an emotional state.

Consequently, our problems grow bigger, the stress becomes heavier, and the emotions continue to build up until we are neck deep. Keeping quiet and keeping it to ourselves, we fall deeper into our own thoughts. Expecting that other people do not want to be burdened with our issues. We drift apart from friends because we do not know how our problems could possibly fit into their lives.

What’s next? We turn to something that can help. Something that makes us feel better, it’s reliable, it’s dependable, it does not judge us, and it does not share our secrets. Alcohol and other drugs can become a refuge for emotional pain. They can buffer feelings of anxiety or depression and temporarily give us the mask we want to keep the facade going.

lonely man.jpg

Alcohol and drugs can slowly become something we depend on but that dependency is dangerous. What starts as a solution to the problem becomes its own problem. Substances attempt to fill the void that other people used to, but they will never be enough. Substances can never talk back to us and make us feel cared for and understood. They cannot debate options with us and challenge us to be better. Substances offer complacency but relationships give us acceptance and growth. It takes courage and a leap of faith to connect with another man and share your problems but it is truest the solution.

The irony is, that we all want to lean on each other but are scared to lean first. It is society’s expectation about men and men’s expectations about society that propel this problem into an epidemic. When we let our predictions go and venture into reality, it’s clear that other men feel the same way we do and we can meet each other with compassion and caring.

Men are not inherently isolating and society is not inherently cold. Expect that other people feel the way you feel. Expect that as a man you will experience things that other men experience. Expect that others want to know about your struggles because they want to be able to lean on you too.

If you find yourself experiencing The Great Friend Migration, convincing yourself that filling your loneliness with substances is better than the alternative - opening up, reaching out, and relying on a male friend, I encourage you to stand up to your shame, choose connection, and lean it to a friend.

Your Voice Matters: Honest Discussion about Mental Health and Addiction

By Concentric Counselor Jennifer Larson, LCPC, NCC

It’s been about 3 months since Concentric Counseling & Consulting hosted its first On The Table 2017 conversation, and I am still impacted by the experience.  First let me backpedal to how I first learned about The Kennedy Forum, one of the co-sponsors of On The Table

It was the Fall of 2015 and I was having a conversation with my friend Caroline McAteer about various social issues and she had asked me if I heard of The Kennedy Forum.  Much to my chagrin, I had sheepishly told her that I hadn’t.  She told me about The Kennedy Forum’s mission and details of their annual meeting.  I was instantly intrigued and had to dig in.

Of the many things learned, one of them was Patrick Kennedy of The Kennedy Forum and his involvement with The Mental Health and Addiction Parity Act of 2008; he is still putting forth advocacy efforts to have The Act enforced on a national level.  I remember the buzz just before The Act went into federal law as I knew all too well the red tape and consequences people, including my own therapy clients, faced with limited mental health sessions imposed by insurance companies.

Fast forward to Spring 2017, and I learned about On The Table initiatives (co-sponsored by The Kennedy Forum and The Chicago Community Trust). Once again, I was intrigued.  On The Table initiative is about having people host open and honest conversations about mental health and addiction in effort to #BreakTheSilence and eliminate the stigma around mental illness and addiction that still greatly exists. 

As a counselor, I regularly encourage my clients to use their voice whether it is to share, increase vulnerability or intimacy, honor or advocate for oneself, and to work through the shame that often plagues people with mental illness and addiction. 

Concentric Counseling & Consulting Therapists On The Table 2017 Millennium Park Chicago

The focus of psychotherapy with my clients typically entails understanding and resolving challenges with one’s intrapsychic and interpersonal relationships (represented by inner concentric circles, hence the name Concentric) versus the larger, social systems (outer concentric circles).  Participating and joining forces with other hosts to help end the stigma associated with mental health and addiction while giving people an opportunity to use their voice fit Concentric’s mission with helping others to your their voice – but this time on a macro level.    

On May 16, 2017, the therapists at Concentric Counseling & Consulting hosted its first On The Table 2017 conversation in Millennium Park, across the street from our office.  It was an unseasonably warm and windy day, and our topic was "Your Voice Matters: Mental Health and Addiction.  Honest Discussion About Why More People Don't Seek Out Help." 

Concentric Counseling & Consulting Therapists On The Table Millennium Park Chicago

We had an incredibly diverse group of people who actively participated.  It was such an honor to hear people’s stories and ideas about why more people don’t seek out help.  So many stories and barriers were shared.  Common themes emerged and were extracted.  Follows are some of the common themes people described that either prevented them or others they know from seeking services:

  • Stigma, embarrassment, and shame.  Seeking help is seen as a weakness.  What will my family and friends really think about me?  Will I be seen as a ‘nutcase?’ Denial about having a problem or my ego getting in the way.
  • Financial burden and obligations. Lacking financial resources all together.  Treatment is a privilege for only those who can afford it. Lack or poor insurance coverage. All of the convoluted layers to insurance coverage.
  • Lack of information and available resources on how and where to find mental health and addiction services.  Example given was local university offered free counseling services to its students but was not aware of services until his senior year of college. Not knowing how to access services or where to start. Location and other barriers to gaining access to solid services.
  • Cultural barriers and roadblocks, including families of certain cultures not supportive of mental health services. Experience with providers who lack cultural, gender identity, and sexual orientation competence. Religious barriers and lack of supports within religious communities.

It is a reminder to all of that us that suffering from mental illness and/or addition is hard in of itself, not to mention having to endure additional barriers that get in the way of seeking and accessing help.  Some of the solutions shared were not only to address or remove the aforementioned barriers and roadblocks, but to focus on the equity of mental and physical health. 

People remarked how it is much easier and more acceptable to talk about their physical ailments, but not their mental health.  Let’s look at people wholistically and give the mental health side the same due attention and respect.  Another solution shared was to target childhood prevention. 

One of the guests remarked in early childhood, we learn the importance of daily hygiene, such as brushing our teeth daily.  Why not introduce conversation around mental health care at an early age or make mental health education mandatory in schools.   Also, when providing education on mental illness and addiction, don’t use extreme or scare tactics, such as the “This is Your Brain” drug campaign did in the 1980s.  Guests remarked it only silences people more. Instead, provide a spectrum of information that can resonate with or speak to a variety of people across all ages and cultures.

My hope is that the information shared from our diverse group in Chicago can continue to be shared with others. And importantly, inspire all of us to participate in more active conversations about mental health and addiction whether it’s in your home, at work, in your community or as an On The Table host.  Because Your Voice Does Matter!      


Is All Drug Use Created Equal?

By Concentric Counselor Myron Nelson, LCPC    Edited by Concentric Counselor Jennifer Larson, LCPC, NCC

All drug use is not created equal.  Take a look at that statement again and see if it contradicts or confirms your views on substance use.  I hope by the end of this post you feel it does both.  As a country, we are simultaneously experiencing an opioid heroin epidemic and progression in the legalization of marijuana. Clearly, drug use is not so black and white.  I aim to gray the edges and disrupt some of your beliefs because critical thinking is needed in these cacophonous times.  

We often tell kids to beware the slippery slope of drugs.  As if smoking marijuana is a banana peel slide away from cocaine or criminal behavior.  Not only does that argument neglect to account for alcohol (being many adolescents first introduction into mind-altering substances), but it also purports that all drug use is inherently related or equal.  To say that one drug can lead to the use of another may be true, but that is because things kept hidden away in the dark tend to be hidden together.  Research debating the effects of the slippery slope can teeter in either side's favor but both sides would agree that every individual person's path does not neatly align one way or the other.  That point should not be ignored.  

If you are concerned about someone's drug use, talk with him or her about it.  There may be underlying mental illness issues or some form of trauma that is being treated by the effects of substances.  Many will turn to substances to self-medicate symptoms of mental illness, neglect or trauma.  Additionally, experimenting with drug use can be a normative behavior for certain subgroups.  That does not mean it is safe or healthy, but it also does not mean its intent is malicious.

When you talk with someone about their behavior, be sure to not talk at them.  Be mindful that attacking or judging their behavior typically is not going to lead to a productive conversation.  Come to them seeking to fully understand them and what is going on.  Coming down with an iron first also spreads the message that substance use is only dangerous.  To pretend that substances or drugs do not produce a euphoric or calming effect creates misconceptions.  

If I were to cite research and share stories about the detriments of TV and forbade you from ever watching it, what might happen if you finally caught a glimpse of some TV show?  You might find it enjoyable and then seek out other people who like to watch it too.  You may then find yourself containing this information for fear of being criticized by others.  So it becomes one of your secrets.  Likewise, what if all you heard about alcohol was that it causes hangovers?  

If you inform people about the benefits and consequences of substance use then they can start to formulate the foundation of decision-making and choices.  If you think it is too dangerous to expose them to that knowledge, you may need to think again.  You cannot stop it as images and scenarios of people enjoying being high on some kind of substance are constant in the media.  Plus, putting up walls of censorship in the Internet era can be futile with certain people.  You do not have to fight a battle against people discovering drugs can have positive effects; you can incorporate that as part of your conversations.  Conversations with a 's' -- it is plural for a reason.  No topic as big as substance use is going to be covered in one sit down.

Given what I've written so far you may imagine that I am an advocate in a way that I am not.  When it comes to most substances and drugs, I take a firm stance that substance dependence is unsafe with detrimental consequences.  I do not think someone's only way to relax after a long day at work should be to drink a beer and I do not think someone who is constantly depressed should seek to escape with substances, such as ecstasy.  How someone is using should be discussed as well as what they are using.  Certain drugs are more associated with images of horror or suffering, sometimes rightfully so, but do not let the name fool you.  

This blog post is one part informative, two parts inquiry.  It is a questioning of the commonplace idea that we have to draw deep lines in the sand about what drugs are not okay and when.  We would all benefit from looking at all use in more detail.  Parting words -- Experimentation is not addiction. Information is not dangerous (taking into account age and other factors).  Open up the conversation and have many of them.  Seek professional help if you believe you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse or dependence.