Backstage Pass: Allan Kehler
This picture here was actually taken when I was active in my addictions and I was struggling with various forms of mental health issues. But I always had this smile on my face and perhaps some of you can relate to that idea where you wake up in the morning, your in pain. Perhaps your going through financial hardships, relationship issues or even your own mental health struggles. But you have to go to work. So you put on that beautiful mask, as I did, you smile you walk into those doors and someone walks up to you and say ‘good morning, how are you doing?’ and 99% of the time how do you respond? Good. Fine. Next time try just saying horrible. Watch what they do. They do that double step. No, no, your good.
We’ve become very robotic not only in the question. But in the response.
Robin Williams said, “all it takes is a beautiful smile to hide an injured soul”. And that was me.
The story that I represented on the outside was very different from what was taking place on the inside. One doctor even gave me one month to live if I didn’t change what I was doing. But see on the outside people saw the person that is president of school, athlete of the year, captain of sports teams. And even as an active addict, when I was living in Edmonton, I received a national scholarship as an outstanding community citizen. And it was a joke. But see my challenge was I had no idea how to talk about my pain.
This image was actually taken early in my sobriety and it serves that perfect metaphor for all those years I spent struggling because I stayed in those shadows of shame, embarrassment, guilt.
Our voice is our greatest tool but why would we talk about our pain when we fear we are going to be met with judgement. So I stayed quiet. Yet silence will always be that enemy. Because I didn’t talk about my pain, who suffered more than anybody else? Me
So I want to talk about two key things. One is how can we create the space where people feel comfortable asking for what they need. And secondly, hopefully ot empower you to us your own voice in times of need.
And I want you to think about currently how do you approach people who are in pain, this is your children, your partner, spouse, colleague. What do you do? What do you do if you walk into a room and you see a woman with her head on the table crying? What’s your approach? What do you do if you walk into that same rom but this time it’s a man with his head on the table crying? Is your approach different and secondly should it be different. And I would argue, no.
Sometimes, you know we get these surprises in life.
Things like a phone call take place and everything changes. I came across this picture a few onths ago and this picture was taken a few months before my best friend, Justin Andres, acted on suicide.
Just was the best-man at my wedding and not more than a year later I’m giving the tribute at his funeral. I learned a lot. I learned how to grief sober. But the biggest takeaway for me, was that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.
I knew he was struggling. Not to that degree. But see I could have dragged him to a hospital. I could not force him to stay. I could have dragged him to a counsellor. I could not force him to speak.
There’s only so much we can do with the people around us. So what I’ve learned is to say and do everything in those moments so that we do not have to look back thinking, should have done more.
The approach is difficult for a lot of us. You know sometimes we get uncomfortable. And so we say nothing. If we approach people and just say, “I don’t mean to pry, I just wanted to let you know I’m concerned. I just wanted to let you know I’d be more than happy to listen if you ever wanted to talk.” That’s it.
I think that we have two basic needs. One: see me. Two: hear me. You put a statement like this out there and you’ve just said, I see you. And you’ve given them the invitation to be heard.
Whether or not that act on that invite, is that in your control or out of your control?
Completely out of your control. But if they do act on that, then it’s important to drop what we’re doing and validate the step that they took. Cause I get it we’re busy. But what the message if you know “ah, I’ve got too many things to do. Come back in five minutes.” Cause then they’ve gone two steps back.
And for me, my mental health issues, substance abuse challenges started when I was in grade 11. Now throughout all that, all the signs are there. I’m deviating from leadership roles, academics are sliding, change of peer groups. But not one teacher approached me.
And what’s the message we get when were in pain and nobody approaches us? Nobody cares. I know what they cared but hey had no idea what to do with me.
And it was years later in a U of A class of more than 300 where a professor by the name of Ian McNeal approached me and said “come to my office Al. let’s talk.”
I had no idea why, but I recall going up to that third floor. His office doors open. I walk in. There’s a chair. He says, “have a seat Al.” so I sat down and he says, “how are you doing today, Allan?” that’s different than how we started right?
“how you doin?”
It changes when you add the person’s names and when you add the word today.
Seven percent of the way we communicate is verbal. Seven percent. The other 93%, mannerisms, posture. I knew throughout his mannerisms there was compassion. There was no judgement. And that was one of first times in my life I actually removed that mask and I actually talked about what was going on.
He did not fix me. But he listened. This is where two ears, one mouth for a reason.
And then he gave me resources.
And this is that fork in the road right. Because it is ultimately up to the individual whether they want to act on those resources.
But ill tell you this. In ten minutes Ian McNeal changed my entire life because he took the time to see someone was in pain and he took the time to listen.
Sometimes, a client of mine, a student somebody in my personal life will accept this invite. They’ll fly into my office and they’ll say something like this, “Al, you cannot possibly understand what I’ve gone through.”
And if we respond with, “oh, yes I can.” I went through substance abuse issues. I went through divorce.
Whatever it is. No. this is not about us. This is about them. And if you respond with these four powerful words. “Help me to understand.” Watch what happens. Because now there’s a shift of energy and the moment they start to talk about their pain, what happens? Healing.
Can darkness survive in light, yes or no?
No. and this is the gift that we can give them.
My entire mantra is around this. That talking facilitates healing. And when I say surround yourself with people tht speak you language what I mean is, no matter what you’re going through I promise you there are other individuals experiencing similar challenges.
My fear was that if I talked about what was going on I was going to be locked up. So I remained silent. But then I got myself into some interesting spaces. I remember sitting in my car crying, afraid of opening up that door and walking into my first twelve step program because I knew that if I talked about what was going on it was going to be real.
But nothing was as difficult for me and getting myself into the Saskatoon Sexual Assault Centre for other men who had been sexually abused.
I don’t even have words to express the feelings or emotions that was going on but I do know there are so many people that continuously struggle with these issues. Whether that’s in the workplace, our communities. And shame is toxic.
I remember getting into that space, terrified. Only one other man was in the rom so that doesn’t help my anxiety. The counsellor starts it of by saying, let’s just share what brought you here today. So I tried. I’d say maybe thirty, forty seconds tops. Id talk. Then I’d just broke, shutdown, done. Then the only other person that was there says the six words that saved my life. He says, “it’s okay Al. I get it.”
There is nowhere in the world that I could have gone where I could receive that gift. And that’s how it works. Right we often have to take incredible risks in order to receive that ultimate reward.
Brene Brown says the two most powerful words: me too. Why? Connection.
And all a sudden I was not alone in that moment.
I remember when I had that V on my forehead, I was the victim. Whoa is me, no one would understand me. And then I was speaking with an elder and he said “Al, you are not the only person who’s been sexually abused. You are not the only person who’s struggled with addictions and you are not the only person who’s gone through, mental health issues. If you want something different, go get it, because this words owes you nothing.” I was pretty mad. I was really mad.
But then I want home. Is there truth in that statement? Yeah. I mean he could have said it nicer. But there is truth and see what changed is I started to open up my eyes and started to access all the resources because we are very fortunate to have everything from EAP, counsellors, social workers, audio, books. But a victim says, “Nah, it’s too difficult.”
This is what I have today. That is incredibly powerful and significant for me because eight years ago isn’t that long ago. And eight years ago I was living on my own, in Edmonton, struggling with addictions, a lot of dark nights. And had someone said, “hang on Al, hang on. One day you will have a beautiful wife. One day you’ll have four healthy children and one day you’ll have a home not a house.” As if.
But it’s interesting when you start to allow yourself to become vulnerable, take risks. Talk about you pain. How it can become liberating and freeing.
And so in closing, my challenge and my wish for you is simply that you will continuously be challenged but never defeated. And if you live with this philosophy it means you will continuously remain in a state of living opposed to existing.
Thank you very much.