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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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?

[fblike]

*****

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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I’m Still Here
https://images.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search;_ylt=A0LEVvpfMapXjEAAG4YnnIlQ?p=i%27m+still+here+&fr=yhs-mozilla-004&fr2=piv-web&hspart=mozilla&hsimp=yhs-004#id=9&iurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theabundantlife.net%2Fsite2011%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2013%2F09%2FIm-still-here-big.jpg&action=click

I’m Still Here

Just a few years ago, I had a prestigious job title, I was making more money than I ever thought I’d make, I had recently purchased a new house in a popular part of Atlanta, I was making use of my PhD on a daily basis, and because of where I worked, I had an excellent place to send my kids to school. I was fulfilling my purpose as an American, adult head of the house – I was taking care of my family, and even if I wasn’t always in the best frame of mental or emotional health, in a tangible sense, I was a success.

Then I got unceremoniously fucked by a cosmic elephant.

Sorry, was that crass? Well, I’m not sorry actually. That’s what it’s felt like. Correction…feels like.

I no longer have a prestigious job: I pressure wash and stain decks. That’s about all I have the mental and emotional energy for most days. And I’m trying to start a non-profit but don’t have much to show for it yet. My PhD is useless. No one, when choosing a stain color, has asked to see my diploma. I don’t even make enough money to even support myself, meaning that a lot more pressure is on my wife, who has never had to work until recently. This week, my kids started school at a place that is, well, the sort of school that most snobby, upper-middle-class people like us move away from when it comes time for kids to start school. Sad, but true.

And with all this “failure” in my life, I have spent a lot of time feeling like such a waste of human flesh. Like so many mentally ill people, I tell myself that my family and friends would be better off without me. I don’t just say this to myself; I genuinely believe it, no matter how hard they try to convince me otherwise. The brutal truth is that everything I’ve been taught to believe should give me my self-worth has been taken away.

Lately, though, I’ve decided, for giggles, to actually try and implement something a therapist recently told me: “Think about what you can do, not what you can’t do. Start from scratch, Tim.”

I argued: “There’s nothing I can do! All I want to do is lay in bed. When I get out of bed, I’m angry and sad. I’m useless!”

Still, I tried.

For me, a lot of my negative mental energy focuses on how much better I’d like to do as a father and husband. Being in my house is the cause of tremendous anxiety and depression because I feel like everywhere I look is a sign of my failure – a to do list item I still haven’t done; a dishwasher that a better husband would empty; a kid’s game that a better father would play for hours on end.

But lately, when one of those failures rears its head, I try to just remind myself of this: “I’m still here.” Meaning…I’m not dead; I haven’t done the unthinkable thing that would wound my wife and children irreparably.

I’m still here, meaning my wife still has a partner, and whether I am ever able to help her as much as I want to or not, she assures me that she’s glad I’m still here. Rather than tell her she’s wrong for wanting me around, perhaps I will try to take her at her word that she wants me to stay put.

I’m still here, meaning my kids, who can’t even cognitively grasp that things might be otherwise, see my face every day and get a good morning and goodnight hug and kiss. My own father traveled for weeks at a time, and I remember how comforted I was when he came home, for no other reason than that it was another adult in the house. That’s all I needed or wanted. I may never be Ward Cleaver, but maybe it’s enough just to be a staple in their lives. Maybe I don’t have to coach the baseball team or stay up all night for the sleepover. Perhaps just continuing to exist is a good-enough start.

And that’s it. That’s the big aha for this post: I’m still here. It doesn’t feel like enough…for the post or for daily life. But the more I remind myself that this is all I have for now, and that nobody gets to tell me that I have to be something more or something else, the more it feels like a good starting-over point.

 
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Friends, TKWANA is officially a 501(c)(3) organization! Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Also, in the weeks to come, I will be starting to accept donations that will further the reach of TKWANA. I hope you’ll consider contributing in due time. 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, there’s a lot more dialogue and group interaction that goes on there than on this blog site, 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: Self Harm

Show Notes:

  • Statistics taken from: http://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/self-injury-self-harm-statistics-and-facts/
  • Self-harm is more an act of self-preservation than self-destruction.
  • Aron Ralston: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aron_Ralston
  • Tim shares first-hand stories from 3 people’s self-harm experiences.
  • Tim discusses Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_behavior_therapy 
     
    *****
     
    Friends, I need your help growing the reach of TKWANA. Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. 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, there’s a lot more dialogue and group interaction that goes on there than on this blog site, so if you’re on Facebook, join us there, too. [jetpack_subscription_form title=”” subscribe_text=”” subscribe_button=”Sign Me Up”]
     
    *Image from: https://trojantopher.wordpress.com/tag/to-write-love-on-her-arms/

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When You’re Not “Fine” (Attempt 2)

A few nights ago, I posted a version of what’s below. Within about fifteen minutes I had gotten enough “Tim, don’t kill yourself!” emails that I took the post down. So I thought I’d try again. Here goes…

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“How are you?”

My least favorite question.

Sometimes, mercifully, the answer really is “fine.” Some of the time, the answer is more like this: “barely putting one foot in front of the other; feel like crying all the time; want to lash out in anger at most of the people I know for one reason or another.” Worse yet, sometimes this would be the honest answer: “barely surviving…if I told you how badly I want to die, you’d put me in the mental hospital right this second. I fantasize about ways to kill myself. Better yet, I long for something/someone else to do the job for me so no one has to live with all the what-could-I-have-done guilt. If only I could get into a car wreck that looked like a true accident, one that would be guaranteed to kill me. Ahhhh, now that would be the ticket.”

If I told you how often I think like this, you’d probably have me committed. But I also know enough people who think like me to know that I’m not alone and that thoughts like these are not at all abnormal for those who are mentally ill. However, those of us who actually think these things aren’t allowed to verbalize them. Understandably, people are not prepared to hear someone else say they are longing for death. My purpose in writing this post is to encourage those of you who support someone who is mentally ill to understand the difference between wanting to die and being suicidal.

The truth is that all of the mentally ill people I know think about dark things far more often than you would want to know about. We are at war with our brains…constantly. No matter how much we want peace, it won’t come. No matter how much we want to get over our emotional pain, it won’t heal.

Here’s an example of my brain’s incessant negativity even about the smallest things: A friend introduced me to someone who has become one of my favorite musicians EVER (Sturgill Simpson). We were talking about him and I made some analogy comparing Simpson’s song-writing to my blog writing. I was by no means comparing our writing skills, but my friend laughed and said something like, “If only you could write as well as he does.” He didn’t mean anything harmful by it, and I understood his point, but here’s the rub: every damn time I listen to Sturgill Simpson, his songs are poisoned by my hurt feelings because of what my friend said. My brain won’t let it go. Trust me, I don’t want to hold on to these things; why would I want to hold on to something that hurts me and that I can’t do anything about? I can’t go back and confront my friend because he didn’t mean anything by it. I can’t prove him wrong because how would I do that? How would I prove that I’m as good a writer as Sturgill Simpson is? I’m probably not, but that’s not the point. The point is that, when Simpson’s songs play (and I have all of his albums so I hear him a lot even when I hit shuffle), I have a wound that won’t heal. I hear it over and over in my head: “You’re not as good as him; you won’t ever amount to anything as a writer, Tim. You’ll never impact people the way he does.” Maybe that’s not what my friend meant but it doesn’t matter. Whether I want to or not, that’s the “song” that plays on repeat in my head when Sturgill Simpson plays on my iPhone.

Our brains are broken, irreparably. In order to support someone who is mentally ill, you need to brace yourself for the ugliness of what we have to share. If I were to share the above with someone, most likely, they would say, “You’ve got to let go of that, man!” And I would say, “No shit. I want to let it go more than you can possibly imagine. I would give ANYTHING to be able to let it go.” But someone who tells us to “let it go” doesn’t understand the battle. We have bled, sweat, and cried, “Please help us let it go!” to no avail. And if you are going to be our supporter, you are going to have to reconcile yourself to the fact that we aren’t able to control our brains in the same way that you are. “Let it go” or “think positive” are meaningless to us. It’s not that we don’t want to; we can’t. Can a cancer patient make her hair grow back by thinking positively? Can a paraplegic make his legs start working again by letting go of negative thoughts? Obviously, no. And those of us with mental illness can’t quit thinking negative thoughts no matter how hard we try. Trust me, I would give literally anything to be able to let go of negative thoughts. Yet, the truth is, negative thought essentially consume my brain 24/7. I don’t want that to be the case. But it is.

So what should you do to support your friend who is mentally ill? You should prepare yourself for a very ugly reality. Instead of saying, “think positive,” you should just say, “I’m sorry” or “I will listen for as long as you want to talk” or, “tell me everything and I promise not to judge or freak out” or, “what’s your favorite mixed drink and I’ll make you five of them.” Better yet, in a peaceful moment, ask your loved one what they want you to say to them, and say that.

People talk all the time about “removing the stigma” of mental illness. Well if we are ever going to do that, there have to be people in our lives who see it all, know it all, hear it all, and still treat us with dignity…without minimizing our pain as if it were something that a clever phrase or new perspective could help us overcome. Our brains are broken. Allow us to tell you about our real, raw experience.

Here’s the truth: just because we think constantly about death, doesn’t mean we are suicidal. Those of us who think of death as a welcomed relief need people who can listen without freaking out when we talk about longing for death. These thoughts are the fundamental reality of our lives. Our lives are hard…so hard that we want to die. This doesn’t mean we are suicidal; it just means we are mentally ill. It just means that our brains are broken beyond repair. We’ll keep trying; we’ll keep fighting. But if you want to be part of our support system, you’ll have to accept that our reality is a dark one. And the best thing you can do for us is to listen without judgment…even when we tell you we want to die.

 
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Friends, I need your help growing the reach of TKWANA. Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Thank you!
 
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Podcast: Talking about Mental Illness at Work

In this episode, Tim discusses the pros and cons of telling people at work about your mental illness. He also welcomes two guest contributors whose experiences differ somewhat from his.

Helpful websites (the links are giving me trouble so you’ll have to copy and paste these):

http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/your-organisation/support-workplace/telling-my-manager
https://www.headsup.org.au/taking-care-of-myself-at-work/talking-about-a-mental-health-condition-at-work
Music credit: Lady Antebellum, “Compass”

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40 and Killin’ It!

40

As of Saturday, April 30th, 2016, I will be 40 years old. I’m right where I always thought I would be: I have left behind two great teaching jobs over the past two years because my fragile brain can’t keep pace anymore with the energy of people half my age; I have been forced to leave behind the home of my dreams for something more modest…something I could afford what with all this leaving of jobs; my wife has gone back to work to help us survive; and I moved out of my house for six months of the past year, probably leaving my kids with some confusion and a scar or two…Just how I dreamed it up!

But despite all of this recent trauma of late, most troubling of all, I’m still scared of the dark. At age 40.

So after the separation, my wife and I are trying again. One of the things we’re working at is intentionally spending more time just the two of us. Kids, after all, make meaningful conversations impossible. I swear, some couples must go 20 years without actually talking to each other while they’re raising kids.

Last weekend, as a surprise for my upcoming 40th, Ann arranged for us to go up to Lake Hartwell for two nights away while her parents were in town and could keep the kids. I grew up going to the lake in the summers, and it is, without question, my happiest place on earth. This particular rental place was rather out of the way, and getting to the house required driving past many, well, to put it politely, very run down mobile meth labs. I mean homes. Sorry, I’ve been binge watching Breaking Bad.

Truth be told, I got a bit concerned about where we were going after we hadn’t passed a lawn without a wheel-less car for seven miles. I know, I know, I’m making terrible assumptions about people with rebel flag covered windows and “Guns don’t kill people; I kill people” bumper stickers on their cars, but remember: I’m a liberal, so I make these sort of unfair judgments about people. I mean really, just look at the unfair things the liberal media is saying about Donald Trump for proof that liberals just aren’t fair to conservatives.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, I was a little worried that Ann had rented us some sleeping bags under a holey tarp when we finally found our weekend home. It was very nice after all: two bedrooms; one bathroom; clean…just the right amount of cabin/real home mixture. And a spectacular view of the lake.

As soon as we walked in the door, we dropped the bags, looked at each other with that “game on” look in our eyes, and did what any couple who was finally kid-free-for-the-first-time-in-forever would do: we opened a bottle of wine and drank the entire thing.

But back to being scared of the dark…When it came time to turn in for the night, it hit me how physically far from anything familiar I was. We weren’t quite Bear Grylls out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, but I was grateful that I knew how to skin a deer and make a delicious stew out of its spleen thanks to Mr. Grylls, just in case. At my real home, I know my neighbors and could walk to 50 people’s homes I know before starving to death. Here, on the other hand, I wasn’t entirely confident I was still in Georgia, or North America. I’m not great with directions to begin with, and we had taken the scenic route to get there, so there was literally no chance I could drive myself out of there on my own. Cell phone service was non-existent, so as I lay there trying to fall asleep, I couldn’t comfort myself with useless news or scrolling through Facebook. I remembered what it was like to be a little kid, lying awake in the dark, 100% sure that I’d be dead in some horrific way by morning.

The thing is, I didn’t actually feel alone or frightened. Instead, in that moment of uncomfortable, overwhelming solitude, I was entirely comforted by the simple fact that Ann was there too, even though she was sound asleep. And then something truly fundamental to my human existence struck me: It literally only takes ONE other person to alleviate someone’s loneliness.

There I was – truly in the middle of nowhere, essentially alone and isolated from anything familiar. But right next to me was just ONE person who knew me, who cared about me, who would know where to look for my body if went out looking for the source of the banjo music and never came back. I’m sure of this: had I been literally alone, I wouldn’t have slept too well that night. I’m not really all that scared of the dark (I lied earlier for literary effect), but I’m scared as hell of loneliness…of isolation. If I had to lie there truly alone in that strange house, deep in the woods, far from everything I’m familiar with, I would’ve slept like a baby…with colic.

And I realized that I had the perfect metaphor for what this blog is about: it’s about helping to alleviate the worst of all human burdens: loneliness. In this case, I’m interested in specifically addressing the loneliness created by mental illness, as it just so happens to be THE raging reason I have suffered from excruciating loneliness throughout my life. If it were up to me, we’d all just naturally care for each other even when everything was hunky dorey…it would just be a part of the human fabric to stick together whether things were good or bad. Sadly, humans aren’t very good at the sticking together when things are good part, and it takes tough times to remind us to keep giving those hugs. Another way of putting it is this: It takes poop to make fertilizer (sorry, but FB won’t publish these with naughty words, so you’re getting a somewhat-less-than-intellectually-honest version of foul-mouthed me). And the poop of both mental illness and loneliness have fertilized in me a desire to help others feel less alone – to be someone who lets them know they’re not alone…or, better yet, just helps them find that one person. It doesn’t have to be me. Maybe it’s you.

And that’s what I want this blog to be about – connecting those of us who have suffered from the loneliness inflicted by the illnesses in our brains. We need each other, and I want to provide a way for us to connect.

So, drumroll please…I’d like to formally announce this: At the beginning of this post, I wasn’t just complaining about my job status…I was foreshadowing (see, I’ve taught English for 20 years, and it’s hard to stop doing English teacher-y things). I am currently without a formal job, but I’ve invented one: I am going to start a non-profit organization called To Know We Are Not Alone. On top of continuing to write, I would like to begin doing more speaking (anyone out there need a speaker sometime soon?), and I will be developing both online and face-to-face resources where people who suffer from any and all mental illnesses can find each other and feel a little (or a ton) less alone in the battle. I am also hard at work on creating a podcast…should have it out early next week. Otherwise, in the coming weeks and months, I’ll add addendums to my posts to let you know what’s going on. For now, if you’d like to send me a check for $5,000 or even just send me a word of advice or encouragement, I’d certainly welcome it.

Oh, and please make checks out to Tim Blue since I don’t have an official entity called To Know We Are Not Alone just yet.

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What’s What (in my brain)?

Confused-Image1Six and a half years ago my brain declared a shock and awe attack against me. I had been fighting a difficult but not debilitating war with my thoughts – my OCD – my whole life. For twenty-five years, my brain attacked me in a First Gulf War sort of way…it was rough, but I fought back diligently by trying to pray it away. Once I finally identified the enemy and got on medication, I experienced a few years of peace. In a sense, I feel like I came out the winner – or at least ahead – in that battle.

But the past six years have seemed more like my 2nd Gulf War: aka The War on Terror. It has been an unending, never-certain-who-or-where-the-enemy-is, this-enemy-wants-to-burn-me-alive-on-international-TV sort of affair.

During my personal war on terror, I’ve been on more medications than I can count, I’ve been hospitalized twice; I’ve become so familiar with suicidal thoughts that I view people who want to live to be 100 as a PeeWee Herman/Denis Rodman kind of weird; I’ve had to leave two jobs because my brain couldn’t muster the stamina for them; I’ve nearly lost my marriage; and I’ve applied 12 times to be on the show Naked and Afraid because I want people to be awed at how big the blur has to be to cover “me” up. (Okay, one of these is primarily for levity. I’m not saying which one.)

Much like the real War on Terror, for the past six years, I have been entirely unsure what exactly I’m battling. The most natural conclusion is “depression.” But depression meds don’t do much for me. Some of them have really weird side-effects for me. Which means I might be bi-polar, but bi-polar II is hard to diagnose because the mania looks like productivity or intensity or agitation. Most people, like me, don’t go into their doctor and say, “I was really productive this month…we need to medicate me so I’ll be less intense next month.” So bpII goes undetected, as has probably been the case with me. When I take bp meds, I do better, for a little while. But eventually, I always feel back to where I started: depressed and hopeless. So my supporters tell me, again, to find a good talk therapist.

And then I uncover what I already knew: that I’m still very angry at a God I don’t believe in; angry at the religious dogma under which I was raised; angry that my career hasn’t panned out the way I wanted it to; angry that I am not the super dad I had/have hoped to be…nor the super husband; that I’m scared to make any radical changes because if they don’t work, then what?; that I feel like a failure because I’m not working in a traditional job these days; that I feel so incapable of controlling my ups and downs that it often feels like everyone would be better off without me; and so on.

In other words, on top of having mental illness(es), I have no small number of issues I need to work through that are only partially related to mental illness. Which just makes it all the more confusing. Where do I start? How long do I stick with a therapist that I’m not sure I’m connecting with? Should I see a therapist that takes insurance or pay the $6,093 an hour the other ones charge? What does it look like to do my part in all of this? I mean, as far as I can tell, I’ve worked really hard to get better, so I don’t think I’m being a resistant patient. But doesn’t anyone give up after awhile when they aren’t seeing results?

All of this might sound like a rant, but I do have a point: It’s hard to know what’s what inside our brains. If you have a tumor in your liver, they can take a picture of it and see that it’s pressing on such and such a spot and that’s what’s causing so and so to happen. There’s no such thing with the brain, though: I’ve had the best pictures they can take, and all the doctors had for me were guesses as to what the images might mean. Their suggestions felt like glorified leeching or bleeding.

This isn’t to disparage the good people who are trying to make inroads to understanding brain chemistry. It’s just to express the frustration that I and so many others feel. It’s like we have a college-level Calculus problem and we are being helped by elementary-school-level mathematicians. It’s not the elementary school kids’ fault; they’re trying to help. It’s just that they simply haven’t caught up to the problem that exists inside our chaotic heads.

So, my friends, I’ll wrap up my point: this stuff is really hard. It’s confusing. You get mixed answers from people. Some want you to exercise more while others want you on 10 medications. One doctor says you have OCD and the next one thinks it’s ADHD. Who are you to believe? I don’t know the answer to that. But I know that you’re not alone and, as with any complex problem, one of the best things you can do is to talk to someone who understands. Not someone who knows the answer…go ahead and give up on that for now. But someone who knows what it’s like to get told conflicting advice by two different doctors…or friends…or therapists. Find someone you can vent to, cry with, throw plates into the fireplace with, or whatever.

And that’s what this blog is all about and I think that’s largely what life is all about: We are all confused and we can all meet each other in the midst of that painful reality. When two brutally honest people come face to face what happens is usually called Friendship. For you, my hope is two-fold: 1. That you will know it’s okay to be really, really confused, scared, lonely, and broken. 2. And most importantly, that you will find friends for your journey – not the kind who stand above you with ideas and answers, but the kind who stand next to you, offering nothing more than their authentic, simple presence.

 

PS. A word for you supporters out there: I know how frustrating it must be to deal with our all-over-the-placeness. I know that there are times you’ve given us perfectly sensible advice and watched us go and do something entirely senseless. It must be maddening. But please know…it’s maddening to us, too. I mean, you’re talking to someone who thinks he might have contracted Ebola from the door handle at McDonald’s. Just bear that in mind next time you expect me to act sensibly.

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An Open Letter to the Parents of a Kid Who MIGHT Have a Mental Illness

suicide teenDear Parent of a kid who might have a mental illness,

Yeah, I know, I’ve heard your excuses a million times: “It might just be a phase that s/he’ll grow out of…no one wants to slap a diagnosis on their child…no school counselor is going to tell me how to parent my kid…no shrink is going to prescribe some pill my kid pops so s/he’s magically calm and focused.” And I know that, back in our day, the kids who took Ritalin probably just needed better parenting and firmer discipline…I know that, when you were a teenager, you went through plenty of times when you were “depressed,” and you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps…pumped some iron, got a new boyfriend who was a great kisser, made the basketball team, or just listened to some great music, and voila! All better in a week or two…your kid should do the same. I know, I know.

Maybe you’re right, Parent. Maybe your kid needs to get his/her act together the good old fashioned way. That’s entirely possible. But bear with me while I pose a simple question from two different angles. Then I’ll get off my high horse.

First question: What’s the worst that can happen if you get your maybe-not-mentally-ill child some professional help?

I know you’re worried about the horror stories you’ve heard regarding antidepressants. I’ve lived some of them first-hand. But they’ve also saved my life. The truth is, when used properly, anti-depressants are very, very safe. If you just go slow and talk to your kid about how s/he’s feeling, you’ll be just fine. And, people don’t get addicted to anti-depressants, so there’s nothing to worry about there. Sure, there are some psychiatric meds that can be addictive and dangerous, but you’re a lot safer getting your kid started while they’re still under your watchful eye than if they start taking some of the more dangerous drugs when they’re out on their own.

What you’re probably more worried about is the stigma and the label of having a kid who sees a shrink. I suppose your kid could develop some weirdo reputation. Worse yet, you might get labeled the parent who couldn’t help his own kid get his shit together. Forgive me for being slightly confrontational here, but…well…your kid may well already have a weirdo reputation. And you may already be seen as the parent who could stand to pay a bit more attention to what’s happening under your nose. Truly, having a kid who is a medicated and treated weirdo is highly preferable to having an unmedicated/untreated weirdo on your hands. And as for your reputation, well, you’re better than that. Living vicariously through one’s kids is never a good look. Be the parent who puts his kid above his reputation.

Second question: What’s the worst that can happen if you DON’T get your maybe-not-mentally-ill child some professional help. I’m tempted to scare the hell out of you by referencing every school shooting ever, but I’ll skip the scare tactics…Actually, no I won’t. Google Dylan Klebold’s mom. She’s the mother of one of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold. This brave lady has recently begun to speak openly about the situation, and her main message is the exact same as every parent of every kid who’s ever pulled a trigger, taken too many drugs, or acted out in some overly dramatic way: she wishes she had said something other than, “I’m sure he’ll be fine; it’s just a phase.” You, Parent, still have an opportunity to, at the very least, always be able to say, “I did everything for my child.”

Much more likely than a scenario like the ones above is that your child will end up like countless students of mine, and like me: feeling very lonely and very confused and very scared. They’ll spend years, even decades, wondering why they are different from others, thinking they might need to see a doctor but scared of disappointing you, scared of telling their friends because they already feel enough like a weirdo or a psycho. They’ll probably, like most of us with a mental illness, try to self-medicate. It’ll probably be drugs or alcohol. Or it could be something “healthier” like work or fitness. Maybe it will be sex. It’ll be something. It’s called a coping mechanism, and all coping mechanisms do the trick, at least in the short term. But we all know that these coping mechanisms don’t work forever. Some people get on a slippery slope of coping mechanisms and end up face down and unresponsive in the ditch at the end of the slide. Some can be revived; some can’t. If your kid is one of the lucky ones who survives the slide, they’ll land in a psychiatrist’s office, scared to death but grateful to still have a fighting chance at a life worth living. If you wait…If you don’t get your child some help now,  s/he may well survive, but by the time they land in that shrink’s office, the scars they’ll bear will be permanently disfiguring.

The greatest news, here at the end of this preachy letter, is that you hold the power of God, at least for now, in your hands when it comes to your children. You get to say what they’re allowed to try in terms of getting help. The one absolute certainty is that they will try SOMETHING. It might be pot or beer or meth. Or it might be Prozac or Lithium or Vyvanse. I can’t guarantee you that the latter three will help your child. But I can guarantee you than the former three won’t. So, please, I beg you, be a hero who is humble enough to set aside your fears of a ruined reputation so your child can at least have a chance at his/her healthiest possible life.

High horse dismounted,

Tim

 

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