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"Transcript - Winning the Disability Challenge"



Brian Therrien:  This is Brain Therrien here today with John Tholen.  John, how are you today?

John Tholen:  I’m doing well today, thank you Brian.

Brian Therrien:  Great, great.  Appreciate you coming on out and telling us about your work.  It’s, you know, for the audience this is a chance for them to get some real insights into, as you say, about How to Win the Disability Challenge, which is a book that you’ve written, so.  You know, before we get into it and going through the book I, just, I think that you have communicated some real valuable life tips and skills to people that are no longer able to do what they used to do for work in a way that I haven’t seen anybody else do it so I’m, frankly, excited to share your story and tell people about your work that you’ve done so job well done, in advance.  The first thing that I wanted to point out that really resonated with me is – really the position of the whole book that you speak to people, John, that for some reason or another, have had an occupational situation happen to them where they’re no longer able to do what they have done and they’ve worked so hard all their life and their work has become their identity and it’s become their income and the support for their house, in a lot of cases, and they just can’t do it anymore and it’s just a very difficult thing and, yet, some of these principles that you’ve communicated to people are really, I think, leave them with the belief, after they understand your work, that there is a lot that people can do.

John Tholen:  Well, that’s certainly the goal.  One of the hardest challenges for me is to get a foot in the door with people who are feeling completely hopeless --

Brian Therrien:  Umm.

John Tholen:  -- and lost sight of the fact that there may be a way of making their life successful after they’ve become disabled.

Brian Therrien:  Hmm.  So, when you go about doing your work, I mean, you’ve been in this business of working and as a clinical psychologist and maybe if, from the work that I’ve understand that you’ve done, kind of like a coach to people that are disabled.  You’ve been doing this for 29 years as a traditional practice.  So, this is kind if a collection of your greatest hits and what’s worked and what’s been the most receptive to people or can you tell us, kind of like, how you came about putting this, you know, putting this effort together?

John Tholen:  That’s exactly what you’re suggesting.  I – over the course of 27 years I worked before I wrote the book, I would often write notes to my patients to take home with them, you know, to challenge their rational, discouraging thoughts and I would always keep a copy.  So, I collected a big file of all the notes that I wrote down for my patients and that became the backbone of the book.

Brian Therrien:  Um-hmm.

John Tholen:  Putting all those notes together.

Brian Therrien:  So, if I look at going back and really doing the Reader’s Digest condensed version of your work and what you’ve communicated in the book, I see some glaring areas I’d like to touch on today, which is the tips – tips on how fulfilling life experiences can be achieved after you can become disabled or as I’ve, you know, expressed to people is you’re going to play the hand that you’ve been dealt.  That’s one area I’d certainly like learn more about.  And there’s a lot of work about affirmations, which is really unique.  I can see where that would be helpful for somebody to have consistent, positive affirmations to remind themselves of who they are and what they can do and, you know, what their capabilities are so there’s confidence in one, so that’s great.  The other area that I saw that I’d also like to dig into today is you have some really, simple, manageable methods for helping people improve their health, manage pain, and even cure insomnia and coping with depressive-type symptoms, so, I mean, this is really some valuable stuff.  So, those are the areas that I’d like to talk with you about today if that’s okay with you?

John Tholen:  Great.

Brian Therrien:  Good.  So, let’s start from the top.  Tips on fulfilling life experiences.  How they can be achieved after becoming disabled and I think the most fascinating thing that I found in your work, John, that you did was, well, I liken it to a pie chart, you know, what you were able to do before and then what you’re able to do afterwards, but, I’ll lead you in that direction and a few things, if you could, maybe one or two key points that you could share with the audience on that subject.


John Tholen:  Sure.  Well, it’s just natural that when we have a major loss in our lives, we become preoccupied with it.  You know, when you lose something that’s always been there – it’s like you have a tooth fall out your tongue just can’t stay away from that spot.  Your attention is drawn to it over and over again and it causes you to lose sight of the fact that there are other things – other possibilities – we become fix on that – on what’s been lost, and we lose sight of the fact that there remains an infinite number of great possibilities for us in life.  And that’s that’s part of my biggest challenge in seeing patients for the first time is to tell them – they tell me, there’s nothing left I can do.  Well let’s start listing all the things you can do, you know, and pretty soon it becomes clear that we’re – we’re never going to run out of the – the list is going to go on forever because it’s still an incredible number of things that a person can do even after they become disabled in a major way.

Brian Therrien:  And this holds true for those with pretty much any sort of disability, from a physical ailment to an auto-immune condition to MS?

John Tholen:  Yeah.  Well, as long as you can – as long as you can think and you can speak and, well, I guess, probably even if you couldn’t speak, there would still be a million things you could do.  But, as long as you’re rational, there are things you’re going to be able to do, and the only limit on the number of things are creativity, our ability to go out there and look for them, you know, because there are a million things you can do that are just – have to do with learning, educating ourselves, exploring new aspects of life we haven’t looked into before, becoming more philosophical or more spiritual.  These things don’t come to an end.  You know – one thing that, you know, all of us, if we live long enough, are going to become disabled.  The advantage we have there is the hat comes on gradually and we can adjust to it a little more easily.  When it happens all at once, it becomes an overwhelming challenge, but the truth is that we can learn how to adjust to that in the same way that we would if it happen – came on gradually.  We adjust our lifestyle, we find new ways of doing things, we get involved in things that are of interest to us, that are rewarding to us, and we become wiser.  The stereotype about the older person that we want to be wiser when we get older.  Well, that’s something we can – that can happen for us after we become disabled.

Brian Therrien:  You know, it’s interesting that you – that you say that.  I’ve always been the bully for people that, you know, are going through the process or contemplating it and we coach them through it.  Here at the Disability Digest is that one, you know, once you have come to grips with the fact that you’re going to apply for disability or you’re approved, you have an abundance of time. The whole commitment of the 40-hour work week that most of, you know, we’re reluctant to lose is now gone and in your work, you you speak to that as, I guess, an advantage, right?

John Tholen:  Yeah.  Like people – people usually don’t look upon being disabled as having advantages.

Brian Therrien:  ~Laughs~.

John Tholen:  But, the truth is that there are some.  We get to kind of re-examine our our priorities.  Re-examine what we’re doing because when when you’re working, it takes up so much of your time.  I mean, not just the time you’re at work, but the time you’re preparing for – to get to work, the time that you’re, you know, transporting yourself back and forth to work, that that we often don’t even think about making major changes.  We don’t – you know, this may not be our ideal life, but then you become disabled and suddenly you’ve lost something that you’ve been pivoting your life around and it seems like a major crisis, but the truth is this may be an opportunity to start putting your life, build – rebuilding your life in a way that’s going to be more rewarding, more satisfying, more fulfilling than it was before.

Brian Therrien:  Um, yeah.  You know a lot of it focuses around work and that, you know, work being the identity to people and what they do and, you know, and what they’re known for.  So, was that – this is my take, is once somebody has comes to grips with that and they’ve been able to deal with that as well as they’re able to take care of their basic needs, you know, the shelter and the food and all that, then they’re – then they’re really in a position where they can, you know, use that time effectively.  Do you feel the same way?  I mean, if they don’t have – if somebody doesn’t know whether they’re going to be able to live or how they’re going to eat, that’s a real concern.  Is it difficult for those in those situations?  For people to adjust to this mentality or?

John Tholen:  Oh, certainly.  I mean, obviously, we have to get our basic needs met before we can begin to think about, you know, how we’re going to entertain ourselves, how we’re going to educate ourselves.  You know, yeah, then, you know, then that’s one of the – I put – near the beginning of the book I have a chapter called Taking Care of Business and that’s, you know, designed to help people get moving in the direction of meeting those basic needs.

Brian Therrien:  Great, great.  So, your focus and your success has been as directing people to really change their mindset and to focus on some of the things that they can do.  What are the top things that you usually outline that that people can do in these situations?  

John Tholen:  Well, one of the things that I talk about with with my patients a great deal is this idea of improving ourselves.  You know, finding some class or taking some kind of lesson or going to listen to some lecturer and just adding to our – the information that we – that we’re getting exposed to.  Making ourselves feel like we’re progressing, moving ahead, expanding ourselves.  Now, these are things that are difficult for people to do when they’re – when they’re in the midst of the crisis and they’re morbidly depressed and anxious.  I mean, that has to be attended to first.  So, in my practice – I actually have a psychiatrist in my practice, because a lot of the patients that I’m being – I’m seeing have been referred by their orthopaedic doctors and they come in to see me and they’re in – they’re in acute depression and they don’t really have the energy and they’re not, you know, they’re not sleeping, they’re – if you’re not sleeping more than, you know, at least five hours a night it’s pretty hard to do anything – and if you don’t have any energy, you know, you can’t really get started.  So, a lot of the people that I see, we get them to the psychiatrist and they get some antidepressant medication that helps them to get back some of their energy.  Now, not everybody needs that, but it’s a lot of the patients do.

Brian Therrien:  Um-hmm.

John Tholen:  And then they’re able to start taking on these other challenges of reshaping their lives in a positive direction.

Brian Therrien:  Um-hmm.  Now, on to the next thing that I was – wanted to talk to you about is the affirmations that you have with people.  I mean, there’s affirmations in there that are for – that I found helpful that, you know, that I could use.  So, how – I guess my first area of, you know, of questions to learn about this is how do you get people to get locked in on using affirmations?  Specifically, they’ve got to, you know, go over them several times to instill a confidence and I can when – once they’re there, then it’s a brilliant way to put their, you know, to set their mind straight.  How do you do that?

John Tholen:  Well, the book really is written in a way that I hope people will take bits and pieces of it and use those to their advantage.  Like I said, these are – these affirmations are things that I wrote for patients over the years –

Brian Therrien:  Okay.

John Tholen:  -- and then collected into the book.  The way – you know what I find is helpful for people is to go through the affirmations, pick out the ones that resonate with them, that have some special meaning to them, write them down on a, you know, a 3x5 card and put in their pocket –

Brian Therrien:  Um-hmm.

John Tholen:  -- or put in their wallet and when you find yourself ruminating about the hopelessness of your situation, you know, pull the card out and review it, because we don’t really have a great deal of control over the thought that comes into our mind.  But, if we – and one of the few ways that we can actually replace a self defeating thought is by preparing an alternative and then kind of constantly reviewing it over and over and, eventually, we can start maybe thinking that way.

Brian Therrien:  Um.  In fact, there’s one here, number twenty-three, that is – it say becoming occupationally disabled may be the first difficult step in our path towards personal growth and maturity, which, for anybody that’s going through the beginning of the process to have that, you know, tucked away in their pocket.  There’s a little bit more to it than that and to pull it out in those times of doubt and concern is a great message.

John Tholen:  Yeah.  If they, you know, oftentimes people are not ready to, you know, they just find that ridiculous in that idea, because they’re so down in the bottom of the crisis that there are – that there are – so they – so some other affirmation might be more appropriate to that person.  So, it really depends on your particular mindset, which things are going to be most meaningful to you.

Brian Therrien:  Yeah.

John Tholen:  That’s why – that’s why there’s 75 of them in there.

Brian Therrien:  Um.  And one of my favorites is – it says here our experiences are based more on how we react to those events than the events themselves, which is tried and true for anybody in life.  A lot of people overreact.  Really, really good stuff.

John Tholen:  Well, I – I, you know, oftentimes if I get the patients to try to identify some person they think of as a – as a personal model, you know, as a – as a hero or an ideal.  You know, for myself, I – the person I usually think of is Ghandi.

Brian Therrien:  Um-hmm.

John Tholen:  How would – how would Ghandi respond to the situation?  You know, that’s – there – that sets a high standard for you.  You know, it’s impossible to think of him, you know, becoming hopeless because he became crippled.  You know, that wouldn’t happen for him.  He would – he would continue to be the same person doing the same things that, you know, he was capable of doing because of his – his mindset.

Brian Therrien:  Um-hmm.

John Tholen:  And, you know, none of us – it’s not that we can be like that because, you know, Ghandi – there is these exceptional people that it comes natural to, but we can make ourselves more like that.  We can become – we can learn to be more like those individuals.

Brian Therrien:  Um.  You know, I’m wondering, you know, with the work that you’ve had and the impact that it’s had on people about, you know, how it really teaches those that are disabled to really become liberated – how they’re liberated from their routine and they understand that and they focus on something else.  Are there any stories or patient stories in your mind?  Success stories that you can – that you can think of?

John Tholen:  I had one patient’s story that was kind of an inspiration to me.  It was a guy that had been assaulted in the course of his work and had some serious neck and back injuries and he was limited to a fixed disability income of about $900 a month, but he managed to make that work.  He managed to find some public assisted housing, he got some services through the state, and then he set about – he would go to community food banks that would keep his expenses – keep his – to survive within his means, and then he set about building a model railroad, which is something he wanted to do since he was a kid.  And he carved pieces – for the model, he carved people and trees and houses and he created this elaborate model railroad in his apartment that he used to play with all day long and then he got a pet cockatiel and he taught the cockatiel to make humorous quips, at his prompting, to entertain other people and then he woo’d and wed his housekeeper and, so, this was a guy who – who’s life clearly did not come to an end with his disability.

Brian Therrien:  That sounds great.  Wow.  Yeah, you know, I say this often that I have met in my – in my work in this area some of the most inspirational people that have fought through some incredible challenges like this gentleman.  That’s a great story.

John Tholen:  Well, you know, the truth is that people who overcome disability become better people.  They become more admirable people.  I mean, you think about somebody like Christopher Reeve.  Here was a fellow who, you know, a talented guy, and incredibly good looking guy, a movie star, but that’s all he was until he suffered a severely disabling injury and then he became an inspiration for the whole world.

Brian Therrien:  Umm.

John Tholen:  He became something – something much greater than that.

Brian Therrien:  Yeah.  All the way up to the end.

John Tholen:  Yeah.

Brian Therrien:  Yeah, it was really – it was cool.  You mentioned, in the story, that your patient wed his housekeeper, which, you know, brings the relationship, you know, part of your work into this and the – I don’t know what the statistics are for people that go through the disability process and the life changes as far as those that remain married and those that get divorced, but it just – my take is the number of people that are disabled that are divorced is certainly skewed.  It’s very very high.

John Tholen:  Whenever you go through a major life changing event, it’s likely to upset a marriage.  You know, I mean, you’re just – going to graduate school leads to more than 50 percent divorced.

Brian Therrien:  Oh, really?

John Tholen:  Yeah.  Yeah, I mean, and any time you do something that changes your you know, what you’re doing in a big way, it has a potential for upsetting a relationship and, you know, when we get married most of us don’t really, you know, know what we’re doing, you know, to the large extent.  I mean, you know – we usually get to know our spouses better after the marriage than we knew them before.

Brian Therrien:  Yeah.

John Tholen:  So – and then you become disabled and you – and you may learn a whole new side of your spouse that you never knew about before.  Either that they’re incredibly compassionate and loving and helpful or that they can’t deal with anybody who’s having a problem.

Brian Therrien:  Yeah.

John Tholen:  Because there are some people like that who can’t be compassionate.  They just get angry with people who are having problems.

Brian Therrien:  Um.  That’s well said.  You know we try, most of us, to do our best and prepare for life, but we’re not taught how to, for the most part, have a successful relationship or manage money or raise kids, you know, so.

John Tholen:  And those topics are so controversial that I’m not sure you could come up with an acceptable curriculum.

Brian Therrien:  Well, yeah, good point.  Good point.  So, maybe it’s better left and just, you know, figure it out.

John Tholen:  I think that we all are on our own when it comes to those things.

Brian Therrien:  Laughs.

John Tholen:  It’s like – it’s like figuring out what to believe about the the universe, you know –

Brian Therrien:  Umm.

John Tholen:  -- it’s an individual challenge.

Brian Therrien:  So, what, you know – any one or two strategies that you could advocate to the audience that, you know, if they’re becoming disabled, maybe their relationship’s in good shape.  I know there’s so many variables here.  Maybe it’s not in good shape.  Anything that you could share in the time that we have that would be helpful for folks?

John Tholen:  Well, it depends on – if you’re still on good terms.  If you’re still able to speak to each other without animosity, then the goal is to put your cards on the table in a way that’s not aggressive, that’s not insulting or attacking the other person.  You know, this is – this is an assertive approach that’s usually the best way to work things out in any kind of communication between people.  What happens so often, though, is that people get into these counter punching matches where one person will say something with a – with a aggressive slant to it and the other person will fire back some jive to counter that and pretty – pretty soon you’re just in a fight.  Not really getting anywhere.  And in those kinds of situations, it often takes the intervention of a counsellor, a therapist, a clergy person, or someone – someone that knows, you know, how to intervene and try to control that.

Brian Therrien:  Um-hmm, um-hmm.

John Tholen:  One one thing that I recommend to people who are having trouble with that is to start communicating in writing or by e-mail, you know, where you – where you actually sit down and write something and then edit your response to try to make it as, you know, as unaggressive as possible.

Brian Therrien:  So it’s –

John Tholen:  Because we don’t do that when we’re talking.  You know, when we’re talking, something can slip out there or it’s just the tone of our voice can become aggressive.

Brian Therrien:  Good point.  Do – you give some nice examples of assertive statements for people that become disabled.  The one that stands out is something relative to, you know, I’m not able to do that anymore, which makes perfect sense when somebody experiences limitations in their body and there’s tasks that they used to be able to do and they’re no longer able to do them.  Just makes plain old sense to communicate that.  That’s – so – it was a lot cleaner than I expressed it in the book, but I thought it was a great point.

John Tholen:  Oh, thank you.  Yeah, the, you know, the whole new – we – when we become disabled, we entered a new world in some – in some ways, you know, you start having to deal with doctors and lawyers and insurance companies and Social Security representatives and, you know, it’s – we’re not familiar with that sometimes it’s kind of intimidating.  People have trouble, you know, and you become disabled, you become uncertain of yourself and it becomes hard to be consistently assertive and ask for what you want and express your feelings.  So, a lot of the statements in there are designed to help people in those situations.

Brian Therrien:  Um-hmm, um-hmm.  And they’re short and sweet and easy.  Kind of liking it to, you know, putting it in kind of like how you need to treat affirmations.  You need to be aware of them, have them there, be prepared when to use them, when not to use them.  So, lots of nice examples there.

John Tholen:  The one – the one that I think is helpful to a lot of people is just this idea that of delaying a response.  Asking for time before you make your response.

Brian Therrien:  Um-hmm.

John Tholen:  One you feel pressured to give a response right on the spot.  So, in that situation, it’s almost always best to say something like, you know I need to think about that for a moment or let me sleep on that, you know, so you don’t – you don’t – you’re not responding out of some emotional state.  You’re going to – you’re going to get your – engage your rational thought processes and then come up with a better response.

Brian Therrien:  Umm.  Yeah, that’s good, again, good, sound advice.  Looking at, you know, the audiences that are out there most end up in these situations because they’re experiencing pain.  They’ve, obviously, had some type of, you know, change in their life and they’re in search of, you know, a way to get their life back, manage pain, feel better, you know, sleep better, whatever it is.  And you give some really good strategies of how to, you know – really how to – how to deal with that.  The things that you can do that are in your – in your control and they’re all, you know, I don’t want to say holistic, but practical things that are not medication.  So, can you outline, you know, some of the top things that you would, you know, that you would advise people to do to – that are in search of getting their health back?

John Tholen:  Well, you know, it’s a combination of looking at what possibilities you can try out on your own and, you know, creating a list.  I’m all for people making lists of possibilities.  Things you might want to explore.  Every time you, you know, somebody mentions something to you that seems like it might have some helpfulness, you know, you put it on your list so you don’t lose it and you can come to it again another time.  But, also, I think a lot of people get a lot of benefit out of having a a coach, a pain coach.  Somebody that they can confide in, that helps them to make decisions, to refer them to the – to the right people.  You know, sometimes that’s a physical therapist, sometimes it’s a pain doctor, sometimes it’s a therapist – a psychologist.  But, I think people benefit out of having kind of a partner in the – in the battle.

Brian Therrien:  So, a pain coach.  Where would somebody find a pain coach?

John Tholen:  Well, you know, you’re not going to – there probably aren’t too many people out there that call themselves pain coaches.  But, it’s going to be, you know, that’s something that the individual – that the disabled individual’s going to figure out.  Who’s the best person?  Who do I relate to best, who seems to be most concerned about me, who seems to be available to help me.

Brian Therrien:  I see.

John Tholen:  So, you – you know, a lot of people develop very good relationships with a physical therapist.  Some people have – myself, I have a pain specialist that I go to see and, you know, I ask his advice on things.

Brian Therrien:  And for those out there that are pain coaches, I would suggest that they title themselves pain relief coaches.  I don’t know if there’s people out there actually looking for pain or more of it [laughs].

John Tholen:  I’ll have to write a different book for those people [laughs].

Brian Therrien:  Great stuff.  You know as we – as we wind up today, one of the – one of the things that really stood out about the work that you do is the biggest obstacle that people have is really conquering their disability is is getting started.  If you can’t get started, you can’t get anything done, right?

John Tholen:  Right.

Brian Therrien:  It’s like a lot of things.  So, you know, for those of you who are out there listening, if if John’s work resonates with you and, you know, you want to check it out, we’ll put a – put a link to where you can go find your book.  You’re book is out at major publishers.  You can get it on Amazon I believe, right?

John Tholen: Right.

Brian Therrien:  So, then go out and check out – check out your book and learn more about it and that would be great.  So, you know, as far as a call to action or getting started, is there anything that you could add that would, you know, be helpful for the audience to understand, you know, what they need to do to take action or take more action to get their concerns addressed?

John Tholen:  Well, I think the first step is to, you know, speak to somebody, you know, if you have a doctor, to speak to them about the trouble you’re having.  Then that person may be able to help you to identify the next step.  Some people, you know, the people that are extremely depressed are probably going to benefit from some kind of medical help.  And people that aren’t sleeping, you know, I don’t know how many times I’ve I’ve seen patients for the first time who were getting, you know, three – two to three or four hours sleep a night –

Brian Therrien:  Umm.

John Tholen:  -- and we helped them get a a medication that helps them to sleep and they suddenly feel quite a bit better and then they become more capable of functioning and starting to take, you know, capable of reading the book because sometimes people aren’t even capable of doing that when I first see them.  But, after you get beyond that point, then the goal is to start becoming mindful.  Mindfulness is this concept that came out of a kind of a Buddhist approach, but it’s it’s really about being aware of what’s going on in our bodies at any one moment.  Because life is really – the quality of our life is really based on our cumulative moment-to-moment experiences and, so, this developing an awareness of what’s going on in the here and now, in your body, in your circumstances is a key factor in moving ahead in conquering the disability challenge.

Brian Therrien:  Great, great.  Well, you know, again, I enjoy your work.  I found the book was really easy to read.  Again, for the audience, John’s book is Winning the Disability Challenge.  A practical guide to successful living.  Check it out at the link.  John, thanks for coming out today and sharing your work and your insight and keep up the great work and we look forward to having you back.

John Tholen:  Well, thank you Brian.

Brian Therrien:  Okay.  Thanks again.  Have a great day.

John Tholen:  Okay.  You too.  Bye-bye.  



{end of the interview}

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