Testosterone spikes this season

13 Nov

Ah, the autumn! Crisp air, glorious colours,  the delicious harvest, and look out - the peak of your annual testosterone levels.

More than any other season, the fall seems to have the most birthdays, doesn’t it? A September-born friend of mine jokes about being a “Christmas Party Baby”, but it turns out that there is more to it than a slap, tickle, and one too many cups of holiday cheer.

“Testosterone levels and sperm counts are highest in late fall and early winter… the peak times for human births in the Northern Hemisphere is around August or September – 9 months after the high testosterone levels of the preceeding fall.” (Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers: Testosterone and Behavior).

According to Jed Diamond in The Irritable Male Syndrome,  testosterone levels cycle throughout the year: “Studies conducted in the US, France, Australia found that men secrete their highest levels of sex hormones in October and their lowest levels in April.”

The irritable male syndrome is characterized by a “state of hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration, and anger that occurs in males and is associated with biochemical changes, hormonal fluctuations, stress, and a loss of male identity.”  Diamond claims that there is a seasonal aspect to the irritable male syndrome that makes men “more irritable when days shorten and there is less light. The decline in testosterone between October and April may contribute to this irritability.”

When I read these two books a few years ago, I was left wondering why it’s taken us so long to start examining men like we do women. As I research further, I have found that male hormonal swings may be more powerful and more prevalent than female hormonal fluctuations, and yet women have been pinned as the changeable, screaming, crying, mood-and sometimes axe-swinging slaves to their monthly hormone changes.

Not only does a man’s testosterone level change throughout the year, it is constantly changing all day and every day – when men go to sleep, testosterone is on the rise hour by hour until its peak upon waking in the morning (if you don’t believe me, gentlemen, think about what you wake up with every day). By the afternoon, the hormone levels off, begins its decline, and by late afternoon, testosterone is at its lowest level – when men are said to be at their highest point of irritability.

Did you know?

  • Testosterone rises in men when they win a competition and falls when they lose (this seems to be the case whether the competition is direct or observed);
  • Testosterone tends to decrease talking and socializing – unless sports or sex are present;
  • Men higher in testosterone tend to be dissatisfied in marriage;
  • Men lower in testosterone tend to have more convincing smiles.

We’re only starting to recognize the complexity of men and the role of testosterone is fascinating, to me at least, in the way it motivates male thinking and behaviour; I think it’s important that people understand this and give a guy the benefit of the doubt because believe it or not, there are some things that men cannot necessarily control.

So fellas, before I end this week’s post, I want to tell you that because your testosterone is rising to peak right now and at any moment you could be at your most virile, I want to remind you to keep yourselves protected to prevent any surprises next fall.

Recommended reading: Effects of Testosterone On The Body

PTSD and gendered mental health

30 Oct

Throughout this post-traumatic stress disorder series, we have seen massive misunderstandings about the illness and mental health in general, lack of funding yin yangfor proper support and care for those suffering, and alternative methods of treatment. But no matter what angle I look at PTSD and the way it affects men, it seems to boil down to a concept that is, as far as I’m concerned, the root of many social problems: disregard of the feminine and the reluctance of men to ask for help when they need it.

When I interviewed Kent Laidlaw, 25-year police force veteran, we had a fascinating discussion about PTSD, and he came out with a bomb. He said that while he was on the force during the 1990s, the popular and accepted view of PTSD was understood to be a “man’s” disorder, while women suffered from depression.

This is of course as ridiculous as it is untrue. Anyone can have PTSD and anyone can suffer from depression. I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a gender-related mental illness, but there are certainly gender-related beliefs around mental health.

“We assign a gender to human traits like emotional intelligence, and then “feminize” the act of asking for help, stigmatizing men who express they are hurting and need support,” says Jeff Perera, Community Engagement Manager for White Ribbon Campaign.

With associations like this, is it any wonder that men are terrified to show anything remotely suggesting that they are anything less than what is expected?

Socialized masculine stereotypes dictate that men are expected to know, to be in control of any situation, and to be self-reliant. With all of that real or imagined expectation, there is little room for their true selves. Constructed gender beliefs rob men of their authenticity and their naturalness, and this is alarming to me. I think it’s clear that men aren’t women, so it seems very strange to me that men insist on fighting tooth and nail to prove to the world that they aren’t women, even if it means sacrificing their quality of life and their health.

Bullsh*t gender expectations

Logic says that when we experience physical trouble, we seek medical help. Researchers now see PTSD as brain damage and this should warrant medical attention. Between the heart and the brain, the human body cannot function, so why wouldn’t someone seek medical help for a damaged brain, and how is it different from say, a broken leg or a malignant tumour?

In Why Men Won’t Ask For Help, Peter Griffiths says that “men can fall too easily into the “willpower” trap, and ignore available help at their peril. The wards and hospitals are full of men who refuse to go to the doctor when they have physical symptoms and who seem to prefer to pay the price rather than go for help.” How many of you can come up with an example of a man putting himself at risk because of this masculine code? I know a man who waited until he peed blood before going to a doctor after an excruciatingly painful sports injury.

As a society, we’re not going to get very far if we frown upon men going for help when they need it. It’s ridiculous and I believe, abusive towards men.

Masculine emotion and why men have trouble asking for help

Socially, we look through masculine eyes and make masculine judgements about the world around us. This distorted view not only disregards the feminine but promotes anxiety and violence in men who constantly try to prove themselves as men, and not women. Humans have dual nature and the feminine, like the masculine, exists within us all, but many men insist on fighting the impossible fight against this part of themselves.

While girls are socialized to be emotional and nurturing, it’s fine when they ask for help when it’s needed. However, boys are taught that emotions aren’t becoming to their gender to the degree that they may not even be able to recognize their feelings and thus, they cannot identify or understand them, let alone express them in a healthy manner. But whether or not the emotions are understood, they still exist, and attempting to deny them and take on the world can be devastating to a man and other people in his life.

“In many men’s minds,” Griffiths says, “if a man can’t handle everything, then he must be a failure. And if that’s the case, he feels embarrassed and afraid about others, especially other men, finding out he is “not a man”.”

The “grave” admittance of vulnerability and of relinquishing control is, for some men, an uncomfortable, if not, terrifying idea. Take the innocuous act of  asking for directions, for example. In Nick Collins’ Telegraph article, Men refuse to ask for directions out of “blind panic”,  he says that “while women are more happy to use all available resources to help them reach a goal, men will rigidly stick to their original “system”… even though it has clearly led them astray.”

He says that when confronting the idea that their system doesn’t work, it makes men flustered and causes them to do sometimes reckless things to avoid the reality of the situation/failure. Griffiths agrees, and says that men don’t like to admit or even recognize when they feel helpless, and can feel lessened at the thought of going to someone else who is better equipped to help solve their problem.

The social negativity around PTSD and mental illness in general keeps men away from getting help, an this is can be painful, devastating, and extremely damaging. Emma Watson, during her United Nations address this fall, drew attention to this idea as she summarized social problems that stem from society’s treatment of men: “We don’t often talk about men and gender stereotypes… but I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 20 and 49… I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.”

Permission to be vulnerable

Why has the gender that gave us the Sistine Chapel brought us to the edge of cosmocide? Why have the best and the brightest exercised their intelligence, imagination, and energy and managed only to create a world where starvation and warfare are more common than they were in Neolithic times? Why has the history of what we dare to call “progress” been marked by an increase in human suffering?

-Sam Keene, Fire In the Belly

Emma Watson says “When [men are] are free, things will change for women out of natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive…[and] strong.

“It is time when we all perceive gender as a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals. If we stop defining ourselves by what we are not, and start defining ourselves by who we are, we can all be freer… Men should have permission to be vulnerable and human, to reclaim those parts of themselves they’ve abandoned, and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

We must do a collective about-face around our beliefs of men and allow them to ask for help when they need it, receive it, and heal. Women are not outside of social conditioning and are just as much a part of this equation as men are. Women have to give men the space and the respect to reach out for help, support men as they strive to be better people, and allow them to be vulnerable. I for one, feel a great privilege when a man cries in front of me because this is the man at his most honest.

When we stop propagating a violent and angry culture and let go of  masculine expectations, when we stop expecting men to be something they are naturally not, when we get over the idea of believing that anything feminine is weak, then change will occur. If we change our perspective about asking for help and consider it a strength and a strategy to utilize everything at our disposal to reach our goal, change will occur. We do this every day in business, so why not for ourselves?

To be concerned with what other people think is one thing, but to sacrifice our health for someone else’s sake is quite another. The traditional masculine stereotype exists simply because we let it, but the stereotype doesn’t serve anyone; it is an idea that we allow to exist in our minds, perhaps because we are afraid of change, or that we don’t have the imagination to think outside of the traditional box.

To make things different around mental illness and general life, all we have to do is simply change our minds.

Alternative PTSD treatments, self-healing, and self-empowerment

16 Oct

self-empowermentMore than a mental health issue, more than a first responder issue, post-traumatic stress disorder is a human issue. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious anxiety disorder often associated with the military, first responders, and sexual assault victims, but anyone who experiences trauma can be affected by it. As a one-time or accumulative anxiety disorder, PTSD can be a terribly haunting, unrelenting reality for many people.

People who are most prone to the illness are first responders because they see more trauma more often. Though there is effort on the part of first responder organizations to deal with trauma-stricken employees with early psychological support, peer support, medical attention, and hot lines, first responders continue to take their own lives. It seems that every week, we hear of another first responder suicide. Why is this happening? PTSD is a disorder in which therapies fall into a political game of what is acceptable and what is taboo, complicated by a negative social regard for mental illness, and a society that expects traumatized men to “suck it up” and get on with the job ( this topic to be further discussed in the next and final installment of this PTSD series).

PTSD is as complex as it is terrible.

Treatment of PTSD should be thought of as an investment. Until quite recently, the outlook for PTSD sufferers didn’t look so good unless years of therapy and pill-popping seemed appealing. New alternative therapies have emerged for PTSD, and the options give promise of better things to come, provided that we’re open to acknowledging that we have a problem that affects our normal function, and that we’re willing to reach out and ask for help.

The physical origins of PTSDbrain neurons

University of Toronto psychology PhD candidate, Lauren Drvaric, says “good mental health means good physical health and well-being. Poor mental health influences physical health, and we should be investing in the entire self, mind and body.”

Many professionals in psychiatric fields keep the mind and the body separate; their focus is on the mind, behaviour, and cognitive operations, with no attention paid to the body. This is curious, since the brain commands the body and the body responds to the brain; they cannot be separated.

Toronto psychotherapist, Matt Cahill, says when his clients do not verbally discuss their trauma, he picks up on the non-verbal cues. “Tears, blushing, or tremors, to name just a few,” he explains. “Sometimes a client will comment on how a part of their body feels numb or, alternately, feels constricted during a session where we are covering traumatic experience, rather than openly discuss their feelings. The body tells its own story, so I try to pay attention to everything.”

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, has been involved with PTSD research for over 30 years and believes that trauma lies in our bodies; PTSD has a physical-basis that prompts “a cascade of physiological catastrophes that affects almost every major system in the body”.

Van der Kolk believes that trauma victims are alienated from their bodies by a response from a brain structure called the amygdala, the brain’s emotional processing and feeling centre. The amygdala responds to threats and traumas with a flood of hormones that set off the “fight-or-flight” response. The physical response subsides when the threat does, but when it doesn’t, as is the case with people with PTSD, the traumatic memories play out in the patient’s mind, and the amygdala continues to produce stress hormones that sustains a heightened state of anxiety.

Dr. Frank Ochberg, MD, psychiatrist, and founder of trauma science, believes that there are possibly two types of PTSD. One type makes PTSD-affected people more prone to flashbacks, and the other causes a numb, dream-like state that cushions people from feeling the anxiety associated with PTSD. Some people experience both types. Ochberg notes a measurable change in the electrical discharge of brain cells in the grey matter of the right temporal lobe in PTSD patients, and believes that this part of the brain is responsible for traumatic flashbacks.

Traumatic brain damage causes other problems in the brain. Dr. Ochberg notes a reduction in the number of pathway cells between the limbic system (of which the amygdala is a part of) and the grey matter (the thinking part of the brain). The hippocampus, another part of the limbic system, is part of the mid-brain that looks like a long wishbone; it organizes and saves memories and associates them with feelings and actions. Studies on combat soldiers exposed to trauma show a correlation between a smaller their hippocampal volume and the tendency to develop PTSD.

Trauma is literally “all in our mind” and also of our brain; it manifests physically as damage to our brains, and brain damage, as Dr. Ochberg sees PTSD, should be considered an injury, an injury that can be healed.

PTSD therapy: the body and mind connectionyoga

In her article, A Revolutionary Approach to Treating PTSD, Jeneen Interlandi says “If there’s one thing van der Kolk is certain about, it’s that standard treatments are not working. Patients are still suffering, and so are their families. We need to do better.”

Van der Kolk says psychological trauma should be treated through the body, not the mind. He says trauma has nothing to do with cognition, but the body interpreting the world as a dangerous place. In many cases, the PTSD patient’s body was violated, and they need to find a sense of security in their own bodies. “Unfortunately,” van der Kolk says, “most psychiatrists pay no attention whatsoever to sensate experiences. They simply do not agree that it matters.”

There are no cures in the world of psychiatry; there are no physical tests for mental health disorders, and there are no drugs that can cure brain injuries. However, it turns out that there are a number of promising, albeit unconventional therapies that eclipse traditional psychotherapy, and questionable, side effect-laden psychomeds for treatment of PTSD. Some of these therapies will sound odd, even outrageous, but there are no side effects, no secret ingredients, and best of all, many of them are free that people can do themselves.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing looks bizarre but it has an excellent track record for relieving mental and emotional anguish. During the treatment, the patient holds their trauma in their mind while their eyes follow the therapist’s fingers that move back and forth before them. It sounds crazy, but according to EMDR.com, the therapy works “for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the clients begin to process the memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level.”

Over 10,000 therapists worldwide use EMDR therapy and millions of people have been successfully treated since its inception in 1989. In fact, EMDR is now recognized as an effective treatment for trauma by the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Department of Defence. This unusual therapy may still have its controversies, but van der Kolk, who uses this technique himself, knows what he sees in his own patients and places his faith in the treatment. EMDR is especially useful to people with acute PTSD from isolated traumatic memories like single episode assaults and car accidents.

Yoga and massage

Yoga and massage are complimentary therapies for people with PTSD. A U.S. yoga group specifically for PTSD-affected combat veterans, Yoga Warriors,  says that yoga helps veterans “retrain” their fight-or-flight response.

“When vets confront a situation that triggers their memories,” the Yoga Warriors site says, “instead of resorting to aggression or drowning in fear, they have other options: deep breathing, for example, as a means to self-calm.”

Yoga, like dance, focuses on breath and movement and helps with body and emotional awareness, relaxation, and mental clarity. Yoga Warriors says it “allows one to safely express stored emotions such as guilt, shame, anger, sadness and grief so those feelings can be understood and integrated.”

Massage, the laying on of the hands, can help people with PTSD relax and feel safe in their bodies; massage can release toxins, and reduce scar tissue and muscle pain. According to the Canadian College of Massage, the practice may make the PTSD-affected feel more mentally balanced, and can “help to reduce mental anguish, anxiety and trauma by regulating stress hormones. Regular massage therapy reduces cortisol [the stress hormone produced by the amygdala] and stimulates the release of endorphins like serotonin and dopamine”, the hormones that make us feel good.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture, the ancient Chinese treatment, is finally being taken seriously. Through the use of small needles, heat, or pressure on points of the body’s energy meridians, pathways that carry blood, body fluids, and Qi, or life force energy, this very effective therapy provides relief of many physical ailments, improves sleep, relieves stress, and balances the emotions. The theory is that when the body’s flow of energy is disrupted due to an injury, trauma, or an emotional disturbance, acupuncture can help to free the energy blockage and release the patient back into health. There is evidence that acupuncture can regulate brain function and modify the activity in the limbic system, where PTSD is thought to originate.

Energy psychology and Emotional Freedom Techniqueenergy

The energy meridians acupuncture is based on is the root of energy psychology, or energy medicine for the emotions, a method that helps change the way the brain processes thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Clinical psychologist and pioneer in energy medicine, David Feinstein, says tapping on accupressure points changes the neuropathways to bring about changes in the energies that underlie psychological problems, including PTSD.

Multidisciplinary doctor and healer, Dr. Adonis Makris, says that modern medicine focuses on chemistry, but energy healing has to do with the body’s electricity. Energy work is based on the body’s undeniable electrical nature. Most of us don’t often consider the body electric, but if you’ve ever been to a hospital for tests, you may have experience with the EEG, or electroencephalograph, the system that monitors your brain’s electrical activity, or the EKG, or electrocardiograph that reads the heart’s electricity.

Both energy psychology and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) use the energy meridian system to initiate healing. Carol Look, EFT master, explains energy work affecting the entire body: “Our feelings, states, moods, and levels of stress are formed by emotional responses and subsequent chemical reactions to specific events in our lives. These events and chemical reactions are stored in our cellular, physical, and emotional memories.” Her explanation explains how memories, thoughts, sights, smells, and sounds can trigger a PTSD-related flashback or sustain the anxiety related to it.

By tapping on various energy points on the skin and focusing the mind on specific problems (i.e. trauma), the brain’s electrochemistry can be shifted and the body’s energy system brought into balance, which allows the mind and body to resume their natural healing abilities. Studies show that accupoint stimulation (tapping) can reduce production of cortisol, the stress hormone, normalize brain wave patterns, and like massage, increases hormones associated with pleasure.

Gary Craig, EFT founder, says that trauma is a result of a disruption in the body’s energy system, and tapping works to neutralize the emotional charge. “I have helped hundreds of people with traumatic memories,” he says. “After using EFT, not one person – ever – has shown any interest in exploring the issue further or “getting to the bottom of it”. For them, it is completely resolved and they are gratefully relieved of its burden. People’s attitudes about the memory change almost instantly. They talk about it differently. Their words shift from fear to understanding. Their demeanour and posture evidence a dramatic shift.”

“It’s difficult for us to compute EFT because it’s so foreign to us, so unconventional,” Craig explains, “but at the same time, we’ve been conditioned to believe that medicine is the answer and doctors should not be questioned, but second opinions are always a good option.”

This energy work sounds so simple, so amazing, but this seems too easy, I hear you say. Even the pioneers of the treatment and experts in Traumatology agree.

Dr. Charles Figley is a psychologist and expert in Traumatology at the Tulane University in Florida. He says that sometimes the simplest things bring on the strongest results: taking deep breaths can calm anyone down, getting into a warm bath to relieve stress seems to be “a miracle” he says, and EFT is just as miraculous. “We don’t understand it, and it doesn’t make sense, but it works.”

Dr. Figley believes in EFT and the tapping method for trauma. He sees tapping as an alternative to the hierarchy of fear method that many PTSD treatments employ — therapies that begin at the lower level and build up to the terror, like exposure therapy which forces the client to relive their trauma over and over again in an effort to desensitize the patient. “These simple treatments reverse 50 years of psychological research and are turning the scientific community on its head in many ways.”

Gary Craig explains that there is no long, drawn out, tell-me-your-life-story feature to EFT. “There are no pills. There is no painful reliving of past traumatic events. It takes a fraction of the time typically required in conventional psychotherapy, it is often done in minutes. People simply get beyond their emotional luggage, usually permanently, and go about their lives more effectively.”

Compared to EFT, Craig says, “in general, conventional psychotherapy is among the slowest, most ineffective sciences on Earth.”

Positive Psychotherapy

When we think of psychotherapy, we may envision people who languish on couches, discussing nighttime dreams with cold, our-of-touch Freudians  who write prescriptions for mostly useless drugs for years on end. But a new and progressive psychotherapy that you’ve probably not heard of is making headway.

Positive Psychotherapy, born in the late 1960s, focuses on a client’s perception to realize the positive influences in their life instead of focusing on the negative – an all-too-common modern psychological state. This type of therapy directs a client’s attention to such things as positive character strengths, optimistic emotions, and their happiness in the present moment. Positive psychotherapy is much happier and more dynamic than conventional psychotherapies and the treatment typically lasts for weeks, not years.

Tayyab Rashid, licensed psychologist at the University of Toronto and a practitioner of Positive Psychotherapy, explains that the treatment acknowledges the client’s negative emotions, but instead of picking them apart and dwelling on them, the therapy “aims to validate these experiences, whilst gently encouraging clients to explore their effects and seek out potential positives from their difficult and traumatic experiences.”

Positive Psychotherapy has made significant gains in trauma prevention, to the point that it has made its way into a U.S. army program, Comprehensive Solider Fitness. The therapy is used in resilience training to “build mental toughness and identify signature strengths, meaning, purpose, and positive relationships, in addition to preventing pathology.”

Alternative drug therapy: MDMApills

“There’s not a single pharmacological treatment out there that has been developed specifically for PTSD,” says Dr. Alexander Neumeister, MD and psychiatrist at the New York University. “There’s a consensus among clinicians that existing pharmaceutical treatments such as an antidepressant simply do not work.”

Long-term medication places a band-aid on the wound at the core of the problem: trauma; its emotions, its energy, and its connection to mind and body. An alternative to pharmaceuticals is psychedelics. These drugs are pure and powerful, and administered under controlled conditions. MDMA, methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also known as ecstasy, is one of these drugs and it has long-term potential for PTSD.

MDMA increases feelings of trust, affection, and compassion for others, could make an excellent combination with psychotherapy for PTSD. Unlike most mental illness medications that are taken daily for years, pure MDMA only needs to be used a few times or less, and there is no threat of addiction to the drug.

Early studies are promising. Dr. Michael Mithoefer is the investigator in MDMA studies through MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. Dr. Mithoefer has seen 90 percent of rape victim’s symptoms vanish after just one intense 8-hour session with MDMA. In another study, combat veterans, fire fighters, and police officers took MDMA and 14 out of 19 patients reported dramatic improvements to PTSD-related issues.

MAPS is the only organization in the world that funds clinical trials for MDMA-based psychotherapy, according to its website. The goal is to make MDMA into an FDA-approved prescription medicine by 2021.

Medical marijuanamarijuana

The drugs that they were giving them … they couldn’t get up in the mornings,” said Army first sergeant Gregory Westbrook. “Most of the guys weren’t the type of soldiers who had issues before Iraq or even in Iraq, but they bring them back and put them on these drugs, and they’re falling asleep in the chair. There was no way they could function, especially in a civilian job. So maybe marijuana is an alternative. (Source)

THC, tetrohydrocannibanol, the active chemical in marijuana, binds with cannabinoid receptors in the brain that affect appetite, memory, and pain. Marijuana is associated with forgetting and this is the link to PTSD that researchers are most interested in. “Forgetting well is almost as important as remembering,” says Michael Pollen, American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism, and author of Botany of Desire, an investigation of the nature of plants. “Forgetting is about editing, it’s about taking the flood of sense information coming at you, and forgetting everything but what is important.”

Pollen says that life is not about accumulating memory because memory can cripple us, and uses combat experiences in his argument. “Soldiers return from war zones traumatized by experiences that they can’t unlearn. So if you could help them unlearn that, essentially a productive kind of forgetting, with a drug or another kind of regime, it would be incredibly useful.”

Marijuana calms the mind, relieves anxiety, and promotes new thought patterns and behavioural responses. A recent Globe and Mail article reports that marijuana users may be more likely to survive a serious head injury. For people affected by PTSD, cannabis brings users into the present instead of watching the reel of never-ending traumatic scenes that keep them in their mental prison.

Medical marijuana for PTSD looks promising, but unfortunately, marijuana carries a stigma with it, even though it is legal for medical use. Sadly, the social stigma around cannabis is associated with the suicide of another first responder’s life. Just last week, RCMP Corporal Ron Francis, a PTSD sufferer and medical marijuana user, committed suicide.

Cpl. Francis was videotaped smoking pot while wearing his formal red serge, to protest the RCMP’s PTSD policy last year. “I’m trying to draw attention to the fact that the RCMP fails to have a program in place for proper [PTSD] screening for their members and proper information for their families,” he said. The National Post reported Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s condemnation of the stunt, saying it “sets a poor example for Canadians.” Francis was forced to hand over his RCMP uniform, and a year later, was dead.

If we as a society are serious in our support of people who suffer from PTSD, we must let go of old rules and laws that keep relief from those who need it most. Drug stigma is politically based and we have been conditioned to believe that illegal drugs – natural and synthetic substances associated with counter-culture — are harmful and should not be a therapy alternative. What is legal are dodgy, psychotropic medications with sometimes horrendous side-effects that may not do much to help people in dire need of effective therapies.

Through brain scan technologies, early neurological markers have emerged for PTSD. This is exciting because now that PTSD can be “seen”, it gives validation; a visual change in the brain makes it more factual, and this will move us toward a social acceptance of mental illness as something real.

Relief for PTSD sufferers may lie in unconventional therapies that don’t line the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies and are rooted in self-empowerment. We are more powerful than we think. As Dr. Makris says, “We have an incredible capacity to heal themselves in so many ways.”  

PTSD and first responders

2 Oct

“I think I’m too broken to ever be fixed.”
Text from Ken Barker, retired RCMP officer to his sister during a traumatic flashback

Barker was one of the first responders to arrive at the scene of the ambulancehorrific Manitoba Greyhound bus beheading in 2008. This summer, he ended his life. Since April 2014, Barker was one of an unprecedented number of first responders in Canada whose suicides have been linked to PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, considered an treatable anxiety disorder is a mental illness that can result from a traumatic one-time experience or accumulative trauma and stress on a personal or large scale. PTSD can bring the horrors of past traumas to life and wreak havoc in the minds and the lives of all it touches. PTSD can happen to anyone; the most vulnerable  people are rape victims.

PTSD has its roots and associations in modern warfare, and its incidence rate is highest among people who experience trauma every day – military and emergency services personnel. Symptoms include flashbacks to the traumatic event, nightmares, sleep disorders, and uncontrollable thoughts; anger, fear, distrust, personality changes, and extreme anxiety. PTSD can manifest physically as chronic pain and hypertension, and can induce self-destructive behaviour like drug and alcohol abuse, long-term addiction, and suicide. The collateral damage of PTSD is its effect on relationships, families, finances, and work and social status. It can be devastating on many levels.

PTSD in emergency services

The men and women of Canada’s public safety, military and correctional organizations witness human suffering up close and it sometimes becomes very difficult to cope with the aftermath. There is light at the end of that dark tunnel. There is help available, and we want to make sure these men and women – and their families — know where to find it.
-Heroes Are Human

Vince Savoia is the founder of Heroes Are Human and a former paramedic. His organization focuses on PTSD research, education, and training, and acts as a peer and psychological support resource for Canada’s public safety organizations personnel.

Savoia says 16 – 24 percent of emergency personnel suffer from PTSD, but he believes this is a modest number. Paramedics are faced with more trauma more often, and run a risk of PTSD two to three times higher than in any other emergency service. Kim McKinnon, Superintendent at Toronto Emergency Medical Services (EMS), says PTSD predictors for paramedics include their “involvement in a critical incident like a mass casualty event, or an organizational or environmental event such as the death of a service member in the line of duty.”

EMS personnel tend to victims of horrific scenes large and small, they resuscitate the sick, and witness death. At the same time, they form a bond with sick and injured people as they spend time talking and giving hands-on treatment. This one of the reasons why Mr. Savoia believes paramedics are the hardest hit of any emergency service.

PTSD does not discriminate. While it affects paramedics more often, PTSD afflicts 10 – 12 percent of police officers and 6 – 8 percent of fire fighters. According to a recent StatsCan report quoted in the Globe & Mail, PTSD rates among members of the Canadian Forces have nearly doubled since 2002; 1 in 6 Canadian soldiers have mental health problems after ten years in Afghanistan. And the numbers keep growing.

First responder organizations must create programs and supports for their employees, but this takes funding and resources that may or may not be available. Some emergency services have excellent support systems in place for their employees like Toronto EMS’ comprehensive suite of services for employees to proactively manage their health. With a focus on prevention, their resources include early psychological support with a staff psychologist, a peer support team, employee assistance plans, and other community resources.

Canada’s RCMP has nation-wide systems in place that utilize peer support, RCMP doctors, and chaplains. A Regina RCMP sergeant explained that the RCMP wants to make sure it’s there to listen to their officers who respond to major incidents like car crashes, deaths of children, multiple fatality incidents, shootings, and violence.

We’re fortunate that we’re finally acknowledging PTSD as a real illness with real consequences, but despite the good intentions of emergency services to their employees, the question is, are the support systems being utilized, and if not, why not?

Stigma, discrimination, penalization, and the John Wayne Syndromesuffering in silence

In the emergency services culture, there is stigma and perhaps a shame attached to being affected by trauma and asking for help. It is considered a “weakness” and it is the largest problem that first responders face because it is a deterrent to getting help.

Though more women are joining military and emergency services, men still form the majority of employees, and because they’re men, they are expected to adhere to the traditional masculine code that demands they use the “suck it up” method of dealing with harrowing trauma and stress.

Vince Savoia says that first reponders work with respect for the public who needs them, but the same respect is not offered to colleagues. “First responders who look for support are bullied by their peers and colleagues,” he says, “they are ridiculed and harassed. Mental health is viewed as a weakness, not an illness, and the expectation is that we should be able to stop it and move on.”

The mental illness stigma exists in all branches of emergency services and the armed forces. David Whitley, a paramedic who suffered his own PTSD from a terrible ambulance accident, now volunteers for a local emergency services support group that checks in with first responders who experience potentially traumatic events like shootings, suicides, crashes, and situations that involve children.

“We give [members of the group] an opportunity to talk because there is a stigma,” he told the Toronto Star. “First responders need to lower the trauma mask, and that’s scary because there are feelings of vulnerability and anxiety. But if you don’t do that it’s a precursor to mental illness, including PTSD.”

Kent Laidlaw, a retired police veteran in Burlington, Ontario, and principal of Canuckcare, a consulting service for people who deal with workplace stress and trauma, says that the systemic corruption that exists in police ranks ensures that officers who ask for help are considered “less than” and therefore a weak link in the chain. They are penalized rather than punished, a subtle difference that speaks just as loud.

New York State police veteran and police trauma and suicide researcher, Dr. John Violanti, observed in the Ontario Ombudsman’s 2012 report that the nature of the policing environment often goes against the goal of improving health: “The police culture doesn’t look favorably on people who have problems… Not only are you supposed to be superhuman if you’re an officer, but you fear asking for help… you may not be considered for promotions and you may be shamed by your peers and superiors. In some cases, your gun can be taken away, so there is a real fear of going for help.”

 ***

Emergency service workers are very well trained but cannot be prepared for every possible situation, so perhaps masking the emotional response to what they experience is the way to cope, but unfortunately, first responders are human, and part of being human is to be emotional. To expect that anyone could not be affected by horrific and traumatic events is ridiculous, and then to believe that there is no emotional aftermath is absurd, even abusive.

The code of masculinity that demands men to be stoic, brave, and in control, subscribing to what Vince Savoia calls the “John Wayne Syndrome”: the tall, rugged, macho cowboy who can deal with any situation and stand up for justice. Savoia believes that first responders have to be this way in order to do their job, but what happens after the mission is accomplished and reality sets in?

On his very first call, a house fire, Vince Savoia lost his first patient, a two-year old child. He wanted to talk to his paramedic crew about it, but when he tried to, “the crew was very stoic –just walls.” If this code prevents men from being able to get support from the experiences of trauma in their jobs, what purpose does it serve? A culture of hyper masculinity is a hindrance more than a help; it creates broken men who can’t do the job as well as healthy men.

Saskatchewan counsellor, Peter Griffith, says that men don’t like to admit, or even recognize when they need help, to the degree that they will ignore their own health problems sometimes until it’s too late. Hospital wards, he says, “are full of men who refuse to go to the doctor when they have physical symptoms and who seem to prefer to pay the price rather than to go for help.”

Anna Baranowsky, a clinical psychologist who works with police officers in private practice, explained to the Toronto Star in 2012 that “people can recover[from PTSD], but if we see ourselves as being strong and we won’t tolerate any kind of weakness, then what we might end up doing is pushing (ourselves) until we are past the point of recovery, and that is really dangerous.”

Experts say that the stigma attached to mental health needs to change for us to get anywhere. It could be as simple as changing our perception of what it is to ask for help and equate it with responsible prevention, with the power to keep oneself healthy, capable, and strong. Putting a positive spin on the consequences of responding to a traumatic situation is much more agreeable than demeaning someone who can’t control their mental health response.

The PTSD misunderstandingshattered glass

There is a very interesting argument happening right now around PTSD. Some, like Vince Savoia, believe that PTSD is responsible for taking the lives of more than 20 first responders since the spring, but some mental health professionals like psychologist, Dr. Paulette Laidlaw, believes that PTSD has become something of a blanket diagnosis for many other problems.

While it’s true that in some cases, PTSD symptoms can worsen after an emergency service employee retires, Dr. Laidlaw wonders why is it when we hear “police suicide”, we make the automatic assumption that it is related to PTSD.

Dr. Paulette and Kent Laidlaw do not believe that first responder suicides are exclusively job-related, but are more likely a combination of many stresses including work, finances, and relationships. They say the individual’s long-term mental health should be examined and more questions asked about a first responder’s life before we slap the PTSD label on them, just because that individual happened to work in the armed forces or emergency services.

Dr. Laidlaw explains that PTSD is not as commonplace as we are led to believe. “PTSD affects only 8 percent of the population,” she says, “whereas depression affects 30 percent and anxiety touches 20 percent. We’re in murky water trying to distinguish PTSD from burnout, acute stress, trauma, grief, or clinical depression”.

We see PTSD in the news a lot and it has become something of a “trendy” disorder. Media reminders of the illness can cause people to self-diagnose via the Internet, and all hell can break loose. Dr. Laidlaw suggests that PTSD is the “sexy” disorder of the day, and with any popular disorder, like we saw with childhood ADHD, suddenly there are specialized medications and “PTSD therapists” come out of the woodwork. PTSD can only be diagnosed by registered psychologists and medical doctors.

How will change happen?fireman

“I wish I had cancer because then people would understand.”
-Veteran paramedic Ken Barker communicated to his sister shortly before taking his life

Mental illness is not something tangible, something that hurts, something that can be fixed with a cast or a bandage. It affects the brain and though it may not show on the outside, it can torment the mind from the inside.

Regard for mental health is changing, albeit slowly, but Vince Savoia believes that cultural change in PTSD acknowledgement has to come from the top down, and says that “we must respect mental wellness as an issue and stop the harassment and bullying from the bottom up. It has to be a grass-roots movement to encourage people to take responsibility about how they treat themselves and their colleagues.”

Dr. Violanti agrees:  “If I tell you that the first time you see a dead body or an abused child that it is normal to have feelings of stress, you will be better able to deal with them; exposure to this type of training inoculates you so that when it does happen, you will be better prepared. At the same time, middle and upper management in police departments need to be trained in how to accept officers who ask for help and how to make sure that officers are not afraid to ask for that help.”

This means changing the culture from one that ridicules people who need support to one that supports and embraces human vulnerability.

Dr. Jeff Morley, former RCMP officer and psychologist for Canadian Forces and Veterans Affairs says “Canada needs a national mental health strategy for first responders, but the political will does not exist right now.”  He says that to change the system, we need a high-profile person to promote the cause, like Romeo Dallaire who played a big role in the beginning but retired from senate this year.

“That, or if the government clues in that the high financial cost of not doing anything (i.e. disability costs, sick time, leaves of medical absence) exceeds the cost of early intervention, education, and prevention.” He says that the RCMP spends tens of millions of dollars per year on PTSD disability claims, but asks how much they’re willing to come up with to prevent it.

The Globe & Mail reports that global estimates for antiviral drugs have run close to $10-billion since the SARS outbreak of 2002.  The authors of the original report in the British Medical Journal acknowledged that the “important benefits have been overestimated and harms under-reported”. Imagine if the Canadian government spent the same amount on long-term mental health as it spends on stockpiling useless drugs for unlikely flu epidemics. Imagine if people shrugged off the toxic masculine codes that keep men from flourishing and actually paid attention to what they need. And can you imagine the tremendous benefits of supporting the mental health of the people we depend on to take care of us?

 

The evolution of PTSD

18 Sep

Some psychiatric casualties have always been associated with war, but it was only in the twentieth century that our physical and capability to sustain combat outstripped our psychological capacity to endure it. – Lt. Col. David GrossmanPTSD

The media frenzy around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may make us think that it is a new disorder, but PTSD reaches back to the early part of the last century where it began to manifest during the first major European war of the 20th century.

PTSD reared its ugly head during World War 1 when it was known as “shell shock”, a disorder of psychological origin. Soldiers on both sides of this conflict suffered immeasurably from new types of weapons in trench warfare: tanks, heavy machine guns, mortars, and poison gas including mustard, nerve, and chlorine gasses which caused horrific damage to the human body. Casualties were immense but for those who survived, a curious condition began to emerge. Shell shock was the first mental health disorder associated with war and the military wasn’t sure what to make of it.

BBC’s excellent documentary on shell shock explains the confusion around the sometimes bizarre behaviour found in military troops at the time: “Soldier’s unconscious minds, so distressed by war, crippled their bodies and took them out of fighting. The military found it hard to accept such a radical theory; it undermined the theory that men could and should control their fears and emotions.”

Soldiers stricken by war trauma displayed strange behaviours never seen before. Men in the ranks suffered from body tremors, paralysis, temporary blindness or loss of speech, and the inability to walk. As a misunderstood condition, shell shock was considered contagious and the men who suffered from it were thought to threaten to their platoons. Six months into the war, 15 percent of the British army suffered from the condition. Dr. Charles Myers, a consulting neurologist to the army with an interest in the growing condition, coined the term “shell shock” in 1915, and decided that the roots of the problem were psychological. By 1916, the British War Office officially recognized shell shock as a genuine war wound.

When officers began to display their own shell shock symptoms — stammering, irritability, and loss of memory — the military realized that this psychological response to warfare was taking an enormous toll. Something had to be done.

Military hospitals were set up and experiments with various treatments began; from Freudian dream analysis to hypnotism to electric shock, some shell shock therapies were successful, others not. The biggest obstacle to dealing with shell shock was the stigma attached to it; men affected by the condition were thought of as “incurable lunatics” or cowards, and a shame was carried with the condition, a shame divided up like a class system.

The condition did not discriminate, but the military did. Men in the ranks were shell-shocked but for an affected officer, to have shell shock in his medical records was an embarrassment so instead, officers suffered from “neurasthemia”, prolonged and exhaustive exposure to war. Officers, you see, were not meant to break down; they were strong, masculine leaders who could, or were expected to control their emotions and behaviour.

Shell shock was an uncontrollable external event that affected the military men internally, but it wasn’t interpreted that way. Sadly, many men who suffered from shell shock or neurasthemia were court martialed, shot, or committed suicide.

Battle exhaustion of World War IIWW2 military man

When World War II began, the military did not learn any lessons from the First World War, and shell shock took on a new identity: “battle exhaustion” or “battle fatigue”. Soldiers in this war suffered paralysis, amnesia, trembling, sleep disorders, memory loss, fear, isolation, and hopelessness. For a sense of the vastness of psychiatric casualties during this war, 20 percent of U.S. war casualties were neuropsychiatric-based, and 25 percent of all British D-Day casualties were psychiatric.

With numbers this high, the military was forced to look for more effective treatments, and young doctors wanted more dynamic cures for their battle fatigued patients. A number of new therapies emerged: talking therapy, individual and group psychoanalysis, electric shock therapy, hypnosis, sports therapy, and art therapy.

Battle exhaustion was considered a temporary condition and military psychiatrists believed that if the soldiers simply rested, they could recover and carry on fighting. An unconventional “sleeping therapy” or “narco-analysis” consisted of psychologically affected soldiers given sodium amytal (also known as “truth serum”), a sedative that induced sleep for weeks at a time to settle anxiety and exhaustion. Drugs administered during the sleep brought soldiers around so they could briefly recall and describe their battle experiences; this was considered a “cleansing” experience without any anxiety upon waking and completing the therapy.

Psychiatrists acknowledged by 1945 that every man had his breaking point and that shock and breakdowns were inevitable, yet the stigma of psychological damage from war remained. Battle fatigue was still considered contagious and men touched by the condition were treated like criminals at army hospitals. Being afraid and showing it was something of a military suicide because the consequence was the humiliation of being labelled “LMF” — lacking in moral fibre, or otherwise cowardly, and having your rank stripped from you. The only saving grace to battle fatigue this time around was that a frightened and battle exhausted man would not be shot.

It should come as no surprise that military men were psychologically impaired because of their wartime experiences. As one World War II solider put it, “I can’t stand seeing people killed.”

 Modern warmodern soldier

Technologies and the methods of modern war have changed enormously since wars after World War II, but the psychological effects of war have not. What was once known as shell shock, battle exhaustion, and post-Vietnam syndrome has become post-traumatic stress disorder, and it is just as devastating as it has always been.

PTSD seems to be an accepted part of military life in the modern era; the tragedy of the loss of human life and the psychological effects of death and destruction is part and parcel of serving one’s country. Indeed, one in three American service people suffer or will suffer from PTSD according to an Al Jazeera report, The War Within. The news agency describes PTSD as “a ticking time bomb with a decades-long fuse — a problem whose true magnitude is difficult to determine.”

Press TV documentary, Invisible Wounds-Break Down, investigates the effects of PTSD on Afghan war vets and reports that more than 30 percent of U.S. Afghanistan veterans are psychologically damaged.  Suicide is one of PTSD’s effects and according the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, about 18 veterans take their own lives every day.

The true tragedy of modern war is that the response for service people who reach out for help is ridicule, bullying, humiliation, and hazing; affected personnel are expected to “suck up” their psychological trauma. It’s some kind of unwritten code of valour and it reaps a heavy toll. Cynthia Thomas, a U.S. army wife interviewed by Al Jazeera said that her husband was punished for asking for help and in the end, did not receive any. His suffering continues.

“Unless these officers are held accountable,” she says, “nothing is going to change.”

Conclusion

War as an industry, an industry we’ve been conditioned to accept as a part of our modern life. But war isn’t natural. In fact, according to U.S. military psychologist, Lt. Col. David Grossman, humans very much go against the grain of nature when they kill their own, affirming the idea that war is an act of political will.

In a TVO interview about his book, On Killing, Grossman explains that the first time someone kills another person, it at first feels exhilarating because the target has been hit and the job done, but most people will feel empathy and profound remorse and nausea when they realize what they’ve done; killing is repulsive to us.

There is a lifelong process of rationalization and acceptance [to killing], and if an individual fails at this process, the result is post-traumatic stress disorder, or some type of trauma that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Grossman says that through conditioning and desensitization, we now associate violence with pleasure and by doing this we are overcoming a powerful resistance to killing in our minds and in society. He says that combat is more about posturing more than it is about killing, and maintains that combat troops during WWII actually fired their weapons at their enemy only 15 percent of the time (he says that the vast majority of death during that war came from the fighter planes that dropped bombs), to 55 percent in Korea, to a stunning 95 percent in Vietnam. Aiming a weapon at another human being and pulling the trigger became a conditioned reaction.

By now, war, violence, and killing as seen through TV, film, and video games, takes away the horror of human suffering and turns it into entertainment. This completely counter-intuitive perception has enormous implications, and people don’t really know what is at stake.

History has seen leaders use political means to carry out their aggressive and violent motives, leaving the agents of their intentions dead, maimed, or psychologically injured. Assuming a false presumption that men, at least according to the patriarchal construct of men, could ignore their natural emotional state and freely kill other human beings without psychological consequence has proven throughout modern history to be profoundly flawed and deeply tragic. Men are emotional human beings no matter what our patriarchal-based society imposes and expects. One cannot just walk away from taking the life of another human being and remain unaffected. It isn’t natural.

PTSD is an enormous and multi-faceted topic that I will continue to discuss in posts to follow. Thank you for reading.

‘Oo are ya?

4 Sep

There are identity-related decisions that we’re not even aware of because we have not been socially “allowed” to make them. Think about all of the traditional rules around being a man: protect, provide, be strong, silent, and emotionless. For people of the past, it was unthinkable to consider men as anything else. With the modern reshaping of the masculine mould, men are experiencing the freedom to express themselves through their clothing and style and forge their own identities, including their own names.
mask identity

Most modern men turn away from the intense control that the old boy’s school had over everyone and everything. That tradition is crumbling and humanity is thriving in diversity, equality, and respect. We’re in an awesome period of gender advancement and people are making their own rules, choosing their own roles, and creating their own identities.

As we continue to question and deconstruct, our choices become wider and we have the opportunity to make significant changes to our lives and our selves, including what we’re called. For example, I always wondered why I didn’t get my mum’s last name instead of my dad’s. Women had much more to do with the children than men did, so why were we labelled with the dad’s identity? It didn’t make sense to me, even as a child.

I got into a conversation with myself about names, thinking that there are no true female last names unless the woman chooses one herself. Traditionally, she’s born and given a man’s name (her father’s), and if she marries, she takes the name of her husband, and symbolically leaves her own heritage and blood line, and takes on a foreign one. There was no choice —  the equivalent of a cattle brand; ownership seared in. It’s a modern concept that a woman can create her own identity by choosing to change her name to what she pleases. Our name is linked to our identity and we should be free to choose our own. Men included.

Jill Filipovic, in The Guardian, wonders why, in the modern age, “does getting married mean giving up the most basic marker of your identity? And if family unity is so important, why don’t men ever change their names?”

A good question that I’ve asked myself. Then I read this:

William MacAskill, in Why men should change their name when they get married, says that he and his fiance together chose MacAskill, her grandmother’s maiden name, to take as their married name. Why? He wanted to go with a name that sounded better and was cooler than his birth surname, “Crouch”. It wasn’t about tradition, it wasn’t about gender assumption or emasculation, MacAskill changed his name out of aesthetic.

It’s no surprise that MacAskill shocks people when he tells them his intention. The news meets with reactions of “raised eyebrows, confusion, or aggressive questioning”. The concept of a man changing his name is probably an alien concept and outside most people’s consciousness (indeed, sacrilegious to some). MacAskill mentions that no one reacted when his fiance said she was changing her name, which reminded me of my parent’s reaction to my name change: Well, she’d change it when she got married anyway.

The irony is that I haven’t been married. I changed my last name 13 years ago because I wanted to and I had a choice to. I never liked my father’s harsh-sounding Austrian last name; it felt like an ill-fitting cloak that I couldn’t take off. Instead, I chose to associate with my mother’s Irish side and went with a softer sounding name. It was largely aesthetic for me but also very liberating because I had the choice. It also feels so much better.

It’s a wonderful time in social history where people can keep pushing for change, for balance, for betterment. No matter what gender we self-identify with, we have the choice to decide on who we want to be and how we want to be known according to our own rules. It’s a blessing. In this modern world that unravels the colossal knots of exclusive patriarchal rule, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and even better if choose it yourself.

How to shop in between seasons

24 Jul

Before I take a holiday from writing  in August, I thought I’d share some information with you, dear readers, to make your life easier.clearance sale

I shopped with a client yesterday who had a limited budget and wanted specific pieces now, at the end of the summer season but before the fall stock has arrived. A challenging shop? Oh yes! Even as an image consultant who shops with clients all the time, I still find it difficult to create a wardrobe out of  sparse bits of end-of-season stock. If it’s tough for me, it’s probably rough on you, so here’s some help.

If you’re not doing this already, start shopping smart and think practically and consider your whole wardrobe  and how your new pieces will integrate into it. Summer sales are awesome and everyone loves a bargain, but even a deep discount isn’t worth it if you’re not that crazy about the colour or if the garment doesn’t fit well, because you won’t wear it.

The guidelines below apply to the fall/winiter end-of-season sales for January – March too:

Yay! Summer sales!

  •  As the summer continues, the discounts increase and the more pieces you can buy!
  • Stock up on summer staple items like  t-shirts, shorts, flip-flops, etc.
  • Even if you don’t get to wear them much this year, end-of-season garments can be stashed until next year; opening a box of last year’s “new” seasonal clothes  will excite you like a child at Christmas.

#$%*@! Summer sales!

  • Finding your size in that excellent shirt at 60% off is a myth in July unless you’re an odd size. Everything is picked over by then.
  • If you happen to find a shirt that fits you at 60% off , just hope you’ve got something in your closet that you can wear it with. Sometimes it’s best to walk away if you’re in doubt.
  • “Well,” you think, “it’s two sizes too big but it’s 75% off, and you can’t really go wrong at that price.” Actually, you can. Just because a garment is inexpensive doesn’t mean that you should buy it actually wear it. If you’re a man reading this post, you just might be concerned with your image, and an ill-fitting, ill-matched clearance garment won’t do anything to improve yours. Discounted season ends that just aren’t right should be left at the store or worn strictly at the cottage.

Hope that helps! Best wishes until September!

Paisley: full of possibilities

10 Jul

red paisley

Take a moment to look at this picture. Do you notice the incredible detail? The harmonized colours? The pleasant but erratic pattern? You’re looking at paisley, one of the most gorgeous decorative patterns humans have ever devised.

Paisley is an incredible pattern to work with because it is so full of possibilities: paisley can be done in any scale, it may be multi-coloured or monochrome, simple or intricate, and the pattern may be regular and repeating or varied, irregular, and seemingly random. This wonderful, natural design has deep, rich roots that date back to ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers (modern-day Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria), where it found its way into building decoration, carpets, fabrics, and the decorative arts of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Sumerians.

This nature-inspired pattern, originally known as botteh or boteh in its native Persian, means “bush, shrub, a thicket, bramble, [or] herb. Some would even take it to mean a palm leaf, cluster of leaves…and flower bud,” according to the Heritage Institute discussing Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion and philosophy.

The boteh pattern is a much-loved, time-tested pattern that eventually made its way into India where it really dug in its heels. For hundreds of years, beautiful cashmere wool shawls decorated with the boteh pattern were popular, and during the 1700s, boteh shawls cast a spell on European women who fell in love with the soft, warm, patterned fabric. During the colonial period, British men returning home from India brought the shawls as gifts for their women, and the demand for these exotic shawls grew in Europe. Seeing an opportunity, the British East India Company began to export the enormously popular and expensive shawls to Europe during the later 18th century.

As the shawls became more fashionable, the demand for them grew, but the high cost kept many away until European hand weavers began to copy the boteh patterned shawls and produced items at a fraction of the cost of the real thing. In 1805, the weaving mill in Paisley, Scotland became the boteh weaving centre of Europe, and the name Paisley became synonymous with the pattern. As weaving technology evolved in the UK, the original 2-colour paisley shawls turned into 5-colour patterns, though this still paled in comparison to the Indian versions that boasted up to 15 colours.

What is paisley?

The paisley pattern can range from very simple to extremely ornate, sometimes positioned loosely among leaves, or flowers, other times simple in regular and repeating patterns. The common denominator is the tell-tale curved teardrop shapes. It is the shape of the paisleys that I find particularly interesting because no one really knows what it’s supposed to represent, though there are many options and theories.

Paisleys could signify halved fresh figs, mangoes, gourds, licks of flame, or Cypress trees (sacred to the Zoroastrians); kidneys, tadpoles, tear drops, pears, or sperm if you’re Freudian.  (During research, I came across a Jehovah Witness message board that discussed paisley as a representation of sperm and therefore considered “taboo”). In any case, paisley seems to have originated as a fertility symbol and becomes more fantastic as it evolves.

Modernized examples of this racy design seen below by Paul Frederick show the incredible variance in paisley patterns, from bold and multi-coloured paisley to quiet tone-on-tone, and from elaborate designs to simple shapes (photos used with permission):

Blue paisley Paul Frederick tie

Tone-on-tone paisley Paul Frederick tie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Frederick paisley tie

Paul Fredrick blue paisley tie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paisley in menswear

While the paisley motif was woven into fabrics most often worn by women, western men were left out of experiencing this gorgeous pattern until the 1920s-1930s, when paisley was printed on silk and used in men’s ties.

“In response to changing fashion,” says Francois Chaille in  The Book of Ties, “Paisley is constantly being up-dated: hundreds of new paisley motifs make their appearance on ties every year. The motif provides rich opportunities for coloristic nuance and formal invention.”

Of course we in the west remember paisley worn extensively in the 1960s and revived in the 80s, but paisley has never really gone away. In fact, you may find a paisley tie in your collection, or maybe a paisley bandana or neckerchief (Cary Grant liked to wear these under his collars). If you’re lucky, you may have a Ralph Lauren paisley pocket silk for your breast pocket.  Stylish introverts could opt for a pair of low-key paisley socks, and daring darlings may rock paisley Ted Baker shirts or a cool sports jacket with a chic paisley lining.

Paisley isn’t just for clothing. The high-end Italian design house, Etro, likes to incorporate paisley into its collections, and offers paisley luggage, day books, wallets, and manbags in their iconic paisley “comprised of red, turquoise, yellow, olive green and ivory adapted and evolved to become the signature pattern for the brand: an instantly recognisable style which became inevitably synonymous with the luxury world of Etro,” their website says.

If wearing paisley is luxurious, it is also refined. New York image consultant, John Molloy, said paisley ties signify good breeding and education. Alan Flusser, author of Dressing the Man says, “Of all the loud neckties, [Molloy] deemed paisley as the only permissible one because it was the “fun tie” of the upper middle classes.”

I implore you to pull out your whimsical paisley and wear it with confidence; it is so beautiful and varied in pattern, colour, and scale, that everyone will be able to find the right paisley print for them. It is a pattern that speaks of human history, elegance, and refinement; it is a delightful and permanently stylish pattern, and an excellent investment for any gentleman’s image.

 

Through the eyes of Tom Ford: Pride 2014

26 Jun
Tom Ford by Helmut Newton

Photograph by Helmut Newton. Published in Vogue, March 1999.

With Toronto hosting World Pride this year, I feel that much more inspired to celebrate the powerful gay icons that have shaped our world. I spotlighted Freddie Mercury in 2012, Liberace in 2013, and for 2014, the focus is on the clothing, detail, luxury, and the daring of Tom Ford.

Tom Ford is a man who personifies BOLD not only in his clothing designs but in his business dealings. Before launching his own menswear label in 2007, he spent ten years as Creative Director for Gucci and brought them from near bankruptcy to $3 billion a year in sales. He is aligned with Estee Lauder for the Tom Ford Beauty Brand, and he counts 98 retail Tom Ford stores in the world among many other achievements.

American Vogue‘s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, says Ford has an uncanny way of conveying the same three core themes: sex, power, and divine decadence. “I don’t think I have ever worked with anyone with a greater passion for detail or a clearer vision of his aesthetic goals,” she says.

Ford is a powerhouse of talent that goes beyond fashion design. In 2009, he directed and co-wrote the screenplay for  A Single Man, a tale of gay angst in the early 1960s, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. I recommend it; it’s tasteful and interesting, but tragic.  Ford’s debut film won many awards and Firth received an Oscar nomination for best actor.

He is incredibly talented and successful; a billionaire with enormous power in the fashion industry, and audacious as all hell. Tom Ford does what he wants and he does it well, otherwise he wouldn’t carry clients like Johnny Depp and Daniel Craig. Yet with all that going for him, with all the success and power and wealth, Tom Ford remains human.

Images of beauty 

Ford studied architecture before he turned to fashion and understands how to build things. He uses geometry in his designs and creates sensuous lines and angles in magnificent, often textured, deeply coloured fabrics in his menswear collections.

He seems to have an inborn sense of balance and opulence and learned about fashion through his mother and grandmother. “My mother was very chic, very classic,” he recalls in an interview with Biography. “My paternal grandmother was very stylish in a very Texas way—everything big and flashy, from jewelry to cars.”

Tom Ford jackets

Note the gorgeous geometry of Ford’s jacket lapels and the sumptuous fabrics and colours.

“The images of beauty you get in your childhood stick with you for life,” Ford explains, “So there’s a certain flashiness at Gucci—Texas-inspired—with a certain Western feel.”

When asked if Texas has influenced his designs, Ford tells FDLuxe,  “I have certain notions of glamour that I never lost… I like a heel on a boot. I feel better with a heel. That Texas taste—big hair and a lot of makeup—was my first notion of beauty. And I have to say, to this day, I still have a thing for big hair.”

The big, bold, and flashy was woven into Ford’s designs for Gucci and used in his own menswear line. The casual luxury of his Western-inspired spring/summer 2015 collection is comprised of suede jackets with tasselled sleeves, jeans, denim shirts, and jean jackets–a far cry from his iconic suits and shirts, dapper enough for 007 himself.

“What we wanted to do was to expand sportswear so that our customer has something to wear for every occasion of his life,” he says of the collection.

Ford uses bold and unexpected colour in his menswear collections, and in his current men’s line, pink, lilac, and ocean blue jackets are paired with white shirts and trousers. Coming up for fall/winter 2014, blacks, greys, creams, and earthy colours mixed in with  beautiful violets and royal blues in cotton-silk Jacquard and velvet cocktail jackets.

Tom Ford the human

Despite what we might think a billionaire designer who caters to high-end clients like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Drake might be like, Tom Ford is a regular person.

I spoke to former model, Patrick Marano, now husband and manager to gay media mogul, Shaun Proulx, who posed for a 2005 Tom Ford sunglasses campaign.

“The shoot was in L.A. Poolside,” Marano recalls, “At the break Tom came and ate with us. He was very down-to-earth and friendly. And of course he looked great, impeccably dressed.”

Ford is a real person; he’s sensitive and romantic, and he loves to be in love and be in a relationship:”I’m someone who likes being part of a couple and always wanted that and always sought that,” he says, “And it would probably be true for me whether I was gay or straight.”

When Ford saw his long-term partner, Richard Buckley, the former Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Hommes International, at a fashion show in 1986, it was love at first sight. More than twenty-five years along, Ford and Buckley married this past spring and welcomed their son, Alexander John Buckley Ford (Jack), into the world in 2012. Ford has proved to be a devoted partner and father.

“I feed Jack, I dress him, I change his diaper, and I have a good two or three hours with him every morning, just me and him.” Ford says, “At night, again, I put him to bed and try to spend as much time with him as possible.”

Though it may be unbelievable, our superstar designer changes diapers, cooks, and unless he’s travelling, gets home each night to feed Jack. Now that he’s raising a child, his perspective of the world has changed. In particular, he no longer receives Botox injections, saying, “A lot of things I cared about before I don’t care as much about anymore.”

It’s refreshing that a superstar like Tom Ford understands his limited relevance and shelf-life. “No matter how hard you try there is a cultural moment, but eventually that window’s gone, your time on Earth is finished, and you might as well leave,” he says, “I could absolutely die tomorrow–I would not care. I feel like I’ve lived, I feel like I’ve had a great life.”

Tom Ford‘s style advice:

  • A man should never wear shorts in the city. Flip-flops and shorts in the city are never appropriate. Shorts should only be worn on the tennis court or on the beach.
  • At home, off-duty, I wear T-shirts from Fruit of the Loom but I have them tailored – if the sleeves are cut over the tricep your arms look much better.
  • Keep your jacket buttoned. Always. It’s just really flattering – it will take pounds off you.

 

Flowers for men? Yes!

12 Jun

bouquet for father's dayWhat do you think about when you choose gifts for people? Do you think about practicality, or are presents meant to be frivolous? When I want to give someone a gift, I think like this: 1) everyone has enough stuff, so there is no need for more, and 2) the environment: what can I give that will biodegrade?

Answer? Flowers! In the past, flowers carried an association with women, but now, flowers are for everyone–yes, even men.

I thanked a reporter for doing a story on me a few years ago with a bouquet of purple irises. “Oh, they’re lovely!” he said. Then I think it dawned on him that I, a woman, was giving him, a man, flowers, and this seemed to shake him as he stammered a bit then turned red.

With women’s independence comes a woman’s choice to send a man flowers, and with it, a man’s opportunity to feel special and happy that he’s worthy to receive them. Flowers are a win-win situation.

Dana William Hamilton at The New Leaf florist in Toronto says that it’s becoming more common for women to send men flowers for any occasion, including Father’s Day.

“People hadn’t been giving flowers for Father’s Day for years,” Dana says, “but then came metrosexual men and there were suddenly more flowers and plants; flowers used in interior decoration, women sending more flowers to men during the year, and plants given as gifts for Father’s Day”.

If mums get flowers on Mother’s Day, why wouldn’t dads get flowers on Father’s Day? I mean, how many golf clubs can a man own? Does he really need a pneumatic nailer? How about something that will make him smile and lift his spirits instead?

Gendered blooms

Before the 90s, men were almost forbidden to go near flowers unless they were getting married or being buried, but gay men have not had the same rules applied to them. In many ways, gays have had more freedom to express themselves than their heterosexual brothers.

roses for men

Shaun Proulx uses flowers in his interior decoration. Used with permission.

In Toronto’s gay village, there are two florists on one street and most groceries and convenience stores sell flowers outside, so the gay ghetto is very colourful and lovely. Shaun Proulx, Canada’s gay Oprah, lives in the neighbourhood and always has fresh flowers in his home.

“I would get rid of almost anything I own except flowers,” he says. “The joy they bring to my life is immeasurable. I’m proud to say I have lost many hours of my life just staring and studying the flowers around me.”

Given the crap we’ve been taught about flowers not being “manly” and associated with beautiful, delicate, weak things like women, gays, and children, heterosexual men have been denied the pleasure of nature’s fragrant gems for a long time, but perhaps thanks to the metrosexuals, the door has opened for all men to appreciate flowers without the fear of gender bullies coming after them to kick their pansy asses for liking something so “feminine”.

I asked some of my heterosexual men friends how they feel about flowers and I’m delighted to tell you that for those who have yards and gardens, the majority like to plant flowers. Many said they either currently have flowers at home or would like to have indoor flowers more often. This is a wonderful indication that flowers are slowly but surely becoming genderless.

Well, that’s what you might think, but gender-dividing media outlets sill exist like Spike. Spike is a US TV network that targets young men between 18-34, and encourages the tough, emotionless male stereotype that from my point of view, is abusive to men.

Gendered bullsh*t

I don’t believe in “feminine” or “masculine” flowers; flowers are flowers, but apparently not to everyone. The following is Spike’s top nine “manly” flowers that smell of imposed gender roles:

9. Snapdragon (“…dragons in any form are badass…”)

8. Hops (used to make beer)

7. Cactus (especially the ones with long stiff flowers growing out of them)

6. Belladonna (poisonous)

5. Tree tobacco (can be smoked like a cigar but can kill you, therefore, “this flower is clearly not fit for girly-men”)

4. Venus flytrap (carnivorous plant)

3. Rafflesia (aka meat plant) “The ultimate man’s flower,” says Spike, “It’s super big and like man, it doesn’t like to be tied down.” This flower emits a rotten meat stench and Spike says, “Any flower that smells like meat (even rotten meat) is pretty ballsy.”

2. Poppy (“No other flower in history has caused as much bloodshed and human destruction as the poppy”–i.e. opium)

1. The Corpse flower, or amorphophallus titanium, means, “giant misshapen penis”. The Corpse flower is the largest flower on earth and like the meat plant, emits a revolting smell of rotting flesh to draw carrion insects that helps it cross-pollinate. Spike calls it the “alpha male of flowers”.

lillies

Lilies are delightfully fragrant flowers, a good alternative to the Corpse flower.

Judging by this list, Spike suggests that the best flowers for men are reeking and dangerous and sometimes resemble a phallus. So if we bought into this way of thinking, fellas, how would feel if you were sent a bouquet of meat-eating plants or huge stinking phallus flowers? Would you feel manly? Nauseous? Or perhaps insulted?

Accepting the stiff, archaic gender stereotype that contributes to the massive emotional abuse that has been thrust upon men and boys for years, strips them of their natural emotions and likens them to a cactus: “tall, prickly on the outside, somewhat unapproachable, sturdy, and tough”.

The alpha male of flowers?

Flowers can self-pollinate and create their own seeds, or cross-pollinate with the help of insects and wind. Flowers, like every other living thing, only exists to reproduce itself and should not fall into human gender classifications, but they have. Spike, for example,  gives the giant misshapen penis flower a male face and considers it the “alpha male of flowers”.

I read an excellent article on The Good Man Project recently called The Myth of the Alpha Male, where author, James Fell, says the alpha male concept is “a bullsh*t title used to sell books and programs.” The author explains that the idea of an alpha male is “toxic and prevents you from focusing on the real path to self-improvement”.

peonies

Shaun Proulx’s gorgeous peonies. Used with permission.

Fell’s definition of alpha maleness is “just a bunch of cock-sure, arrogant and self-entitled assholes. It’s a gentleman. A leader. A strong and worthy man blah, blah, blah. They’re putting lipstick on a pig, trying to convince you that you’re either the leader of the pack, or you’re a beta who won’t get what you deserve in this life”.

As noted by Fell, the notion of the alpha male comes from 1970’s  The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior or an Endangered Species by L. David Mech who explains that the term”Alpha” implies winning a competition or battle with others to become “top dog”, but he says, “most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack”. To the wolf researcher, there is no alpha male as much as there is no alpha female; wolves are simply breeders.

Applying the alpha concept to humans, then, is ridiculous, but applying it to a flower  is absurd. Does Spike think that the Corpse flower is an “alpha” because it’s large? Because it resembles a penis? Or is it because it reeks of rotting tissue?

Humans appreciate nature and beautiful, sweet-smelling flowers will win over anyone at any time and for any reason, so give flowers and give them often. Giving men flowers brightens their day, puts a smile on their face, and sometimes brings a charming blush to their cheeks–the honest and ungendered price of pleasure.

Boutonnieres

29 May
Oscar Wilde wearing a boutonniere

Playwright, Oscar Wilde, wearing a boutonniere.

The boutonniere, French for buttonhole,  is a flower worn in the lapel of  a man’s jacket, commonly considered a formal accessory worn with formal attire. We don’t have many occasions to dress up anymore (unfortunately), but boutonnieres have made a comeback across the pond and have been a part of the British royal/upper class wardrobe since around the mid 18th century.

Having a boutonniere made at a florist ensures a keep-fresh flower that comes with tipped pins to use on the underside of your lapel, but the flower is actually meant to be stuck through the boutonniere hole on the upper lapel of your suit. High-quality suits will have a set of boutonniere loops sewn on the underside of the lapel to thread a short stem through. Read more about boutonniere buttonholes at the Gentlemen’s Gazette, and have a look at their do-it-yourself instructions for boutonniere loops.

Canadians will fondly remember our former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, our most stylish politician to date, who wore a red rose in his lapel. Patrick Gossage, former Press Secretary to Pierre Trudeau describes Trudeau’s “rider” for out-of-Ottawa engagements that included orange juice and cookies in all of his hotel rooms and a daily fresh red rose for his lapel. To me, Trudeau’s boutonniere signifies the last vestige of the political gentleman.

Boutonniere history

The boutonniere is very British. In fact, according to The Rake, the Duke of Windsor brought the boutonniere to North America in the 1930s and influenced many of Hollywood’s top actors of the time; HRH’s signature white lapel carnation was mimicked by Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and Gary Cooper.  (Cary Grant opted for a red carnation.) Modern British boutonniere-wearers still follow the Duke of Windsor’s lead, but younger royals like Princes William and Harry like to wear blue cornflowers in their lapels.

Though flowers have been associated with men throughout history, proof of the boutonniere itself doesn’t appear until 1769 when Gainsborough painted Captain William Wade in his military dress uniform with a spring of posies worn on the lapel of his cutaway coat.

Though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when grooms started wearing boutonnieres, the floral tradition at weddings is a long one. According to BrideandGroom, “The bouquet formed part of the wreaths and garlands worn by both the bride and groom. It was considered a symbol of happiness. Originally bridal wreaths and bouquets were made of herbs, which had magical and meaningful definitions for the couple’s future life. Traditional Celtic bouquets included ivy, thistle and heather. Ancient uses included herbs, not flowers, in bouquets because they felt herbs — especially garlic — had the power to cast off evil spirits.”

Modern boutonniere options

When choosing flowers for your boutonniere, consider your lapel width and work with proportion. Since the fashion now is to wear suits with thinner lapels, smaller blooms like carnations, small roses, or thin calla lilies are recommended. Dana William Hamilton at The New Leaf florist in Toronto says many men choose white and red boutonnieres for dark streamlined suits. “They add a little whimsy,” he says.

“Young men going to proms wear them,” Dana explains, “Young people are looking online and training themselves to dress well in the old style.”

Grooms and groomsmen are the most obvious people to wear boutonnieres. Dana stresses the importance of the groom’s boutonniere looking slightly different than the other men in his wedding party–often a flower used in the bride’s bouquet is added to the groom’s boutonniere. People often have boutonnieres made for the deceased, Dana tells me, which shows “a lovely respect”.

Dana calls for hearty flowers for boutonnieres because usually, occasions that ask for a boutonniere are long, and there is a lot of hugging and wear and tear on the flower. Hale flowers like rose, carnation, calla lilies, and stephanotis (clusters of small white fragrant flowers related to jasmine) are recommended. If you’re looking for strongly perfumed blooms, freesia is a delicious choice and the beautiful gardenia, but the latter flower is very fragile and has no stem–gardenias must be wired to create a boutonniere, so take this into consideration before choosing your boutonniere flowers.

Are all boutonnieres made of flowers? No! There is nothing wrong with a flowerless boutonniere–in fact, Dana says, he often finds himself making boutonnieres just out of greenery like Italian Ruscus mixed with Greek myrtle for texture. Boutonnieres could actually be made of fabric flowers (silk is popular) or crafted as statements like these cool ones on Etsy. Like the rock buttons of the 80s, a lapel boutonniere is a good way to express yourself and tell the world a little about you.

I would love to see men making use of their boutonniere buttonhole with a fresh flower especially now that we’re in spring, but as The Rake puts it, “Suffice to say, the language of flowers is well and truly obsolete, and a contemporary gentleman’s only consideration is whether a flower in one’s lapel enhances a suit or proves to be the detail that pushes elegance over the border to ostentation.”

Be bold, but be careful.