Permission to Dream

Lately, I’ve been asking myself this question:  What is my deepest dream?

In many ways, my previous posts have all been leading up to this type of inquiry.  And I believe that once an initial crisis is resolved, or at least tempered, this is what we all want from therapy.  We may not know it, as most of us are drawn to mental health counseling to fix or solve a pressing problem.  But once we engage enough to find some stable ground beneath our feet, then what?

Previous clients of mine have often come to this point as a complete surprise.  One said to me, “you mean I get to decide what I want and go for it?”  I found this innocent question so endearing.  And yet it truly makes sense to me.  When we are in the depths of grief, depression, trauma, or other crisis, it simply does not feel like we have any power left.  Not even the power to dream.

Dreaming itself is a radical, empowered notion.  That you, despite the darkness you have experienced, can come through it, and can even move beyond it.  And that once you do, your options may actually be much more varied than you ever imagined.

While we can all recognize the limitations of loss, relationship turmoil, and financial downturns, to name a few, it’s not always so clear how these very same “problems” can eventually transform into the basis of new life, love, and hope.

For some reading this post, dreaming and hoping may feel very far off in the distance;  an unlikely outcome to the current struggles they face.  But even for you – if this is how you feel – even for you, I have found it powerful to just touch this idea.

Once I went to an aquarium which had a small tank, close to the ground, filled with small, harmless stingrays, swimming around and around.  The tank was open on top, and many small children (and children at heart) were standing around, petting stingrays as they swam by.  It was a very brief interaction with a creature that often invokes such fear.  But the awe it inspired in all the visitors was so clear.  The tank was located in the lobby, where those entering or leaving could enjoy the creatures.  But I noticed that it was more of those children on their way out that stopped to pet the stingrays.  Having seen the larger rays and sharks in the big tanks, they still took the chance, however fearful they might have been, to give this a try.

What would it take to place your hand, cautiously, along the back of a stingray as it swims by?  What would it take to place your heart in the proximity of a dream as it slowly takes shape?

Breaking Out of Bondage

As a mental health clinician, and maybe more so as a social justice-focused professional, it is my particular interest to help a client find her freedom.  Freedom, of course, is a relative term, defined differently by most people.  But here, I’m referring to psychiatric freedom.  The freedom to be happy.

The problem with crisis, is that during the heat of it, most of us feel trapped.  We do not feel free to make a good decision.  We do not feel free to find happiness when all seems bleak.  And the truth is that until we engage, with curiosity, about what else is possible for our lives, we cannot be free.

In this way, I really love the interpretation of the Jewish Passover story.  It tells the story of the ancient Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt.  But the word for Egypt in Hebrew is “mitzrayim” which translates as “the narrow places.”  The entire Passover story centers around the crisis of the Hebrews finally breaking out of the bondage of their slavery in “the narrow places,” and crossing into the mystery-filled freedom which awaited them.

This story speaks to me of the narrowness of the state of mind that my clients find themselves in when their lives reach a crisis.  “I don’t know what to do from here.”  “I can’t go back to the way I was, but I don’t know how to change.”  “I am out of options.”

The freedom needed in these moments of crisis will be different for each person.  But my experience, is that starting with the curiosity to find “what else” there is besides the crisis at hand, it always crucial to finding our personal freedom.  Not only does it become clear what our freedom is NOT (staying addicted to drugs, continuing to be depressed or even suicidal, staying in a violent domestic relationship), but it starts to beg the question of what a new alternative could be.

In Solution Focused Therapy, we call this line of questioning, “the miracle question.”  With the miracle question, I ask my client, “if a miraculous change occurred, and your crisis was completely resolved, never to return, what would that look like?  How would your life be different?”  And with this one simple question, my client now has permission to dream.

Jong, P., & Berg, I. (2002).  Interviewing for Solutions (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA:  Brooks/Cole.

Getting Curious

There comes a time, during my more successful interventions with patients, when a flicker of light beams from their eyes.  It’s so subtle, I might miss it if I wasn’t always watching for it.  But the truth is, I’m always watching for it.

What I’m watching for is a recognition that all hope is not lost.  But that recognition doesn’t come in the form of a verbal declaration, or even what’s sometimes called an “ah ha” moment of clarity.

What I see when someone is, for the first time, connecting with her inherent hope potential, is a moment of curiosity.  This curiosity is quite simple.  It is a subtle interest in what else is possible.  It almost always comes in the form of a “flash” in her eyes.

It is a vivid change in demeanor, in my experience.  Yet it lasts less than a second for most.  But that brief moment is the only time we need.

This brief moment of curiosity is the space in which a seed can be planted for change.

It is a gap in the urban concrete where a perfectly wild flower can grow.  It is a sun-filled break in the clouds of the seemingly permanent gray of Seattle’s winters.  It is the eye of the hurricane.

And even when my patient can’t see that she accessed this curiosity, this subtle interest, it still gives me direction.   As her guide, it helps me to see what particular questions might help her to breach her self-imposed armor which is preventing her from accessing the latent power of this decisive moment.

Once I have seen the hidden resting place of my patient’s curiosity, she will no longer be able to deny its existence, even if she continues to believe that her situation is truly hopeless.  The grip of hopelessness has been significantly weakened.  By connecting to a curiosity, however briefly, about how life can be different, she is moving toward freedom from the pain and fear of her crisis.

Turning toward Hope

But how can someone who feels hopeless even begin to turn toward hope, you might ask?  Recently I met a man who literally refused to consider that he had any hope left at all.

Again, as I mentioned in the last blog, I believe that hope is an inborn quality that we all possess.  With that said, hope is not something that can be lost.  Hope is also not something that one can run out of.  Hope cannot be quantified, and so cannot be lessened either.  We use the words hopeful and hopeless, but neither one is an actual measurement.  In fact, hope itself cannot be increased nor can it be depleted.

But how can that be true?  Especially since so many of us experience times when we feel very much full of hope, and other times, like the man I met this week, when we feel as though we will never have hope again.

In reality, this is a simple turn of our attention.  As much as is possible, imagine that hope itself is a fixed entity.  Like the North Star, it is actually something by which we can orient ourselves.  And like the North Star during daylight, there will be times when we can’t see our hope.  But, we can develop a sense of how it feels, and generally where it lives.  And while we can’t see it, or feel it, we can move toward it, to the best of our ability.

In recovery circles, they call this “acting as if.”

Now it’s important to remember something about the decisive moment of crisis.  It is just that, a decisive moment.  So in this moment, we can let the opportunity go by, and refuse to even enter into an “as if” thought process; or we can see the opportunity, and give it a try.  When I asked the man I met why he wouldn’t try to see whether he possessed any hope at all, he said to me, “Because I might not.  And that would hurt.”  To say this another way, he was afraid to discover what he already believed to be true – that he had no hope.  So instead of exploring the possibility of hope, he chose to believe the impossibility of it, and in so doing, he missed a crucial moment this time around.  There will be other times, of course.

Here is what I wish this man would have considered:  exploring the possibility of hope, in itself, is the first step to rediscovering your inherent hope potential.  This potential is a well-spring of life, peace, wisdom and even joy.  And it all begins with one simple quality:  curiosity.

Hope is an Eternal Element

Often in the experience of crisis, there isn’t time to consider philosophical questions, like “what is the fuel that takes the wood of a typical bad day, and turns it into a fire of change?”  But here, in the space of reflection, I’d venture to say that the fuel is hope.  Pure and simple.

It is my belief that hope is an inborn quality that we all possess.  Even in our darkest times, I’ve seen that hope does not actually disappear.  People sometimes tell me that they feel hopeless.  But after most sessions, this does not seem to be true.

I have literally never met a hopeless person.

I have met many desperate people.  Sad.  Disappointed.  Frustrated.  Angry.  Confused.  And yes, suicidal.  But never a person with no hope.

Even the drive toward suicide is a strong indication of hope.  Almost every suicidal person I have ever spoken with has confirmed for me that their hope is that suicide will end their pain.  They hope that suicide is the way out of their struggle.  It takes a great deal of energy to feel continuously suicidal, let alone complete this action.  When a client is in so much pain that he begins to speak of suicide, I see an opportunity to turn toward that hope.  And to put that hope to work for healing.

Amazingly, this simple reframing of a person’s desperation often proves magically powerful.  Again and again, I’ve seen hope begin to grow from the desert of his mind.  Hope is the thing that does not give up on you, even after you’ve given up on it.

Considering Help

Sometimes when a suicidal patient is referred to me as a mental health professional, the referral comes with a caveat, “he doesn’t really want to do it, he’s just asking for help.”  Whenever I receive this caveat, I marvel at the ignorance which puts “asking for help” in the category of something a person can “just” do.  No way!  Asking for help is absolutely one of the hardest and most crucial things a person can do.  Ever.

Again, our culture somehow vilifies the person who asks for help, seeing him as weak, as lacking independence, as lacking strength. And again, I’m standing here questioning this logic. My experience has shown me that the act of asking for help, or even just showing up with tears and no words to express the internal pain and struggle – this is strength.

That a person shows up, seeking assistance, should be seen as admirable.  A decision has been made already.  She showed up.  She may still not know if she wants to fully quit her toxic habits, or end a painful or abusive relationship, or crawl out of her darkness.  But she knows that she needs to consider this change.

This is the decisive moment.  And it is often born from a string of painful moments that precede it.  And a hope for an end to the pain.

Asking the Question

The courage to ask the decisive question (how do we go on? Where do we go from here?) begins even before the question is asked.  Many people believe that if they have landed in a crisis experience, a “decisive moment” in their lives, that it means they have somehow failed.  They think that if they land in a hospital, or a therapist’s office, a detox facility, or even jail, that it is a sign of how they performed poorly in life.  Of course, this is what we’re trained to believe from a fairly young age in our culture.  Those who end up in a vulnerable position are weak.

But I question that.  And I hope you do too.

As Dr. Brené Brown has brought to light in her popular Ted talks and books, vulnerability is not the weakness we so often believe it to be, but rather a source of strength, creativity and connection.

When it comes to crisis, while the moment is full of so much tension, I believe the same vulnerability can be accessed, and yes, put to work.  This may come as a surprise.  How can someone in crisis allow themselves to open up to their inherent vulnerability, and allow themselves to be changed for the better?  How can they receive love, direction, and even peace during the stormy chaos of an emergency?

I may not be able to fully answer the question of “how,” but I can without a doubt say, “yes we can.”

My confidence in this comes from experience.  I have seen terrible moments of crisis develop into beautiful bright crystalline moments of hope.

Brown, B. (2010, June). The Power of Vulnerability [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en