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Astonishing People

Life throws Sh*t sometimes – right?

Maybe our marriage ends, or we find out our child has some disabilities, or we loose lots of money, or depression rolls back in, or we get sick, or our neighbor sues us over something petty, or we loose a job or can’t find one.

As my wonderful friend Julia Kittross says, “Everybody’s got something” to deal with.

Mostly, if we’re honest, I think we’d admit to going about life trying to prevent  bad stuff from happening. Sometimes that works and, like the child with his thumb in the dyke, help arrives,  the hole is repaired and the flood waters are contained.  Sometimes, no matter how much we work at our marriage, get the best medical attention, research investments, say our affirmations and focus on the positive, work to be a good neighbor, and brush up our job skills – bad stuff still goes down.

How many times does this have to happen before we get the point?  The point being, life’s not about preventing the bad stuff. It’s about growing into and through the bad stuff. Those challenges, large and small, that tumble us through our days and nights and months and years of this astounding human experience.

I heard a story today that will forever change me – just as the story I heard on the BBC more than 30 years ago led to me become a mental health counselor, this story will change me. I am not sure how.  I sit in awe of this woman. This story. The simple, human kindness offered in the face of near certain death.

If you have yet to hear the story of Antoinette Tuff, it is my privilege to introduce you to her now.

Screen shot 2013-08-23 at 3.26.20 PM

Click on the image to connect to a video of Antoinette being interviewed about how just yesterday, she stopped a gunman who entered the elementary school where she works. And how did she stop him? Not with another gun, that’s for sure!  Just by talking to him. By caring. By discovering her empathy for him; empathy wrought not because Antoinette has managed to dodge life’s tough stuff. Quite the opposite.

Gives me the excuse to quote from another hero of mine – Winston Churchill:

“If you’re going through hell, keep going!”















Identity Lies

For about five years, in our late 40s, Mark and I tried ‘Pretirement.”Mark on Grand Ronde

Never heard of it?

It’s where you live as if you’d retired, even though it’s not sustainable.

This meant that Mark stopped wearing casual-but-smart slacks and shirts while working as a reasonably well paid hydrogeological consultant with Pacific Groundwater Group, (which he co-founded with 2 friends in our living room in 1987) , and instead  wore whatever he wanted while rafting, playing, hiking, biking and working part-time taking care of a few rental homes we’d managed to buy in Boise, Idaho. 

I stopped working in the trenches at a community mental health center, re-trained as a Life Coach, and took on  painting and gardening at the rentals.

So, we didn’t really put our feet up so much as become totally flexible. Most days we could work to a human rhythm. Breakfast and walks to school with the kids; tea and toast after school for our two, plus any friends of theirs who needed a second home. We could play in the big back-yard wilderness of southern Idaho according to the season’s dictates – biking, rafting, hiking, and skiing. All close by and affordable*.

So – why in the midst of living the “good life” did we lie?

Remember – we were new to Boise, Idaho and had left family, community and professions in the Pacific Northwest. So, here’s how it looked to start with:

  • New friend #1          Hey Mark, so what do you do?
  • Mark Utting               I’m, er, a Hydrogeologist.
  • New friend #1           Oh, with which firm?
  • Mark Utting               I had my own company up in Washington State.
  • New friend #1           So, you’re commuting, or starting Boise branch?
  • Mark Utting               No, right now I’m, well . . . managing some rental  property.

Note – the initial need to identify himself as ~

  1. his profession (Hydrogeologist)
  2. his most recent success (company owner)
  3. the most acceptable form of work he could muster (managing rentals)

We began to notice ourselves not speaking the truth of our new lives in all sorts of ways. 

We were shocked to realize how much we had bought into the status anxiety of our times. We apparently still believed it was somehow preferable to identify ourselves by our professional titles and past successes. We were embarrassed to tell the truth – that we’d had enough of the fast track and had chosen to dramatically simplify, foster our creative sides, work on some rentals, re-tool, downsize – call it what you will. But we were massively guilty of lying-by-omission.

So we took a long hard look at our choices and ourselves and decided to embrace our new life by telling the truth.

  • New friend #2           Hey Mark, so what do you do?
  • Mark Utting                Have fun!
  • New friend #2            Yea, but where do you work?
  • Mark Utting                You know, I don’t identify myself by my work right now. I’m committed to following my own path to see where it leads. I play music in a group, I write songs, I ride my bike, raft and hike in summer, and ski in winter. We swapped out our nice single-family home in Port Townsend for a tiny one and some rentals, which we’re fixing up. We’re long on time and short on cash – but I’m having more fun now than I ever have!
  • New friend #2             [Responses ran the gamut! From pity to envy and lots in between]
  • Mark Utting                And you, what makes you happy?

So – my questions to you today are these:

How do you identify yourself?

  • married
  • doctor
  • divorced
  • sister
  • therapist
  • engineer
  • cancer survivor
  • college graduate
  • high school senior

Are these enough? Is it enough to be defined by what you’ve done (high school or college) or what you do (doctor or therapist) or what you’ve survived (cancer, divorce)?

And is this identity big enough to hold the all of you?  Not just the you who goes to work, but the you who loves, cares, creates, raises kids, walks dogs, grows petunias, feeds wild birds, dreams, grows?

If not – what else might you call yourself?

And, can you tell this truth to anyone, or is this still your closet self?

Rocky Canyon* “Affordable” skiing? Yes, if you back country ski you drive to snow, stick skins on your skis and hike up what you plan to ski down. Mark shot this photo of me about 5 miles from our home in Boise. When you wake up to this it’s wonderful to have a flexible schedule!   Also, if you live in Boise it costs all of $228 USD for an early purchase discount pass to Bogus Basin .

Getting Unstuck

Dear Readers,

I’m back.

For four blissful weeks I was visiting friends and family back in Idaho, Oregon and Washington State (USA). Since May 20th however, I’ve been back in New Zealand stuck in the Mire. Stuck good and tight.  Mute. Helpless. With nothing to say.

However, as life deliciously often does, I was thrown a lifeline in the form of a client who was also stuck. We get to teach that which we must learn.

So, now I’m unstuck. Back on the page, communing with you with enormous joy and I figured I’d share my teaching about getting unstuck. I’ve boiled it down to six steps. (I love steps….as if you’ve not noticed that about my little teachings by now!) But hey – I’ve seen nothing quite like this and I have to say, it works. Not just for me and my client of this past couple of weeks. But for others upon whom I’ve tried versions of this before. I’d love to hear your feedback if you try this too. So – here goes.


OK – so you’re stuck. What kind of stuck? While being stuck usually means you’re not doing something you wish you’d do, as long as you’re alive, you are actually doing something else instead. So, get curious about what you are doing. Could be something like this:

  • I’m spinning my wheels not writing
  • I’m hanging on to this old relationship
  • I’m too cuddly for my own good
  • I’m parked in this dead-end job
  • I’m overly accommodating to my overbearing boss


Counter-intuitive maybe, but we tend to do things because they work for us in some way. Look at what you noticed you are doing in this place of stuck, and ask yourself,

“How is this benefiting me?”

  • I’m spinning my wheels not writing, which is actually giving me a chance to turn over some new ideas and examine what it is I want to say next.
  • I’m hanging on to this old relationship, which means I don’t have to be alone on weekend nights and I have someone to go to parties with.
  • I’m too cuddly for my own good, and I get to enjoy being the Bon Vivant everyone knows me to be, pooh-poohing those skinny Minnies and living wholeheartedly.
  • I’m parked in this dead-end job, which I can do with my eyes shut so all my creative juice is pent-up and ready for my music when I come home.
  • I’m overly accommodating to my overbearing boss and she really likes me and I never get into those power struggles I see the others enduring.


You’ve uncovered the judgment about stuck (Step 1) and the benefits of being stuck (Step 2) so now it’s time to explore what life would be like if you were not stuck.

  • If I stopped spinning my wheels not writing, I’d be back in the service game, adding content to my Blog and providing useful resources for clients and readers.
  • If I stopped hanging on to this old relationship, I’d discover more about myself — my feelings, needs, anxieties and desires now, after this stressful 3 year on again / off-again relationship.
  • If I stopped being too cuddly for my own good, I’d listen to this emerging new me who loves food and parties as much as anyone, but who wants to be slim and healthy as well.
  • If I stopped being parked in this dead-end job, I’d take that risk to work in the music world.
  • If I stopped accommodating my overbearing boss, I could practice being assertive and work toward a promotion out from under this boss.


You have now identified two inner voices – right?

Inner voice #1 (let’s call this person Fearful Self) is all too familiar with the safest path and fully understands (indeed, advocates for) the advantages of being stuck. Inner voice #2 (let’s call this Wholehearted Self) sees (and advocates for) the bigger picture that would unfold with becoming unstuck.

These voices uncover the very real possibility that you have two selves. Two ways of being. Each version of you is lovable and perfect in its own way, but they promote different paths simultaneously.

And this is a problem.

The road ahead Ys and you are trying to make forward progress down both arms of the Y at the same time. Fearful Self is pulling you toward the safe path. Wholehearted Self is pulling you toward the wide new horizon… meanwhile you’ve stopped in at the agreeable pub on the corner to duke it out.

Corner Pub(Thanks to  Steve Reed from whom I adopted this photo)

Step 5 ~ CHOOSE

Let’s just track back to reality, shall we.

You’re stuck.

You’ve had the guts to name it (Step 1)

You’ve had the insight to see why being stuck feels good (Step 2)

You’ve had the wisdom to see why getting unstuck is so appealing (Step 3)

You’ve identified that you have mixed feelings, two voices, two yous with valid opinions. (Step 4)


How you get unstuck is to climb up on a platform above your debating selves and choose a winner.

Right there in the pub – as you knock back another “for the road” – you get to decide whose view of the future you are ready for.

And the way to decide is simple.

You’ll know when you answer the following question.

Which “me” do I want to be right now?

Do I want to be Fearful Self who plays a small, safe, easy, low stress but wickedly constricting game?

Or do I want to be Wholehearted Self, who is ready to expand, to play a bigger game, to bust out of dodge and show up with your whole united, brave, courageous self?

Step 6 ~  BE KIND

It may seem as though I have scripted this as though there is a right answer: Wholehearted Self ought to “win” right?

But here’s the magic of this approach.

This is not always true.

When you do yourself the favour of really listening to yourself, you’ll know where you are in your own process.  There is a time for fallow. For stuck.

And when you are ready to allow Wholehearted Self to take the reins, you’ll do so whilst simultaneously comforting Fearful Self. You’ll have met with your shadow, bought him/her a drink, acknowledged the fears, mitigated the pitfalls.

Now, when Wholehearted Self announces it is time to show up, your two selves will link arms and stride down the path toward the bold new horizons, taking comfort in the understanding, union and determination. And when that happens – world watch out!






Suicidal Friend?

If you know someone who may be talking about taking their own life – read on.

This article is part 3 of a 4-part mini-series on suicide, inspired by the recent loss of a dear friend – Simon “Sketch” Ellis – who took his own life in early 2013. This piece is dedicated to friends out there all over the world who might – one day – have the opportunity to help someone they know and love to make a different choice.

Given that for every murder you hear about in the news, there are 2 to 3 successful suicides, a suicidal friend might be much closer than you think.

If you’re worried about a friend, pay attention to ~


  • “Nothing brings me pleasure any more.”
  • “You’d all be better off without me.”
  • “Life’s pretty pointless.”
  • “I’m in so much pain.”
  • “I can’t face another Christmas like this.”
  • “It’s too late – I’ve nothing to live for.”
  • “Nobody understands.”


  • Have they given loads of stuff away lately?
  • Have they bought something expensive like a boat even when facing financial hardship?
  • Do they have wild mood swings from very low to very manic?
  • Are they overdoing drugs or alcohol?
  • Are they reading about suicide?
  • Are they hoarding pills or buying weapons?


  • Have they ever attempted suicide before?
  • Have they just ended a close relationship?
  • Have they lost a loved one to suicide?
  • Have they had a recent “bad-news” medical diagnosis?
  • Have they been recently discharged from hospital?
  • Have they been recently discharged from prison?
  • Have they been through a painful, ugly divorce?
  • Has someone close to them just died?
  • Have they recently been in a war zone?
  • Have they been bullied?
  • Have they recently “come out” as LGBT and been met with hostility?

 Any one of these alone isn’t enough to lead a person to suicide, but if you begin to connect the dots and have some inkling your friend is in deep emotional pain,


  1.  Very few people are 100% committed to ending their life. This means they will have mixed feelings: part of them just wants to end the pain, but part of them is scanning for any signs of hope and help. You’ll be speaking directly to that part of them that wants to live.
  2.  Talking about suicide does not make someone suicidal.
  3. You won’t get this wrong if you care.


Part 1 – Connect

  • Ask for some time with your friend.
  • Share what you’ve noticed (see the indicators or clues above).
  • Let them know you are concerned.
  • Ask them what’s going on.
  • Listen very carefully.

Part 2 – Understand

  • Work to understand all the things troubling your friend.
  • When you think he or she has said everything, ask “What else is troubling you”?
  • Stay warm, empathic and attentive.

 Part 3 – Ask the 5 Questions

If the list of painful feelings and events is getting pretty long and you can tell your friend feels overwhelmed, ask each of the five questions below,  pausing between each question to listen to the answers:

  1. “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
  2. How do you plan to take your life?
  3. Do you have what you need?”
  4. Have you ever tried before?” If so, when and how?”
  5. What’s the hurry? Why now?”

Part 4 – How “LETHAL” [to themselves]  is your friend?

If your friend answers “Yes – I have been thinking about suicide actually” notice how the answers to the next four questions will frame what you do next in terms of how LETHAL their plan is.

You ask   “How do you plan to take your life?”

  • Low lethality response:   “Well, you know, I wish I could just take a few too many pills one night.”
  • High lethality response:   “I plan to shoot myself.”

You ask   “Do you have what you need?”

  • Low lethality response:   “I’ve got a few tramadol, but I guess I’d have to get a prescription for a whole lot more.”
  • High lethality response:   “Yes, I have a loaded gun in my house.”

You ask   “Have you ever tried before?” If so, when and how?”

  • Low lethality response:   “Oh no – I’ve felt bad from time to time like this, but even though I talk about it – just as a way to feel like I could end the pain, you know – I’ve never tried anything.”
  • High lethality response:   “Yes. Took an overdose 6 months ago – ended up getting my stomach pumped since I didn’t take enough and my wife found me. This time I’ll make sure I finish the job.

You ask   “What’s the hurry? Why now?”

  • Low lethality response:   “I’m not sure why now – I’ve been slipping in to a lower and lower mood I guess, but come to think of it, I’d like to see my granddaughter’s Christmas play.”
  • High lethality response:   “Well, tomorrow is the 5th anniversary of my son’s death over in Afghanistan. I’ve never forgiven myself for pressuring him enlist. Told him he’d amount to nothing if he didn’t get some discipline. The wife left me over it. I told myself last year when she left me, that I couldn’t face that anniversary again.”

You get the picture right – the person who is thinking about maybe getting a prescription is not in the same urgency bracket at the second man – whose pain is exquisite, and whose means and timeframe are immediate.

If you are still not sure however, you can always ask

“On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is no way will you kill yourself any time soon and 10 is you don’t plan to see tomorrow, where are you?”

Part 5 – Take Action

Remember – you are talking to that part of this person who wants to believe there is hope for a future. Hope for the pain to pass. Even the broken father in the scenario above will have a small % of himself clinging to life.

If your friend’s plan is on the low lethality spectrum, let them know~

  1. You are concerned.
  2. You care about them and want them to find more happiness.
  3. You know they have mixed feelings – part of them just wants to end the pain and part of them wants to believe life can be good again.
  4. Ask them if they will commit to getting some help – seeing their local doctor, talking with family, meeting with you again,  etc.

If your friend’s plan is on the high lethality spectrum, let them know~

  1. You are very concerned.
  2. Even though it seems as though they are hell-bent on ending their lives, let them know you know there is some small % of them that wants to live.
  3. Tell them you are talking to that part – even if it is only 2% of them.
  4. Tell that part you are taking them to the hospital right now.
  5. On the way, brainstorm for the names of any other beings on the planet who might be devastated if this person killed themselves – grand-kids, spouse, children, siblings, dear friends, dog… hunt for whatever you can that will connect this person to life.
  6. Remember – IF you’ve had this conversation it has clearly all been with the part of him or her who wants to live. If your friend wants to kill himself, he still can. Another day. Not on your watch.

Part 6 – Take Care of Yourself

Whether your friend is successfully helped and ends up living a happier life, or becomes one of the “successful” suicides, you’ll probably need to talk about this with someone yourself. By all means use the resources below to get some help.


Avoid the following ~

  • I know just what you mean.”  You don’t, and it’s not about you just now.
  • Don’t worry – things will all work out.” Again, you don’t know, so don’t lie.
  • You do it then – just go ahead and kill yourself!” Bluffs won’t make you feel good when they are carried out.
  • You’re so selfish to even consider suicide – you’ll just mess up your family.” Someone considering suicide is at the end of their rope, already strangled by guilt, and feeling un-entitled to pretty much even their next breath. Adding a guilt trip (however true this may be) will not help alleviate their mood of despair.
  • But you have so much to live for!”  Again, you are not talking to a resourceful, rational being here.


  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354
  • National Healthline  0800 611 116
  • Depression helpline: 0800 111 757
  • Youthline: 0800 376 633
  • Samaritans: 0800 726 666
  • Great web site for depressed teens


(I’ll add more as I find them – especially for the USA)

Other Articles in this Mini-Series

“I’ve got a loaded gun . . .

. . . .it’s pointed at my head.  Give me one good reason not to pull the trigger.”

“Because I don’t want you to.”

That’s all she said.  Just, “Because I don’t want you to.”

I was in my late 20s when I heard this story on the BBC. A woman had answered her home phone one evening and on the other end of the line was this desperate man. Apparently he thought he was dialing his brother, whom he hated. Instead, the wrong number led him to a very calm, compassionate, ordinary woman. A wife, a mother. She simply responded from her heart.

“Because I don’t want you to”.

Oh my goodness!

I was haunted by that news story. The woman, and the man who credits her with saving his life, were reunited in the interview as they re-told the story from their own perspectives.

The man said he felt heard for the first time in ages. Even though he had no idea who this woman was, it mattered to him that she did not want him to pull that trigger. He was pulled in by her presence.

From her perspective, she was stunned. What on earth else could she have said? She answered initially,  she says, purely selfishly. The last thing she wanted was to hear that gun go off. It terrified her.

They had spoken for nearly an hour. She began to understand the man’s pain. He began to trust her with his story. After time, the man had allowed her to take his real name and address. She had kept him on hold, gone to the neighbour’s house and asked them to call the police to attend to a suicidal man (this was long before cell phones). The woman was on the phone when the police arrived. The man received help. He was now still alive, and gratefully so.

I was stunned.

What would I have said?

This story is what ignited my passion for figuring out how to be with another human being, no matter what they felt. I wanted to never feel stuck or tongue-tied in the face of another’s pain. I started volunteering for the then King County Crisis Clinic ; amongst many skills I learned how to handle suicidal callers and eventually I co-taught that component of our training. I went on to get a Masters in psychology at Seattle University and the rest, as they say, “Is history”!

Fast forward about thirty years. It’s a beautiful autumnal post-Easter morning here in Auckland.  Back to work after a lovely 4 day Easter break.  And there in my in-box was this message:

I never would have imagined in a million years he’d take his own life, but that’s exactly what he did…. After he left Iceland and went home to the UK to be with his mom and family for the holidays. I really have no details on how or why, but he did leave some letters, I assume for his family.

And so I heard that my most itinerant friend “Sketch” (Simon Ellis) had taken his own life.

I met Sketch in Costa Rica in the summer of 2010 – we’d stayed at the same small hostel and I’d been fascinated by his travels. He’d been on the road for over a year back then and had no end-date in mind. Managed his life and finances to live lightly. Last I heard he was leaving Iceland mid-December.

As far as I knew, Sketch was healthy, utterly alive, zesty, planning, adventuring, staying connected. And now poof. Proving once again, you never know what another human being is dealing with. Did I miss something in his letters? Was he running away from something? Could I have been more aware and helpful?

In memory of Sketch, I’m dedicating this week’s blog posts to suicide.  Not sure how things will evolve, but I plan to cover at least these issues, and maybe more:

  • Suicide – the facts
  • Who’s at risk?
  • Signs to watch for
  • What you can do to help another
  • What you can do if you feel suicidal
  • After a suicide

Take care out there. It can be a rough and lonesome world.