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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I write this blog because I want people to feel encouraged that they are not alone. Please share it with someone who might need to read it. Thanks!

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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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I write this blog because I want people to feel encouraged that they are not alone. Please share it with someone who might need to read it. Thanks!

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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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I write this blog because I want people to feel encouraged that they are not alone. Please share it with someone who might need to read it. Thanks!

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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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I write this blog because I want people to feel encouraged that they are not alone. Please share it with someone who might need to read it. Thanks!
 
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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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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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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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Mental Illness and Relationship Problems

There’s a sign at the Zaxby’s near my house with a quote from John Wayne that reads, “Life is hard; it’s harder if you’re stupid.” I’d like to make a similar sign that reads, “relationships are hard; they’re harder if you have a mental illness.”

I’ve come across countless people since I started this blog who have basically the same story: I’ve lost friends’ and family members’ support because of my illness; I have no one left.

My friend who battles profound depression had a group of friends tell her they couldn’t go through one more bout with her and they walked out of her life.

My friend with severe OCD had a decades-long friend ditch her because she couldn’t get over her germ obsessions to take the dog to the vet when it was sick.

Some don’t get dumped so precipitously. It happens slowly, too: This week I came across a great article by a college student about how anxiety is an unacceptable excuse for not being able to go out with friends. Most people will put up with an anxious friend who often backs out of plans at the last minute, but few will do so indefinitely. They give up and move on to people who aren’t worried about ridiculous things.

My own friendships have been harmed or lost due to my hypersensitivity. Over the years, more times than I can count, I’ve gotten upset by things that wouldn’t upset other people. I am incapable of just “moving on” and so I tend to tell the other people how I feel. Often I do this nicely; sometimes I don’t. But surprise, surprise…a lot of people don’t enjoy this quality of mine which is a mixture of OCD (I can’t just let it go) and anxiety (a fear of abandonment that leads me to wonder why other people have treated me a certain way).

Sometimes just telling another person they’ve upset me, even nicely, makes them distance themselves from me. Thankfully, many of my friends have been able to handle that version of me. What’s harder to handle is the anger that sometimes rears its ugly head in my confrontations. On an aware-of-the-world-around-me scale, I’m living at level 9 out of 10 all the time. So when something causes you to go from your normal 3 to an angry 6 (call it a normal argument level), I would then be at a 12. I say things I shouldn’t say; I get more angry than I should probably ever get; and our argument goes from something normal and irritating to something that might end our friendship.

I’ve had more of these arguments than I care to list. I’m incredibly ashamed of them, and I’m not even willing to go into much detail here because the shame is still so palpable. But over the past few years, as I’ve really struggled to maintain my grip on sanity, these blow ups have been painfully prevalent.

Those on the receiving end of all this perceive it as simply bad behavior. They can’t fathom why you’ve taken a “small” conflict and turned it into something enormous. The reality is, you can’t either. But you keep doing it because your brain doesn’t have a normal baseline, and sadly, your illness doesn’t show up on an X-ray; it shows up as “behavior that you should be in control of.”

If you are mentally ill in some way, I suspect you have stories of your own. Often the trouble comes from people who think you should just “get over it.” Sometimes it comes from your own quirky (I refuse to call it “bad”) behavior. Regardless, mental illness makes relationship more difficult than they already are. My hope is that this blog can in some small way be a touchstone to let you know that you are not alone and that you deserve better: You deserve understanding, patience, grace, and kindness. You are some of the most caring and tender souls in the universe and it’s a cruel joke that you often can’t find the understanding you need. Keep fighting; I hope you will find someone(s) who let you be you, quirks, relationship difficulties and all.

To those of you who are the supporters, this is where you have the chance to help erase the stigma. When someone you love has a mental illness, accept the very real truth of this…just as you would if they were in a wheelchair or had a chronic disease or even something like cancer. You’d change your expectations to accommodate for the illness. You don’t have to quit holding them accountable: you can still tell them when they’ve stepped over a boundary line, but you might start from a different place than consuming frustration or raging anger. Start from the same place you would if your friend in a wheelchair got frustrated navigating the park and just gave up and decided to lag behind for the rest of the trip. Maybe they were whiny; maybe they took their frustration out on you or blamed you for wanting to come to this hilly park; maybe they acted like an ass. You can tell them that, but give them a little grace, too. You’ve never been to a hilly park in a wheel chair.

Finally, please remember this if you take nothing else away: the quote at the top about those who cease to be friends is true. If you give up on a friendship when the other person is still willing to work on it, your part of the friendship wasn’t as genuine as you may have thought. I don’t say this to shame anyone; I use strong words here to drive home my point. Truly caring for a mentally ill person means there are going to be some tough waters to wade through. Please stay the course. We need people in our lives who will do that.

 
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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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Podcast: Two of Tim’s Friends Discuss Their Journeys with Religion and Mental Illness

In this episode, the final episode of a three part series on religion and mental illness, two of Tim’s friends, Alison and Matt, share their own journeys with mental illness and religion. While Alison comes to similar conclusions as Tim, Matt’s journey has ended differently. Please enjoy, and please know that I promise to be done with this topic for awhile!

Music Credit: Lady Antebellum, “Compass”

 
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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!

*****

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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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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