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.

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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.

Simple Meditation Steps For All Ages

By Concentric Counselor Michelle Taufmann, LCSW

These are the instructions for the basic meditation on the breath that I teach clients. Meditation on the breath is a simple, classic form of meditation that has been used for thousands of years to strengthen one’s focus and ability to sustain full awareness.

First, sit on the floor on a meditation pillow, or in a chair. Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, but not rigid. If you are sitting in a chair it is best to sit forward with your back away from the back of the chair (rather than leaning back into the chair). You want
to assume a posture that facilitates being alert, yet relaxed. Next, close your eyes, or if you prefer, lower your to a gaze about a foot in front of your feet on the floor. The purpose of closed eyes (or lowered gaze) is to remove visual distractions from the field of perception. Now, take a moment to relax your head, neck, shoulders and arms by rotating them, tensing and releasing them, and/or shaking them out; these parts of the body tend to hold a lot of
tension.

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You are now ready to begin the meditation on the breath. Start by noticing your breath as it comes into and out of your body. The experience of the breath coming into or out of the body is most noticeable in the following areas of the body: at the nostrils (the sensation of the breath going into and out of the nostrils), at the chest (the sensation of the chest rising and falling, and at the abdomen (the sensation of the abdomen rising and falling). Choose one of these areas on which to observe the breath. It usually works best to choose the area of the body where the sensation of breathing is the strongest for you. Now, simply attend to the breath. Think of it as being present to the experience of breathing. Your attention on the
breath should be light; you do not want to concentrate or think about the breath.

Once you have stabilized your attention on your breath, sit in this way for the designated amount of time. Ten minutes is the recommended amount of time for beginners. If you are like most people, you will fairly soon notice that your mind has wandered. When you notice
this, gently let go of the distraction, whether it is a thought, sound, or  internal sensation, and bring your attention back to your breath. Continue in this way, returning your mind to your breath each time you become aware that it has wandered. Remember to do this with
patience and gentleness.

Try not to become frustrated or judge yourself if your attention wanders frequently. Frequent mind-wandering is normal and to be expected, especially for beginners. Becoming frustrated or judging yourself for not being able to sustain attention on the breath is simply further distraction from your meditation practice and should be dropped as quickly and gently as other distractions are dropped during your practice. 

With practice, mediation of the breath will strengthen your focus and ability to sustain full awareness.

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!