Faking It

When-Harry-Met-Sally-when-harry-met-sally-restaurant-1200x675If you’re like me, you’re plagued by the fear that the people you’re with think you’re faking it. Whether it’s someone new, someone you’ve been with many times, someone you love, or someone you just met at a bar, there’s always that question: Do they think I’m faking it?

I’m referring to mental illness of course.

If you’re a paraplegic, I don’t think it crosses anyone’s mind that you were just tired of standing up. If you have cancer, I don’t think anyone says, “let me see those x-rays, please.” But mental illness is completely invisible, other than in one’s behavior.

If I can’t get out of bed because of depression, it would be easy for someone to say, as many do, “What you need is some sunshine (or exercise). You need to get up and get moving. Then you’ll feel better.” Would they ever say that to a cancer patient?

If I am consumed with anger and lash out at someone I love, it looks like I’m being a jerk. It looks like bad behavior. In reality, it is a symptom of a brain that won’t cooperate. I know I shouldn’t be angry, but I still am. I still lash out. And then I hate myself for it, convinced that I could “do better” if only I would try harder…try different.

And I know that sometimes my loved ones think the same thing: that I could behave differently if only I would get my act together…quit hiding behind my diagnoses and just make different choices.

A dear friend of mine is financially supported by a family member. Recently, this family member has grown frustrated. He has told her to exercise more, to get outside, to act healthy so as to become healthy. He’s even gone so far as to tell her that his support won’t last forever and she should find a rich man who will enable her as she lays in bed and “refuses to leave the house.” Would this family member ever say this to her if she had cancer? If she had ALS? If she was paralyzed? Obviously, no.

The fact is that it’s easy to worry that people think we’re faking it because, well, they do. Those who have never battled their own brains, understandably, think they know the answer(s) to our problems. When they feel a little sad, it helps to go for a run. When they feel like staying in bed, they are able to overcome that feeling and reap the rewards of getting up and moving.

But that’s like me telling someone with terminal cancer that I understand how they feel because I’ve had the flu. Imagine if I tried to tell someone with cancer how to get better based on my experience with the flu. That would be offensive in every possible sense of the word.

But mental illness is still a mystery. I even went to a talk recently where a psychiatrist talked about how to avoid weight gain when on bi-polar meds, which notoriously cause weight gain. Every ounce of his advice was the exact same advice you would give to someone who just likes to eat: snack on nuts, not donuts; don’t eat after 8; etc.

This was a doctor who treats bi-polar people all day every day. Yet he treated us like we were normal people who just overate, not people who were on medication that makes it nearly impossible to lose weight.

Honestly, I’m not complaining, at least I don’t think I am. I’m just stating the reality that, for those of us with a mental illness, it’s easy to feel like those around us must think we are faking it. Every single day, as I battle my frustrating brain, I wonder what people think. I know that some of them think I should exercise more often. Others think I should pray more. Some think I should fake it till I make it. The vast majority of them have the good sense to keep their opinions to themselves, thankfully. But that doesn’t change the fact that mental illness comes with a healthy dose of insecurity, at least for me.

I guess the takeaway is simply that those of us who struggle in this way need to be bold enough to be honest with people about how we feel no matter how they respond. Maybe they’ll think we are faking it. So what?! Some of them, thankfully, will actually believe what we tell them and will grow a little bit more sensitive to the issues we face on a day to day basis. Either way, some will get it and some won’t. We might as well speak up.

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Re-Parenting Your Inner Child

bigstock-Child-abuse-24665465-1024x682The scene I imagine is the one I was most scared of as a child:

Chastain Park. Baseball fields. A spring evening at dusk. Every other kid on the team has been picked up. The coach assumed everyone had a ride home so he didn’t wait around. Suddenly, there’s no one else in sight. It’s just me: 8-years-old. Baseball glove in one hand; bat in the other hand. Giant tears welling up in my eyes as my worst fear comes to life. I am alone.

Abandoned.

No one will come get me. No one will help me; they’ll all keep telling me my parents will be here soon…Even when I am 50 years old, people will still be patting me on the head and saying, “Mommy and Daddy will be here soon. Quit worrying so much!” Maybe I’ll find my way back home, but it won’t do me any good: My family will be gone without a hint as to where they’ve gone. IT has happened. I am alone in the universe.

This situation played out in my head ad nauseam throughout childhood. It wasn’t always (or just) baseball practice. It was school and Sunday school and friends’ houses and the basement of my house and, well, everywhere. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every second. When I remember being a child, this is what I remember: Fear of being abandoned.

My parents never did anything to make me suspect that they were actually planning to rid themselves of me in this manner. Shoot, they were rarely even late to pick me up. The fear had very little to do with reality and very much to do with OCD. Every kid is afraid that s/he’ll be abandoned, but not every kid keeps thinking about it all day every day forever. This is why it’s called a “disorder” – not because it’s something no one else thinks about, but because it’s something other people can quit thinking about after a few seconds. My brain never let it go. It still hasn’t; it just looks different now.

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you might remember the post I wrote about Taylor Swift’s song “Never Grow Up.” The basic gist is this: When my daughter played this beautiful song a few months ago, I spent the entire day balling my eyes out for all sorts of reasons. One of the primary people I was crying over was the little boy I used to be who tried to shoulder the weight of the world from the time he was aware of the world.

My Taylor-Swift-Day-O-Crying included a long, slow drive around the various parts of Atlanta where I had grown up. I drove past a couple of the homes I had lived in and just sat reminiscing about the various losses of innocence that happened in those particular spots. I ate at the restaurant that has been a part of my life, at least once a week, for the past fifteen years (Willy’s, for you Atlanta folks). And I drove past the Chastain Park baseball fields, where I used to be so preoccupied with my fear of abandonment that I eventually let the fear have its first major victory of my life and quit doing something I thoroughly enjoyed – playing baseball. I sat there for a while. Crying, of course. Imagining that little boy standing there alone, abandoned.

In therapeutic terms, this concept is called “re-parenting the inner child.” The little boy at Chastain Park is my inner child…it’s the image I return to when I need to realize that it’s okay to hurt and to feel and to be wounded and to be scared. I would never fault that little boy for his fears, but I almost always fault the 39-year-old man who still feels the same way. It’s hard to be kind and compassionate and tender toward the grown man who is often needy and hard to understand and inconsistent and a bit of a “moving target” (as one friend was so kind as to point out recently).

But the little boy is much easier to be patient with. Kids are inconsistent and needy and moving targets and all sorts of other confusing things. Trust me; I have 2, and I have yet to spend more than an hour with them where things went according to plan or where one of them didn’t cry over something that seemed obnoxiously silly to me.

But I give them grace because they are children. And so am I – a little boy who, at least in an emotional sense, never grew up all the way. I’m still the little boy standing by the baseball fields waiting to get picked up, afraid that no one will ever pick me up. When I see my inner self in that way, it’s much easier to be patient and kind with myself.

Recently, I have suggested this same concept to two of my friends. Both of their reactions were visceral. One immediately got teary-eyed; the other got a look of shock on her face and said, “It’s just too sad for me to imagine myself that way. I can’t do it.”

But if that’s your reaction, maybe it’s the thing you need to do most of all. It hurt me to watch my friends’ pained expressions when I suggested this “re-parenting” technique. I know how hard it is to look back at the little child who, for whatever reason, grew up too fast. I know what it’s like to want to wrap that child in your arms and make them feel safe forever. I know what it’s like for your heart to break that you can’t actually go rescue that little boy or girl.

But you can still rescue that child in one sense: You can re-parent that little boy or girl inside of yourself. You can give yourself grace for your particular fears and wounds and struggles. You can tell that child it’s okay to be afraid. You can tell the child that you’ll hold her hand as she walks through the scary parts of life…which might be all of them. You can take him by the hand and let him know that you’ll walk as slowly or as quickly as you need to past all the monsters and mean kids. You can sit and cry with that kid for as long as needed.

Every child needs to be taken care of. Every human with a heart can feel compassion for a child more easily than for an adult. And we are all still children in some way or other. So rather than beating yourself up for all your needs and wants and insecurities, develop an image of yourself as a scared little boy or girl with those same needs and wants and insecurities. Treat your adult self as you would treat that child because, at the end of the day, that’s still what all of us are.
 

 

 

 
 

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Only as Sick as Our Secrets

SickSecretsThe very first psychiatrist I ever saw opened with this question: “Got any secrets?”

I was 25-years-old at the time, and had spent 24.9986 years believing that only freaks went to shrinks. To me, parking outside of a psychiatrist’s office was similar to parking outside of a strip club…Pray no one sees you getting out of your car and keep your head ducked until you’re safe and sound inside. Except when you go into a strip club, you’re probably happy to be there once you’re inside. Not so with a shrink. It only gets more embarrassing inside because they make you talk about shit.

(For the record, I’ve never actually been to a strip club. Strip clubs have always struck me as a great way to end up remarkably frustrated…like working up a good appetite, grilling a delicious steak, and then just staring at it. No thanks. Not to mention that I’d sit there wondering what the stripper’s backstory was, who had wounded her emotionally, whether she felt terrible about herself, I’d want to walk up on stage with a robe and tell all the oglers to have some decency: “She’s a human being, you assholes!” Around the time my friends tried to cheer me up with a lap dance, I’d probably start crying because I’d feel so sorry for the girl. I’d apologize that I didn’t have anything bigger than ones to tip her with. I’d promise her she was worth far more than ones as I shoved all of my dollar bills tearfully into her G-string. She’d feel bad for me and probably hold me while I cried, causing her to lose a lot of good tip money. Which would make me feel worse.)

But back to the shrink’s office, inside of which, sadly, I found everyone to be fully clothed. So after I made my way inside, I kept my head buried in an issue of Psychology Today until I was my turn to join the ranks of the certifiably crazy. When I got into his office, he didn’t make me lie down on a day bed, thankfully. I was allowed to sit up while he sat across from me and opened the conversation with the most direct question one could ask, I think: “Tell me your secrets.” He didn’t even have the courtesy to kiss me first. But, whatever; I’ve had worse first dates.

This was twenty minutes before I was diagnosed with OCD, so what I didn’t realize at the time was that the hyper vigilant internal survey I took of my twenty-five year life in the following four seconds was a symptom of the very thing I was there to treat: obsessive-compulsive disorder. I actually started to panic a little bit, wondering if the secrets that came to mind were “good enough” secrets to land me in this man’s office. I worried that if I told him the real secrets, he’d laugh at me and say, “Are you kidding? That’s all you’ve got? You don’t need to be here. Have a good life, loser. And get some better secrets!” Then again, what if my secrets were so bad that he’d have the opposite reaction: “You WHAT?! I’ve never heard of someone doing THAT. You are unfixable…warped…demented…you’re HOPELESS, Tim. Get out!!!”

So I told him I’d never been to a strip club. He suggested a few of his favorites, and I thanked him and went on my way.

Actually, what I told him is none of your damn business, but he diagnosed OCD (still the only diagnosis I feel entirely confident of despite having racked up about ten others now), and he prescribed Paxil. This subsequently killed any sex drive I had (for a twenty-five-year-old male, this “feat” would be akin to successfully making Donald Trump humble), and I quit taking it after about two weeks. I saw that doctor one more time, told him I didn’t think this was “for me,” and never went back to Dr. TellMeYourSecrets.

And here I find myself, fourteen years later, in a group therapy program, still trying to dig down into the secrets that are killing me. The therapist routinely tells us that “we are only as sick as our secrets.” As she says, when we talk to the group, we practice telling the truth to other people in a safe environment. We literally are there to practice saying our secrets out loud…And this does take practice.

We in the group have some remarkable secrets: most are about sex, drugs, or rock n’ roll. Excluding the rock n’ roll. You can look around the room and almost see the secrets hiding behind people’s eyes, wanting desperately to come out of the closet. But if you look carefully, you can see the anguish on our faces as we work up the courage to say what’s true – the thing we’ve never said aloud before. You can watch our eyes dart between the anonymity of looking at the floor and the risk-assessment of looking at these strangers, wondering how they’ll judge what we’re about to say for the first time ever. We’ve never said it to family, friends, spouses…even other therapists. It’s almost like the secret won’t really have to be true if we just don’t put words around it that somehow make it capital-T true.

So the secret sits there, festering, oozing, bleeding, never getting any better. Getting worse actually. Getting harder to say aloud with each passing day. The thing that one of us chose to do, or that was done to us…the thing that happened just yesterday and therefore is very raw and fresh…or the thing that happened fifty years ago that has lived inside for so long, it seems like the sunlight of exposure will hurt too bad to survive…whatever the secret, the secrets are what we are all dying from in that room.

What’s amazing, though, is how easy it is to start healing from a secret. All you have to do is tell it. You can do it right now, or you can wait until it’s got such a stranglehold on you that you need to enter some sort of a program in order to try to overcome the fear of telling people who you really are. Either way, the cure is the same: say it out loud. This truth is so powerful that there’s a rather famous website called “Post Secrect” (www.postsecret.com) where people anonymously tell the world their secrets. Given that it’s anonymous, I doubt it does them a ton of good, but it does show how profoundly we feel the need to tell our secrets to someone.

Mark Twain once said, “Mankind is the only animal that blushes…or needs to.” Animals aren’t afraid to poop in front of you, to have sex in broad daylight, to groom themselves without needing privacy, and so on. They are who they are. They don’t have secrets. They don’t blush. They don’t have any reason to blush. Mark Twain also called humans the “lowest animal” in a satirical essay entitled, well, “The Lowest Animal.” From a completely non-theological basis, Twain criticizes the Theory of Evolution by arguing that humans are evolutionarily inferior to animals in a moral sense, basing his belief on the fact that animals never kill more than they can eat. Meanwhile humans kill far more than they can eat, not to mention that they kill things they have no intention of eating.

Twain’s point, and mine: Humans are full of complex motives and desires. We are also filled with inscrutable sources of shame and self-loathing. Between the things we do to others and the things that are done to us, most of us have a secret or two stashed away somewhere that probably needs to see the light of day. Putting words around the memories that have been hiding inside of you will be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. But once you’ve done it for the first time, the second time will be about 1/50th as hard, and by the 5th or 6th time, it won’t feel a whole lot different from admitting that you had a sip of beer at age 14 when your dad left his drink unattended for a few minutes or that you held someone’s hand before you were married (interlocked fingers, too!). Each time you say it out loud, you’ll realize that, first of all, most people don’t look at you like you’re Hitler, as you had feared. Second, even if they do, their judgment doesn’t kill you as you thought it might. In fact, their judgment doesn’t feel nearly as strong as the relief you get from telling the truth.

Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner is a perfect example. Yesterday, Vanity Fair published the first picture of her as a woman (I just felt some of you cringe that I said “her”; you should get over this J). She (Caitlyn) said that her secret had been killing her for sixty-five years, and she knew if she laid on her deathbed without telling it, she’d have wasted her life. Whether you admire her decision or condemn it, what matters is that this human being was being crushed by a secret. She told her secret and now says that this new person, Caitlyn, doesn’t have any secrets. She’s at peace. Think what you want about being transgender, but my point is about secrets, not LGBTQ issues. Bruce Jenner, quite literally, had to kill himself slowly in order to reveal a secret that was, ironically, killing him. I’m sure he wishes he had told his secret many years ago. But it ain’t easy to look the world in the eye and tell them you’re a liar. Ironically, though, it’s the best thing you’ll ever do for yourself.

So I’m ready to tell you my secret. Here it is: I prefer bottled water to tap water, even though I feel guilty about the plastic bottles that go to waste. I judge people who drink from a tap, who say, “It’s all the same!” One should never kiss someone who drinks tap water. This is how every plague in history has begun: with tap water.

Ok, ok, that isn’t my secret. I’m still not going to tell you my secret(s). Sorry. I still have more work to do before I quit being afraid of your rejection, and I’m thirty-nine, not sixty-five, so I’m still twenty-six years ahead of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. But stick around awhile and maybe I’ll be bold enough to do so someday down the road. Maybe I’ll show up at your door as a female…You never know. For now, I can just promise you that the truth really will set you free. (And no, mom, I’m not actually a woman.)

 

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Un-F*ck the World

Warning: If you are not a fan of unfiltered content, you might want to skip this post. My normally shitty filter is in the shop, and the filter mechanic thinks it might be broken irreparably.

Still reading? Okay, I warned you.


 

systemfailing3I saw a bumper sticker the other day that expressed the sum total of my sentiments about, well, everything in only 3 words: Un-Fuck the World.

If there is one thing I think every human ever would agree on it’s this: There is something wrong with the world. Every religion, political stance, philosophy, work of art, TV show, cardboard sign held up by a homeless man…admits this fundamental fact. Something is broken. Something is fucked. Big time.

People disagree (and kill each other) about how to go about this un-fucking of the world, but I think we’d do ourselves a big favor by simply admitting that something is wrong, and that’s about all we know. The world is fucked; let’s un-fuck it wherever, whenever, however we can.

At the moment, I’m working on un-fucking myself (that’s where the filter might have kicked in if it were working. Sorry again). I’m in a therapy program that goes from 8:30-3:00. It’s absolutely exhausting, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so completely raw and broken. This coming from the guy who writes, well, this blog…which is pretty raw from what people tell me. Well, all day therapy is raw-er.

I will avoid sharing people’s detailed stories since they are shared in confidence, but let me tell you once again: the world is remarkably fucked up. I mean like how-do-people-keep-going-after-what-they-endure fucked up. There are anywhere from 10-15 of us in the room each day; our ages range from 19-50 something; and most of the people look and act like the people you interact with every day. They don’t “look like” they are in “the bin,” as I recently heard it referred to. These are some fantastically beautiful people who have endured everything you can possibly imagine in terms of trauma and suffering. They are (we are) so ready to un-fuck our lives, but it’s much, much harder than the self-help books (or the God-help books for that matter) ever mention.

But right there in that little basement room where we are literally semi-locked-in all day, some spectacular un-fucking happens. It’s not because the therapist says magic things, though she is remarkably good. It’s not because people find God or finally confess something they’ve never confessed, though I think both of those do happen in various ways. It’s not because we breathe deeply or learn to harness our inner warrior princesses, though I have indeed harnessed my inner warrior princess, and she is a cross between Beyonce, Kate Middleton, and Margaret Thatcher.

It’s really simple why the un-fucking happens in that room…it’s proof of the whole purpose behind this blog. Plain and simple, people are at the bottom and willing to simply be who they really are. And the rest of us accept them just as they are. There is very little pretending and even less judgment.

That’s it. There you have it. The end. Problem solved.

Whatever it means to be human, at some fundamental level it means that we hide. From the clothes we wear to the make-up to the pictures we post on Facebook and Instagram to the fake “Finehowareyous” we offer to others 231 times a day…humans are FAKERS.

Some of us are more accomplished at this than others. I’m way ahead of most, and even in writing this “vulnerable” blog, I still hope I can manage people’s expectations and make them marvel at how well I’m handling my life’s pains and difficulties. The truth is that I’m handling them far worse than I will admit here, and it will be a very long time until I’m willing to share some of the terrible decisions I’ve made in the midst of this mid-life/mental health crisis. Being in this all-day therapy has shown me how dishonest I have been with those I love most and with myself, too. My addiction to fakery is so deep that I’m still not sure if I’m fully being brutally honest with myself. I suppose I’ll find out soon enough. Or maybe I won’t. I’m just not sure anymore what the whole truth is.

But rather than keep confessing what a liar I am, I’d like to offer a challenge: Quit faking it. It won’t and can’t happen all at once, and you don’t have to start answering the question “how are you?” honestly when the person at Starbucks asks you. But a good first step would be to pick one person and answer the question honestly. It will feel awful the first time you do it, and you’ll probably regret it. Then you’ll have to make yourself do it again the next day, like taking a terrible medicine. But it will be good for you, and eventually you’ll see the value in it. But you have to just do it first even though it sucks.

Or try this: Wear something that makes you feel self-conscious but expresses who you really are. I, for one, feel so self-conscious when I dress in some way other than my normal “costume” that this has been like something called Exposure Therapy, which basically means facing your fears head on. Give it a try. It will suck. But I think it’s good for you.

Practicing being real can be done a million ways. Maybe it’s not wearing fingernail polish when you always wear fingernail polish. Maybe it’s getting a Mike Tyson tattoo on your face. Maybe it’s writing a blog or confessing to a priest or going out in public after you’ve been crying even though you know people can tell. You gotta do you. I can’t tell you how to do it.

But I can tell you that you should do it. First, for you own sake…for your own un-fucking. And when you do enough of your own un-fucking, you’ll help un-fuck the world in a teeny, tiny way. And the world needs to be un-fucked.

 

 

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That Train Has Sailed

hamletWhen you read a Shakespearean tragedy, you know the end when you start the story: Everyone dies. If you’re surprised by this, you have a bad English teacher.

This haunts me, as you might have noticed. I want to know WHY?! it all has to go the way it does. I keep trying to write my way out of these questions, and from what I can tell, this is what most authors are trying to do: write their way out of something that haunts them, hoping maybe it will help someone else…or themselves. Meanwhile our writing comes from the chaos. We artistic types tend to be whirling dervishes of inconsistency and difficult relationships and fear and frustration. But we write to try to make sense out of some of that, and for a little while, it all feels organize-able.

I’ve had plenty of “aha’s” during my never-ending mental journey, and some of them prove to be more meaningful than others. Often, it feels like a two steps forward, two-and-a-half steps back affair. But the aha for this hour is this: The tragedy we’re afraid of, Shakespearean in proportions, has already happened. Or, to put it in Austin Powers parlance: “That train has sailed.”

For anyone with mental illness…for sure anyone with OCD…fear is the constant enemy. The WHATIF monster is as present as skin. And the whatif monster only knows a bunch of variations of the same tune – What if disaster strikes? Your child dies, you die, your parents die, you make a mistake that ruins everything in your life, you accidentally harm someone who’s completely innocent, etc.

Every single piece of psychological, philosophical, and even spiritual literature I’ve ever read has a lot to say about this issue – the disaster issue. After all, evil/pain/suffering comprise the fundamental questions and quandaries of life. Essentially, all philosophies and religions conclude that the only way you can find peace is to accept the reality of all the mysteries in life.

Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild, is my newest favorite philosopher. She’s not actually a philosopher but she’s very philosophical, mostly because she’s experienced a ton of pain. (What’s with that? Why can’t I be philosophical and pain-free? Damnit.) Strayed is not religious at all, so she, obviously, never resorts to the God-will-make-it-right answer when faced with a tragedy, which I appreciate greatly. And she writes far more vulnerably than I do. I’m still afraid everyone will reject me if I tell the whole truth, but Strayed certainly doesn’t seem to have that barrier in front of her, which I also love. I’m getting there.

Exhibit A of her radical honesty is shown in one of her essays when she talks openly about the sexual abuse she endured when her grandfather would babysit, regularly. And by referring to it as “sexual abuse,” I’m giving you the vague version; she doesn’t spare the details. Her conclusion about tragedies like her own is that sometimes all you can do is just look right at them and just stare – look them in the face, so to speak. Disaster is disaster, and all we can really do is stare at it dumbly and try to accept it, try to move on, and try to help those who are also impacted. The holes in the human conditions are very oddly shaped and far too huge to be filled up easily, if at all.

So here’s the thing we have to accept and make peace with if we’re going to be of much good around here: The crash we’re living in fear of has already happened. The disaster has already struck. The bad news has already been delivered. It’s called life as a human.

I really don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I actually think it’s an optimistic perspective. Here’s how the conversation in my head goes: “Okay, Tim, you’re already living in a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense of the word: Everyone dies at the end. So what now? How do you live in the light (darkness) of that? Maybe all you can do is get out of the smashed car and start looking around for other survivors who are fatally wounded but still ticking. You help them; you hold onto them for support; you hurt with them and maybe tell a few last ridiculous jokes just to laugh one more time; and you come to terms with what HAS ALREADY HAPPENED.”

Why did it happen? Whose fault was it? – Do those questions even matter now? Not much…it happened. There you have it.

Over the past few days this idea has been holding me up quite a bit: “The crash has already happened. Now what?” Every so often, my meditation practices come to mind and remind me to breathe into what is, no matter how much it might hurt at the moment. This even works with physical pain: If you breathe into it, it actually becomes more tolerable. Not pleasant, but not as consuming.

So I’ve been breathing into the fact that I’m about to go into a partial-hospitalization program for some extensive treatment. “Partial” means I don’t have to sleep there or remove my shoelaces when I go in so that I won’t hang myself with them…is that even possible when one weighs 200 pounds? But I’ll go all day long and experience various kinds of sessions that address different issues and strategies.

And I’m breathing into what’s happening right upstairs, about 30 feet away: My children are having the most absurd, childish sort of argument with each other, and as I just took the in-breath required to yell, “Stop being so fucking rude to each other, god dammit!”, I decided to just listen instead. Then I laughed because it’s hilarious to hear them mimic each other while trying to prove that the other one is at fault. Not hilarious in the this-is-pure-bliss kind of way, but hilarious in the this-is-so-just-the-way-life-is kind of way. And now, this second, the argument is flaring up again, and I’m just taking another deep breath and letting myself be the parent who is just too tired to deal with it. And I just laughed harder. And breathed again. I’ll deal with it next time, I suppose. As an old teacher friend told me, they’ll surely give me another chance to address this behavior.

And I’m breathing into how much I wish I was more sane and stable and letting myself be one very messy creature. From certain angles, my life feels like the one other people can look at and feel better about their own situations. From other angles, I’m still pretending I have a Leave it to Beaver life. But every time I crash yet again, I am more honest with my friends and family about how bad it really is. And there’s a lot of hope and peace in that brutal honesty. There’s the sense of being loved, too, even though my life isn’t too tidy of late.

And I’m breathing into the shame of having lost a job because of all this BUT ALSO the reassurance of having just been offered another teaching job that might well be just the right thing at the right time. It will provide a lot less money but a lot more flexibility, a trade-off I have to make right now. So, I’m breathing into the messiness of my career trajectory. I’m breathing into the comical beauty of the mess – the this-wasn’t-in-the-script moments that seem to have almost entirely replaced the “original script.”

And I’m breathing into the fact that there might just be some people who will actually always love me. ALWAYS. And that makes the mess and even the Shakespearean tragedy worth living in and through.

So, breathe…embrace the mess…get out of the car and help the survivors. And breathe again.

 

 
 

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Bruce Jenner: My 2 Cents

Bruce-Jenner-Plastic-Surgery-Botox-FaceliftI assume I’m not alone in having watched Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner on Friday. In case you are Amish, I’ll fill you in really quickly: Bruce Jenner won the Olympic Decathlon in 1976 which, as usual, earned him the greatest-athlete-in-the-world label; eventually he re-emerged on the show Keeping up with the Kardashians as Kris Kardashian’s husband (Kris is the matriarch of the crew, and she was originally married to the man who got OJ Simpson off his murder rap (not that he did it anyway)); and now Jenner’s in the news for a third reason: he’s becoming a woman.

Some seem to think he’s doing this as a publicity stunt. Call me naïve, but I tend to assume that most people wouldn’t go quite that far just for people to pay attention to them. Not to mention that he started taking hormones way back in the 80’s after his Olympic fame had waned and before he was a reality TV star. I really don’t think he’s doing this for any other reason than that he feels like it’s what he has to do.

As I watched the 2-hour interview, I just felt sad for the guy (ironic choice of words, I guess…sad for the girl?). But I wasn’t sad in a judgmental, he’s-making-a-terrible-choice sort of way, but rather in an I-understand-his-loneliness sort of way. He said he’s felt this way all of his life, but he has never wanted to disappoint people or hurt the people he loves the most – his 6 biological children and 4 step-children primarily (no matter what you think of Bruce Jenner, Google his 6 biological kids and tell me that man doesn’t have some magic sperm…those are some good looking human beings, and the biggest tragedy in all of this might be his lost ability to keep procreating and making the rest of us feel ugly!). He said he was tired of lying to people and he had reached the point, at age 65, when he had no choice but to tell people the truth, no matter how they received it.

Honestly, I just found myself resonating with almost everything he said (except for his conservative political views…ha!). This isn’t the part where I announce my own gender transition…sorry, that would’ve made for an interesting post. Instead, it’s the part where I just reminisce about how I felt the same way he must feel when I started talking about all of this mental health stuff. After trying to be the Bruce Jenner of evangelical, white, upper-middle-class, private-school-educated, married-with-2.2-perfect-kids-and-3-ferrets, minivan-driving, perfect dad for thirty plus years, I felt I had no choice but to be honest about the inner realities I face. The truth became more important to me than other people’s perceptions. That sounds like a triumphant, even defiant, decision, but it was more of a decision of despair than a victory. I was exhausted from the lies I was telling and living and just didn’t have the energy anymore.

Being honest about who I am comes with its own set of difficulties. A lot of people are still very accepting and encouraging, but now there are the blank stares when I tell people how deep my depression can be; there’s the growing sense of loneliness when I repeatedly fail to find others who live in the maximum security prison I feel like I live in; and there’s the fear of never getting better no matter how hard I try. I could tell that Jenner was both relieved at having revealed his true self but also scared about the future…just like I feel.

One moment in the Jenner interview resonated with me most deeply. Diane Sawyer was asking him about his family members’ reactions. It’s a testament to his dedication as a father that all ten of his children seem to adore him and support him (with varying, natural degrees of difficulty in their own acceptance of watching dad turn into a woman). Even his “very conservative,” 80-something-year-old mother says she’s never been more proud of him for his bravery. But the moment when Diane Sawyer asked him what his now-deceased dad would think, you could tell that Jenner was really taken off-guard, that maybe he hadn’t even thought of this angle on things. Then Diane Sawyer asked him what he’d want his dad to say, and with a few tears in his eyes, Bruce Jenner said what just about any human being would say: “I’d just want him to tell me that he still loved me…that’s all.”

How much more human could that answer be? A 65-year-old man who has done everything from winning an Olympic gold medal to taking enough female hormones so as to have (albeit small) breasts…just wants his father to love and accept him. I don’t understand Bruce Jenner’s desire to become a woman; but I certainly understand wanting my parents to love and accept me, and I certainly understand wanting to be honest with people about my deepest, darkest battles.

I guess I just don’t look at Bruce Jenner’s struggle as being all that different from the rest of humanity’s…

I don’t understand the asshole who recently told me what a failure I am, but I know he’s just a hurting, broken human being like me. I know he’s just lashing out, as I often do, at someone who really isn’t the problem but who seems like an easy target. Personally, I prefer other drivers, and I wish he’d made the same choice to just honk at someone who cut him off or display his middle finger toward someone who is endangering his life by writing the Great American Novel in the form of a text message on the highway. But instead, he picked me. I wish he hadn’t; I will never forget what he said. BUT I do understand what it’s like to be a confused human being who often feels like a child in an adult’s body.

And I don’t understand people who keep their secrets to themselves. Why wouldn’t everyone in the world want to wear their heart on their sleeve like I do? But I suppose it makes sense that shame can be a crippling tyrant. I get that for sure; I just show my shame differently – looking for others who share in my struggles rather than hiding in case there aren’t those others out there.

And I don’t understand power hungry politicians who are lying douche bags (that’s my nice term for ALL of them), but I do understand that it’s great to be in charge and that it’s great to feel like my voice counts more than anyone else’s voice. I understand that desire for validation and affirmation about my self-worth.

I could go on and on because there are a hell of a lot of people who I don’t understand. My point is that I understand what it is to be human…to be broken but not quite sure where to put the band-aid…to be hurting but unsure where the wound came from…to be confused about the seemingly insane lack of logic that determines the fate of humanity…to be sad about things that haven’t even happened yet, like the fact that my dog will die someday…to find absurdly silly things hilarious, like Kevin Hart’s stand-up comedy routine where he mocks his drug-addicted, well-endowed, underwear-less father by dangling the microphone between his legs to about his calf muscles and walking around on stage like a drunk, microphone/penis flopping around for all to see… to say unkind things to people I really care about because I’m just too tired or depressed to be nice, even though I actually want to be…to send my kids mixed messages like when I tell them to watch their fucking potty mouths…to be insanely jealous of people who have stuff I want like New York Times Best-sellers and six-pack abs, or even just abs…to feel like life tricks us by making promises it doesn’t keep, creating all the grumpy old people that drive too slowly and wear the wrong color of socks with their shorts…to be terrified of death and then the next day to wish it would come sooner…you know: the stuff we all feel about four times an hour on the peaceful days.

So I guess the short version is this: People are human, so cut them some slack. See if you can meet people where you’re similar rather than feeling threatened by your differences. Bruce Jenner openly claims to be a Republican, a Christian, and a Transgendered man. I doubt you know very many of those, but at the end of the day, we’re all just about as odd a combination of things whether we will admit it or not. Call me naïve, but I think the world would be a better place if we’d just start our introductions to each other like this: “Hi, I’m very weird and confused and scared; I say things I don’t really mean and I do things that contradict what I believe to be right and true. Oh, and my name’s Tim. Nice to meet you, weird, confused, and scared new friend. So, what do you do for a living? And what’s your most crippling fear? Mine’s a tie between rejection and loneliness. Or maybe those are the same thing.”

 

 
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Silver Linings Playbook and Mental Illness



Silver-Linings-Playbook-poster1Many of you who read this blog already know this, but I’ve been out of work for the past 2 months for depression treatment. The two worst periods of depression in my life have also come with insomnia, which of course only adds to the problem – “Make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep,” says yet another person. “I’m taking more sleeping medicines than Michael Jackson was, my friend, but 5 good hours qualifies as a step in the right direction for me these days.” After all, one can’t force oneself to get more sleep.

So, I’ve resorted to sleeping on the basement couch so that when I wake up, I don’t feel guilty about turning on the TV or tossing and turning for awhile. And ever since God invented Netflix (Al Gore helped, I heard), I have plenty of good TV to watch. Last night I finished Silver Linings Playbook, which I had seen before but was reminded of how beautiful a well-made movie can be. If you’re not familiar with it, Bradley Cooper plays a man, Pat Something-or-Other, who has been in a mental hospital for 8 months after nearly killing the man his wife was cheating with. He moves back in with his family and proceeds to try to win his wife back while resisting (at first) his need for medication and therapy. He is befriended by Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Tiffany, (yesterday I saw that she was one of the 10 most Googled people, so I assume you are familiar with her!) whose husband of 3 years has recently been hit by a car and killed. The movie centers around the budding relationship between these two lovably quirky, mentally ill people.

Both characters lack any filter whatsoever (see, folks, this is my excuse…mental illnesses lead to lack of filtered words…thus every inappropriate thing you’ve ever heard me say), and Pat tells Tiffany that he’s heard she’s a slut. Her reply is deeply poignant, raw, and beautiful. She says:

“I was a big slut, but I’m not anymore. There will always be a part of me that is sloppy and dirty, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself. I can forgive. Can you say the same for yourself, fucker? Can you forgive? Are you capable of that?”

And to you, Tim: Can you say the same for yourself? Can you forgive yourself for being sloppy and dirty?

And to you, my friends: Can you…will you forgive yourself for your sloppy, dirty, slutty, fucker-y, unsightly parts?

One of the key components of mindfulness is non-judgment of oneself. Compassion is another key word…for yourself, for your friends who sometimes suck, for your family that sometimes makes you hope to find out you’re adopted, even for your enemies, who, like you and me, are broken, sloppy, screwed-up people who might even be trying their best? But don’t worry about your enemies for now! You’ve probably got plenty of work to do, like me, on just loving yourself.

So do this: Maybe literally, maybe figuratively, maybe both…Look yourself in the mirror and allow yourself to zoom in on some part of you that you’re particularly un-fond of. Then forgive yourself for this flaw. Say it out loud: “I forgive you, brain. I know you’re trying. I know you’re broken, and despite all the trouble you cause me, you actually do me plenty of good, too. We’re in this together, and I’m okay that you’re a part of me. You don’t have to ever become perfect. I love you; I forgive you.”

Or this: “I forgive you, fragile emotions. Yeah, you do get hurt easily, but some of the most valuable things in the world are the most vulnerable things. I’m with you; I love you; I accept you…even when others tell you to get a grip. I forgive you, self, for having these fragile emotions.”

If you’ve been around long enough to be capable of reading this, you must know by now that the acceptance of others is fickle, as is their understanding and affirmation. This quandary is unlikely to change within the next 80 million millennia, so we both might as well quit trying to get Coke out of that Pepsi machine. But you’re always capable of sharing J-Law/Tiffany’s beautiful self-acceptance. You’re more capable than anyone else in the cosmos of gently caring for all the parts that make you you. Like a parent can care for a sick child whose projectile vomit lands inside her new Coach purse, you can look at the “children” inside of you who are imperfect and messy…even downright ugly…and offer unconditional love and acceptance.

Give it a try. What can it possibly hurt? And if it feels too uncomfortable what with all the weird compassionate feelings that might arise, you can always go back to berating yourself like a wicked step-child, castigating your sloppy, smelly components as if that might somehow drive them away. I’ll even offer free self-loathing training if you try this self-compassion and forget how the self-loathing works over time. But my guess is that what will happen for you is what’s happened for me: You’ll see yourself a bit differently; you’ll laugh a little more easily at your screw-ups and foibles; and oddly enough, you’ll even start feeling this way toward other people who might piss you off a teensy bit less than they used to. (Or not. Baby steps.)

PS. If you’ve been encouraged by this post, please consider “sharing” it, either privately with a friend or publicly, like on Facebook or Twitter, so that your friend(s) will perhaps know that they are “not alone.” See next PS for further explanation of this not-so-subtle plea…
PPS. Please consider “following” this blog either at the bottom of this page or on the home page. All that will change for you is that you’ll get an email when I post something new. What (might) change for me is more people finding this blog on search engines. Beyond my fragile ego, here’s why I’m asking: I find myself at a crossroad, trying to navigate my way into a life that is sustainable given the realities of my mental health. Sadly, it’s likely that I won’t be able to continue running at the necessary pace to sustain my teaching career, and I’m hoping this blog can become a first step in a new direction of mental healthy advocacy, speaking, writing, etc. So, needily, desperately, perhaps pathetically, I ask for your help in seeing where this blog might take me. Thank you!


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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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A New Acronym for Tim: PTSD (On top of OCD, ADD, MDD, and JKLMNOP)

Acronym postOver the course of my journey with mental health problems (my whole life but only 15 years since I saw a doctor for the first time), I’ve been diagnosed by various doctors with the following mental health problems: OCD, Anxiety, ADD, Depression, Bi-Polar II, and just recently, PTSD. This is NOT to say that I necessarily have all of these issues, as any decent doctor will admit that diagnosing mental health issues is a moving target. Even the best doctors in the field can never be entirely sure what diagnosis someone’s symptoms mean. As my doctor says, “I treat symptoms, not diagnoses.” I appreciate her honesty.

So the PTSD diagnosis came from my trip to the Amen Clinic to have my brain scanned…not that they know what to do with the pictures of my brain, but hey, us Type-A folks need to feel like we’re making progress, ya know. Through the conversations, tests, and scans, the Amen Clinic doctor added a new diagnosis (should I call it a “guess” instead?) to my profile: PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Hmmmm. I’ve never been to war or robbed at gunpoint or left alone with a drunk clown…In other words, I’m not sure exactly how I could have PTSD as my life is largely trauma free, other than the fucked up brain. Then again, as I’ve researched PTSD, I’ve come to realize that the actual traumatic event isn’t even necessary. What matters is how one responds to his/her environment.

Example: Baseball practice.

As a child, I was mortally afraid I would be abandoned by my parents – obsessively afraid might be a more apt description. Because of OCD, when I was left anywhere by my parents, I immediately began to obsess about whether they would return or not. I watched the clock as I imagined how it would all go down: Everyone else’s parents would gradually come for them; the adults who were supposed to wait until everyone was picked up would need to leave for some reason, reassuring me as they left me waiting alone, “they’ll be here soon, I’m sure. Gotta run! See you next time.” Then I would wait and wait and wait, growing increasingly terrified that my worst nightmare had come true. In the coming days and weeks, no one would believe my story and help me find my family. Instead, I’d become truly homeless, truly alone. (Yes, I’m well aware this is/was illogical. What, are your fears all entirely warranted? Don’t be all judgy, please.)

For some reason, this fear was particularly acute at baseball practice. It was so bad, in fact, that I remember the year I quit playing baseball. The decision wasn’t an easy one because I really loved playing baseball. But the torment of practice – the lead-up; the drop-off filled with questions about when and where my parents return would happen; the inability to pay attention to anything during practice because of the scenes running through my head; the terror that increased when my parents weren’t the first or second or third parents to retrieve their child; the holding back or hiding of tears that would make me look like a sissy to the coach and the other kids…the all-consuming relief when they finally arrived; the shame I felt when I assumed that they could see right through me and must be thinking, “Were you seriously afraid…AGAIN!!!…that we wouldn’t come back?!”; the internal promise that that would be the last time I let my brain torture me like that; and then, the next day, the dread of next week’s practice would begin, unceasing, until I saw my parents’ car returning for me the following week, and the few moments of relief would begin again. Oh, and the shame.

So after a few years of trying to quit being such a damn baby, I gave up and decided that simply quitting baseball would be the simplest solution. I made something up about why I wanted to quit that sounded more credible (cue the obsessive fears of having told a lie and being damned to hell) than “because practice scares the shit out of me,” and I never played organized baseball again because the trauma of going to practice.

Wait. There it is: Trauma. Not the kind that everyone would see as trauma, like surviving a landmine explosion that leaves the people on either side of a soldier dead. But here’s what I’ve come to learn as I’ve studied this: Like beauty, trauma is in the eye of the beholder.

If someone is traumatized by the Slinky that chased him down the stairs as a child, who am I to judge him for his refusal to drive within a mile of a Toys R Us? If we’re all honest, we all have irrational fears. But some are more traumatic than others thanks to the way our various brains process them. All that matters is that the person with PTSD experienced something as traumatic.

(Amusing side note and a true story: I once had a friend who was so petrified of cockroaches that she stayed with her parents (this was a grown woman) after waking up in the middle of the night to something tickling her face. It could’ve been her hair or her sheets, but because it also could have been a roach, off she raced to her parents’ house where she would be safe from the trauma of roaches. Supposedly.)

Funny, no? Unless you’re the one whose terrified of something that others don’t give any thought to.

As I’ve pondered it, I’ve realized that I don’t have PTSD, I have PTsSD: Post Traumas Stress Disorder. There’s no singular trauma that caused this doctor to diagnose me with PTSD, in other words. My traumas were the small sort that an overly frightened child experienced as he went to baseball practice. Oh, and school, and Sunday school, and friends’ birthday parties, and well, just about anyplace that didn’t involve his parents’ presence.

Itsy bitsy teensy weensy daily, hourly, minute-ly, second-ly, baby traumas that raised my antennae to high alert. All. The. Time.

And there you have one of the key components of PTSD: hyper-vigilance. Like a soldier who can never feel at peace because that landmine went off when he wasn’t paying attention, so if he just pays attention ALLTHETIME he’ll avoid the next landmine, I, too, pay attention allthetime because the things I’m afraid of can “explode” out of the jack-in-the-box at any moment. I live on high alert for indications that people might abandon me as a friend, that I might get fired, that my children might die suddenly…that something atrocious WILL happen if I’m not alert. It’s sort of like a superstition that tells me, “Tim, it’s the people who don’t pay attention to whom disaster happens. Keep paying attention and you’ll ward off the horrific TRAUMA through your vigilance. But you’d damn well better stay vigilant. OR ELSE!”

So because of all this, I’m trying a new and very funky form of trauma therapy: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Here’s how it works: I bring to mind a specific traumatic moment from my past and a therapist moves his finger back and forth while I am supposed to “track” his finger AND keep the trauma in mind. That’s it. I think of a trauma and move my eyes, and I pay $150 an hour for it, too.

As crazy as it sounds, it’s a highly researched and promising new form of trauma therapy. The current theory is that the eye movement has a similar effect in our brains as REM (not the band, the Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. For whatever reason, moving our eyes back and forth triggers something in the brain that helps it process information in a healthy way. Feel free to Google it if you think I’ve been hoodwinked by a snake-oil salesman into expensive “therapy” sessions that will do nothing more than leave me with tired eye muscles. It may not work for me, but it’s certainly a growing form of therapy in a field that needs to make some progress quickly! I’ll write a future post or two about EMDR’s impact, but for now, as always, it’s nice to have a semblance of hope that something might actually help fix my brain. We shall see.

At the end of the day, the reality is that we all have irrational fears and “baby traumas” in our lives, so I don’t write this to complain or to prove how badly my brain functions. It’s just been eye-opening for me to take note of how hyper-vigilant I am, and thus how “on track” this new diagnosis might well be. And since writing about things helps me to process them, I share this with you who might be encouraged by my over-sharing ways. Mostly, I write because it helps me (yes, I’m selfish like that). And because it might help someone else (this part makes me feel better about myself). Whatever the reason these sorts of burdens are placed on various shoulders (I’m the farthest thing one could be from a “God-gave-me-this-struggle-so-I-can-help-others” person…happy to share the flaws in that way of thinking with you in a different conversation), perhaps my attempts to process my own confusing existence can be of help to you or someone you know.

Finally, let’s have some fun with our fears…

I’m hesitant to put this out there for fear (irrational?!) that no one will respond, but I think it could be both amusing and relieving to other readers if some of you would share your irrational fears. If you’re up for it, post a comment with your irrational fear. Feel free to use a pseudonym if that helps you get past your irrational fear of responding to this post for everyone in the world to see, thus causing you to become a Monica Lewinsky-like pariah whose only hope for a future job is to write a memoir about what life in hiding is like and what possessed you to do something so foolish as to put your irrational fear on the internet in such a cavalier manner.

But really, I can say with 37% certainty that you won’t regret it as much as Monica regrets her indiscretions.

(Scroll down and take the poll)

 

 

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Vulnerability – Bravery, not Weakness

brown vulnerability

Brene (rhymes with Renee) Brown’s Ted Talk on vulnerability has been viewed 18 million times (it’s below this post if you want to watch it). But if you’ve never heard of her, don’t feel too bad…I was probably somewhere in the 17 millions in terms of discovering her. I’ll admit that when listening to her, I had one of those ugly internal moments of I-already-knew-that-it’s-so-obvious-duh moments…also known as jealousy.

Her message is pretty straightforward: Being vulnerable makes you strong, not weak; and vulnerability is very healing. The reason I felt such jealousy is that I’ve believed this message for a long time. It has essentially been at the core of my teaching philosophy since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about this exact topic – teachers of English being willing to be vulnerable so students will feel free to explore core issues as they read and write. Basically, I was (and am) jealous that no one invited me to give this Ted Talk, thus launching my multi-million dollar career as a speaker/coach/knowitall who gets paid to simply think what he thinks, and to tell others. I mean, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do! Heck, that’s exactly what a teacher does for a living!

But this post isn’t about how jealous I am of Brene Brown for stealing my calling and making it her own. It’s about the need for those of us who have mental illnesses to speak openly about them. For the first 24 years of my life, all I knew about my brain was that I felt anxious all the time. I shared it with some people, but honestly, it takes quite a while before you begin to realize that other people don’t have the same internal responses to things as you do. I knew I felt anxious as hell, but I didn’t know it meant anything unusual.

After being diagnosed with OCD (my first of many diagnoses), I was embarrassed to share it with anyone, believing that their unspoken reaction would be something like this: “Get over yourself! Everyone has things they obsess about. All that mental illness stuff is trumped up, and you just need to pray a bit more or maybe start exercising. Geez, dude, get a grip!”

I fought through ten years of this battle with nothing but shame that I was seeing a psychiatrist and taking an anti-depressant. It took a trip to the mental hospital and abject despair before I became willing to talk about this battle. When I did so, it was in the form of writing a memoir. As someone who can’t bear the baffling looks on people’s faces when I share something intimate with them, I took the I-have-to-tell-you-this-but-I-can’t-be-there-to-wonder-what-the-look-on-your-face-means way out, I wrote down what I needed to say and then sat in terror, waiting for the rejection and judgment to make its way to me.

To this day, I remain somewhat shocked that the only people who have been entirely critical are a few Amazon reviewers who I don’t know (quick side note: If you ever write a book, do NOT read people’s reviews of it. If you’re like me, you will even wonder why the positive ones weren’t more positive, and you’ll daydream about tracking down the bad reviewers to leave flaming bags of dog poop on their front steps.). Every single person I know who’s read my book and had anything to say has said things like: “Wow, you’re brave!” or “Thank you for helping me understand mental illness a bit better” or “Thank you for putting into words what I feel but can’t express.” Perhaps the greatest compliment I received was from one of my sisters. It’s a running joke in our family that the most complex book she’s ever read was Goodnight Moon when her children were young. Even that one left her wondering why someone would talk to the moon; after all, it doesn’t have ears. We tried explaining it to her, but books just aren’t her thing (love ya, Denise!). So the compliment was that she read the whole thing in one day. That feat tripled her reading intake for the decade.

So, as it turns out, spilling my guts for anyone to read turned out to be incredibly liberating and reassuring. People not only still accepted me, they even praised me for being bold. The same thing has happened in my experience as a teacher. I’ve become more and more willing to share my struggles, when appropriate, with my students. A couple of years ago when I was talking with them about OCD, one of them blurted out, “Ok, I have it too. I’ve never told anyone that…” We were all taken aback and I think someone asked him why he had somewhat randomly blurted it out. He said it was because I was being so open and honest about it that he was inspired to do the same.

This post is certainly not intended to tell you how awesome I am at being vulnerable. I still suck at face to face, raw honesty because of that whole what-are-they-thinking thing. My point is this: If you have a mental illness, find a way to be vulnerable with someone (or some group) about it. You won’t believe how freeing it is, I promise! And if you don’t have one, find a way to let your friends know that you’re someone they can talk to honestly. Usually, this involves your vulnerability about one of your struggles.

If people need more of anything in this confusing, sometimes-maddening life, they need to know that it’s okay to be exactly who they are. Sadly, the places where people ought to be able to be the most “real” are often the places where the most pretending and mask-wearing occur: churches, families, etc. Groups like AA or the random assortment of people who were with me in the mental hospital turn out to be the groups where one can be most raw and honest, most vulnerable.

I’ll end with this: If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution worth pursuing, consider setting some tangible goals about being vulnerable with others. Try to be specific about with whom you will share X, Y, or Z, and follow through before the New Year motivation wears off (for me, this is around January 4th). You’ll be glad you did, and Brene Brown and I will be proud of you.

 

 

PS. I’ll be blunt and shameless: I’m in the midst of a mental-health-induced career shift…for the first time in my adult life, I don’t have the creative outlet for my excessive mental energy of teaching. Writing this blog has provided a nice outlet for me to share what’s in my head as I used to through teaching. I want this blog/mental health advocacy/speaking to somehow become part of my new career path. 2 favors to consider: 1. Follow the blog by email rather than Facebook or Twitter (below or on the home page). This just helps more random people from Nova Scotia find it on search engines. 2. Share it with someone else who might be glad to know it exists. If you fail to do either of these, I promise not to leave flaming bags of dog poop on your front step. No promises about the garage though.

 

See Brene Brown’s Ted Talk below…



 


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