Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Painfully Personal Post #1: Why everyone should see a good therapist now and again

Last fall, I wrote that I wanted to start writing some "painfully personal posts". I admire bloggers who do it but I've never had much stomach for writing stuff that makes me feel vulnerable. However, after an excellent session with my therapist this week, I decided it was time to revisit a post I started back then and see if I could work up the nerve to hit "publish". Here goes.

I see a psychologist every month or two. It's not a big secret but it's not something I talk much about either because - you know - people might think I'm "crazy" or "emotionally unstable" or something. In fact, the opposite is true - that is, I'm saner and more emotionally stable when I've got someone to talk with about things that are worrying me.

Not all therapists are created equal, of course, but the best ones offer a safe place to test your perceptions of yourself and others and strategize about how best to deal with life's challenges. They also provide objective perspectives you can't get from friends and family and put your issues in the broader social, cultural and behavioural context so that (a) you feel less weird about having issues and (b) you learn from others' experiences.

The first time I sought counselling was during my freshman year at university 30+ years ago, when I felt overwhelmed by the realization that the world was a truly awful place that was going to be much more difficult to change than I thought. It sounds ridiculous now but that was honestly what distressed me at the time - the fact that I couldn't fix "the world".  Fortunately, my counselor was a very wise woman who recognized my desire to make the world a better place was sincere, and helped me develop an appropriate Plan B, which was to focus on contributing in more modest ways to advancing causes I cared about.

The next time I went looking for help was soon after I began practicing law. Like many lawyers, I was disheartened by the cutthroat realities of private practice - even in a relatively small firm. To be frank, the psychologist I saw that time didn't impress me much but she did offer some practical advice that helped me make some difficult professional choices - choices I've never regretted - and I'll always be grateful for that.

The last time I was referred to a psychologist was a few years ago when, between jobs, suffering from insomnia and struggling with assorted personal relationships, I found myself at risk of sinking into clinical depression. During the darkest days of that period, I found it nearly impossible to drag myself out of bed some days, there was no joy in my life, and (occasionally) I even considered suicide. Depression's a tough thing to talk about - especially when you're acutely conscious (as I was) that your life is so much better than the lives of most people on our little blue planet. How could I be depressed? How could I feel so hopeless, helpless?

Once again, I was fortunate to find the help I needed - therapists who not only commiserated (because we all need sympathy from time to time) but, more importantly, helped me sort out what I could do about the things that were troubling me. Their goal and mine wasn't just to figure out why I was confused and hurting but to get me on the road to recovery as soon as possible. Together, we re-framed my situation in more hopeful terms, developed action plans that enabled me to regain control of my life, and celebrated each step out of and away from the abyss into which I'd fallen.

Clearly, therapy has helped get me through some tough times but why do I think everyone could benefit from having a good therapist?  Because, in my view, we live in a pretty screwed up culture - one that encourages people to believe things about themselves and others that are downright destructive. The beliefs serve advertisers and others who with an interest in modifying/manipulating our behaviour, but do little to help us find peace and contentment.

For example, there are far too many of us working to make money to pay for toys we never have time to use with friends we rarely see. Worse, we're told we're unambitious if we don't aspire to have a bigger house, a more expensive car, a higher paying job, the perfect look, etc. And the flipside is that we place very little value on time to just be, or on being compassionate with ourselves and other.

I can't know for sure I'll never fall into a dark place again but having more tools gives me confidence I'll be able to cope if I do. In the meantime, occasional sessions with my psychologist (incidentally, one of the coolest women I know) help me deal with routine challenges before they balloon into something more serous.

Having trouble thinking through a problem? Need to talk with someone who's objective? Looking for ideas for dealing with an issue in your personal or professional life?  My advice is to book an appointment with a good therapist and see what the two of you can figure out together.  Oh, and go for a run. Running's good therapy for whatever ails your head or your heart.

Okay, so it turns out that wasn't so hard. Look for another painfully personal post soon.   :-)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Scotland: Part 2 - In search of my roots

Images from the road from Glencoe to Kinloch Rannoch

After a wonderful five days in Ballachulish, our next destination was Kinloch Rannoch - a tiny village nestled against mountains on the shores of Loch Rannoch. I'd included it in our itinerary because I wanted to visit the place my great great great great grandfather, Donald McIntosh, lived before he emigrated to Canada.

As it turned out, the village wasn't an easy place to reach. It's only about 20km from Glencoe as the crow flies but there's no road connecting the two directly so we had to drive 150kms around the moor and approach it from the east. Given that the roads were so narrow and winding - particularly for the last 40kms or so, the trip took several hours!  Fortunately, it was another perfect day and the scenery was gorgeous so we enjoyed the journey.

Leaving Glencoe behind

Serendipitously, our route took us past Castle Menzies, the ancestral home of the Menzies Clan, to which a dear friend belongs, so we stopped long enough to take a few photos for her before making our way to Kinloch Rannoch.

Castle Menzies

We don't know much about Donald McIntosh, other than that he settled in New Annan, Nova Scotia, and beget a large family of McIntoshes (now known as MacIntoshes), who still call that part of the world "home". We didn't intend to do any serious geneological research while we were there - just wander around the village imagining what it might have been like in the early 1820s when Donald lived there.

The village of Kinloch Rannoch

Kinloch Rannock, the community from whence came my McIntosh ancestor

It was another mild, sunny day so we ate our picnic lunch sitting on a bench in the village square. After lunch, we wandered across the river and happened on a fairly large graveyard, where we searched the headstones for some evidence McIntoshes had resided in the area. At first, it seemed our efforts would be in vain since we couldn't find any grave markers with that name but, as I circled around the chapel to check the older stones in the far corner of graveyard, I spotted a small marker that read simply:
In memory of Donald McIntosh who died the 7th of June 1854 aged 54 years.
A stone in memory of Donald McIntosh

As far as we know, "our" Donald never returned to Scotland so it seems unlikely the stone marks his grave. On the other hand, how likely is it there were two Donald McIntoshes of about the same age living in the Kinloch Rannoch at the same time - particularly, given there are no other McIntosh stones? The position of the marker too - tucked away in a corner - made me I wonder if someone who remained behind when my ancestor left for Canada erected the stone in his memory when he died.

Another shot of the stone in Kinloch Rannoch cemetery

We noticed other stones commemorating people who'd died overseas so it's a plausible explanation but I don't suppose we'll ever know for sure. Still, it's nice to think that three decades after he emigrated Donald may have been remembered fondly by someone in Kinloch Rannoch.

Once we'd had our fill of Kinloch Rannoch, we climbed back in the car and headed up the road to Rannoch Station, where we intended to spend the night at the Moor of Rannoch Hotel. The hotel was a bit of a splurge for us since we were travelling on a budget, but I'd read marvelous things about it and we thought we ought to have one night in a romantic inn given that the trip was intended to mark our 25th wedding anniversary.

Moor of Rannoch Hotel - a fabulous spot at the end of a single track road. I recommend taking the train there.

We weren't disappointed. Though the road to from Kinloch Rannoch to Rannoch Station was single track and somewhat nerve-wracking at times, the Hotel made the trip totally worthwhile. It's operated by a wonderful young couple, Scott and Steph, who obviously know a thing or two about hospitality. Everything was perfect - from the comfortable decor in the common rooms and Steph's delicious meals, to the roaring fires, cheese and whisky hour (with whisky appreciation lessons by Scott), a resident deer herd, and a perfectly appointed room, complete with an antique tub for two! And did I mention there was no radio, TV, or Wifi?  Heaven for someone who appreciates peace and tranquility as much as we do!

Our room at the Moor of Rannoch Hotel

Rannoch Station views

The deer herd of Rannoch Station

Though we arrived too late in the day for a proper hike on the moor, we still had time for a short meander to Loch Laidon, where we spent a  pleasant hour relaxing on the beach, drinking in views before returning to the Hotel to sample a couple of local brews before supper.

Loch Laidon

Luke enjoying a fall evening beside Loch Laidon, a short walk from the hotel

If and when we return to Scotland, Rannoch Station will certainly be on our itinerary once more, though of course we'll plan to stay longer. There's something magical about the moor, and the Hotel would be a wonderful base from which to explore it.

Rannoch Station views

For more photos from our time in Kinloch Rannoch and Rannoch Station, follow this link to my Flickr album.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Scotland: Part 1 - My heart's in the Highlands

Our first view of Glencoe from a distance

We arrived in Glasgow early Saturday morning after a comfortable overnight flight from Halifax and picked up our car at the airport. Our plan was to take all day to reach our first port of call, North Ballachulish, just a few kilometres from the Village of Glencoe.

En route, we stopped for a couple of hours in Luss, a picturesque village perched on the shores of Loch Lomond. After enjoying a delicious breakfast at the Village Rest, we took a short walk along the river that meandered around and through the village and stopped to observe folks prepping for a wedding in a local church. So far, so good. We were in high spirits as we climbed back into the car to head north.

The countryside near Luss

Preparing for a wedding in LussLoch Lomond

The next few hours were a good deal less relaxing as we negotiated the narrow winding roads along Loch Lomond and the Moor of Rannoch. Given that the roads were so narrow, the stone walls so unforgiving, and the buses and lorries so threatening, I was grateful we'd rented a tiny car. I'm sure my blood pressure was a few points higher by the time Glen Coe came into view.  Fortunately, the scenery made the journey totally worthwhile.

Glencoe mountains

From the moment we arrived, I was bewitched by the Glen, It's hard to put into words but I immediately sensed the spirit of the place - as if every drop of MacDonald and MacIntosh blood flowing through my veins responded to ancient music playing just beyond my hearing. In some primordial way, I was home.

Glencoe mountains

Happy to have arrived in Glencoe

Our studio in North Ballachulish was a wonderful base for the next five days - not least because the views were terrific, our rooms were clean and comfortable, and our hosts (both of whom were musicians) invited us to join them for a couple of traditional music jams at local pubs.

The view from our studio

We were blessed with excellent weather for much of our time in Glen Coe. Plenty of sunshine and mild temperatures made spending time outdoors a joy.

Our first full day day, we visited the Glencoe Massacre Monument before exploring the trails around Glencoe Lochan in the morning and Glen Righ in the afternoon. Unfortunately, we got a bit disoriented on the trails at Glen Righ so ended up walking 4 or 5 kilometres farther than we intended but it was no great hardship. We had plenty of time and the views were gorgeous. Needless to say we slept well that night.

The Pap of Glencoe from the Glencoe Lochan

Glencoe Lochan

On one of our first easy hikes.

A view from the Waterfall trail

The next day, we drove to Oban for a more laid-back day. After a fantastic lunch of steamed muscles and fish sandwiches on the pier, we toured the Oban Distillery, then hiked to the top of town to visit McCaig's Tower (aka McCaig's Folly). The Tower was commissioned by a wealthy banker to create employment for local stonemasons during the winter months. Though it seems a little out of place, it has the advantage of providing wonderful views over the harbour.


View of Oban harbour from McCaig's Tower


Oban harbour

We really liked Oban. It was friendly, attractive little place, well worth visiting again when we have more time. There were plenty of pleasant looking guesthouses with breathtaking views of the harbour.


En route back from Oban, we stopped to visit Dunstaffnage Castle. Now in ruins, the castle has a fascinating history. It was originally built by the MacDougalls, but the small graveyard adjacent to the ruined chapel is filled with Campbell headstones because they were the last inhabitants of the property.

Dunstaffnage Castle built on a massive rock formation

Views from Dunstaffnage Castle

Some history of the Castle

This photo of Husband gives some sense of the size of the massive rocks upon which the castle rests.

Luke at the base of Dunstaffnage Castle

As is so often the case, my eye was caught by light spilling through windows in the ancient stone walls.

Inside Dunstaffnage CastleInside Dunstaffnage Castle

On the third day, we tackled our most ambitious "walk" so far - a 4 km hike along a trail winding between two mountains into the Lost Valley (Coire Gabhail). It's considered an easy route compared with others in the area but, given we were still recovering from jetlag, we found the 335m climb along narrow, rocky paths challenging enough.

The weather was perfect - mild and sunny - and we had the trail and the valley almost entirely to ourselves. It's said the MacDonalds hid the cattle they "borrowed" in the valley so I found myself imagining what it must have been like to spend long dark nights huddled round fires built close to the base of the huge rocks that were left behind by the glaciers that created the valley.

The floor of the Lost Valley was littered with fantastic rocks

Another hiker savouring the spirit of the Highlands

After a picnic lunch and a short rest, we hiked out of the Valley. Husband took this photo on the return trip. If you look closely, you can just make out the road and a couple of trucks far below.

Hiking out of the Lost Valley. You can make out the road below if you look carefully.

We also stopped to take a few photos of the Three Sisters. Some day, I'd like to try hiking up the Pap of Glencoe.

Luke savouring the views in Glencoe

At the end of our first big hike!

We thought we might tackle a second hike after lunch but it was so warm and we were so weary, we opted for a pint on the deck of the Clachaig Inn instead. When I went inside to collect our drinks, I was amused to see this sign in the lobby. Given that my great grandmother was a MacDonald, it was a sentiment I could appreciate.

Clearly, this is still a MacDonald establishment

We spent most of our last day on the west coast aboard the Jacobite Steam Train (aka the Harry Potter train) travelling from Fort William to Mallaig and back. We enjoyed the trip, especially our lengthy conversation with an impressive young couple from Stirling, but I confess I'd have preferred to spend the day hiking. The weather was incredible! Fortunately, after a delicious lunch of fresh fish and local beer, we had an hour or so to explore the Mallaig waterfront before boarding the train for the return journey.

The Jacobite Steam Train (aka the Harry Potter train)

The view from Mallaig

A ferry departing Mallaig

I've not yet mentioned the sunsets in Ballachulish. Nearly every evening, we found ourselves back at the studio in time to take in the stunning sunsets while sipping a pre-dinner glass of wine. Needless to say I couldn't resist putting my camera to work.

Another sunset from our studio

A sunset view from our patio

Another beautiful N. Ballachulish sunset

On our last evening, we walked to Ballachulish Bridge to get better views of a last glorious sunset over Loch Linnhe, and found ourselves envying some kayakers we spotted returning from a paddle along its shores. Being on the water must have been magical.

Our last Ballachulish sunset

Our last Ballachulish sunset

Preparing to leave Ballachulish on our last morning, I realized I was leaving a piece of my heart behind. Or perhaps it's truer to say the Highlands had taken up residence in my heart. Whatever the case, it's a beautiful part of the world I'd very much like to visit again one day.

For more photos from our Highland adventures, you can check out this set on Flickr.  If all goes well, I'll be sharing more of our Scottish adventures in the weeks ahead.