A Daily Dose of Death (and Grace)

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Let’s assume for a minute that this life is All There Is, that Death is The End. You get your 80 years, more or (much) less, but that’s the deal. One life; one death; done.

Pessimist that I am, I tend to look at death as tragic, but not so much for the dead person as for those of us left behind. And indeed, the untimely death of a loved one can and often does leave the lives of those left behind in tattered ruins, sometimes irredeemably.

Death is often thought of as a one-time event at the end of our confusing lives. We all know there’s a sand timer dripping out the sands of our days, never letting us know how much sand is left in the top half, and we’ve come up with many explanations for the seeming cruelty of all that is left unexplained as those sands drip through – why do dogs have to die? Why do children die? Why do we die? When do we die? Why can’t we know more? Why can’t we understand more? Why must we ask ‘why?’ despite the lack of answers to that fundamentally human question? Why? whywhywhywhywhywhywhy?

But on the other hand, while we are aware of the dramatic deaths of people taken by disease and tragic accidents, we are surrounded by small daily deaths that aren’t nearly as threatening to us:

We breathe in; we breathe out – a microcosm of life then death.

We wake up…a new day, a new life. We go to sleep…precious sleep, death to the day behind us.

Each step we take gives birth to a new moment, leaving behind the old moment, never to return.

Seasons come to life, slowly, gently killing off the previous season.

We embrace the new opportunities, the new stages of life, tending to look forward more readily than we look backward.

Death is forever all around us, but there’s something gracious, proper, and kind about our daily deaths. How many nights of your life have you lamented having to go to sleep? Are you ever sad to exhale? Worried that there won’t be another breath waiting for you in one moment? We might lament the passing of a beautiful fall or a life-bringing spring, but even summer and winter come with their pool parties and snowball fights – bits of joy in the midst of a season whose death comes eventually as a relief, as a moment of grace.

I don’t claim to know much about the religious stories’ validity. Is there a heaven? What about reincarnation? Or what if we just end up exactly as we were in the year 1743 – entirely unaware, literally non-existent.

I don’t claim to know or, frankly, to have much in the way of belief in these matters. But if I examine the fact that most of the deaths we die are actually not so scary, even pleasant and beautiful – just as beautiful as the precious moments when life needs a pause button. And isn’t it true that our permanent Deaths create the very Grace embedded within the frightfulness of ceasing to exist? Would anyone want to live on forever once their loved ones are lost? Once their health declines past the point of physical pleasure?

In most stories, immortality is a curse, not a blessing. The immortal character grows more and more embittered and estranged from the pleasures of the world but without the relief brought on by death.

Perhaps my argument is a bit circular…Because of the deaths we must inevitably encounter, Death becomes an act of grace. Just as circumcision is a gift to male children who will be surrounded by other circumcised children. Better to commit the horror of slicing off part of a boy’s most sensitive body part days after birth than to risk the rejection and mockery he might face in 12 or 14 years by not doing the slicing. Indeed, death is scary and largely left without satisfying meaning. I can’t pretend this isn’t a large part of Death’s Reality.

But for today, circular though it may be, I feel the need to acknowledge the Grace buried within the bosom of Death.

 

 

***Please share this with someone who might need to read it. Thanks!

 

 

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Happy Birthday to this Blog!
Cupcake decorated with chocolate frosting and a green candle

Happy Birthday to this Blog!

 

 

Cupcake decorated with chocolate frosting and a green candle
Cupcake decorated with chocolate frosting and a green candle

I started writing this blog in July of last year. If my math is correct, that makes this blog just about one year old about now. Some reflection is in order. Bear with me as I recount the details of a difficult year. My point, ultimately, though, is to share with you what good has come from it, not just to complain. But first, I need to seem like I’m complaining.

The past year, as it turns out, is one that was probably well-worth documenting, though I didn’t know it would be quite so dramatic when I started writing. I started writing because I found myself in the depths of the deepest and most prolonged depression I had ever experienced. I still remember the moment it hit me like a Mack truck. It was April 30, 2014, my birthday. In retrospect, I had been somewhat manic for a few months – full of energy and enthusiasm for life. Anyone who has ever been around the private school where I taught knows that the spring semester is insanely busy, and I was feeding off of the frenetic energy around me. Also, my family and I had moved homes a month before, and despite all the stress that comes with that, I kept telling my doctor how great I was doing. She looked at me, month after month, appointment after appointment, shocked that I was doing so well. We both thought we had finally found the right medication cocktail. I thought I was fixed for good.

It all changed when I got called into a meeting where I got thrown a curveball. Nothing terribly dramatic or worth detailing here, but the short version is that I felt like my boss backed out on her word about something, and it really pissed me off. I walked out of that meeting an entirely different person from the one who walked in. Within that thirty minute span I had gone from celebrating life to everything in the world looking dark and foreboding. Every person seemed like s/he was out to get me. Every comment seemed to be a subtle jab directed at me. By 11 p.m. that night, I lay despondent on my basement couch. As Ann headed up to bed, she asked what she could do for me. The answer, as always, was “nothing.” Then she asked this: “Do you promise me that you’ll still be here in the morning?” As in, “will you be alive?” not “will you be out partying?” or “you’re not going to your mistress’s house again, are you?”

I don’t even remember what my answer was, but I can honestly say that it felt dark enough in my head that I was hoping I’d be dead by morning, though I didn’t have the guts to do it to myself.

I didn’t climb out of that hole for a few months. I believe it was sometime around when I started writing this blog that I began to feel some sense of hope again. I was pulled out of my depression, to some degree, by deciding that my work environment was no longer suitable for me. Despite the fact that every last practical reason told me to stay put in my job, I knew that I had become a square peg in a round hole. My Christian faith had been waning for years, and I wasn’t sure I could even pretend anymore to offer students the answers I was supposed to give.

I rallied, but when I returned to work in August, I was immediately dragged back into the depths. I hid from people in my office, eager to simply put my head down and get through the year and move on. I felt like some sort of a circus freak surrounded by people who saw the world so differently from how I did that I didn’t even know how to make small talk anymore. The loneliness of mental illness was reinforced by the loneliness I felt spiritually. The “family” of Christians I had always been a part of felt more and more foreign to me. I didn’t speak the language as fluently as before, if at all. The ten thousand small references to various Christian ideas and ideals no longer made sense to me. One doesn’t choose to walk away from everything he’s ever believed; one doesn’t choose to find himself half way through life no longer sure of anything he had staked his life on. My loneliness and depression got deeper than ever.

And then my dear friend Riley overdosed on drugs and alcohol and died on September 1st, 2014. This didn’t help matters.

I spoke at his funeral. I spent three weeks completely numb to his death, not shedding one tear, not having my voice break even once as I recounted his death. Then I sat in a Mexican restaurant in Dunwoody and fell apart in front of my friend, Mike. He couldn’t have handled it any better. He asked me what I would tell someone to do if I knew they were feeling like I felt. I knew the answer immediately: I needed a break from my work environment – a place where I couldn’t process my friend’s death because the pat answers and explanations were so infuriating to me. I was suffocating. I took three days off. When I went back the next Monday, I could only stomach an hour of work before I walked out the door for a “prolonged break”…which turned out to be a permanent one.

And then I spent the rest of the fall trying to climb out of the goddam hole once again. People who have never been depressed can’t possibly appreciate how exhausting it is. A week or two into my sabbatical from work, I decided to try to be productive by cleaning my garage. I only had enough energy to take a hammer from one side to the other side before I needed to sit down for half an hour, head in my hands, trying to work up the physical and emotional energy required to stand up and put one more thing in its proper place. I never managed to do anything else to the garage that day…or the many days or weeks that followed.

I climbed out of the hole to the point that I decided to start a business doing handyman work, something that had been a hobby for a decade. I survived the winter, but by the time my birthday rolled back around, I was back in the deep, dark hole. At this point, my wife wanted to put me in a hospital. I agreed to do whatever she wanted me to do. I was desperate.

So I entered a long-term, outpatient treatment program. I found a new job and a few new friends. I moved into an apartment to give my family some space from my ups and downs…to try to get my shit together, not that I had a clue how it fell apart in the first place or what getting it “together” would look like.

It’s hard to start putting a new life together when you aren’t sure of the rules anymore. It’s not like I went looking to abandon everything I once believed. Why would one intentionally tear up the only road map he owns when he’s already feeling lost? Now I was lost without a map.

However…while it has been quite a year, I am writing this post as a celebration of my growth, not as an attempt to elicit your pity for the difficult year I’ve had. I’ve actually learned some amazing things over the past year.

I’ve learned that when your friend Frank, from Chattanooga, finds out you’ve hit the bottom (again), he’ll drive the four hour round trip (on Father’s Day) just to hang out with you in the hotel room you’ve checked into so as to spare your family another “episode.”

I’ve learned that when your friend, Steve, finds out you’ve been struggling for awhile, he’ll fly to Atlanta and help you navigate one of the harder weekends of your life. He’ll sit in your car with you while you sob uncontrollably over the loss of just about everything you used to think and believe and hold onto. And he won’t judge you one bit. (And the next day, he’ll ask who drank the whole bottle of bourbon, surprised to find out that it was, in fact, him.)

I’ve learned that some of your religious friends, even the really conservative ones, will tell you that they still love you no matter what you believe these days; they won’t even mind it when you tell them you don’t want the Christian label applied to you anymore. They’ll stick with you when you tell them your views on God’s love for gay people and Caitlyn Jenner…even when you tell them you’re living in an apartment, separated from your wife and kids, in an odd effort to be a better, not worse, husband and father.

I’ve learned that the people whose lives are the most supremely fucked up are some of the most amazing people on earth:

  • The alcoholic friend who you don’t really know all that well will call you every time he hears that you’re struggling again. He’ll offer to do “what the fuck ever,” in his words, to help you through this time.
  • The friend who was routinely molested by her dad, who spent some time as an exotic dancer, will be the best listener you’ve ever talked to. She will understand you more fully and more quickly than just about anyone else on earth. She will truly “get it.” She will love you simply because you exist and your paths have crossed…no agenda other than friendship.
  • The guy who read your book, who lives across the country, who you’ve never met face to face, will write you one encouraging email after another when you post on your blog. He, too, gets it. He, too, is very much “with you,” even though you may never meet face to face.
  • The parents-in-law and sister-in-law and sister-in-law’s boyfriend will encourage you even as you navigate your difficult marriage. They will send you books and blogs and quotes, not to get you to be someone you aren’t, but to get you to love yourself better than you’ve been in the habit of doing. They will accept you even though they are directly involved in the complexity of your messy life.
  • The wife who keeps on loving you as you even when you move out. She’ll get pissed at you, but she’ll keep telling you that she’s on your team even when her friends tell her to kick you to the curb, as they think you deserve.
  • The parents who will offer unconditional support even as you walk away from most of the things they raised you to be.
  • The strangers and long-lost friends who will read something you wrote and take the time to reach out and tell you to keep it up.

These “ordinary” people are actually remarkably extraordinary. They are the folks who are far more equipped than your “together” friends to offer you a listening ear and a sympathetic hug without telling you how sad your life is or how often they are praying for you.

I’ve learned that admitting you don’t know the Answers doesn’t mean you lose your sense of right and wrong. Admitting you don’t know very much at all, actually, can be a pretty damn good starting point for figuring out what is important to you at the most fundamental level. I don’t know much these days, but I know I love my kids unconditionally and that I’m committed to fulfilling my obligations to the people I love most even if it looks different from what I originally envisioned. I know that I was made to teach and to write and to think about things that most other people don’t think about very often. This doesn’t make me better or worse than anyone else. It just makes me…me.

I’ve learned that I might as well start figuring out how to like who I am rather than continually trying to change who I am. I am who I am, for better or worse. I can hate it or love it or resign myself to it, but I CAN’T change it, and I don’t need to. I don’t need to be perfect to offer something to the world. Maybe I am a bit more emotionally volatile than others…maybe I am a little (a lot) maddening to try to be in a relationship with at times…maybe I’m not the Ward Cleaver of fathers…maybe I’m not as great of a husband as Hosea (who married a prostitute…even though she kept on hookin’)…

BUT I’m pretty good at plenty of things…like caring about the people in my life immensely, even painfully…and wanting everyone in the world to understand me and to like me and to see things the way I see them. This, too, leads to a lot of frustration for me, but it’s not such a bad thing to want world peace, or at least interpersonal peace, is it? I think my new year’s resolution (at least in terms of this blog’s fiscal year) will be to see the good parts of my complicated personality. As one of my literary heroes, Walt Whitman, said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well; I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes!” He also said, “I exist as I am; that is enough.”

You see, people, if this year of losing pretty much everything I once staked my life on has taught me anything, it has taught me this: I am still here; still kickin’; still dancin’; still trying; still hoping. What’s left of me is less and less of the grime and dirt and tarnish that had built up over four decades of pretending to be something I was not…am not. What’s left is very, very raw and real. I used to be a tell-it-like-I-think-you-want-to-hear-it sort of guy. More and more I’d like to “sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world” (more Walt Whitman) sort of dude. I like this new dude a lot more than the old one. I’m still learning, still letting go of the old version of Tim Blue. But today I can say honestly that I think Tim Blue 2.0 has plenty to offer the world. I used to want to offer answers, but now I am content to offer my questions instead. I used to want to show you my shiny parts, but now I’d be happy to show you the dull, scuffed, and scarred ones because they come with better stories than the shiny ones. I used to want to offer others a way out of their pain, but now I just want to sit with them in their pain because that’s all I can really do.

And to you, my friends, I’d be happy to keep you company in the midst of your pain. That’s what this blog is for: to let you know you are not alone. Feeling alone is worse than depression or anxiety or spiritual malaise. Feeling alone is probably the number one cause of every bad thing that happens on this earth. I’m pretty sure that the reason people join every institution from the Nazi Party to the Unitarian Universalist Church to a college fraternity is quite simple: People just want to be belong…to be WITH others who are at least somewhat like-minded. Hell, people will even join groups that they have nothing in common with just so they can belong. We are hard-wired for belonging. We are herd animals through and through.

So, I hope you’ll keep reading. I plan to keep writing. But most importantly, I hope that this blog will somehow encourage you that you are not alone, and I hope it will inspire you to tell others that they are not alone, either.

Happy Birthday, bloggy-poo. Thanks for walking me through a tough year!

 

 

 

***Please share this with someone who might need to read it. Thanks!

 

 

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Bubble Boy

bubble boy

A friend of mine got a call earlier this week from a friend who was suicidal…as in he had picked a day to kill himself and had been cutting himself on the wrists. My friend, like most people, didn’t know what exactly to do. He didn’t want to interfere or to butt in, but he didn’t want to leave the guy hanging either (eesh, terrible unintended pun). Brad, my friend, did the right thing: he went over to the guy’s house. But once he got there, he had no clue what to do. Here’s what he wrote to me the following day:

“So I walk into this room and my friend is inside a clear bubble. He hears and sees the outside of the bubble but the laws of nature inside the bubble are not the same as those outside. There is no sense in even attempting to reconcile the world inside vs. outside. What is worse is that I can see that my friend is in tremendous pain. But the bubble eliminates all possibility of rendering aid. So all I could do was sit there, listen, and talk on occasion…provide a momentary break from the monotony of pain inside the bubble. It sucked in the worst way.”

And there you have it: the perfect descriptions of what both a depressed person and their allies must face. Being depressed is like living in a bubble. I’ve often said I feel like I’m floating in space, watching everyone else from miles away, aware of their existence but unable to break through into their world. And I’ve been outside the bubble, too. It’s the same sort of helpless feeling – like being the ghost in some movie who wants to shout a word of warning to their still-alive friend, but no matter how loudly they yell, their voice won’t reach the land of the living.

All that being said, my friend Brad still did the right thing, unquestionably. He did the brave thing: he faced the feelings of helplessness and concern head-on rather than excusing himself from the pain of involvement by “not wanting to interfere” or “leaving matters in the hands of his friends’ family members.” It’s easier not to get involved, and there are always excuses available to stay out of such situations.

But staying out of them is ALWAYS the wrong thing to do. What’s the worst that can happen by getting involved? The person might be mad at you and unfriend you on Facebook. Ok, but what’s the worst thing that can happen if you don’t get involved? Your friend might kill himself; his children will be orphaned, his wife widowed, and you will be left wondering if you could’ve helped. For the rest of your life.

Am I being heavy-handed here? Maybe. But these aren’t “light-handed” sorts of issues. Just remember: The consequences of doing SOMETHING will always be better than the potential consequences of doing nothing. People who are depressed don’t have a damn clue what they need. You wouldn’t expect someone lying on the beaches of Normandy without his legs to rationally tell you how to doctor his wounds, would you? No, you’d take charge, comfort him, and do what you – the rational one – believed was the right thing. You wouldn’t leave him lying there, excusing yourself because you’re not a trained doctor (I hope). You wouldn’t listen to his shock-induced rants or even to his cries of pain. You’d act. And you’d hope your actions were of some use.

It’s no different with someone who’s deeply depressed. They’re lying on the beaches of Normandy without a clue what they need or want. If they’re still alive, they still want and need help, no matter what words are coming out of their mouths. Who cares if you don’t quite tie the tourniquet perfectly. Just tie the damn thing.

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A Life Changing Question (with Podcast)

life changing question

 

 

Please check out my new podcast feature at the bottom of this page! Now the post…

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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In Defense of YOU: Self Compassion

Shake the dustMy friends, I feel like writing this post as a letter to you, whoever and wherever you are. It just feels right based on what I have to say today. Today I want to tell you to have “self compassion” and watch what happens. I’m not very good at this, but I’d like to be, so this letter is to me, too. So give me a minute to defend YOU, and me…to tell you why we should practice compassion toward ourselves. The entire essence of this can be boiled down to this simple question:

Are you trying?

I mean in life…are you trying to be a good employee, spouse, friend, parent…I suspect you are not only trying but trying damn hard in fact. I know I am. So what more would you ask of yourself than to try your best? Would you berate a child who tried and tried to hit a baseball or learn the alphabet but couldn’t quite get it? I hope not, but if so, please consider some therapy.

As a parent I can say that nothing is more endearing than to watch my kids TRY. In fact, it’s even more endearing when they keep trying despite “failing.” It makes me want to wrap them up in my arms and make sure they know damn well how proud of them I am, even if they never “succeed” at this particular task.

Why shouldn’t I treat myself the same way?

I read recently (can’t remember where) that the best people on planet earth are probably not the ones we think of as Good People. The best people are probably the people with horrible internal battles who keep on fighting to grow, to stay alive, to learn to love. This reminded me of one of my favorite poems called “Shake the Dust,” by Anis Mojgani. It’s a “spoken word” poem meaning it’s meant to be performed rather than read, and it’s about as beautiful a message as there is in existence. Take 4 minutes and watch it. If you regret it and can tell me that with honesty, I’ll buy you a new puppy. But while you’re listening, I’ll bet there will be one particular line that will stand out to you. Just listen and I’ll continue below…

 

Did you hear it? The line that you can’t help but pay attention to I mean? No, it’s not “shake the dust.” It’s this one:

“This is for the celibate pedophile who keeps on struggling…shake the dust” (I suspect about 42% of you skipped it and are now going back to watch it. I’ll wait here…).

So have you ever thought about that? That there are such things as celibate pedophiles who keep on struggling against their monstrous urges every day, never giving in to this life-shattering crime. Maybe these are the best people on earth. But the beauty of this poem is not that it includes such people but that it spans the gamut from “fat girls” to “celibate pedophiles.” That’s quite a gamut! Whichever category you resonate with, what better, more profound message is there but to acknowledge your own inherent beauty and goodness, to shake the dust and be proud of who you are? I can’t think of one.

Maybe, just maybe, plain old people like you and me are at least passably good people for getting up in the morning, putting on a brave face as we go about our ordinary existences fraught with endless emotional paper cuts, broken brains and bodies, and the failures we’re embarrassed to admit make us cry in private. But also filled with the simple success of saying something kind when you want to shoot someone the bird…the two-steps-forward-one-(or 2 or 3 sometimes)-step-back dance of a romantic relationship that some days doesn’t feel all that romantic…the daily dilemmas of wanting to be a perfect parent when you are confronted daily, even hourly, with quandaries no one prepared you for in school.

So I’ll ask again: Are you trying? If you answered yes, then cut yourself some slack, give yourself the pat on the back that your boss should’ve given you, treat yourself to dessert without berating yourself for the extra calories. Tell yourself what the narrator of one of my favorite mindful meditations tells his listeners at the very end: He says, “You’re doing the best you can, and that’s enough.” You are doing your best, right? Well, that IS enough.

So shake the dust, my friends, and know that in your humanness, you are never alone,

Tim

 

*You probably know someone who needs to shake the dust. Share this with them. Or just give them a call. Or a hug.

**People often ask if it’s okay to share what I write with others, as if I am trying to keep it private. Uh, yes, it’s okay since I do publish this on the interweb. But really, I’d be most appreciative if you share this blog (or post) with others. Who knows where it will lead? Thanks for your help!

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How To Help Someone with Mental Illness

supportIt can be awfully hard to know how to help someone with mental illness! Take me for example: Saturday morning, I was comatose with depression on my couch for four hours, hoping for a stray meteor to find its way to me. Today, I’m overflowing with so many exciting ideas for how to solve the world’s problems that I would challenge Steve Jobs to a Battle of Creativity. This, my friends, we call Bi-Polar (type 2 to be exact). You can imagine what fun my wife and kids have playing the “what mood will daddy be in ten minutes from now” game (for now, Ann has a small lead over Josiah, and for some reason Ellie Ruth isn’t very good at the game…she’s way behind, but I’m starting to develop some special signals for her so she can catch up).

So perhaps I’m the wrong person to write this post, since I haven’t had to be the supporter in any substantial way. Thus, what follows is simply the advice of someone WITH mental illness(es) to those who, thanklessly, painfully, fearfully…are supporting someone with mental illness.

A friend of mine recently called looking for advice on how to support his deeply depressed wife. Like many people who are NOT mentally ill, he was frustrated and baffled by his wife’s behavior and her unwillingness to listen to reason. He continued attempting to have conversations with her about how he could help, but he was thwarted by her erratic answers – sometimes she simply told him, amidst sobs, that she didn’t know how he could help; other times, the “saner” moments, she was reluctant, even embarrassed to discuss her previous behavior and couldn’t/wouldn’t offer much in the way of advice to her husband about what she needed when she was in “that place.” My friend was stumped, scared, and frustrated.

Perhaps you’ve been there if you’re reading this…You want to help, but you don’t know how, and the person you are trying to help behaves so inconsistently that you never know if you should leave them alone, hug them, take them to the hospital, or tell them to snap out of it. I’m quite sure my amazing wife, Ann, would understand your frustration as she has felt it with me (but not for at least an hour or two!).

I certainly can’t speak for everyone with mental illnesses, but I’d like to offer a few pointers that might be of help:

    1. Take charge lovingly. Recognize that you are the one who is seeing the world more clearly than your mentally ill loved one, and take charge of the situation lovingly with that in mind. For example, my young children wear me out mentally. I’m just not cut out to be with small people for prolonged periods of time without becoming extremely overwhelmed and ultimately depressed/angry. But I want to be a good dad/husband, so I often am with them for long periods of time, thus becoming overwhelmed, depressed, and/or angry. My wife knows when I’ve had enough based on how I speak to the kids, and she is usually kind enough to ask me, “Do you need a break?” But here’s the problem: My broken brain can’t see straight in those moments, so guilt usually wins out over my mental health and I say, “No.” The truth is, and I’m not saying that this is fair, that I want Ann to say to me: “Tim, you need a break. Go take 15 minutes of alone time and then we can reassess.” I would take her up on it 100% of the time, but when I’m left to make the choice for myself, I’m not able to think reasonably, “You know, I do need a break, and yes, my wonderful wife, I’ll accept your offer!” Again, that’s not necessarily fair, but if you, the healthy one, will take charge of the situation, I for one would appreciate it, and I suspect others with a mental illness want the same thing.
    2. Don’t expect them to be reasonable. Once again, I’ll use my children as an example. When one of my children throws a temper tantrum, I, of course, get frustrated by their behavior. Despite having plenty of evidence that you can’t reason with a small child who is throwing a tantrum, I continue to try to reason them out of this behavior by saying things like, “You’re not helping the situation” or “You’re making your own life worse by acting this way.” Any reasonable person would understand what I mean, right? Of course! But a tantrum-throwing child isn’t in a reasonable state of mind, and “fighting” a tantrum with reason will only lead to frustration for both parties. The best solution when a child throws a tantrum is to literally put them in a safe place so they can “process” their anger without hurting themselves, your dog, their sibling, or your eardrums. It’s the same thing with a mental illness: Help the person get to a place, literal or figurative, where they can feel what they’re feeling safely and productively. Having dealt with OCD my whole life, I am well aware that my obsessive thoughts are unreasonable…that’s why they’re so disturbing! But that hasn’t enabled me to stop them from running through my mind. This is where this piece of advice ties back to #1: You, the sane one, need to lovingly take charge. If someone is in the throes of depression, don’t tell them to look at the bright side. Instead, gently insist that they go do the thing(s) that tend to help them improve. For me, it’s time to myself to think and write…it almost always helps. If not that, then working with my hands on a tangible project will sometimes do the trick. Sometimes, there’s nothing that helps, but when I’m in the midst of depression, it’s virtually impossible for me to stand up for myself and to take what I need. I can’t be reasonable, but if someone around me can push me in the right direction, it might help me get back to a good place more quickly.
    3. Set boundaries about how you will respond to their struggles. As you probably know if you’re reading this, it’s exhausting to support someone with any illness, especially one that is unpredictable and turns your normally-rational loved one into an irrational mess. The friend I mention above confided in me that his wife is not above a little melodrama, so he’s never sure how much of her behavior is attention-seeking and how much is authentic. My advice to him was to tell his wife that he had no choice but to take her at her word…the stakes are too high. Thus, if she says she’s suicidal, he should tell her that he will take her to the hospital because he can’t take the chance that she’s just being dramatic. Another important boundary involves the mentally ill person taking his/her pain out on the care-taker. I’ll use myself as an example here: When my OCD regarding my wife (see my book for more on this) is raging, one of the natural compulsions is to think that talking to her about it might help me get to the bottom of my concern. It won’t! Ever. And it’s entirely unfair for me to talk to her about my negative thoughts about her. All that will do is to hurt her deeply. In this case, we have a boundary that when I’m obsessing about her, if I need someone to talk to, I need to pick one of the other close friends (or a therapist) to discuss this stuff with. The scenarios are endless for what boundaries you might need to set, but start paying attention to yourself, and know that the best way to love someone is to be the healthiest version of yourself so you can be there for them when they need you most. It might take time to figure out the appropriate boundaries, but don’t feel guilty for needing to set them. It’s ONLY by setting them that you can help your mentally ill loved one thoroughly.
    4. When they’re feeling good, ask them how they want/need to be dealt with in the bad moments. Most people with a mental illness have their good days and their bad days. As someone who offers support to a mentally ill person, your best resource might well be that very person, but only when they’re in a good place. This will have to be an ongoing conversation about what is and is not helpful to your loved one, but every day, week, and month you gather more data that can be used to help both you and the other person move forward to a more healthy place. As I’ve mentioned before, one thing I need when I’m in a bad place is for my wife, who is quick to recognize it these days, to take the lead and tell me what to do. In my case, she needs to tell me to take some time away to hit the reset button. When I’m in that bad place, I’m nearly incapable of taking care of myself, but by staying physically present with my wife and kids when I’m not doing well can cause a lot of unnecessary damage – a lot more damage than would be caused by my taking a “time out” to get my head clear. Your loved one might not know how you can best help them right away, but tell them to ponder and pay attention to what they need when they’re not doing well. Maybe it’s a hug; maybe it’s a time out; maybe it’s a trip around the world on a Disney Cruise ship…who knows? But let your mentally ill loved one be your most helpful resource when they are in a healthy enough state to think clearly about what they would want/need in their bad moments.
    5. Take care of yourself. This goes back to #3, but I can’t say enough about it. If you’re not healthy, you can’t be of very much help. Think of it this way: If you were taking care of someone with the flu, you’re not much good to them if you run yourself so ragged that you get sick, too. Not only do you endanger their health further, your own ability to respond to the sick person promptly and thoroughly is diminished if you aren’t healthy. The same goes for mental health. Figure out how to fill up your own gas tank so you can help the person you care about. If your tank is empty, you’re of no real use to them.
    6. Give grace…to yourself and your loved one. Start with yourself. This shit is hard! It ends friendships, marriages, and even lives. Don’t fall into the trap of blaming yourself for not always knowing the right thing to say or how to be of the most help. Instead, literally say this to yourself, “I’m doing the best I can, and that’s all I can do.” It sounds corny, but having been forced by a therapist to do this myself, I can say it actually works: Look in the mirror and affirm yourself for trying, for loving someone who isn’t always easy to love, and for demonstrating the truest version of love – the unconditional kind. And don’t forget to give grace to your mentally ill loved one, too. Hopefully, they’re trying as well, and some day down the road, we’ll be better and figuring out exactly what part of a person’s brain is malfunctioning. Those x-rays or images will make it easier to understand that the person isn’t necessarily choosing to be an erratic ass. Most likely, they’re similar to a person with a broken leg trying to walk without a cast or crutches. If the bone was sticking out of their leg, it wouldn’t be hard to give them grace for going a bit slower than normal or yelping in pain every few steps. But mental illnesses aren’t visible…yet. So whatever metaphor helps you recognize that they’re dealing with something that really is physical and that really can’t be just wished away, try to remind yourself that you can’t expect someone with a broken brain to process life the same way you do. And once again, when you fail, give yourself grace. Then try again. That’s the best you can do.

 

**People often ask if it’s okay to share what I write with others, as if I am trying to keep it private. Uh, yes, it’s okay since I do publish this on the interweb. But really, I’d be most appreciative if you share this blog (or post) with others. Who knows where it will lead? Thanks for your help!

Other articles you might enjoy:

Amy Glynn reflects on Robin Williams’s suicide in a compassionate and helpful way, acknowledging that we should wish our friends who commit suicide had been equipped to stay around longer, but we should never simplify their behavior as “selfish” or “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” A refreshing piece! http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2014/09/twenty-five-years-after-dead-poets-society.html

“7 of the Most Helpful Things You Can Say to Someone with Depression” An excellent piece that “gets it right” about how to help someone who is depressed.

(This post is also a page on the blog. It can always be accessed from the top menu.)

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Self Compassion Meditation

self compassionLast week, I had one of the more intensely damning experiences of my life. Perhaps someday I’ll share the details, but for now, suffice it to say that I’ve never had someone so explicitly condemn me at the very core of who I am and who I want to be.

I sunk.

Deep.

Deeper than ever, I think.

The kind of deep that feels like, even if you start swimming to the surface, you’ll never make it before you run out of air or energy.

I obsessed: will those indictments ever disappear from my brain?

I despaired: Maybe I am useless, worthless, a burden to everyone who knows me.

I worried: Will Ann leave me? Will my kids understand me? Will they love me? Am I even lovable? Do I deserve to be left as this person had told me? Maybe I do.

After the Night from Hell and the following Day of Despair, I went to my Compassion Meditation class. I’ve been attending a class at Emory about self compassion meditation. The actual name for the class is Cognitively Based Compassion Therapy (CBCT). Basically, we’re spending an hour and a half (in class) a week plus anywhere from 10-30 minutes per day practicing meditation, particularly as it pertains to compassion, which begins with self-compassion, and there I was rescued, at least for the moment, by what I’ll call a “re-aha!” Having been practicing mindfulness meditation, one of the core principles I’ve tried to live by is self compassion. As one meditation teacher says, “You’re doing the best you can, and that’s enough.” But I had forgotten that.

I had forgotten that it’s okay to be me; that no one else on earth has to understand me for me to be Worth Something; that it is perfectly okay to hurt when someone tells you horrible things about yourself; it’s even okay to hurt more than others might hurt, to hurt in my own unique, special way.

It’s okay to be me, trite and corny as that may sound. But it’s amazing how that one small reminder – it’s okay to feel what you feel, Tim – changed me, softened me, opened me to allow my experience to be my experience. No one needed to validate it because it was, it is, mine.

I remembered this beautiful poem by renowned mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, called “For Warmth”:

 

“I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.

I hold my face in my two hands
to keep the loneliness warm:
two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing

my soul from leaving me
in anger!”

 

I will nourish my anger, my hurt, my loneliness rather than judging myself for them, rather than wishing I were more like so-and-so who doesn’t seem bothered by criticism or judgments. As Walt Whitman says, “I exist as I am; that is enough.” Nourishing is not wallowing. Nourishing is allowing myself to feel what I feel so I can move on, not so I can wallow ever-deeper in the mire of being misunderstood.

I am enough. I am okay, even if no one else understands.

And so are you, my friend.

 

**People often ask if it’s okay to share what I write with others, as if I am trying to keep it private. Uh, yes, it’s okay since I do publish this on the interweb. But really, I’d be most appreciative if you share this blog (or post) with others. Who knows where it will lead? Thanks for your help!
Amazon’s Books on Self Compassion

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You’re not “so OCD”!

"Sounds like an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Normal people don't spend that much time washing their hands."Last week, within 24 hours, I heard two blithe references to people “being OCD” on TV – one on The Mindy Project when someone said they organize their closet by color and Mindy said they were OCD, and one on Rachael Ray’s afternoon show when a chef said he’s “very OCD” in the kitchen. (Quit judging my TV habits, please.)

This is more than a touch annoying to someone who battles the demon of OCD daily, and my friends with OCD agree that this is one of the more obvious demonstrations of how poorly mental health problems are understood, especially OCD. I’ve recently learned that the World Health Organization lists OCD as one of the 10 most debilitating diseases known to man. Ponder that for a second.



Just to clarify, OCD means Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It causes one’s brain to fixate on horrific and terrifying things (these vary but they usually involve death, harming others, sexual aberrations, etc.). The person doesn’t want to have these thoughts and feels overwhelmed with anxiety because of them, leading to compulsions which are an attempt to get rid of said thought(s) – the (warped) reasoning being that, since the compulsion leads to a momentary lessening of anxiety, continuing the behavior will remove the anxiety completely. It doesn’t, but someone with OCD keeps trying their compulsions anyway. Many movies and TV shows have attempted to portray OCD, but they always do so in a very generic way, as with the show Monk or the movie As Good as it Gets, wherein Jack Nicholson plays a reclusive writer who does things like separate his M&M’s by color and turn the lock on his door a certain number of “magic” times.

The problem with these depictions is that it’s impossible to show the inside of a person’s brain, so all people see is the weird behaviors, and thus these sorts of Hollywood characters become lovably quirky rather than the inwardly tormented, often suicidal people that they really are. It’s virtually impossible to explain what it’s like unless someone actually has it. The best TV depiction of OCD is all of the shows about hoarders, as hoarding is a variety of OCD. The person thinks that if they get rid of something, a disaster will happen that could’ve been prevented if only they’d kept that empty yogurt container. Strange, yes, but that’s why those people fill their homes with “junk.” It shouldn’t be any more entertaining to watch than the show Intervention. The hoarding shows should be educational and sad, not entertaining, as they tend to be…”Let’s watch someone be crazy and chuckle at their silliness!”

But here’s the thing that actually makes it a true brain disorder: The person with OCD is every bit as aware as you are that his/her obsession(s) are absurd. My friend Riley who just died of OCD (sure, it will be chalked up to an overdose, but I’m telling you, Riley’s overdose was only an attempt to make his brain shut the hell up for a few hours. Countless people have died of OCD, but not one of them has that listed on the certificate of death…another indication of how little people understand). The person with OCD can offer far more “reasons” than you possibly could of why s/he should quit thinking about these things. And that’s the fucking madness of it, my friends…we want to stop, but our brains won’t let us. Literally.

As I’ve thought about how to write about this issue, here’s the analogy that came to my mind: If you know about ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), it seems like just about as cruel a fate as life could offer. Like Stephen Hawking, those with ALS have brains that remain perfectly functioning while their bodies make it impossible for them to do anything, including communicate. Those who are forced to watch it happen must feel almost as tormented as the person to whom it is happening.

A severe mental illness is essentially the other side of the same coin: One’s brain is the torture chamber while the body remains perfectly normal. By no means am I trying to belittle something as awful as ALS or to say that any one life-sucking affliction is worse than another. Rather, I’m trying to get your attention just a bit by describing the inner torment of a mentally ill person. I once said to a counselor that I’d agree to have my legs removed in order to get rid of OCD…in a heartbeat. She sort of looked at me doubtfully, and I reiterated it: “I wouldn’t even hesitate for a second.” Others with OCD have echoed my sentiments throughout the years.

Let me tell you about the treatment for OCD so you might understand why so few people are willing to follow through with it. If medication is ineffective, the only other hope for someone with OCD is to undergo Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) treatment. I tried this for awhile, but my obsessions are so intangible and my compulsions virtually unnoticeable and unstoppable because they are about 95% internal, the doctor agreed that I was hard to treat. But in the same conversation he told me that the easiest version of OCD to treat is germophobia.

Now, if you’re someone who carries around hand sanitizer and uses it a lot, you are NOT a germophobe. A true germophobe might take a shower that lasts 3 hours and come out bleeding or raw from scrubbing themselves so hard. If they mess up their shower rituals, they will start all over to make sure they do it “right.” A germophobe isn’t someone you see on a plane wearing a mask. A germophobe isn’t on the plane at all because they are locked in their house vacuuming a room 18 times in a row to make sure they’ve done it “right” and gotten all the dirt up. If someone has OCD, they are in a mental prison than never goes away – ever. I have literally had the same maddening thoughts in my head (see my book) for 12 years, and I cannot think of a moment when those very thoughts are not at the forefront of my brain.

So, the ERP treatment for this true germophobe, according to the doctor I saw is one of two options: 1. Don’t bathe or wash your hands for a week. 2. Put your hands in the toilet and don’t wash them while sitting with the doctor for your entire session. Even a completely normal brain would struggle with either assignment, I suppose, but in the context of OCD, you are asking someone to do something that scares them so much that their lives are completely dedicated to preventing the disaster that might happen by being exposed to a germ. If you’re scared of heights, this would be equivalent to being forced to stand on the plexiglass platform jutting out into thin air at the Sears Tower for an hour. Or if you’re scared of snakes, this would be equivalent to letting snakes crawl all over you for the 45 minutes of an ERP session.

Why do I feel compelled (funny pun, huh!) to write all of this? It’s not so you’ll feel sorry for me or anyone else with OCD…It’s so you’ll be a bit more thoughtful about minimizing the torment of mental illness. If you like your closet a certain way, don’t say you’re “OCD.” If you having an emotionally up and down week, don’t say you’re bipolar. Shoot, you might not even want to say “I’m depressed” when you have a bad day anymore. These things aren’t jokes. They take people’s lives away in a literal sense but even those of us who haven’t harmed ourselves are living in a prison that you can’t see. Even when we act like we’re doing okay, we’re actually hiding from the embarrassment of telling you how hard things actually are (see my post about why “how are you?” is the world’s toughest question).

Over the past few years, I’ve had two casual conversations with business men who have said OCD is a great quality in employees because “those sorts of people” do the best work. My friends, this is akin to telling someone you think cancer is a great quality because you prefer bald heads to hairy ones.

Even psychiatrists and therapists will tell you that OCD is one of the least understood mental illnesses. Depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety, and ADD are FAR better understood and more easily treated than OCD. There are some anti-depressants that happen to help with OCD, but there is no such thing as a drug specifically for OCD, as there are for the other mental illnesses I just listed. If you have OCD, doctors basically start throwing darts semi-blindly and hoping one of them gets close to the problem. Often, medications don’t work, and for obvious reasons, people resist the idea of ERP. Then comes the decision of how long one is willing to live with the inner torture.

So this post has been a tad heavy, no? At least the comic at the top is funny, right? But I don’t write this to weigh you down, but as always, with the hope of educating a few folks as to the often-hidden suffering of those with a mental illness. Eventually, I have no doubt that the masses will recognize mental illnesses for what they are – faulty wiring in the brain – no more and no less. But sadly, we still live in a world where, according to one recent survey, nearly 50% of evangelical Christians still believe that prayer is all that’s needed to heal a mental illness. Would they say that about cancer? Obviously not. In the 1980’s, many people thought AIDS was God’s judgment on gay people. Thankfully, with enough education, most people don’t see it that way anymore. I hope that mental illnesses will be next in line to get fair treatment in the minds of the mentally healthy, but the only way that will happen is for people to get educated.

So, as always, I’d like to suggest that you either reach out to someone you know who’s battling a mental illness to let them know they are not alone. Or if you know someone who might need a bit of education on these matters, share this post with them.

Thanks for putting up with some not-so-light reading! You’ve survived. I’m done.



 

 

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Why Don’t Doctors Give More Hugs?

need a hugA few weeks ago, I went through a thorough brain evaluation at a place called the Amen Clinics (I really hate that name as it sounds like some hokey pray-it-away sort of religious place. It’s not, but so far they have ignored my comment card suggesting a new name), and part of the work-up involved sitting down with one of their therapists to go through my entire history with mental health problems. When I sat down on her couch, I saw here Wake Forest diploma on the wall and we initially connected over having both gone there. Over the course of the interview, it came out that we had also gone to the same high school, were both the 4th of 5 children, and had dealt with nearly the exact same sort of behaviors and coping mechanisms throughout our lives. It was both eerie and extremely comforting to meet someone who is so much like me.



After the meeting was over, I stood to leave and felt that rising awkwardness of uncertainty as to the appropriate physical gesture in this situation. Under any normal circumstances, it would’ve been one of those long, I-just-met-you-but-we’re-already-life-long-friends sort of hugs. But these were “professional” circumstances, and the normal gesture would be a handshake, even though that felt remarkably formal and awkward, too, given the conversation we’d just had with our own dopplegangers. In true OCD/anxiety fashion, I gave her an awkward hug and then proceeded to second guess myself for the next week about it.

This encounter reminded me of the time 5 years ago when “the cheese fell off the cracker” (as a friend puts it), ultimately leading me into a 3-day-stay in the mental hospital. As said cheese was falling, I was desperately grasping at any help I could get from a medical professional. As such, I visited my primary care doctor for a second opinion after my psychiatrist (not my current one) told me I was “just depressed.” Well, duh.

As usual, the doctor’s visit was preceded by the nurse who took my blood pressure, etc. When I told her how I was feeling, I started to sob – something I did more of in those few days than the rest of my adult life combined. She did something very, very weird and extremely “unprofessional”: She hugged me. And I mean it was not just a pat on the back hug; it was a long, let-it-all-out-now-Tim sort of hug (just in case a few certain friends who shall remain nameless, who can turn buying deodorant into a sexual joke, are reading this, I feel the need to clarify: this nurse wasn’t one of the sort that Matt or Kevin (oops, I outed them) are probably imagining. She was a grandmotherly sort of nurse. Sorry guys!). Ironically, the doctor himself couldn’t have been more opposite in his reaction. He acted almost offended that I was seeking a second opinion from him and said in no uncertain terms that anti-depressants CANNOT cause depression despite the black box warning on all of their labels (I was convinced that my depression had to do with a new anti-depressant I had tried). He literally said this to me: “Anti-depressants probably make suicidal people feel just enough better to act on their impulses.” Ohhhhhh, that makes sense, mister doctor! Someone who can’t even get out of bed finally feels well enough to do so and his/her first thought is, “Finally I have the energy to load my gun and off myself. Thank God! Actually, I’m feeling so much better I might just draft a doozy of a suicide note, too!”

In reflecting on these two encounters which took place in the same examination room 5 minutes apart, I came to 2 conclusions. First, just because someone is “book smart” enough to become a doctor does not make them emotionally intelligent or even good at their job. As one of my friends who actually is a doctor once said, “Doctors are essentially highly trained mechanics.” My translation: Doctors may know the human body, but they may not be very familiar with the human condition. Second, doctors of all sorts should give more hugs.

I know, I know…they’d get sued. But I can say from a lot of experience with all sorts of doctors (my brain isn’t my only problem. Soon I’ll be starting blogs about back pain, digestion issues, sinus problems, and heart palpitations) that doctors are some of the least qualified people to care for the suffering of humankind. I’ve encountered so much more in the way of common human decency from teachers, counselors, ministers, etc. than from the sum total of doctors I’ve seen. When I wrote my book and expressed my dissent from the traditional Christian view(s) of hell, I worried that everyone I knew would tell me I was wrong and attack me. But that only happened with 2 people: a Southern Baptist and, you guessed it, a doctor. Everyone else who read it expressed what you’d hope – compassion, understanding, and care for me and my internal struggles. I find it interesting that a doctor was one of the ones who was more concerned with being right than with expressing human decency. As for the Southern Baptist, well, you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip now, can you?

In my doctoral dissertation, I essentially made the same argument about teaching that I’m making here about doctors: Both professions involve a fundamentally human encounter. In the English classroom, we encounter the human experience in the form of literature about the human condition. In the doctor’s office, we (doctor and patient) encounter the reality of our human frailty. In the doctor’s office, we come face to face with the fact that we are sick; we’re actually in the process of dying, and nowhere is this more obviously true than in a doctor’s office. But in both the classroom and the doctor’s office, too many professionals prefer to “keep their distance” and to BE “professional.”

But I ask this to every professional who comes face to face with the human condition: Would you rather keep your distance and miss the chance to help hold someone who’s suffering up for a brief moment or take the chance of being misunderstood once in awhile while acknowledging our shared humanity with the people we work with and for? Either way there’s a risk involved. In my opinion, the risk of ignoring people’s suffering and simple humanity is fraught with far greater potential danger than the dangers involved with a gesture of compassion like a hug or shared tears or a personal email/note acknowledging the common ground we all share. Sadly, when I make this argument, I always feel the need to add the caveat that I’m not suggesting candlelit dinners with your smoking hot clients so as to affirm their humanity. I’m not suggesting free back rubs for your patients, students, or clients. Yes, these things will get you fired rather quickly (or divorced, or imprisoned). But why do I even need to say that? Of course those things are improper. But when a patient is sobbing in a doctor’s office, what’s so wrong about hugging that person? Or when a client turns out to share your exact same background in nearly every way, why can’t the meeting end with a hug that acknowledges our need to connect with others, to be understood?

So, though I am not a medical doctor, here is my prescription for everyone: Give more hugs. And while you’re at it, be honest enough with people about your own humanity that you might get a hug or two as well. We’d all be a lot better off with more decency, more compassion, more honesty…

And more hugs.



PS. As I’ve been doing lately, I’d like to encourage you to think of someone who might need a hug or a pat on the back or to read this post and reach out to them. The purpose of this blog is for you to know you’re not alone in your struggles. If this has done that for you, please share the love and let someone who might be suffering in any way, shape, or form know that they are not alone. How you express it doesn’t really matter…just do it. (Sorry, Nike!)

And one final plea for your help: If you find this blog helpful, you’d be doing me a big favor if you’d “follow” it by entering your email address either at the bottom of this page or on the home page (right-hand side) rather than relying on Facebook or Twitter to get these updates. I’m trying to develop this blog into something that broadens beyond my immediate circle of friends, and the more people who follow the blog, the more likely that is to happen via search engines, etc. You’ll get an email when I post…otherwise, nothing will change. And I certainly won’t ever do anything with your email like sell it to cats.com so you can get cute cat quotes and pix (though, who wouldn’t want that?!). But really, it would help me out if you’re so inclined. Thanks!

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Be In the (Broken) Moment

be where you areIn my old boss’s office hung a framed picture that said: “Be where you are.”

It’s funny that one would need reminding to be where they are, right? How could one do anything other than “be where they are”? In fact, when people demand too much of us, we often say, “I can’t be in two places at once!” But ironically, we are rarely actually “where we are,” at least mentally speaking. We live our mental lives in the past or the future, in the to-do list or the frustration at a friend, in the what-if and the someday-I’ll…Can you even remember the last time you were fully in the moment?

Having a mental illness only makes us less likely to be in the moment. I recently underwent two brain scans at a place called the Amen Clinic (not the religious “amen, hallelujah!” but someone’s last name, pronounced like a hick saying, “I’m aimin’ fer that there buck over yonder!”). My brain activity showed five different areas where the function/blood flow is off kilter. This is why friends, family, and doctors always eventually call me “complex” (which I think is sort of like calling a girl “big boned”…it’s certainly not a compliment, but at least the person is trying not to say what they’re thinking: “Damn, Tim, you’re so annoying!” or “She’s fat). All this is to say that, when your brain tends to torture you in some way, being in the moment is the last thing you really want to do. Thanks to my OCD, I’ve spent roughly 98.43256% of my life very much outside of the moment, usually trying to solve some unsolvable “what if” question.



Enter mindfulness, which is the practice of being “in the moment without judgment.” I’ve been “practicing” mindful meditation for the past couple of months – by which I simply mean forcing myself to sit down for 10-20 minutes once or twice a day to “meditate” on what I’m thinking and feeling at that moment…forcing myself to live in the moment for at least 10-20 minutes each day. Last Sunday, I decided to give the nearby Buddhist temple a try last Sunday for a “compassion meditation” session. It was awesome. I highly recommend it! The monk who spoke looked like a younger version of the Dalai Lama, and I swear he must’ve done Yoda’s voice in the Star Wars movies. But what was really helpful was that he addressed the topic of meditation in such a practical way. He said that meditation is nothing more than training your mind to do what it’s not very good at doing – just like you train your body to do new things like swing a golf club or run a marathon. During the actual “compassion meditation,” we brought to mind a variety of people, from loved ones all the way to enemies and even “all sentient beings.” The purpose was simply to practice feeling compassion rather than anger, jealousy, or frustration, which, as he said, we’re very skilled at…no practice needed at feeling jealous! Most of us are pros at that from about age 7.

Having never done a compassion meditation before, I didn’t really expect much in the way of change, certainly not after one 20 minute session. But oddly enough, it was like it became a “mini-habit” for about 4 hours. Without even trying, I found my mind drifting toward compassionate thoughts toward anyone in my path. (This wore off around 4:15 when the Falcons blew yet another game in a comically pathetic way, and I started thinking truly terrible things about the players, coaches, and even the actual birds (falcons) themselves! I mean, I wanted to hunt down a falcon, or Mike Smith, and really let them have it.) I didn’t do either, but the compassionate feelings were gone for the day. Oh well! They made me feel uncomfortable anyway. I mean, I sort of like my anger and jealousy and petty irritations. Thankfully, having only been out of practice for a few hours, anger, jealousy, and general irritation came back just like riding a bicycle. Phew!

Man oh man, do I get off the subject! Anyway, what I was trying to get at before talking about Yoda and the Falcons is that my recent practice of mindfulness is actually lasting for more than a few hours. After a couple of weeks of forcing myself to sit down for 10-20 minutes (1-2 sessions) a day, something clicked and my brain started to remind me to “be in the moment” on its own. The “non-judging” part is actually the harder part because I’m so used to evaluating how I feel internally every single moment of my life thanks to usually feeling anxious or depressed and trying to figure out how I could feel better NOW. But not judging the moment means that it doesn’t have to be a perfect moment for you to embrace it and be in it. How many moments are really perfect anyway? Over the course of a lifetime, I’d venture to guess that the “perfect” moments can be counted on your fingers and toes (unless you’ve had some of them chopped off, in which case I’m sorry for this reference). Most (all?) moments are broken in ways big and/or small. The practice of mindfulness meditation isn’t to teach you how to “transcend the moment” in some mystical way. Just the opposite, actually: It’s training to be exactly where you are, even if you’d rather be somewhere else.

One of the phrases that a lot of the mindfulness meditation guides use is, see if you can “make space” for X, Y, or Z, even if X, Y, or Z aren’t what you want to be feeling or thinking. For me, the aha moment came a few weeks ago when I was feeling the tidal wave of depression starting to drown me yet again one morning. I wasn’t trying to do anything other than what I had been doing, which was sinking into the hole of “why me?” or “the world is such a shitty place?” But like any new physical muscle memory that finally clicks, the mindful approach suddenly clicked for me. My brain responded to the depression differently. I didn’t try to wriggle out of it this time; I just said, “Ok, I feel depressed. I wonder if I can make space for it today. Let’s examine what depression feels like in my body with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment. Just examine it and allow it to be present. It’s what this moment has to offer. Sure it’s a sign that something’s broken, but I only get to live this broken moment one time. Might as well sink my teeth into it.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if I could tell you that my problems were solved and I haven’t felt depressed or anxious since then? Quite the contrary; I’ve felt both of them a lot. But something’s definitely different inside of me in my response to the negative feelings. Their power to ruin my broken moments of life are waning. Not gone, mind you, but waning for sure. I’m under absolutely no illusion that my brain will quit being a mess, but since this mess of a brain/day/life is the only one I’ll ever have, I should probably quit wishing moments away and just accept them as the hand I’ve been dealt.

If you’re thinking you should give this mindfulness meditation a try, I definitely recommend it. But here’s the thing: you have to actually PRACTICE it, as in sit down and do it even if you don’t want to. I have known of the concepts of mindfulness for years, but I’ve never taken the time to do the exercise itself. At first, it feels like a waste of time, honestly. But remember the last time you learned a new sport, and think how much effort it took for quite a while. If you’re into golf (or rampant sex with virtually anyone), Tiger Woods makes a good example: He’s changed his swing a few times, and every time he does it, it takes him between one and two YEARS before he becomes the old Tiger who once again dominates (he actually just hired yet another new swing coach because it’s been more than one or two years without returning to the old Tiger this time). This is the guy who’s by far the best golfer in the world over the past 20 years, but it takes him MORE THAN A FULL YEAR before imperceptible changes to his golf swing become engrained enough that the ball goes where he wants it to.

Or watch a child learn to write. My kids are both in various stages of learning that skill. My 4-year-old son’s letters are often backwards and usually hard to decipher. So were my 7-year-old daughter’s a few years ago, but now her handwriting is far better than mine (though admittedly, mine sucks). It’s a cool thing to watch someone learn something new, but it can be very hard to be the one learning.

So, if you’re up for it, challenge yourself to practice mindful meditation for a full month, at least 10 minutes per day. If nothing’s changed for you, I’ll happily refund your time at no additional charge.

But really, whatever you do, try to be more “in the (broken) moment.”

PS. As I’ve been doing lately, I’d like to encourage you to think of someone who might need a hug or a pat on the back or to read this post and reach out to them. The purpose of this blog is for you to know you’re not alone in your struggles. If this has done that for you, please share the love and let someone who might be suffering in any way, shape, or form know that they are not alone. How you express it doesn’t really matter…just do it. (Sorry, Nike!)

And one final plea for your help: If you find this blog helpful, you’d be doing me a big favor if you’d “follow” it by entering your email address on the home page rather than relying on Facebook or Twitter to get these updates. I’m trying to develop this blog into something that broadens beyond my immediate circle of friends, and the more people who follow the blog, the more likely that is to happen via search engines, etc. You’ll get an email when I post…otherwise, nothing will change. And I certainly won’t ever do anything with your email like sell it to cats.com so you can get cute cat quotes and pix (though, who wouldn’t want that?!). But really, it would help me out if you’re so inclined. Thanks!



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