Replenishing the Tools in Your Toolbox

If you are like me, you may be super-high functioning in certain areas (writing, helping people, being a loving and creative mom) and practically disabled in others (keeping your house clean, changing a fuse, asking for what you need).

Growing up in a family that struggled with issues of alcoholism, codependency, divorce, mental illness, middle-class insecurities and owning-class entitlements didn’t give me every tool I needed for life. My parents and stepparents did an awesome job of working with the tools they were given to the best of their abilities, and I have a close, loving, mutually respectful relationship with all four of them.

However, each of them (like pretty much all of us) were given only a partial tool box to start with. My grandmother had a severe breakdown when my mom was only seven. My stepfather’s single mother left him alone in their apartment for days and weeks on end, paying a restaurant to feed him, while she went off to find work after the war. My father spent his early childhood in Europe as World War II was heating up, then had a harrowing cross-Atlantic trip to the United States, leaving his father behind in England to fight and perhaps be killed, only to reunite with him years later, and try to readjust as a family. My stepmother’s sister was kidnapped, raped and murdered.

Is it any wonder that they were missing a few tools? Even if you add a few tools as you go along, things fall out along the way, as the tool box is handed down from generation to generation. I could go back to my grandparent’s stories and tell you what happened to them, and to their parents, to trace the reasons why perfectly good people picked up distress patterns that interfered with their ability to provide their children the environment and information they needed to know how to get along in life completely smoothly, happily and efficiently.

So what do you do? Where do you find the tools? You can’t just order them from a catalogue, because most of these tools are relationship-based tools. Even when I was given what I needed, I didn’t always know how to use it. For example, there were times where I had plenty of money to live on, and I still didn’t have the tools to use it properly. Or I had a partner who might have been willing to help me, but I didn’t have the language to ask for what I needed. I needed to be taught these skills over a period of time by other people: giving me encouragement, telling me their own stories of how they learned and where they struggled, and following my progress and celebrating with me when I was able to get past a stuck place.

Expecting the tools to magically appear simply by reading a self-help book or attending a single workshop is a bit like giving a child a book and expecting her to know how to read. Reading is actually a relationship-based skill that develops over time between people. To learn to read well and with feeling and intonation involves hearing other people read to you and feeling the enjoyment of a good story, and getting the encouragement you need when you can’t read a word, or get frustrated in the process. It’s a lot of work, but once you have the tool of reading, it opens up a whole bunch of other possibilities in life.

For me, there have been several really helpful influences as an adult. The first were the 12-step programs of recovery. For me Al-anon (for those dealing with codependency) has been the most helpful, but there are an almost infinite number of programs. Twelve-step programs provide a free, safe, and ever-present place you can go to speak out about what is bothering you, to share your experience, strength and hope, and to listen to others, who may be further along the same road, share the tools that are helping them. It is an amazing feeling to be traveling in another country and be able to drop in on a meeting and find an instant supportive community that shares a common thread with you—the thread of something that you are working on to change in your life.

The second has been the Co-counseling (or Re-evaluation Counseling) community. Co-counseling teaches people how to be really good listeners, and how to discharge old hurts using basic human tools like laughing, crying, sweating, and trembling with a supportive person right there with you giving you the support and encouragement you need to let it out. As a society we have forgotten how to do this, because it isn’t safe in most places to burst into tears or ask for a hug. We expect our own intimate partners to help us out with this, but we often have so many hurts and resentments built up, that we don’t feel the support from them even when it is offered.

Co-counseling, again, is an ongoing, free exchange of help, available around the world at any time. More in-depth trainings and workshops are offered on a sliding scale.

The third has been working with a personal coach. Coaching is not free (though I think a model could be developed similar to co-counseling in which people could be trained to do it for each other). But coaching has been some of the best money I have spent in the past year. Working intensely in a one-on-one relationship with a coach has helped me define my goals, set priorities, change old habits, and accomplish things that seemed like distant desires.

My coach is Scott Graham. I’m sure there are many good coaches out there, but I like Scott’s sense of humor, and background as an addictions counselor, outward bound instructor and computer geek. The fact that he is openly gay, I think, takes away some of the paternalistic patterns that might otherwise get triggered by having a male coach. I think of him as a tough-love big brother (even though we are exactly the same age) who is helping me craft, by hand, some of the tools that fell out of my tool box. Or sometimes he just hands me one and says “Here, take this, I’ve got an extra.” Or “Hey, did you know those are on sale right down the street?” or “Oh my God, no wonder you are having trouble, that’s the wrong tool!” or “Here, let me show you how to hold that tool, it would work a lot better if you do it like this…”

For me, there is a special connection with Scott, because I originally met him when he came crawling into my office with a weird virus that had left him unable to walk. (Yes, I have his permission to tell you this.) He was very skeptical of my work, but desperate for help, and the doctors had given up on him. I took his case homeopathically, gave him a remedy, and within a few days he was back on his feet. Six months later he hiked a presidential traverse through the White Mountains. A year later, he had changed his career and become a coach. Some time after that, I realized I needed some help myself, and since he was no longer coming to me as a patient I asked him if he’d consider working with me. It was a bit odd to switch things around, but in small towns we are used to using the resources that are available when we need them, and it has worked out fine. I also know that he has a personal experience of my philosophy and my work, and that is a nice extra in our coaching relationship.

Since last May, (it is now January), I went from having the brilliant but scattered beginnings of a writing project, to having a nearly finished manuscript of a book I’ve been wanting to write for years. I have given three public readings from the manuscript, and have met with people in the publishing and self-publishing world to gather information about what is next. It has become a step-by-step project that I know will be completed within the year, because I can see exactly what needs to be done, and have done the research and footwork to know what the next steps are.

How did this happen? By having a person who probed and prodded enough to help me figure out that, other than my highest priority of raising my children well, this was actually the most important project in my life, and then probed and prodded some more until I set myself a writing schedule.

In the same eight month period, I became certified in my second profession. Since I already have a medical license in Acupuncture, I had not taken the time to sit for the national exam in Homeopathy, since legally it is not required. ( I had already written a homeopathy textbook and been practicing for years. ) Again, a few simple questions from Scott made it clear that this was an important priority that I was ignoring because it seemed impossibly time-consuming. Being uncertified, while perfectly legal, made it difficult for me to get teaching jobs, and gave me a little chip on my shoulder when talking to colleagues. With a minimum of coaxing from Scott, I gathered my paperwork, prepared for and took the exam, which I passed with flying colors—while 39 percent of my colleagues tried and failed. Gentle reminders to keep me on task, and the knowledge that there was someone else cheering me on and waiting to hear the results, it turned out, were all I needed to jump through the required hoops.

Having a good coach, having a community of co-counselors, and the support of a 12-step group, are kind of like having a second chance at being parented, or supported and encouraged by your big brothers and sisters, in the way that your parents and siblings would have liked to support you, but couldn’t, because of the few tools that fell out of their own tool box, as it was handed down through the generations.

Didi Pershouse

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