A Life Changing Question (with Podcast)

life changing question

 

 

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After Riley died (see previous post) I felt completely numb. I had comforted the friend who had the devastating fate of finding Riley unresponsive in his apartment bedroom. I had hugged his broken-hearted mom many times. I had even spoken at his memorial service. Not once did my eyes well up or my voice break through all of this. I felt callous and guilty. I tried to tell myself that I saw this tragedy coming, so I had been ready. I tried to tell myself that, at the end, Riley had been so miserable that he was better off, despite what the rest of us still selfishly wanted. But nothing made me really feel the pain of losing a close friend, a kindred spirit.

Finally, after three weeks of numbness, I cracked. I’m not like an actor who can choose when these emotions will come or how strong they will be. The Mexican restaurant in Dunwoody was far from an ideal location for this needed release, but that’s where it happened. Sitting in a booth with a long-time, very close friend – one of about three people on earth I have ever completely fallen apart in front of – I shed a tear…my voice broke…and I fought back sobs for forty-five minutes.

My friend Mike had never seen me like this despite all of the times we had gotten naked in front of each other…all the times we had stripped bare together. No, no, I fear that the dirty minds out there might be misreading my completely appropriate, non-sexual metaphors. You should be ashamed.

Let me try again: Mike had never seen me cry despite fifteen years of pretty much telling each other about every up and down and deep, dark secret. He had seen my anger and plenty of sarcasm – my two preferred ways for letting pain seep out. But this was different. Mike sat there in respectful silence and said the perfect words of comfort: “Tim, we’ll figure this out together. Obviously, you’re hurting, and I’m here for you. I’m with you in this.”

We sat awhile longer as I tried to compose myself, and then Mike went and changed my entire outlook on myself…

“Tim, can you think of anyone you know who might feel what you’re feeling right now?” he asked.

I responded with the anger I had been feeling at losing someone who got IT: “Yeah, my friend who just died.”

Then he asked me a life changing question: “Tim, what would you tell him if he was feeling what you’re feeling right now?”

Clouds parting…beams of light…eyebrows raised at how much easier it suddenly felt to give myself some grace. In the span of time it took to pose that one simple question, I felt I had been given a new lease to love myself and care for myself despite how depressed and hopeless I felt around that time.

Would I ever tell Riley he needed to suck it up and keep moving forward if I knew he felt like I did right then? No, I’d tell him to take a few days off and see how he felt. Why couldn’t I make the same decision for myself without feeling guilty…like I was failing somehow?

Would I tell Riley that he’d be failing his family if he needed to call time out for a bit, spending some time alone or playing the music that was his only escape? No, I’d tell him that the best version of himself is what he owed his family, and by insisting on forging ahead on the current collision course with disaster, he was certainly not doing his family any favors. I’d tell him it was okay to be weak and to hurt and to be exhausted. I’d tell him it was okay to love himself and to get better.

Mike’s question was raised six months ago now, and I still think about it all the time. Through my mindfulness meditation practice, I’ve also been given some similar images to hold in my mind as I practice self-compassion:

One option is to call to mind a moment when your child seemed particularly vulnerable and those I’d-do-anything-for-this-child instincts took over. By imagining yourself as that very child, you can begin to feel a softness toward yourself just as if you were watching your child try not to cry after falling off his bike. You’d look at the quivering lip and say, “It’s OKAY, little one! It’s okay to cry. I know it hurts; let’s go get an icepack.” You’d hug your child and comfort him/her. (Well, I hope you would!)

Or imagine your own self at a moment in childhood when you felt particularly vulnerable, wishing someone would tell you it was going to be okay, wishing for mom or dad to pick you up and wrap you in comfort and safety. Then return to that moment and be the Adult who parents that hurting, scared child who is still inside of you…inside all of us.

If you’re like me, being tough on yourself comes rather naturally. Why can’t you be more like so-and-so, Tim, and just let things roll off your back? Why can’t you be less of a roller coaster to live with? Why do you insist on thinking about unanswerable questions incessantly? Stop, dammit! What the hell is your problem? Everyone else seems to be handling life’s realities waaaay better than you. Get it together, Tim!

But I’d never say those things to my children or to my friend, Riley, especially if I could look inside their heads and hearts and see the angst raging in them that I feel inside myself so often. I’d just want to sit with them, to let them know they’re not alone…ever. I’d want to say, “I’ll keep sitting as long as it takes because I love you. We’re in this together, all the way to the end.”

So why don’t I say the same things to Tim that I would say to Riley?

What I’ve learned in the past six months is that, when I do practice self-compassion – and I don’t think you are likely to improve much unless you take the time to actually practice – my entire outlook on my struggles changes. By being kinder to myself, I end up being more loving and patient with others. I become more honest about how I’m feeling, less ashamed to admit it. Oddly, I even feel more hopeful that the rough seas are survivable. The water may even become calm someday.

But if it doesn’t, Tim, you’re still valuable, and I still love you, always.

 

 

If you listen to the podcast, I’d love your feedback! Leave a comment below with thoughts and suggestions if you have them.

 

 

Also, if you’d like more Mike Edwards wisdom, take a look at his blog, especially if you like to hear someone express very non-traditional theological views. Enjoy: http://mikeedwards123.wordpress.com/

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Riley, We Haven’t Forgotten You (with Podcast)

Riley 3Six months ago, the world lost someone whose life was a testament to the power of perseverance. His name was Riley Sisson; he was 25-years-old; and he was my friend. But I’m being self-serving…More importantly, he was a son, a brother who cherished his sister, a friend to just about everyone who was interested, a kinder-than-normal soul, a former college athlete, salutatorian of his high school class, one-time Prom King, and now I’d like to mention once again: he was my friend.

Riley died of OCD. Sure, the death certificate says it was an accidental overdose, but Riley’s addictions were symptoms of the often-invisible (because people hide in humiliation), brutal, life-sapping disease that is woefully misunderstood – OCD. The World Health Organization lists it as one of the top 10 most debilitating diseases on earth. I’m going to keep telling people this until I’m blue in the face (pun ALWAYS intended). I’ll sound the drum for my own sake, but more importantly, I’ll do it for Riley, whose attempt to get just a tiny, fleeting glimmer of relief from the raging storm inside of his head lead directly to his death.

Please do what you can, when you can, to help me raise awareness of the reality that OCD is a torturous disease of the brain that takes away even the possibility of peace for its sufferers. It leaves parents without their children, sisters without their only brother, and it has left our world without the compassionate, gentle, and wise Riley Sisson.

When Riley died, he was in graduate school seeking a master’s in psychology. He said to me many times that the only way he knew how to turn his OCD into something positive was to become qualified to help others navigate its relentless torture. Now, I am NOT one who believes that terrible and tragic things happen SO THAT something good can come of it (we can talk philosophy/theology on this one at a later time). But, the fact is the bad things do happen, and while all of us who are left living in the aftermath of a tragedy would love a rewind button more than anything else, our only actual option is to hope we can somehow find the strength to make lemonade out of Cosmic, Rotten Lemons.

Riley’s bold and beautiful mother, Margaret, is actively showing the rest of us how to make lemonade. I met Margaret over the phone when she got in touch with me after reading my book. She only had one agenda – to meet someone else who understood the mayhem of OCD. She reached out to me based solely on her I-just-have-a-hunch-we-might-do-each-other-some-good instinct that most of us ignore all too readily.

Margaret kindly insisted that I join her and Riley at the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation’s summer conference as it was in my own hometown of Atlanta. For Margaret, the people at OCF had become her brothers and sisters who spoke the language of OCD, around whom she could speak openly and honestly, even if it came from misery’s need for company.

I, on the other hand, would prefer to reject others before they get the chance to reject me, so I avoided places like conferences. Who wants to walk into a room full of strangers and feel like an outsider? Who wants to feign interest in getting to know new people when I’m actually scared of new people, scared of rejection? Who wants to see all the evidence of people who are much farther down this same road than I am, people who have already achieved the results that I can only hope to get some distant day in the future?

Not me. I’d prefer to just spare myself the possible letdown and keep judging people while I stand outside in the rain with my defensive walls securely around me, thank you very much.

But Margaret dragged me in graciously, and she continues to do so, helping me grow more and more comfortable taking the same sorts of risks she takes in “putting myself out there” despite the fear of rejection. But I’m not the only one Margaret is drawing into this much needed sphere of advocacy. A couple of years ago the OCF awarded her the “Hero Award” for her work raising support and awareness for this cause. If you know Margaret, you’re not surprised by her tireless, gracious, persistent insistence that the mental health world pay better attention to her son…and now, tragically, to his memory. When she received the award, she told her son and everyone else that it was all for Riley. She was “just” a concerned mama wanting to protect and nurture her boy.

Today, Margaret is carrying on Riley’s legacy through a foundation she’s starting called “Riley’s Wish.” If you like being in on the ground floor of things that WILL become something world-changing, I suggest you head to the Facebook page, like it, stay tuned, and ask Margaret how you can help.

If you’re not one of the Margaret Sissons of the world, what with endless motivation and energy, it can be hard to know what you are supposed to do in the face of the inevitable losses we experience on this earth, but I happen to have an opinion on everything, and this situation is no different. So, a few suggestions for all of us who want to help make the world a kinder place in some way…

First, many of you didn’t know Riley, but I assume you know someone who has lost a loved one. Maybe it was a month ago, or maybe it was ten years ago, but I’ll promise you this: By letting the survivor(s) know that you have not forgotten their beloved, you will add a bit of hope to this world. It seems to me that when someone dies, especially a young person, the ultimate desire of his left-behind, grieving relatives is to keep him alive through fond memories and hearing his name spoken aloud. This is why they start foundations in their child’s honor, but eventually, inevitably, they start to feel like others have moved on; they feel embarrassed to still be hurting so much. So I suggest that you consider reaching out to someone today who is hurting from a loss – even one that happened a long time ago. Trust me, your friend is still hurting every day, and the best ointment for their wound is you taking the time to say their lost one’s name, to remember her aloud, to keep him alive in some way.

Next, I want to encourage all of us to make a habit of these small acts of kindness. My initial “challenge” at Riley’s funeral was for people to simply “do something…but be sure to keep doing it.” If you keep the action small and tangible (at least to start with), you might actually make a new habit out of it. You’ve probably been having those nagging hunches that you “should” do x, y, or z for so-and-so for a while now. So go do it. Follow that hunch! Then put a weekly or monthly or yearly reminder in your Apple Android G5 2.0X, and bug yourself regularly to keep making this small improvement to someone’s world.

If you’re like me, you’ll never do anything if the goal is to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict or to put Google out of business with your new idea. Start smaller…maybe call that grieving sister or heart-broken son once a week. Remind them that, while others may have quit asking how they’re holding up, you never will. And don’t fret – the Israel-Palestine thing, most likely, will still be around in a few years after you’ve worked up your stamina.

I took my own challenge and set a reminder to stay in touch with Margaret at least once a week in some way. Sure, I’ve missed a few, but the reminder is there, every Monday. I don’t need it at all anymore because we talk more than once a week these days, but I plan to leave it there just in case (Sorry Margaret – you’re stuck with me!). Six months after Riley’s death brought us even closer than we were, I now consider Margaret among my very best friends.

The one thing that we are ALL capable of doing, and doing regularly, is simply letting someone who’s hurting know s/he’s not alone. Yeah, you may fail. Who cares?

Just try. And keep trying.

People need to know they are not alone, and you can change someone’s world.

And as Margaret is fond of saying, if even one tiny tidbit of goodness comes into the world because of him…Riley would be so pleased.

 

 

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