Interview with Bill

Friends, tune in to my latest podcast with Bill. Bill has dealt with addiction and alcoholism, as well as a few suicide attempts. Thankfully, he’s in a good place now and has lots of wisdom and encouragement to share. Listen on any device here: https://www.blubrry.com/to_know_we_are_not_alone/

And if you’d be willing to help spread the word, share this with someone who might need it. Reach me anytime at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.comThanks!

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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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Mental Illness and Exhaustion: Give Yourself a Break

Mental illness and exhaustion: Friends that seem like conjoined twins.

My friend texted to say she’d had a rough trip with her family. “Lots of stressors and I forgot my Xanax,” she said. By the time she texted, she was hiding in the bathroom, running the shower so people would think she was just taking a long shower, and sobbing.

Which got me thinking about mental illness and exhaustion, something virtually every mentally ill person I know deals with.

Any psychologist will warn you about stressors in your environment. My psychiatrist even tells me that she could make literally anyone psychotic if she were allowed to put them under certain kinds of stress. As she is a 5’2”, kind-as-can-be female, I don’t get too concerned when she celebrates this fact.

Everyone has stressors, and everyone can be pushed over the edge; it’s just that those of us with a mental illness are a good bit less capable of dealing with mental/emotional/psychological ones. And at least for me, here’s why: I already have about 80% of my capacity for stress happening inside of my brain at all times.

Whether it’s depression or anxiety or OCD or bi-polar disorder, if our illness(es) are up and running, we already feel like a normal person probably would after their most stressful week at work: Boss in a terrible mood, layoffs on the horizon, huge projects coming due, 70 hours, and missed three of your kids’ events to boot.

After all that, even a normal person would probably be pretty unhappy to find out that s/he had Friday night dinner guests coming over. But they could probably take a deep breath, muster up the last vestiges of energy they had, and smile when the guests arrived.

Now, maybe, we’re on a level playing field: you with your long week and me with my brain that never stops questioningaskingwonderingwhatifing, are both running on fumes, but if we hit the lights green and put the car in neutral as we’re going downhill, we can make it to the gas station. Maybe. If we’re lucky. If things go well, we might even enjoy the evening.

But we’re on exhausted and not at our best. If someone says the wrong thing; if your kid spills a drink; if your spouse uses that tone with you; or a million other “ifs,” we’re going to have to use the last of our energy to keep from performing professional wrestling moves on our dining room table. Actually, we’ll probably become angrily quiet and use the bathroom seven times until these intruders finally leave and we can go to bed or yell at our innocent families or pets.

I offer this not as an excuse but as an explanation from someone who has been both people in the above scenario. In my younger days, before my depression became overwhelming enough that it might well end my life if I ignore it, I could work a 70 hour week and still hang out with friends on a Friday night. Without even planning to slash their tires on my way out. I could even stomach a couple of busy weeks in a row with a not-very-restful weekend in between. Looking back, it seems like I had a puppy’s energy level in those days. I dealt with OCD back then, but it was well-medicated and fairly calm. I was pretty “normal.”

Not anymore, though. Between my OCD and my often-crippling depression, I feel like I’ve had a long week when I wake up after ten hours of sleep. If the kids are loud, or in bad moods, I’m pretending I need to use the bathroom for half an hour at a time just to attempt a reset. Which almost never works. Depression makes me feel completely sapped of energy, much like you would on the worst day of a bad cold. Technically, I probably could do the tasks that need doing, but just standing up from a chair feels like tasks 1-34. Then the guilt sets in that I can’t just suck it up and do what everyone else is able to do. And now I’m at war with two demons: the energy-drain of mental illness AND the guilt of being a human being who wants and wishes to do more.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve found a medical solution for this problem regarding our constant exhaustion. Maybe someday. But for now I offer two small things: First, you are not alone. If I can tell you anything from doing this work for awhile it’s that exhaustion is one of the most common symptoms of mental illness. I promise that you are not alone in this feeling. Second, give yourself grace. Any healing that might happen has to start there. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with providing for yourself the kind of care you need. Imagine if your body was lifting weights all day, every day, and even when you slept. You’d expect it to be exhausted. And that’s what your brain is actually doing.

To sum up: You’re very tired, and so am I. Others may not see why, but we can see why in ourselves and in others. So give yourself grace, and when you’re up for it, let someone else know they are not alone in their pain.

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BEFORE YOU GO: Friends, in my consistently inconsistent fashion, I have finally gotten started with the page I began working on about six months ago. I’m as excited about it as anything I’ve ever done because it takes my story out of the center of this blog and puts yours there instead. Please head over to https://tkwana.org/stories-about-mental-illness/ and listen to one or two of the stories there. THEN email me and let me know you would like to add yours. I’ll send you instructions. It can be anonymous if you want. I can even mask your voice a bit through the magic of technology. So don’t be shy! ALSO, NO MATTER WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY, YOUR STORY WOULD HELP SOMEONE. It doesn’t have to be jaw-dropping. The more ordinary the better. I just want people to know they have company in this world. I want there to be hundreds of 15-30 minute stories there eventually. All you need is a smart phone and a quiet place to record. I can edit out all of your mess-ups so you can just talk and not worry. Please, please consider joining in the effort and email me at: toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com

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Articles for further reading:

From The Mighty

From the Mental Illness Alphabet

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Mental Illness and Addiction: Changing the Narrative

I’m finishing up a popular memoir called Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, and while the book isn’t about mental illness and addiction, per se, Vance’s story of unlikely success grows out of his disgust toward his mother’s endless addictions to both men and drugs. Over the course of Vance’s 31 year life, his mother has been married five times and her drug habits have gradually devolved to the point of entering rehab for heroin use.

The mental illness in Vance’s family is undiagnosed, mostly because “hillbillys” are highly unlikely to talk to a therapist about their problems. But as a child, Vance’s mother seemed most negatively impacted by her own parents’ screaming matches and her father’s alcoholism. While her two siblings stood up to the chaos without losing a sense of self, Vance’s mom would cower on the floor and cover her ears, much like she would do when yet another man left her. One could certainly diagnose PTSD and inevitably, there would be other valid mental and emotional disabilities to be medicated or counseled. So, while I know I’m painting with a broad brush, for the purposes of what I want to say here, I’m going to simplify matters and say that in Vance’s life, in my life, and in so many other lives, mental illness and addiction go hand in hand and are culturally regarded in very much the same way.

Toward the end of the book, Vance does an informal survey of his extended family about why his mom’s struggles ruined her. He primarily wanted the opinion of his mom’s two siblings. Both of them take the attitude toward their sister that typifies what I perceive to be our national attitude toward both mental illness and addiction: “Yes, these are real ‘diseases,’ but the cure for them is primarily to quit whining and get your life together. The struggle is probably real, but the cure is willpower.”

Some examples:

1. The Atlanta Falcons recently hired a new Offensive Coordinator who lost his last job because of multiple alcohol related incidents, including showing up to his head coaching job drunk. On TV, a sports commentator’s jaw was nearly on the floor with disbelief that anyone would hire this man. But if alcoholism is a disease, shouldn’t the attitude be different – something more like, “I’m thrilled that this man is back on his feet and is doing what he needs to to stay healthy.” If he had come to work and passed out from not tending to his diabetes, would anyone guffaw that he could get another job after such irresponsibility?

2. A friend of mine suffers from crippling depression; she hasn’t worked in years. Her very gracious brother supports her financially, but he also incessantly tells her she needs to exercise and volunteer. Those are, in fact, very good suggestions. However, they are coming from a place that misunderstands the hurdles that have to be jumped to get to the gym or to sign up to volunteer. This is a woman who has a PhD, who adopted a child as a single mother, and who has held many high-powered jobs over a forty year career. She didn’t become lazy all of a sudden. Something changed in her brain, and getting to the gym for her can be like asking someone who’s petrified of heights to jump out of a plane – unless there’s someone strapped to their back, they ain’t jumping out of that plane.

I can hear the objections to my points through the internet waves. Or maybe it’s just that I have those same objections buried in my own brain from a lifetime of training. They are saying to me: “Tim, you’re letting people off too easy. Are you saying that we have no power over mental illness and addiction? Are you saying we can all excuse our bad behavior because we’re “just wired this way”? Are you saying we should let people come to work drunk and hold their hair back while they puke in the trashcan during an important meeting? To which I say, “Of course not! Alcoholics should wear their hair in a bun.”

But really, I am not saying that. People, even those with mental illness and addiction problems, have a responsibility to manage their conditions. Our treatments for these ailments are embarrassingly rudimentary, but people who suffer still need to seek treatment until they’ve run out of options (and many do, sadly). What I’m addressing here isn’t so much how some boss should handle an employee’s first absence due to depression or anxiety. I’m more interested in the systemic attitude that I hear from Vance’s aunt and uncle about their sister…as well as from many of my own family and friends. Essentially, they say this, “We grew up in the same house/school/town/neighborhood; we made it and succeeded; what’s YOUR problem?”

That is the misguided attitude that has to change.

It’s the same attitude you see in rich, white people toward inner city black kids who “aren’t taking advantages of their opportunities.” At first glance, it seems like a brash, arrogant attitude. But in reality, I think it is a fearful and defensive one. We all want to believe that our successes are because of our own merit – that anyone could do what we have done but we wanted it more, had a better work ethic, or slayed a few more dragons by their bravery. It’s scary and unsettling to think that our success of which we are so proud might have a good bit less to do with our own acts of will than we think. So we call others, those who do not have what we have, weak, broken, or even depraved. That allows us to remain the “good guy” who has it all together by the strength of her own will.

Another way of putting it: Michael Jordan isn’t just tall and athletic; he was also wired for endless hours in the gym and for intense competition. I could have the same exact physique as him or I could have the same intensity or the same competitive spirit, but unless I had all of them combined, I could never be as good as he was. But if I looked just like him and had the same athleticism, inevitably people would say I had wasted my talent. If I’m not wired for all those hours in the gym, though, and like to read instead, does that make me a wasted, would-be Michael Jordan? I think that’s far too simplistic. It’s the same with mental illness and addiction. What looks one way might be something starkly different.

Maybe I’m only making this argument because I’m a forty-year-old, privileged, white man who is trying to start over. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that I failed and that it’s my fault. Maybe the masses are right about me and every other addict and mentally ill person: Sure we have a real illness on our hands, but if we were strong enough people, we’d fight our way out of the messes we find ourselves in. Are all of us just weaker – sure to be destroyed evolutionary principles that cause the fittest, not the weakest, to survive: Slowly, we’ll annihilate ourselves by suicide, overdoses, and a lack of desire to pass on genes. Is that what’s happening here?

I’ll leave that to you to answer, but I ask you to think twice the next time you think that someone needs to just get her act together. People say we need to walk a mile in each other’s shoes, but I don’t think that would do the trick. What we really need is to actually walk a mile in that person’s DNA – to think their thoughts, to feel their fears, to be haunted by their traumas, and, of course, to have their experiences. This might enable us to offer more grace to others, not only who are haunted by mental illness and addiction, but also our plain old, every day brothers, sisters, friends, and family.

For further reading:

A good piece about attitudes toward addiction: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/184/2/155
And one about attitudes toward mental illness: https://www.rethink.org/news-views/2013/11/attitudes-to-mental-illness

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Humor and Mental Illness

It’s no secret that comedians often come from very dark places. People often tell me that I’m funny, which I take to mean, “Tim, you should get help!” But they are completely right: I am funny. But seriously, I do think that, for me, humor and mental illness go hand-in-hand. I’m incessantly aware of life’s inconsistencies and ironies, and those provide perfect fodder for a few laughs throughout the day.

Last week, I watched a Netflix special that was so powerful and profound, and it got me thinking about this marriage between humor and mental illness once again. The show is called “3 Mics” and the stand-up comic is named Neal Brennan. It’s not spoiling anything to tell you that the whole 3 microphone concept goes like this: At each of the mics, he talks about different sorts of things. One is for silly one-liners; one is for normal stand-up comedy; and the last one is for, as he puts it, “emotional stuff.”

When he first went to the “emotional” mic, I figured he might be doing just a different sort of comedy – making fun of himself and what a crybaby he is or something like that. So when he started talking about his depression, I was intrigued. Here was a guy who clearly understood depression. I can always tell when someone truly speaks depression and when they just want to pretend like they understand to be nice. Neal speaks depression fluently. But he threw me for a loop because he never rescued the “bit” with humor. He was just plain and simply talking about his deep battle with depression. He was mixing humor and mental illness, but not by making mental illness funny as many try to do. Instead, he was giving it its full, brutal, weighty due.

Then he did more standp-up comedy (probably 70% of the show is stand-up comedy), but then he came back to the mic. This time he talked about his father. His father was terrible, but I’ll let you watch and hear for yourself. It’s horrific. But also powerful in a way that only tragic things can be.

Overall, this hour-long Netflix special felt like taking the perfect, soothing bath. I felt like someone had told it like it is in a way that made me feel like I had a new friend. I loved the comedy, too, because what else are you going to do when life can look so grim and tragic other than try to laugh a little. Brennan found the perfect marriage between humor and mental illness, giving each their proper place and weight. And while I’m pretty sure Brennan isn’t an avid follower of this blog, I felt the kinship that I hope to share with you: We may not know each other, or ever meet for that matter, but I hope you are encouraged to know you are not alone. Mental illness is a lot of things, but one of them is certainly LONELY.

So go watch Neal Brennan’s special or call a friend who gets it or email me or post a comment or whatever…find a friend because we are out here, and you are not alone.
 
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These Only Go to 7: Mood Disorders and Healthy Expectations

In the cult classic “mockumentary”, “This is Spinal Tap,” there’s a famous scene where a would-be rock star explains to an interviewer why his amplifiers go to 11, not the usual 10. Rather than try to capture the magic for you, I’ll let you watch for yourself…

I haven’t seen that movie in over twenty years, but I still regularly say “these go to 11” just about every time I am stumped and don’t have a proper response.

Over the past few years, I’ve had so many doctors ask me to use the 1-10 scale to tell them how I’m doing with my mood disorders that I’ve become accustomed to thinking in those terms. I’ve certainly never made it to 11, but the truth is that I rarely live above a 5. What got me thinking was a great evening I had the other night. Ann went out with some friends, so I took my kids out for pizza and ice cream. A lot of times, sitting around the dinner table, trying to figure out how to have a meaningful dialogue with small children can be hard for me. I tend to feel like I’m failing unless we’re discussing the pros and cons of universal healthcare or something like that. But they had recently downloaded the game Family Feud on my phone. Just like the TV version, the game we were playing gave us a certain amount of time to guess what the top answers were to some random question.

We had a blast playing this game while we waited for our food. Everyone was happy, even me. Then the pizza came and it was delicious. Afterwards we walked across the street for ice cream. We got in the car; no one spilled their ice cream; I don’t think I had to referee even one argument for the entire evening. Once we were home, everyone did their own thing for a bit, and then I put my babies to bed.

A perfect daddy/kids date night, right?!

Well, almost. Ish. I mean I hate to say no, but the truth is that I’d rate the night about a 7. The reason for the 3 docked points? Simple: my mood-disorder-laden brain.

My brain that, even while playing Family Feud was racing with all the possible negative outcomes for the evening or just for life in general. I couldn’t help but psychoanalyze the picture perfect family in the corner, knowing that, as with all such families, it takes a lot of work to seem so put together, to pretend so hard. And every time someone wandered through the door, there was my grim, obsessive reminder that all mass shootings begin with someone innocently walking through a door. I played out scenarios in my head, wondering what I’d do. Would I be able to protect my kids? What if I turned out to be a coward and got one of my kids killed? Would I kill myself? And of course, there was the meta analysis of my own situation: I wondered why I couldn’t just relax. I chastised myself for failing to relax. I took some deep breaths. But nothing calmed my uncalmable brain.

We boxed up our left-over pizza and headed for ice cream. It was delicious. My daughter asked for a taste of the flavor I always get and then ordered herself a cup. She seemed so grown up, ordering something other than chocolate ice cream with sprinkles. So I began thinking of how much I want to hold onto her and keep her safe. I thought about the mean girls and mean boys that are just starting to enter her social world. I thought of how much harder it will get in a few years when the hormones knock all of us upside the head for a few years. I just love her so much; can’t I keep her from getting hurt in any way, shape, or form? Please! Grant me this one power!

And I thought about my little boy who is still every bit a little boy, naive to all the complex realities of life that his sister is starting to taste. He likes Legos and Hot Wheels. And I adore him and want him to stay like he is. But I also want to help him grow up. What if I’m not up to the task?

So by the time we arrived home I was far off in a distant land, pondering the same things I ponder day in and day out, worrying about the same things, obsessing over the same things…scared of letting my family down, but also wanting a massive stroke to take me out any day now so I can be done with this incessant pain.

When I thought about our perfect evening together, I realized I’d probably give it a 7. Not because anything was wrong, but because for me, even when everything is right, the broken wires in my brain tell me not to get too comfortable because that’s when disaster strikes. The broken wires force me to feel like some futuristic movie robot who is constantly receiving a Google search’s worth of information about everything I lay eyes on. Maybe in an ideal world, I could shift my expectations and just accept that, for me, what I experienced that night was, in fact, a 10. Hell, you can call 10 whatever you want to, just like the Spinal Tap so wisely teaches us.

But not really, unfortunately. There’s something in the human brain…or even in an animal’s brain come to think of it…that knows when things aren’t quite right. No amount of wishing or wanting has enabled my brain to simply accept reality on its own terms, to embrace an evening that is a “Perfect 7”. Plain and simple, there is just something broken: call it depression or bi-polar disorder or the more vague-sounding “mood disorder”…Whatever it is, it won’t let me turn the nob past seven.

And this is my message yet again. It will be the same message in 20 years I’m sure: People with a mental illness deserve some grace just as much as people who are in a wheelchair or bald with terminal cancer. Life is different for us…fundamentally and irrevocably different. I even had a therapist balk at this concept one time – the idea that a mental illness qualifies as a disability. She didn’t want me thinking I could just get away with a poor-me attitude all the time. And I get that. That’s not helpful for someone who has cancer or is in a wheelchair or who has a mental illness.

On the other hand, I think it can be very helpful to recognize that we are in fact different and we have different needs and capabilities because of our broken parts. For me at least, this doesn’t lead to a woe-is-me mentality as much as it leads me to have grace for myself when I need more time alone than others or when I can’t handle a chaotic restaurant or when I feel both joyful and profoundly sad when I spend time with my kids because my brain won’t let me forget how temporary this all is. I’ve spent my whole life chastising myself for not being able to “just get over” certain things. But when I treat myself with respect and grace and kindness, seeing the unique ways that my brokenness comes with a flip side of compassion and understanding for others, I can treat my “weakness” a bit differently.

I’m still sad that my amps only go to 7. Very sad. Devastated, actually. But having compassion for myself inches me a bit closer to feeling like that 7 is something to be excited about, even though it will never be a 10 (or 11).

 
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I write this blog to let people know they are not alone. If you know someone who might need to read something like this, please pass it along or encourage them to email me at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com.
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Born with Burns


Born with Burns

Sometimes I feel like I was born with a scorched body that never healed. I’m walking around in the world, a world full of sharp edges and prickly branches and concrete landing spots. These things hurt everyone when they pass them by or fall onto them, but for me, after 41 years of observation, I feel quite confident saying these things hurt me much more than they do the average person.

At the moment my wife 14 years and I are going through a divorce. It’s not that we don’t love each other or care about each other. It’s just that things aren’t working and they haven’t been for a long time. There’s a lot of friction that causes unnecessary pain and angst for us and for our children. It’s been a hard and years-long decision, but the last few weeks as we have taken definitive steps has been brutal.

On top of that, and forgive me for complaining publicly, but most of my closest friends and family have entirely failed to offer any comfort in the midst of this. I watch as my wife’s family and friends rallied to her side day after day and just feel consumed by loneliness at the lack of calls on my phone or texts to say “I’m with you.”

Today I actually feel like I want to die for the first time in a very long time. I’m grateful that his been so long since I felt this way, but I forgot how awful it is. I’m at that point just prior to being truly in danger where I just hope something tragic will happen to me and it will all be over. Like I said, I feel like a burn victim who is more wounded by the ordinary events of life than most others would be.

Life is painful no matter who you are but when you have a mental illness what might otherwise be tolerable pain becomes virtually intolerable. What might be deep sadness turns into soul-and-life-threatening sadness. What might be Xanax-requiring anxiety about the future turns into wanting to drink yourself into oblivion even though you haven’t had a drop in over seven months, as is the case with me.

As much as it may seem so, I am not writing to air any dirty laundry or to be passive aggressive toward anyone. I am writing because it is more apparent to me and ever day like today how much we need each other. People without mental illnesses simply do not and cannot get it. They can try and some of them are very very good at trying. But unless a day like today has led you to feel what I have described it is probably very hard to relate to what I’m talking about. I could understand if you wanted to say to me “Tim, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and move forward.”

But I’m not writing to those of you who feel that I should do such a thing. I’m writing to those of you who read what I said and immediately thought “I completely understand what he is saying.”

And I have a challenge for you that I will never quit giving as long as I write this blog: if you understand what I’m talking about please find someone in or around you inner circle and make a habit of inserting yourself into their lives.

All of us need each other. But those of us whose sanity feels so tenuous need the support of others all the more. If there can be one good thing that comes out of me having a really terrible day, I hope it will be that you are reminded of how much good you can do for another human being simply by understanding what they’re going through. That’s the greatest, and really the only, gift we have to give.

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The Haunted Dreams of Mental Illness

I tell people that my brain never stops worrying, even in the middle of the night, and it’s true. If I wake up to pee, the thing I went to be worrying about is still churning, churning, churning. Sleep is the closest thing to relief that I get, but last night’s dream demonstrates that even my dreams are haunted by obsessive worry.

In the dream, I was in my psychiatrist’s waiting room. When the dream began it was just me and a couple of other people. Apparently, I didn’t have a set appointment but needed a refill on one of the medicines I take that gives me a few hours of relief from the internal strife. My doctor had come out from her office in the back to talk to me, and we were discussing whether it was in fact time for a refill on this medicine. She was worried that I was possibly abusing it (this is something that is a real-life concern of hers, though it’s unfounded). We weren’t exactly arguing, but I wasn’t convincing her that I actually needed the refill. In typical “dream time” fashion, the waiting room was suddenly full of about twenty people, all with appointments to see her. I was holding them up, in other words, and in the dream, I was well aware of how far behind my doctor now was.

And that was about it. There was no clear ending to the dream. It just stopped. So let me play Freud here and offer an analysis…

First, I’m constantly worried about not having the right medication. There have been times when I’ve waited too long to refill my meds and then the pharmacy is out of something or my insurance company has decided they need prior authorization for a medicine I’ve taken for seven years or something like that. I freak out, come close to panicking, and then it gets resolved like no big deal. If only I could live in that reality – that it will work out – when it happens.

Second, there’s the worry that my doctor will quit giving me this particular medication that offers me some relief. It’s true that I have addictive tendencies, but it’s also true that I have never abused this medication. In fact, I don’t even take it as often as I’m allowed to because I’m afraid of getting addicted to it and because I always want to have a little left over to prevent the situation in #1.

Third, I am constantly anxious about time, thus the part of the dream where my doctor is running late because of me. My siblings and I joke about how my mom used to have dinner ready at 6:00 sharp. This didn’t mean 6:01 or 6:07, like it would in most households. It meant 5:59:43. If any of us happened to be out and about in the car and 5:57 rolled around and we weren’t home yet, the old school car phone would ring and we knew exactly why: “Where are you? We’re about to sit down. We’re going to start because everyone else is here and the food is warm.” Most of us were pulling up the driveway because we knew not to be late. But that call was inevitable unless you were 15 minutes early. So, to this day, when I start to sense that I’m going to be late or that I’m making someone else late, my anxiety level quadruples.

Finally, I want people to like me. In the dream, I could see the frustration building in the waiting room, and naturally, they were all blaming me for taking the doctor’s time rather than blaming the doctor who wouldn’t just write the prescription. I’ve said before that I battle an unwinnable internal cognitive dissonance: 49% of me wants everyone to like me; 51% of me wants to speak my mind and feel heard. These two do not play well together to say the least. Every time I pick one, I’m slaughtering the other half of myself essentially. But the part that needs to speak up usually wins out, and in this case, I needed for my doctor to understand my need for a refill, even if it meant all the other people hated me. But of course, that didn’t mean I didn’t have to suffer with all the anxiety that came with people being angry with me.

So there you have it: a night in the life of my anxious brain. There’s another dream I have, a sort of recurring (thematic) dream in which I need to get somewhere or escape something dangerous, but I am moving in slow motion or stuck in quick sand. The dream never comes to a conclusion…I just try to escape something or get somewhere with no hope of ever doing so.

There’s no off switch. Alcohol helps, but it makes me angry. Not good. Pot helps, but it makes me too numb. Not good. Psychiatric meds help, but in a slow and subtle way that quits feeling very magical after a few weeks. I’ve heard good things about Heroin, but I’ve also heard it comes with a drawback or two. Sleep helps, but only if I’m not having an anxious dream, and I have a lot of them. I honestly don’t remember life without profound anxiety, even extending into my dreams. It often feels like torture to be fully honest.

I wish I had a solution, like warm milk before bed, but I’m writing more to identify with those of you who feel like there is no escape than to provide some remedy. And twisted as it might be, that’s always my goal, really…not to fix you, but to encourage you. I know you’re out there and you’re not alone. Talk to someone who understands; hell, email me if you need to. But as always, my belief is that one of the best forms of help in our situation is to know that others are in the boat with you.

Sweet dreams.

 
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I write this blog to let people know they are not alone. If you know someone who might need to read something like this, please pass it along or encourage them to email me at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com.
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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 with a small (or large) donation 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 relationships or mental illness, please share this post/blog with them. Thank you!

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Let’s Cause a Scene

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” – Albert Einstein

Over the past few weeks, my brain feels like it’s stuck in a death-spiral. The conversations in my head are never ending: There’s all the tweets and emails I’m crafting to tell Trump that he not only seems petty but also remarkably stupid – his life seems to be a testament to the fact that money can buy you almost everything: wives, power, prestige, and even the most powerful seat on earth; there are the inner dialogues between me and my Trump-voting friends and family members, with whom I’m still having trouble communicating; and there’s always the meta self-talk that evaluates my own idiocy for even bothering to care about these issues since I can’t change anything. And it’s that impotent feeling mixed with a brain that won’t stop rehashing things no matter how hard I try to make it quit that feels so insurmountable. Peace feels impossible.

I mean…

Can I really change anything in the minds of the old men in the cigar shop who spew racism and elitism without realizing that some of us don’t agree? Should I really say something to these men I barely know?

Can I really do anything about the enormous injustice happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline? How is it even possible that we (“Americans”) would consider doing this to Native Americans? It seems unfathomable to me that the North Dakota authorities are trying to block the roads that allow the protesters to get food and water. Yet we decimated their population once; why wouldn’t we do it again for our own gain?

Can I really change my long-time mentor’s mind about Trump. We have been long-connected because we see the world differently; we are critical of group-think, and particularly the group think of rich white Christian people. How can I move forward without seeing him differently now? We’ve talked and said our peace, but I still feel stuck from moving forward.

The same scenario is happening with some family members: I don’t know how to express my feelings of disrespect for the choice they made while maintaining the overall respect of the relationship. So many people out there are calling for unity and what not, but I sorta think they’re unaware of what their asking for. We didn’t just have an argument about which football franchise is better, the Patriots or the Packers…We had a raging fight about which fundamental, core values will prevail moving forward. Certain matters can’t be swept under the rug, at least not by me. The list of people who want me to let these matters go is embarrassingly long. It’s not that I don’t want to, but when my screwball brain can’t make sense of something, it is incapable of peace. Whether the conversation continues in real life or not, it will continue in my brain. Some have been going on for decades, literally.

Which brings me back to my brain: It NEVER stops. EVER. When I wake up in the middle of the night, my brain picks right back up in medias res as I plan my brilliant letter to the world that will make everyone see the light. But then I read stories like the one of a man spewing racism in a drug store check-out line. A woman worked up the nerve to confront him and flat out asked her peers to join her in standing up to him. But they didn’t! At least not at first. After a few minutes, some of them joined her, but it didn’t happen quickly. So while this was a story presented as a triumph, I saw it as a story that confirms my fears: people are going to sit back and watch evil things happen because that’s what most people do. Even otherwise good people. Most people’s primary mantra in life seems to be, “Don’t make a scene!”

So I think of the Einstein quote, not just in regard to Trump; this is bigger than that. For me, the question is to what degree do I want to make my own people-pleasing life somewhat miserable by speaking up in the face of injustice. One way to look at it is that I am going to be miserable if I don’t speak my mind because of injustice, but I’m also going to be miserable if I do speak my mind because of my fear of rejection. If that’s the case, I suppose I’d rather be a pariah who speaks the truth than someone with lots of friends who don’t know how I really feel. Not quite a Sophie’s Choice but a shitty choice for sure.

I’ve been thinking out loud but I actually want to make a point and not just pontificate. The point is simply the one Albert Einstein made: our world is not endangered nearly as much by Trump’s climate science denying team as it is by those of us who think climate change is real but do nothing. Our world isn’t endangered as much by the kid who spray paints a swastika on a black person’s house as it is by the handful of neighbors who know which kid did it and don’t confront him.

On Wikipedia, they’re doing their annual fundraiser, and the banner says that if every user gave $3, the campaign would last 15 minutes. Think about that! Think about the power of doing something, even something tiny.

So, if those of us who are passionate about the environment fund environmental companies and causes, we can overcome any policy Trump’s team puts in place. And if enough of us cared about the pipeline issue to protest at Senators’ offices or even go join the actual protest itself, maybe we could do something. Our Facebook posts aren’t enough I don’t think.

But here’s the rub: it only works if all of us who might rather stay silent actually give the $3, or the like.

This isn’t, hopefully, just another rah rah speech from someone who happens to be angry right now. This election has made me feel invested in our country in a way I never have. Honestly, I have probably been as lukewarm about our country as I could be. But now that the stakes feel so much higher, I am committed to giving money to organizations that will be overlooked in Trump’s America. I am committed to being involved in causes that I think will make the world my kids inherit a better place. I’m passionate about the climate change issue; I’m passionate about equal rights for the LGTBQ community; and I’m passionate about fairness in our healthcare system for ALL people, especially those who have been overlooked in the past.

As for my mental illnesses, here’s where I (also) need your help. I get discouraged very easily. I need people who will stand with me and hold me accountable to staying this course of activism. I need other mentally ill people, who understand what I feel when I hit a setback or when I feel despondent about the state of the world, to help me keep my chin up. I need people who will make commitments that inspire and challenge me and others to take similar action steps.

I’m grateful for Facebook because, despite it’s potential for distraction, I have made new friends and reconnected with old friends who have made me feel much, much less alone, both in my political beliefs and in my mental illness. We are more connected today than ever before. That can make it easier for ISIS to organize, but it can also make it easier for us to organize. No matter what your platform is, you need to stand on it and shout. And so do I.

So whether it’s funding research for depression or raising money to educate people that Muslim doesn’t equal terrorist, let’s do something. I’m in a fighting mood. Who wants to join me?

Here’s a great place to start: http://jezebel.com/a-list-of-pro-women-pro-immigrant-pro-earth-anti-big-1788752078
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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 with a small (or large) donation 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 relationships or mental illness, please share this post/blog with them. Thank you!

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Aftermath

If you read my day-after-the-election post you saw my reactionary nature in action. I’m not proud of that, but being hypersensitive is a fundamental part of being mentally ill. Our brains are already on the precipice of disaster, pain, sorrow, anger, and it doesn’t take much to tip them over the edge. This same quality affects our day-to-day relationships, our careers, and our overall sense of sanity. You want proof that our brains work differently: just take a look at how poorly we handle over-stimulation of any sort. Like, say, having a possibly Fascist, certainly racist, definitely sexist man elected to run our country for the next (God, if you’re there, please make it only) 4 years.

Having a couple of weeks of perspective under my belt hasn’t helped too much. I still feel that this defeat is personal. I still feel betrayed by everyone I know who claims to care about the “little guy” and then voted into office the Great Bully of my lifetime. I still don’t know how to talk to the people in my life with whom I want to maintain relationships but at whom I’m so angry that the right words just won’t come out. I still feel crushed beyond words that the crowd I used to proudly run with – evangelicals – bought into Trump so thoroughly that it’s going to be a challenged to maintain those relationships with the mutual respect I would have hoped to perpetuate.

I’m not a little guy when you look at the outside: White, private schools, post-graduate education, wealthy upbringing…I’m privileged in so many ways on the surface. But on the inside, I’m something very different. The control panel inside my being’s core functions like a little guy’s: scared (always, even about nothing); feeling impotent when I try to tell people what I’m really feeling; powerless to change my own situation – having sat at the mercy of 8 psychiatrists and been told so many different things, I wonder if it isn’t somewhat like being kicked around the welfare system must be like. Simply put, I feel like a little guy is someone who can’t be sure her voice will ever be heard by someone with enough power to help. And in that regard, with The Great Bully as our president, I feel more like a helpless little guy than ever before.

But I don’t want this to be a political post any more than it already is. The deed is done. Now what?

This rally cry may sound very worn-out and even trite, but most cliches have a lot of truth wrapped up inside: We need to band together. Not just to fight for mental health research and reform in our government, but on a more basic level than that. More than ever, we need to let each other know we are not alone.

I wrote a post in a Hillary Clinton fan group the other night, and as a result 5 or 6 people who I do not know from Adam sent me friend requests. I accepted them and have already felt encouraged to see their posts in my feed. I’ve liked their’s, and vice versa, and voila – I feel like I’ve made some new friends who see the world in a similar way as I do. All of my problems aren’t solved, but I feel more connected to people I believe in and genuinely like. So, (I hate the words I’m about to use)…I “challenge” (that’s the one I hate) you to use this site to do the same thing: find some friends on here. If you keep seeing someone’s name pop up, send them a friend request. Hell, send me a friend request and let’s get to know each other beyond this forum.

I need you guys. I need you to survive. Literally. I need people who get it and who see the same quandaries and dilemmas in the world around them as I do. My core belief throughout my entire life has been simply this: We need each other. We don’t know who God is or where God is or if God is. We don’t know which political system is going to be best for us. We don’t even know if butter is going to turn out to be good for us or if it will kill us. We don’t know much. But I know that humans are pack animals, and I know that I need you. Reach out to each other; support each other; love each other. Start here. Or start somewhere. But be brave…do it.

 
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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 with a small (or large) donation 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 relationships 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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