Acupuncture and Crazy Religious Beliefs

Accu 3

I’ve been wanting to try acupuncture for my overall lack of mental health for quite awhile, and this morning I finally had an appointment with a woman whose English was so bad that I finished most of her sentences for her after losing patience with her stumbling diction and incessant hand motions (you know, the universal sign language that means “If I just wave my hands long enough surely this person will learn to speak my language”). For some odd reason, I found her complete Chinese-ness reassuring. If someone is going to stick needles into my body, they’d better have a thick accent and at least one statuette of a kimono-clad woman in her office. Check and check!

I don’t have any clue yet whether this will help with my mental health, and quite honestly, my brain is so prone to ups and downs (thank you, bi-polar II) that I might well think something has worked when I’m just on a natural high. We’ll see.

But honestly, the more interesting part of the experience had nothing to do with the needles or the broken English or the wall full of Chinese herbs. No, the best part of this story came as I was leaving home to head to the appointment…As I was leaving, my wife’s “small group” from our former church was arriving. It consists of three women around our age and one woman who is about twenty years their senior who “mentors” them. This very sweet and well-intentioned woman asked where I was headed, and when I told her, her face sprouted a concerned look. Then she said, “You need to pray for protection because acupuncture involves spirits, and you don’t want to open yourself up to an evil spirit.”

Having grown up in and around fundamentalist Christianity, I have heard this view expressed before. It’s basically religiously-justified xenophobia, the attitude being very much an us vs. them mentality: “Surely God can’t/won’t be involved in any Eastern methods of healing or hope. No, those versions of health come from evil spirits that the Real God is fighting against. But make sure you ask the Real God to help you in prayer; otherwise, he’ll just ignore your misfortune as you allow evil spirits to invade your unsuspecting body. Muhahahahaha!”

While I find the aforementioned ideas laughable these days, I’m also well aware that dogma is not unique to Christianity. Even the acupuncturist, from what I could understand, was espousing her own version of dogma. She boldly claimed that I should be off of all five medicines that I take with enough acupuncture treatment. If she’s right, I guess those evil spirits know what they’re doing. For now, my cynical self suspects that both ladies are wrong. I’m just hoping for a small step forward here, ladies. Is that too much to ask?!

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One Day at a Time

Because of OCD, I spend most of my time worrying about various and sundry catastrophes – when I’ll die, whether my kids will survive childhood, the countless ways I might be destroying my marriage, financial disasters, losing my job, etc. These songs are the never-ending background music to my life. The other day I was asked to reflect on some major event/success/change from 2013 and to think about a goal for 2014.

The answer to both, for me was encapsulated in one simple word: survival.

I don’t mean that in an I-might-kill-myself sense, but just in the sense that any variation of thriving doesn’t seem realistic for me. I can’t remember a time in my life when I felt I was thriving for any prolonged period of time. (Let me add that I’m in about as good a mood as I have ever been in as I write this, so I’m not saying this from a place of despair.) Childhood, adolescence, college, young adulthood, marriage, parenthood, career growth, promotions, accolades…none of them have created an “ahhhhhhh” period for me. Each one has come with new kinds of angst and new ideas for how my world might fall apart at any moment.

Lately I’ve been pondering the one day at a time philosophy from various vantage points. Christianity says, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” Buddhism says, “Let go of desire and be present with whatever exists in the moment.” AA says, “One day at a time.” Judaism’s God, when asked what his name is, says, “I am”…meaning, to me at least, “I exist in the present and nowhere else. I am not ‘I was’ or ‘I will be” but ‘I AM.'”

It seems more and more foundational to me that embracing what the moment has to offer is a fundamentally meaningful way to live, no matter who you ask. Thinking of the future leaves one anxious. Thinking of the past leaves one nostalgic (unrealistic) or regretful. But a radical commitment to making the most of the moment at hand can be life-changing.

My OCD wants me to live in the “what ifs” of life, all of which are outside the moment. In the past 24 hours, I’ve heard stories of a man finding his wife and daughter murdered in their home and a story of a man throwing his toddler and himself off of a 52 story building in the wake of a nasty custody battle. My natural reaction to these sorts of stories is to begin wondering whether God exists, how he allows this sort of thing, and whether it will ever happen to me.

But in this moment, I have what I need. I have life, my family, things to enjoy (food, friends, a home, etc.). So I’m working on being radically committed to the moment at hand. I want to force myself back into the present when I start to wander out of it into the what if world. Will the greasy cheeseburger I want to eat kill me ten years earlier than I should’ve died, denying me the chance to know my grandchildren? Will the cigar I want to smoke kill me at age 45, leaving my children to resent me for smoking cigars in the first place? Will tending to my own needs despite knowing that I could be more generous with my time and energy lead me to a life of selfishness and isolation?

Who knows?

Who could possibly know?

But in this moment if these minor choices will lead me to embrace the day, to be more patient with my kids, to go to bed a bit more at peace, why not sink my teeth into them (pun intended) and let tomorrow’s troubles take care of themselves.

This isn’t a treatise on hedonism. It’s a treatise on taking my life back from the what if monsters. All of those what ifs may well happen…but they aren’t happening right now, so I might as well soak up what the moment/day has to offer  – cherish it, enjoy it, embrace it, lean into it. The other alternative is to lose the moment by pondering all that might go wrong tomorrow. It won’t be easy; nothing is when OCD is an ever-present friend. But it’s worth trying – moment by moment, day by day.

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To Light or to Curse?

Just saw a bumper sticker that says, “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

This after I had spent an hour drafting one of those “should I keep going?” journal entries over breakfast. My depression is a chicken/egg sort of thing: there’s the chemical side of it and the existential side of it. They feed each other ruthlessly, so I never quite know which one led to the other. The chemical side is the part that feel like my brain is in a vice of negativity and despair, and nothing can or will loosen the vice. The existential side is made up of all the “why?” and “what if?” and “wtf?” questions that I ask the universe or god or Goddess or the empty void I fear is actually in charge of all this.

Today’s questions about life’s meaning revolve around why I am incapable of being the great dad I want to be. The truth is, young children have always driven me crazy. I thought that my own young children would be different…and they are…they drive me EVEN MORE crazy than the kids I could walk away from or roll my eyes at when they used to bother me. So after berating them last night for being demanding and rude and insensitive to each other, I woke up feeling like an asshole…an asshole who desperately wants to be the Father Knows Best sort of kindhearted man who never raises his voice but who, in actuality, is prone to fits of rage and leaves his children (and wife) never quite knowing which daddy will be around – the asshole or the fun-loving, All-American Dad. I feel bad for my kids, my wife, and even myself because, after all, I AM trying, dammit.

So that leaves me pissed off mostly at whoever/whatever is in charge of this absurdity. Whether it’s evolution or God who had designed this world, it seems to me that the designer sucks at his/her/its job. If I designed a car that had the most powerful engine on earth, but I only gave it 4 flat tires to run on, I would’ve designed something with amazing potential that can never be fully realized. That’s how I feel about humanity. No matter how many great dads there are, or how many Mother Teresas, or how many Ghandis, there are still abusive fathers, Hitlers, and men like the guy in the news this week who left his toddler in the backseat of his car for 7 hours, most likely on purpose, to kill the kid. And my cruel brain won’t stop reminding me of the latter sorts of people.

WTF?!

But then there was the bumper sticker. I’m really good at cursing the darkness, and frankly, I’ve tried as hard as anyone to light some candles in my day. But I grow increasingly convinced that the candles aren’t doing any good. I’m growing more and more despondent about the winds of darkness that seem to put out all the candles I light. Still, one thing I’m sure of is this: cursing the darkness is no way to live because it only increases the prominence of the darkness inside my own head. What I like about this mantra is that it doesn’t ignore the darkness, and it doesn’t make dubious claims that frustrate me…things like, “Just one candle can light up the whole world!” or “If everyone just lights one little candle in their own dark place, the darkness will finally realize it has lost!” Frankly, I find those sorts of sayings overly optimistic.

But this one, in it’s simplicity and realism, I can buy into. It is indeed better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Want a bumper sticker? Click here.

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Placebo Effect…aka Hope

Not too long ago, I was paying a doctor $190/hour of my parents’ hard-earned money for me to tell him how to treat my OCD and depression. After a few thousand dollars, my OCD was no better at all. BUT he did leave me with one beautiful thought: When I referenced the placebo effect, he off-handedly said it is “also known as hope.” He was right of course…that’s exactly what the placebo effect is, but the idea behind the choice of words is so much more powerful.

I’ve been reminded of what hope feels like over the past few days. I’m sad to say that I had quite literally forgotten. My wife and I were talking about how bad my depression has gotten lately, and I put it to her this way: “All the carrots that used to urge me onward are gone.” Lately I have felt like my mental health is ruining my best efforts at everything I care most about – my marriage, my kids, my friendships…I told my wife I literally could not keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Not surprisingly, this led to a lengthy and serious discussion.

After convincing her that I did not need to be driven to a hospital to be admitted for suicide prevention (just yet), we talked about how trapped I feel by my current work situation. We started to brainstorm about other options for our family than the current set-up, and gradually, slowly, the light at the end of the tunnel began to show up again (usually, I assume this light is an oncoming train, but this time it had the unmistakeable quality of actual daylight). It was like I was once again a young, single man again who dreamed he could do whatever he wanted to with the rest of his life, not a trapped, overwhelmed, depressed, mental case who was looking at 15 years before the kids are through high school when I can finally do something for myself again.

For the past 48 hours (the fact that I’m celebrating 48 hours of optimism shows you where my brain has been living lately) have been filled with that magic thing called hope. The depression has knocked at the door a few times, but it’s been kept outside for 2 WHOLE DAYS IN A ROW! Now I’m not naive enough to think that my problems are all solved because I have hope again, but I am reminded of how vital hope is to life. To be truly hopeless is to be suicidal. I’ve been there. A. LOT. But today, it feels nice to see 18-wheelers as something to be avoided rather than a possible way out!

What’s the takeaway here? After all, it’s not like you can just decide to be hopeful again, right?! For starters, keep taking your meds because no amount of hope will cure chemical depression. But beyond that, if you’re feeling hopeless, see if you can pinpoint the culprit of your existential (not chemical) hopelessness and ruthlessly, relentlessly pursue hope, no matter the cost. The other night, I had come to the place that the cost of proceeding as I have been may well have been my life. Obviously, no job or income or other barrier to making a change is worth my life (says the hopeful version of myself). So, no matter the cost, I am going to make a change in my career.

Stay tuned for how this all plays out.

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