Mental Illness and Physical Pain: When the Brain Destroys the Body

My body is a clunker! And a great deal of the reason is that mental illness and physical pain are inextricably intertwined. Unlike most other illnesses, which are contained in one part of the body, mental illness sabotages the whole organism, much like the flu.

When I was about thirteen or fourteen, maybe even younger, I was at the dentist. He noticed that my canine teeth (the sharp ones that would look like fangs if they were longer) were completely flat. He was stunned that at my young age, I had already done that much damage to my teeth. His first question, asked almost in a joking tone, was, “Are you stressed out or something?” I sheepishly nodded “yes,” and he almost chuckled and asked, “What does a guy your age have to be stressed about?!” I wanted to say, “Everything in the whole world!” but by then I had learned that my obsessive brain made me weird, and so rather than answer him, I just nodded and gave him a you’re-right-my-life-is-blissful smile.

Grinding my teeth was only the first physical symptom of mental illness and physical pain joining forces in my body. Throughout high school, every doctor or PE teacher who has ever tested my flexibility (that sounds naughty if you have a brain like mine) has concluded the same thing: “Wow, Tim, you’re really tight!” As a kid taking the Presidential Fitness Test, I never thought anything of this consistent observation. It just seemed to be the way I was.

Then, two years ago, I developed severe tendenitis in my elbows. I tried to ignore it for awhile, but eventually I reached out to pick up my phone, and the twinge of pain was more than I could stand, so I dropped it. This seemed like a good time to call a doctor, which I did, and before long, I had my first doses of cortisone in each elbow. Over time, I would have 5 more between the two elbows. Oh, and one surgery with another soon to follow. I would put some good money that my tightness and my elbows were/are symptoms of my brain’s problems. My body simply shouldn’t be breaking down like this at my age.

There are plenty more examples where mental illness and physical pain intersect, such as my chronically bad back and persistent headaches, but the last one I want to mention is a horrible way that the brain harms the body in a very literal and deliberate sense: self-harm. On the inside of my upper left bicep – the most tender part – there are 8 prominent scars, slightly raised, looking like organized rows in a garden.

On my inner right forearm there are countless smaller and less conspicuous similar scars. That night the inner pain wasn’t quite so all consuming and I didn’t feel the need to be as aggressive in my pain seeking. I both cut and burned that time, but none of the scars show unless you look quite closely.

And on my inner right thigh, there are two red marks that have taken over a year to fade to skin color. Those are my most recent episodes of self-harm, brought on when someone I considered a friend reached out to tell me that she had unfriended me on Facebook because what I said was too negative for her. Already nearing desperation, I broke. I got my knife and lighter and decided to see how hot I could make the knife and how long I could touch it to my skin.

The first examples are about the unconscious harm our brains do to our bodies, while the self-harm examples demonstrate that sometimes our brains come out of hiding and demand that we do ourselves harm. It’s quite literally insane that anyone could get twisted up enough to start hurting himself. No one does it for fun. People do it because, in an odd way that no one could understand unless they had done themselves harm, it alleviates the horror of that particular moment. Imagine the despair of a brain seeking to inflict harm on the body that houses it, like a car that flattens its own tire.

Mental illness doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t follow the rules of logic or normalcy, and that’s why many people call us “crazy.” For those who suffer from any form of bodily harm at the mercy of your brain, I wish for you the ability to love your broken self. I hope you will see that broken people are the best part of being on this earth. We are the ones who are forced to do what some others will never learn to do: love ourselves, forgive ourselves, and accept ourselves.

And for those of you who are trying your best to support us but get tired of our incessant aches and pains, do your best to put yourself in our shoes. Imagine having a stroke. Suddenly the right side of your body is worthless. But neither you nor any of your friends think you’re faking it because it can be seen on an X-ray. The only difference is you’ll have to trust us and the doctors who diagnose us that there really is something very wrong in our brains. Our bodily symptoms are no different than stroke symptoms: the brain turning on the body.

And for all of you, please know that you are never alone. I am here for you, always available on this page or at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com. And I hope that if you don’t already have them, you will find friends who speak the language of mental illness.

And supporters, you, too, can email me. And I urge you, too, to find friends who have a similar situation as your own. You need grace and kindness for yourselves as well. This is very hard; no one fully understands it.

We are all driving through a 5-mile, pitch-black tunnel without working headlights. The least we can do is to pile in the same car and face our fate together.
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Podcast: Do What Works (but how do I know if it’s working?!)

Show Notes:
In this podcast, Tim discusses a mantra that he often references: “Do What Works.” The truth is that, for those who are mentally ill, it can be very hard to know what’s working since it often feels like nothing works. Tim attempts to offer some new ways to look at life that redefine what is or is not effective.

In the podcast, Tim references Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a therapeutic model based around the mantra, “do what works.” More information on DBT can be found at one of these links:

http://psychcentral.com/lib/an-overview-of-dialectical-behavior-therapy/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_behavior_therapy

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To Know We Are Not Alone is now an official 501c3 entity. Our mission is to educate, encourage, and connect people who suffer from mental illnesses. Please help if you can. You can do so here.

More importantly, if you know someone who needs to know that they are not alone in their struggle with anger or mental illness, please share this post/blog with them. Thank you!

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Dear Taylor Swift

This was originally published a year and a half ago. For some reason it was on my mind again and I thought I’d re-share.

 

Dear Taylor Swift,

Yes, I am a 40-year-old man writing a letter to you, but don’t get weirded out just yet. Give me a minute to explain myself.

You see, this morning on the way to my daughter’s school, she (as usual) asked for my phone so she could listen (primarily) to your music. She’s 7, and you are her favorite (and don’t tell anyone but I do love your music, too while I pretend to be strictly a Death Metal sort of guy). This morning, my little girl played your song, “Never Grow Up.”

I am somewhat sure it changed my life. No, seriously.

As is often the case in the morning, I was a tad grumpy, and to be entirely honest, I gave her the phone in part so I wouldn’t have to feign fascination with 7-year-old questions and observations. Now don’t go judging me, Taylor, until you have kids of your own. They’re amazing, but they ask a lot of questions, and at least in my daughter’s case, come out of the womb with plenty to say and may well never stop talking for 7 years. But back to my life being changed…

So I’m not a big crier. I suppose that for a male I might be somewhere in the normal range, which means I might tear up at a movie when a dog dies or when the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is especially awesome, but for the most part, it’s mainly when that irritating thing called death comes close to home that I do my real crying. Unfortunately, that means someone close to me has to die about twice a year so I can get my stuffed-inside-pretty-damn-deep-emotions out. I will admit that once the tears make their way over my lower eyelids, they can tend to be all-consuming for a few minutes. But that’s usually the end of it, even when death happens.

But thanks to you, for literally the only time in my life that I can remember, I cried all day. As my daughter played the song this morning, it was just a little tearing up that led me to reach back and grab her hand just to hold it for a minute. Suddenly, instead of wanting the carpool trip to be over, I found myself wanting to hit pause so I could absorb the maniacal beauty of this fast-fleeting time in life when kids’ shrieks (some good, some bad) dominate my life.

But when she got out of the car, I started to replay that song over and over. I don’t know what in the world attracts us to things that evoke that mixture of joy and pain that makes us do that strange thing known as crying, but whatever that impulse is kept me listening over and over again. And gradually, the watery eyes turned into actual rolling tears. And then I couldn’t stop…for hours. There was so much wrapped up in the words of your song that got me crying…

I cried because I love my kids so damn much it actually hurts sometimes.

I cried because I don’t always do a great job of expressing it to them, and sometimes I’m sure I hurt them in ways even they won’t understand until they have their own day-of-crying at age 40.

I cried because I wished I could go back to my own childhood, but not because it was so blissfully naive. It was quite the opposite. I spent my childhood petrified of all manner of things: being left somewhere by my parents, germs that might fly into my body invisibly, accidentally telling a lie, making God mad and being sent to hell, and just generally of something tragic happening to my loved ones. I obsessively ended conversations with my parents with “I love you” because when you have OCD and hear one of those horrific stories that I think people make up just to scare the shit out of kids so they’ll appreciate their parents more, you tend not to forget such scary stories (you know, the story where a kid doesn’t get what he wants for his birthday, tells his parents he hates them, storms off, and then during the day, they’re hit by a Mack truck, and the kid comes home to find the present he wanted waiting as a surprise which had been planned all along (did you hear these same stories, Taylor? For me, they struck a nerve that was already all too alive.)). So I cried for myself, honestly, for the fact that I have felt far too “grown up” since I was 4. I cried because your song says that to a child “everything is funny,” but I don’t remember anything funny about being a child; I just remember being confused and unbelievably scared. Are you sure you didn’t mean to say that to a child “everything is scary as hell”?

I cried because last year one of my students did a talent show dance to your song and needed a little ballerina to join her, and she asked my daughter. When it actually took place, I only teared up, beating myself up inside that I couldn’t shed some real tears about this overwhelmingly perfect moment in time. But I made up for that lack of tears today.

Ellie Ruth in last year's Wesleyan Talent Show

I cried because that memory reminded me that I’ve had to step away from a lot of people and activities I love to try to get better in my brain.

I cried because I used to believe that God loved me and cared about me, but nowadays I struggle mightily to believe anything of the sort. It’s not that I wanted that foundation to crumble; sometimes foundations start crumbling and don’t know how to stop, it would seem…sort of goes along with the whole loss of innocence your song is about, I guess. You don’t want to lose your innocence (or maybe you actually do) but you don’t really have much of a choice once the cage door is opened.

You’re probably getting depressed, but I’m done with my sad list now, and I’m actually writing to say thank you, so let me get to that part.

Thank you for helping some dam inside of me break open. The truth is, many people, at least historically, have perceived me as put-together and on-the-ball. You know: stable, self-assured, level-headed…those sorts of things. But on the inside I’ve always been very aware that I’m a pretty emotional guy. Unfortunately, the emotion I’m best at expressing is anger, but you and I and the 7 people who might read this now know that my anger, humor, and sarcasm are actually masks for a lot of pain I feel inside but don’t know how to get out. I got a lot out today, so thank you for providing the chisel that broke a dam I’ve been building all my life.

Thank you, also, for a poignant reminder that our little ones do grow up. The part that really gets me is the bridge where you talk about daddy’s coming home and remembering little brother’s favorite songs. During that part, my daughter blurted out, “Josiah’s favorite song is definitely Jingle Bells!” since that is literally the ONLY song he ever wants to listen to. If he wants music, it’s that song on repeat since Christmas of 2013. But all day as I’ve listened over and over to your song (enough times to move that song up a few notches on the charts), when it comes to that part, I really crack. Those images are so relevant to me, and I dread the day when the “DADDY!!!!!!” shrieks fade into unintelligible grunts when I walk through the door.

Finally, Taylor, and please keep this between us as I’m very private about these things, I’ve been going through a bit of a tough time lately. Usually, when someone close to me dies, the tears are incredibly cathartic. It’s probably pretty obvious to say that crying is a natural part of grieving, but I am quite sure I haven’t begun to grieve the recent losses I’ve experienced.

Until today.

So thank you for playing a small, unwitting part in this cathartic ripping open that I apparently haven’t solved just yet. Maybe when you read this post you can have a good cry, too, for you have had to grow up pretty fast for different reasons than I did. You seem to be handling it pretty well, but then again, perhaps, like me, you’re spending most of your energy to stay “put together” so the 29 zillion people who recognize you won’t see the little kid inside of you. The same one that’s inside all of us; the same one that we all need to take good care of, to “re-parent” as the psychology term says, to cherish and love because no one will ever understand us as well as we understand ourselves.

Sincerely,

Tim

P.S. My daughter really wants to meet you, so let us know when you’re available to meet. I’m sure you can squeeze us in, right?

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*****

Well, the time has come to ask what I hate asking because I am pathologically afraid of annoying people. But the reality is that this endeavor has grown beyond a simple blog. I’m already spending a couple of thousand dollars a year now that I’m podcasting and doing some advertising (promoting) on Facebook. Currently, the ball is rolling to start at least one and hopefully multiple small groups dedicated specifically to helping mentally ill people know they have company. That, too, will require time and money. Long story short, I need some additional resources. Now that I have 501(c)(3) status, I can ask you for help while at the very least offering you a tax deduction. There are 3 ways to donate:

    1. You can transfer money directly from your bank via PayPal donations (seriously, why don’t you have a PayPal account by now, people?!).
    2. You can use PayPal to make a credit card donation.

FOR THE TWO ABOVE, YOU CAN MAKE THEM RECURRING MONTHLY IF YOU’D LIKE TO. Just check the box to this effect.

  1. You can write an old-school checks (ask your grandmother to show you how to write one, and then email me at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com for the mailing address).

All covering-up-my-discomfort-with-humor aside, I want to grow this endeavor into something that helps more people and helps them in more of a variety of ways. Anything you can contribute would be profoundly appreciated.

[paypal_donation_button]

More importantly, if you know someone who needs to know that they are not alone in their struggle with anger or mental illness, please share this post/blog with them. Thank you!

*****

Want to know when there’s something new here? Sign up for the blog below. Tim also has a Facebook community called To Know We Are Not Alone and frankly, so if you’re on Facebook, join us there, too. [jetpack_subscription_form title=”” subscribe_text=”” subscribe_button=”Sign Me Up”]

 

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Anger and Mental Illness

I’ve been told many times that I might have a teeny tiny tendency to fly off the handle in the midst of conflict. To which I say: “Guilty as charged!” I have anger issues.

Therapists say that anger is a “secondary emotion,” meaning that there’s an underlying cause, which is the actual problem. So when someone gets angry, it’s really hurt or fear or sadness manifesting itself as anger. Unfortunately, anger, at least for a man, is more socially appropriate that sadness or fear or hurt feelings – not that those are the only three things that become anger, but those are the top three for me.

I hate to brag, but part of my problem is that I’m often way ahead of people, but not in a I-already-looked-up-the-directions-to-the-restaurant sort of way (I never look up directions until I’ve actually started moving in the car). My way-ahead-of-you-ness is more like this: When you pissed me off yesterday by saying something that you thought was no big deal but I was upset by because I’m hyper-sensitive, I started having a conversation in my head that involved all the possible things you might say to me, and if you say x, y, or z, I’m going to lose it because there’s a backstory to why those sorts of comments infuriate me going all the way back to fourth grade, but there you went and said that very thing, and now I’m as pissed as if you punched my wife in the face, so please forgive me while I slash your tires because you said THAT.

I’ve never actually slashed anyone’s tires, and for the record, I’ve never punched anyone, slapped anyone, or even grabbed anyone by the hair and swung them around just to scare them. Never. Basically, when I’m mad, I become the world’s best arguer, you see, because I’ve already had this conversation 64 times before we got started. I did not want to have this conversation 64 times, but my feelings were hurt, and I have these overwhelming abandonment issues, you see, so the second things go awry, I’m basically a little child who is scared.

And like a scared little child, I lie awake and think of all the awful things that might happen mixed with all the awful things that have already happened, and I’m inconsolable. I just happen to be a grown man with a pretty good handle on the English language so that makes me a little child who is good at making you feel pretty bad about yourself. And because I’m a grown man, I’m not allowed to do what kids do: ask incessant questions to try to feel safe…or cry to the person who upset them because they haven’t learned the stupid social code that tells them not to admit weakness…or even just sulk until someone drags it out of them. Nope, I just start putting up the defenses, which involve an angry tone of voice, body language, and words.

Certainly not all folks with a mental illness respond to the world around them in anger. However, all mentally ill people I know struggle mightily with feeling misunderstood. Because our brains won’t cooperate, we respond to situations in extreme ways. Here’s a metaphor: We’ve all had that road rage encounter where something very minor goes awry, and another driver absolutely loses it – honking, shooting the bird, maybe even pointing a finger gun at you and pretending to kill you, as I once had happen. The natural reaction, of course, is to think, “What has humankind come to? What kind of crazy people are out here wandering the streets? I hope that guy accidentally cuts all of his fingernails way too short and lives in pain for a week.”

But we also, hopefully, know that whatever happened in that moment is certainly not the whole story…that the healthier reaction, if we could sit down with Road Rage Man would be to ask, “What’s going on that something so minor upset you so much?” For our own sanity and the sanity of the world at large, the better reaction would be to feel sorry for someone who overreacted so badly. No one overreacts without cause, and who knows what justifiable reasons that driver actually has to pretend to kill you just because you moved over a lane when he wanted that empty space to himself?

I assume the analogy is clear, but I like overstating the case, so I’ll spell it out for you: Mentally ill people (and plenty of others, too!) are the angry driver. Are they overreacting? Of course. Are they far too angry about the situation at hand? Definitely. But might they have a very good reason? Yes.

That doesn’t mean you allow people to walk all over you or yell at you unnecessarily. But it means you will improve your relationship with your mentally ill loved one if you can learn to see past the surface behavior and try to understand what’s at the root of said behavior. For my part, I know I’m angry. That’s not news to me any more than my awareness that I’m male. But it’s also true that, when someone will stick around long enough to get past my fit of rage, they will realize that I’m actually just sad and fearful and broken. And those emotions are far easier for most people to interact with than anger.

So for those on the “giving” end of the anger, you’re not alone, and mercifully, I’ve discovered that there are some people out there in the world who can see past your anger. Try not to shut them out the first time they infuriate you. Many of them really do want what’s best for you. And for those on the “receiving” end of the anger, take deep breaths; try to be patient; and try to see that your loved one might not mean to fire finger guns at you; they’ve just been sitting in traffic for a long, long time.

*****

Well, the time has come to ask what I hate asking because I am pathologically afraid of annoying people. But the reality is that this endeavor has grown beyond a simple blog. I’m already spending a couple of thousand dollars a year now that I’m podcasting and doing some advertising (promoting) on Facebook. In the near future, I also plan to start at least one and hopefully multiple small groups dedicated specifically to helping mentally ill people know they have company. That, too, will require time and money. Long story short, I need some additional resources. Now that I have 501(c)(3) status, I can ask you for help while at the very least offering you a tax deduction. There are 3 ways to donate:

  1. You can transfer money directly from your bank via PayPal donations (seriously, why don’t you have a PayPal account by now, people?!).
  2. You can use PayPal to make a credit card donation.
  3. FOR THE TWO ABOVE, YOU CAN MAKE THEM RECURRING MONTHLY IF YOU’D LIKE TO. Just check the box to this effect.

  4. You can write an old-school checks (ask your grandmother to show you how to write one, and then email me at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com for the mailing address).

All covering-up-my-discomfort-with-humor aside, I want to grow this endeavor into something that helps more people and helps them in more of a variety of ways. Anything you can contribute would be profoundly appreciated.

[paypal_donation_button]

More importantly, if you know someone who needs to know that they are not alone in their struggle with anger or mental illness, please share this post/blog with them. Thank you!

*****

Want to know when there’s something new here? Sign up for the blog below. Tim also has a Facebook community called To Know We Are Not Alone and frankly, so if you’re on Facebook, join us there, too. [jetpack_subscription_form title=”” subscribe_text=”” subscribe_button=”Sign Me Up”]

 

 

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I’m Still Here
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I’m Still Here

Just a few years ago, I had a prestigious job title, I was making more money than I ever thought I’d make, I had recently purchased a new house in a popular part of Atlanta, I was making use of my PhD on a daily basis, and because of where I worked, I had an excellent place to send my kids to school. I was fulfilling my purpose as an American, adult head of the house – I was taking care of my family, and even if I wasn’t always in the best frame of mental or emotional health, in a tangible sense, I was a success.

Then I got unceremoniously fucked by a cosmic elephant.

Sorry, was that crass? Well, I’m not sorry actually. That’s what it’s felt like. Correction…feels like.

I no longer have a prestigious job: I pressure wash and stain decks. That’s about all I have the mental and emotional energy for most days. And I’m trying to start a non-profit but don’t have much to show for it yet. My PhD is useless. No one, when choosing a stain color, has asked to see my diploma. I don’t even make enough money to even support myself, meaning that a lot more pressure is on my wife, who has never had to work until recently. This week, my kids started school at a place that is, well, the sort of school that most snobby, upper-middle-class people like us move away from when it comes time for kids to start school. Sad, but true.

And with all this “failure” in my life, I have spent a lot of time feeling like such a waste of human flesh. Like so many mentally ill people, I tell myself that my family and friends would be better off without me. I don’t just say this to myself; I genuinely believe it, no matter how hard they try to convince me otherwise. The brutal truth is that everything I’ve been taught to believe should give me my self-worth has been taken away.

Lately, though, I’ve decided, for giggles, to actually try and implement something a therapist recently told me: “Think about what you can do, not what you can’t do. Start from scratch, Tim.”

I argued: “There’s nothing I can do! All I want to do is lay in bed. When I get out of bed, I’m angry and sad. I’m useless!”

Still, I tried.

For me, a lot of my negative mental energy focuses on how much better I’d like to do as a father and husband. Being in my house is the cause of tremendous anxiety and depression because I feel like everywhere I look is a sign of my failure – a to do list item I still haven’t done; a dishwasher that a better husband would empty; a kid’s game that a better father would play for hours on end.

But lately, when one of those failures rears its head, I try to just remind myself of this: “I’m still here.” Meaning…I’m not dead; I haven’t done the unthinkable thing that would wound my wife and children irreparably.

I’m still here, meaning my wife still has a partner, and whether I am ever able to help her as much as I want to or not, she assures me that she’s glad I’m still here. Rather than tell her she’s wrong for wanting me around, perhaps I will try to take her at her word that she wants me to stay put.

I’m still here, meaning my kids, who can’t even cognitively grasp that things might be otherwise, see my face every day and get a good morning and goodnight hug and kiss. My own father traveled for weeks at a time, and I remember how comforted I was when he came home, for no other reason than that it was another adult in the house. That’s all I needed or wanted. I may never be Ward Cleaver, but maybe it’s enough just to be a staple in their lives. Maybe I don’t have to coach the baseball team or stay up all night for the sleepover. Perhaps just continuing to exist is a good-enough start.

And that’s it. That’s the big aha for this post: I’m still here. It doesn’t feel like enough…for the post or for daily life. But the more I remind myself that this is all I have for now, and that nobody gets to tell me that I have to be something more or something else, the more it feels like a good starting-over point.

 
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Friends, TKWANA is officially a 501(c)(3) organization! Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Also, in the weeks to come, I will be starting to accept donations that will further the reach of TKWANA. I hope you’ll consider contributing in due time. Thank you!

*****

Want to know when there’s something new here? Sign up for the blog below. Tim also has a Facebook community called To Know We Are Not Alone and frankly, there’s a lot more dialogue and group interaction that goes on there than on this blog site, so if you’re on Facebook, join us there, too. [jetpack_subscription_form title=”” subscribe_text=”” subscribe_button=”Sign Me Up”]

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Parenting Your Inner Riley

When my friend Riley died, I reacted how I always react when someone dies: I went numb. Around me, people cried and told stories and cried some more and laughed and told some more stories, but I just sat through it all, numb. Of course I didn’t want to feel this way. Well maybe some part of me did want to so I didn’t have to feel the pain. But I knew that being numb wouldn’t last forever, and while it did last, it only would make me feel like a jerk for seeming cold or distant or uncaring.

But I couldn’t stay numb forever. One of my dearest friends – one of the people who really understood me – was gone. I was bound to break.

Three weeks later, I sat in a Mexican restaurant and the dam decided to burst. Neither the stares of the other patrons nor the periodic stopping by of the waiter could embarrass me enough to stop the flow of tears. With my poor friend sitting across from me, helpless, I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I couldn’t stop.

My Mexican-restaurant friend couldn’t possibly have handled it any better. He let me cry and he didn’t try to offer stupid platitudes that were supposed to make me feel better or stop crying. After I had been going for a while you gently asked me, “Tim do you know anyone else who has the same sorts of struggles and battles that you have? Anyone who might have felt like you feel now?” I told him through a sardonic laugh, “yeah, but he just died!” And then he asked me something life-changing. He said: “Tim, if you knew that Riley was feeling like you’re feeling right now, what would you tell him to do?”

At that time, for me, the answer was obvious: I was in a miserable work situation that was making my life harder and harder by the moment for many reasons I won’t list here. I knew I needed a break, if not forever, for at least a good while. But this decision came with a lot of unknowns and a lot of fear. If I were talking to Riley, I would have told him these things would work themselves out, that his sanity was worth more than any paycheck or job security. But in my own life, I simply couldn’t accept the advice I would’ve freely offered to Riley. I was trying to muddle through, even if it killed me.

I don’t want it to seem that I was crying about my job; I was crying about Riley. But I also knew that my job was contributing to my extreme depression, the kind that might well lead me down the road Riley had just taken, a dangerous intake of alcohol and drugs that stopped his heart. I knew that my job was a weight on my shoulders that would make it impossible for me to move forward or heal in the way I needed to at that time. I knew I needed to walk away from my job, at least for awhile. I knew that’s what I would tell Riley to do.

Psychologists often talk about parenting your “inner child”. It’s really a beautiful practice to take out an actual picture of yourself as a precious little boy or girl whose eyes indicate a deep hunger to understand and to be understood…to be cherished…to be safe…to be loved. We have all been that child. In psychological terms, inner child work means treating your current self as you would that little boy or little girl who is easy to feel compassion for.

And sometimes when I’m trying to have compassion for myself, I imagine the little boy in the pictures I have who is in fact me. I have a few different pictures in my mind of myself as a seven or eight-year-old child, and I can see the pain and struggle behind those eyes. It’s easy to feel deep compassion and love for that little boy.

But I don’t always imagine my childhood self in order to feel compassion for my inner self. Sometimes, it’s easier to think of someone else for whom compassion comes easily. Believe it or not, I often imagine Riley. Sometimes it’s easier to have compassion for someone else than for ourselves. That day in the Mexican restaurant, the person I imagined who was hurting and desperate was Riley. And Riley was a stand-in for me, for my inner child. As I thought about my job and how much it was harming me, I imagined what I would tell Riley to do if he were in the same situation, and it wasn’t even difficult to know the right thing to say. I told him that he deserved a break, that he was fighting a damn hard battle, that he deserved to wake up in the morning and want to be wherever he had to be that day, that he deserved a work environment where he was supported and loved and accepted for exactly who he was. Talking to my inner child as if I were Riley made it remarkably easy for me to know what to do.

It’s never hard for me to find compassion or grace for Riley. Sure he had addictions and mental health problems that Some might say made him imperfect, but never for one second do I feel incapable of loving the person who he was inside, who cared for people so much that it almost hurt him more than he could bear. I feel that way too, but I’m also far too hard on myself. So when I imagine my inner child, or my inner Riley, I can be a lot easier on myself because I know that I’m hurting and I know that I’m scared and lonely and broken and often desperate. But like Riley, I also know that I’m trying my best.

So that’s the lasting legacy, among others, that Riley has left with me. In a weird sense, he is my inner child. I can always have the proper perspective on myself when I look inside and see that I’m a lot like Riley, just someone who’s trying my hardest – often failing, but always trying.

I’m grateful to Riley for many things. He will forever be one of the people who really understood me. I will always be able to imagine conversations with Riley where I felt understood and loved and appreciated no matter how warped I actually felt. When I can’t bring myself to care for the little boy inside of me, I can always look to Riley and imagine how I would care for him. And if I care for myself in that way, I can care for myself the right way. For that and for many other things, I will always be grateful to Riley for teaching me how to love myself a little better.
 
 
For more about Riley, check out the foundation Riley’s Wish
 
*****

Friends, I need your help growing the reach of TKWANA. Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Thank you!

*****

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Lessons from a Tattoo

I got my first tattoo three years ago. I had always liked tattoos but knew that if I got a dolphin coming out of the waistband on my lower back, I’d probably regret it at some point. I knew I couldn’t get one unless I could be sure I’d never think it was ridiculous. I figured that my kids’ and wife’s initials with an infinity symbol would probably be safe. Hell, even if Ann divorces me, we have two kids together so I’ll keep her initials. I’ll just require her share of the retirement money in exchange for doing so. But I digress.

People often tell you that once you get one tattoo you’re going to want more…they’re like Lays Potato Chips apparently. And, well, they are in fact just like Lays, only less fattening.

After the ice (my skin) was broken, I immediately wanted another one, and I knew what it would be. It would come from a 10th century Japanese poem I found in a book I was reading. This poem wouldn’t leave me alone. It haunted me, in a good way, and I wanted to have it with me all the time. Here’s the poem:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
~Izumi Shikibu

It was so simple but so profound: it seemed to fully encapsulate my own experience of life…Life is windy, terribly windy. Life is a ruined house with a shitty roof to boot. But damned if that stupid roof doesn’t sometimes let in a little moonlight that’s make-you-weep beautiful. So often, any sort of book or greeting card or song that has a look-at-the-bright side message wants to oversell the good side. Like this:

Although the sea breeze can be a bit harsh every fourth year or so
the SUNLIGHT is so beautiful that you have to be an idiot to
focus on anything else. So quit complaining if the air conditioning blows a little
too cold for your liking.
~Tim Blue (ca. July 1,2016. 8:33 pm)

And shit like that makes my skin crawl because life is really really hard. At least it is for me. I’m a bundle of anxieties, obsessive thoughts, deep bouts of depression, uncontrolled fits of anger, and every once in awhile, gentle kindness with a fun sense of humor. Unfortunately, the light I can see is usually “just” moonlight. I am unceasingly aware of the crappy house I live in (the one called my body and brain).

But man can moonlight be beautiful. Way more beautiful than sunlight, IMHO (ask someone who texts a lot). And if we’re all honest with ourselves, the houses we live in are all pretty broken. I mean, we are all living in houses that are going to ultimately fail us when that little monster called Death comes calling. We’re on the Titanic, people. We know how the movie ends. But ironically, we all went to see the movie anyway. I, for one, wanted to see Kate Winslet’s boobs. But the other 2 hours and 59 minutes were pretty worth watching too. So why go see a movie when you know the ending and that most of the people will die? Because there’s something very, very beautiful about the doomed, moonlit lives they were living.

And the same goes for us. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that your life is more of the moonlit kind than the sunlit kind. Maybe you, like me, curse the ruined house you live in once or twice a minute. I’d love to wrap this up by saying “it’s all going to be fine!” But it won’t. The old bumper sticker put it well: Life’s a bitch, and then you die. And life is a bitch. And we will die.

But I hope you’ll look up and see some moonlight every once in awhile too. And I hope you’ll cut yourself some slack for how hard life can be. If you’re like me, you’re pretty tough on yourself. But you’re probably trying your best. And you probably deserve a lot more moonlit nights than you think you do.

So here’s to moonlight. And here’s to those of you who keep fighting despite rarely noticing much light of any kind. And here’s to remarkably painful tattoos that serve as a permanent reminder to notice the moonlight while you’re looking up, cursing your drafty roof.
 
*****
 
Friends, I need your help growing the reach of TKWANA. Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Thank you!
 
*****
 
Want to know when there’s something new here? Sign up for the blog below. Tim also has a Facebook community called To Know We Are Not Alone and frankly, there’s a lot more dialogue and group interaction that goes on there than on this blog site, so if you’re on Facebook, join us there, too. [jetpack_subscription_form title=”” subscribe_text=”” subscribe_button=”Sign Me Up”]

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Our Beautiful Connectedness

If you’ve read more than one paragraph I’ve ever written, you’ve picked up on the fact that I’m somewhat of a glass is half empty sort of guy. But allow me to depart from my usual vantage point to share with you about what a beautiful day I’ve had.

I need to set the scene a bit to help you appreciate the good events of today. Yesterday sucked. I heard from an unhappy customer who listed multiple things I had done wrong in my cleanup process. I had literally told her I would have to leave some of the cleanup work to her because the deck I’d stained would be wet. She ended her litany with, “I don’t know where you were in such a rush to get to!” Now I do get my feelings hurt easily, but she was being downright ridiculous and unreasonable…so it hurt all the more. Then I sat in a cigar shop and listened to two very outspoken men express their own litany of political passions (essentially opposite of my own, of course) for about two hours; really? All I wanted to do was enjoy a cigar. A few other things happened that are too personal to list here for fear of hurting people’s feelings who might actually read this post. I also broke an expensive piece of my work equipment AND a treasured ashtray that I made at a pottery painting place while on a date with my daughter. It was truly one of THOSE days.

But today made me feel like humanity is redeemable and meaningful connections, both close ones and passing ones, are possible.

I had dinner with a former student who, if I may say so, is like a little brother to me. I just love the kid (he’s 21, so, not a kid I guess). He is endlessly compassionate toward me; he almost never ceases to give me a gift of some sort when we’re together. Tonight, in honor of my recent birthday, he insisted on treating me to dinner (so I had two drinks and four entrees and seven desserts). When we parted we hugged and said, “I love ya buddy” to each other.

While we were at the movies, I had one of those passing encounters that make me feel like maybe, just maybe, we all COULD get along. At least under the right circumstances. I was waiting in line to pay the equivalent of a car payment for a drink and some Twizzlers and got to chatting with a couple behind me. We were just lamenting how expensive these snacks were while ironically waiting to pay for said snacks. We were talking about the fact that you sort of get psychologically tricked into thinking the prices are reasonable since you have no other options for food or drink. Then I mentioned Vegas and the psychological tricks they play on you so you’ll spend more money gambling. I asked if they’d ever been and they said they might go for their honeymoon. Then the lady, beaming, showed me her engagement ring and said they had just gotten engaged TODAY! Overcome with goodwill as it was my birthday and had been a good one, I blurted out, “Well then, I’m buying your snacks.” Don’t go thinking I’m too generous because my mother, who expresses love by handing out money to her children, had given me $100 earlier that day. Anyway, they were very touched and the lady wanted a picture with the three of us. (The line was long…so we had plenty of time for all of this to unfold). We took a picture together and she sent it to me; we got our snacks; we hugged and I congratulated them, and off we went to our movies. It was just a beautiful encounter.

I got home and checked my email and yet another beautiful act of love and grace was waiting for me. An old friend from high school (okay, if I’m honest we even “dated” for a little bit, but since we were too young to drive, I’m not sure we went on many dates. Truth be told, I treated her like none-too-well when I broke up with her, and I wouldn’t have held it against her to still think I’m a jerk. If she does, then what she did is even more remarkable…) We had been dialoging about me maybe speaking at her church sometime. She said she’d mention it to the pastors, and I expected a two or three line email that would probably amount to nothing. Well, she wrote something more like a research paper and cc’d me on it. She cited mental health statistics and elaborated on the lack of proper education about these topics in the church, and much more. I had to bookmark where I stopped reading so I can finish it tomorrow. No, not really, but it was such an “above and beyond” act of kindness that I was and still am overcome with a sense that there is goodness in the world and in people.

I have nothing more to say about this because I just want to let the stories speak for themselves. In this moment, I just want to breathe in the grace and beauty and dignity of being a part of humankind.

 

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After Orlando

My friend Matt, from California, texted me this week to say how much things like the Orlando shooting affect his moods. I understood what he meant. When I’m not doing well, I literally can’t read the news – any news – because the bad news (most of it) will inevitably send me spiraling downward.

Rather than heed the internal voice that told me to stay away from the news about Orlando, in an attempt to make my own life miserable, I did the equivalent of a diabetic eating nothing but donuts: I started sharing my political views on Facebook. There’s a reason people suggest not doing this, and now I know what it is: people are fucking crazy. And illogical. And mean. And, well, stupid. (Not you, of course!)

Not to mention the “me” part of the equation: I’m hypersensitive, opinionated, liberal (with lots of conservative friends), and mentally ill. I don’t know how long it’s going to take before I realize that I am not emotionally equipped to have “spirited” debates about things like whether or not a 9-year-old should be allowed to take her AK-47 to the playground for recess, but 40 years haven’t done the trick. I STILL think, “this time, I’ll be fine. My brain is in a good place (which it’s not, actually)…I can deal with a little backlash.” So I post something nice and benign, something Gandhi would probably post, like this: “I think semi-automatic rifles are helpful…for identifying the people with the smallest penises and the greatest need for a therapist who specializes in daddy issues.” Oddly, people react negatively, and then guess what? I get my feelings hurt because I’ve been misunderstood. Again. (For the record, I do like the idea of the post above, but what I actually posted was a good deal more nuanced and generous.)

But completely seriously, I’ve discovered yet again how bad it is for my brain to get into debates without some really safe boundary lines. I only have a few people in my life with whom there is enough trust and safety that I know we can discuss anything openly without me losing my shit at some point. It’s true that perhaps the quickest way to send me over the edge is to make me feel misunderstood about something I am passionate about. I still can’t entirely identify why it makes me so angry to feel like someone isn’t hearing me out or catching my drift, but aside from threatening my wife or children, it’s the quickest way to see my very worst side. Please don’t try it!

In talking with my mentally ill pals, what I’ve discovered is that this sensitivity is a common theme. Our brains are already hardwired for chaos, fear, depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, etc. We don’t need any help going down rabbit trails that are unhealthy. So when a “friend” calls us “willfully ignorant” or “just another liberal who espouses tolerance while being intolerant,” we are not able to, as some seem capable of doing, think to ourselves, “Oh well, that’s just X’s opinion. We’ll agree to disagree.” Instead, we lay awake at night going back and forth between mentally drafting angry responses to wanting to cry for how misunderstood we feel. And this, my friends, has been my week: attempts at dialogue leading to arguments leading to hurt feelings leading to lost sleep, anxiety, incessant what if questions about how to proceed, withdrawal from family, extra doses of Xanax, and so on.

So the first point I’d like to make is this: If we are going to take care of ourselves as mentally ill people, we have to be willing to set different boundaries than our “normal” friends set. So often I am guilty of berating myself for not being able to do things like so-and-so does them, and my friends tell me this is true of them, too. But we have do some inner child work here. We would never tell a five-year-old that he should be able to do what a fifteen-year-old does. Likewise, we must parent our own inner, mentally ill child and reassure him that it’s okay to not be like the other boys and girls. It’s okay that he can’t handle the madness of Facebook the week after another massacre. If Sally can handle it just fine, let her. I’m not Sally. I will do what’s best for me. It’s not so different from alcoholism. The alcoholic has to forgive herself that she can’t hang out at bars with friends. Sure, the rest of her friends can do so, and sure, she wishes desperately that she could. But the bad too far outweighs the good, and she has to gently, lovingly care for the inner child that simply isn’t capable of handling the temptations of a bar.

There’s another angle on the Orlando shootings in regard to mental illness, though. It has to do with the “all of these mass murderers are mentally ill…that’s the problem we should be focusing on” utterances of this week. On a practical note, and for the record, anyone who says, “THIS is the issue we must focus on” is oversimplifying the problem. It’s never just one thing. But the reality is that virtually every shooting is perpetrated by someone who is mentally ill. I once talked to a very experienced therapist who made the point that he didn’t think anyone who WASN’T mentally ill even had the capacity to commit murder. It may just be that, in order to kill someone, by definition, one must be mentally ill.

This week, yet again on Facebook, during one of these, uh, er, discussions I was having on Facebook, someone pointed toward mental illness as the thing we really need to be talking about. I whole-heartedly agreed. But I don’t think I meant what she thought I meant. I wouldn’t put mass murder at the top of the list of reasons why we need to address mental illness in this country.

First on my list would be simply the quality of life for mentally ill people…then maybe preventing mentally ill people’s suicides…and so on. As horrific as these mass murders are, what might be even more horrific is the daily trauma faced by millions of people who suffer inside their own minds and can’t find anything to make the problem better.

It’s amazing to me that we can send a rover to Mars that communicates with earth and we can send an email to Japan that takes less than one second to get there, yet despite the collective thousands and thousands of years those of us who participate in this blog have spent seeking mental health treatment, many of us are more hopeless than ever. We’ve tried the drugs, the talk therapy, the shock treatment, the magnetic field treatments, the deep brain stimulation, the support groups, the illegal drugs, the alcohol, and yet, we are still DESPERATE for something that provides even just a little bit of relief. People who like to point to the mental illness crisis as the reason for these mass shootings may mean well, but if they really knew what they were talking about, they would sound this drum day in and day out on behalf of those of us who grimly hope that we will one day be the victim of a mass shooting. Many more lives are being lost at the hands of mental illness than the victims of shootings. Millions of people right here in America have lost their lives in an entirely different sense. Let’s talk more about how to help those people.

Please.
 

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Forgive Yourself

forgive yourself

I talked to a long-time friend this week: He’s shut in his house with raging OCD. All of his friends have gradually drifted away. His final remaining friend jumped ship on him this week because he failed to bring his kid to baseball practice…again (their kids are on the same team). Well, that’s easy enough for someone who doesn’t have contamination obsessions to say, but when everything you touch, every smell that wafts into your nose, every germ that might be floating in the air brings the sort of fear that most people only experience for a total of about ten seconds in their lives – when the plane really might seem to be actually, for real, no joke, crashing – it’s a lot harder to take the kid out into public than it might seem. YOU try taking your kid to the baseball park…or anywhere…knowing it’s going to make you feel like you are, by choice, stepping into the crossfire of a gang shootout.

What is my friend’s reaction to his own internal struggle? He berates himself for his “weakness”; he takes the blame when his friend tells him “maybe you shouldn’t have any more kids”; he sees himself through the lens of stigma: “Maybe I should just wear a shirt around that says, ‘Don’t befriend me; I have OCD; you’ll regret it, and you won’t understand,’” he thinks. “I am a failure.”

Then there’s my other “friend”…and by “friend” I mean me. God, what a failure I feel like so much of the time. When I left the first job, I could tell myself, “It was time to go for lots of reasons, not just depression.” I could tell myself that my friend had just died, and anyone would need some time to recoup. Then I got another job…one that seemed much more manageable, even though it was only half the pay and three times the students, I told myself it was do-able; it was the right thing. I made it through a semester and a half and then, once again, failed, failed, failed. I couldn’t walk back through the door, answer another student’s question, fake it through another lecture, or grade another paper. Adios, second job. Hello, additional evidence of my worthlessness. Now what? Who’s going to pay the bills? What will my kids think of me? How long till my wife kicks me out? Then what? Live with my parents? Hmmm, sounds like a winner of a plan, you failure.

***
You hear the word “stigma” associated with mental illness quite a bit. Most people would agree that there’s at least some degree of stigma associated with being handicapped by a mental illness. Many of those same people will say they believe mental illness is as real as a physical illness, yet they don’t necessarily act on those beliefs. Secretly (or not), they think, “he’s got some stuff to work through” rather than “gosh, he’s really sick!”

Tragically, many of us view ourselves the same exact way – as “weak” or “a faker” who just doesn’t have enough will power to get life together. We berate ourselves for our not getting better despite all of the counseling we’ve invested in and all of the medicines we’ve tried. We compare ourselves to our happiest, most stable, most successful friends and wish we just had the balls to face the day head on – to make lemonade out of lemons, like they seem to do so easily.

I’ll use myself as exhibit A (and if you’re observant, you’ll want to point out that I lack an exhibit B…sorry): I’ve lived my whole life with OCD, and I have plenty of evidence that mental illness has a tangible impact on my ability to see the world clearly. I can trace its powerful control over my brain back to age five. Long before I knew anything about mental illnesses, I can point out specifically how my brain was operating differently than everyone else’s. Sure every kid is scared his parents might leave him somewhere; but not every kid constructs every second of every day around making sure his parents are within arms length (literally and figuratively) so he doesn’t get abandoned. Not every kid walks out of the movie theater with a soaking wet shirt because he’s been spitting out the germs he has to have been inhaling in that dirty theater…and he spits them into his shirt because it would be a sin to defile the theater by spitting on the ground. And not every kid tells a story about something that happened on the playground that day but then remembers that he left out a small, unimportant detail and believes he has actually told a lie because of the omission. He then finds some awkward way to bring the story back up so he can fill in the missing details and correct his sinful lie. There’s something haywire in there, right?!

Yet when my obsessions take on a new shape, my first thought isn’t, “my brain is acting up again.” It’s, “Tim, you idiot. Get over it!” By contrast, I seem to have developed chronic tendonitis in my elbow. It hurts bad enough that even lifting the remote control can be quite painful. And yet, I have never once told my elbow what a piece of sh*t it is or wondered why I’m not more able to overcome my “weak” tendon. No, I work around it. In fact, I baby my poor wittle weft ewbow because it hurtsies. I put stinky rub-on medicines on it to make it numb, and one of these days, I might even break down and go for yet another cortisone shot. Another way of framing it might be that I forgive myself for having a faulty elbow.

Recently I was recounting to my therapist what a terrible job I was doing at certain aspects of my life. I was going on and on about how bad it was, and she stopped me and said, “Just stop, Tim. You need to forgive yourself.” It wasn’t the first time I had come across this idea, but it was the first time another person had said it to me. It reminded me, once again, how powerful that concept is. If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that you, too, fight a daily, hourly, second by second battle against the very thing that controls your entire being – your brain. It’s a wild horse that won’t be controlled yet you beat yourself up for that fact. I promise you this, though: If you start practicing self-forgiveness, it won’t fix your mental illness, but it will change your relationship to it.

Self-forgiveness takes practice. I mean like actual, you-have-to-work-at-this practice. Like, you need to put a post-it note on your mirror, teach your parrot to say, “give yourself grace, Billy, you’re doing your best,” or set a reminder on your phone. Without the practice, at least for me, my brain’s default self-talk setting seems to involve words like “loser”, “failure”, and “piece of stinky poopoo”. However, if I speak to myself like I’m a small child who’s trying hard but struggling at something new – “It’s okay; settle down; I’ve got you; don’t worry; shhhh; it will be okay…”, my pain doesn’t go away but it becomes something I can tolerate having inside of me. It’s like putting 3-D glasses on in a 3-D movie. Sure, you can watch it without the glasses, but putting the glasses on radically changes your relationship to the movie. The next 2 hours will be a completely different experience thanks to the glasses.

I hope you’ll give this a try, no matter what you tend to beat yourself up about. Life tends to beat the hell out of most of us one way or another…wouldn’t it be nice to have an attitude toward your own suffering that didn’t, in fact, make that suffering ten times worse? (That’s rhetorical…the answer is that yes, it would be nice and maybe even life-changing.)

PS. A few updates on the endeavor to start a non-profit:
1. The ball is rolling and I’m excited…I’ve taken steps to begin doing some speaking and to get some of the official non-profity stuff rolling as well.
2. Podcast #1 is recorded but there are all sorts of technological hoops I’m learning how to jump through before it’s officially a podcast that you can download on iTunes. It should be out next week (I know you’ve been dying to get your hands on it like it’s Harry Potter or something, but be patient. Perfection takes time.)
3. As always, I want to ask you to join in the fight against loneliness and isolation by letting someone know they are not alone…somehow…anyhow.

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