Parenting Your Inner Riley

When my friend Riley died, I reacted how I always react when someone dies: I went numb. Around me, people cried and told stories and cried some more and laughed and told some more stories, but I just sat through it all, numb. Of course I didn’t want to feel this way. Well maybe some part of me did want to so I didn’t have to feel the pain. But I knew that being numb wouldn’t last forever, and while it did last, it only would make me feel like a jerk for seeming cold or distant or uncaring.

But I couldn’t stay numb forever. One of my dearest friends – one of the people who really understood me – was gone. I was bound to break.

Three weeks later, I sat in a Mexican restaurant and the dam decided to burst. Neither the stares of the other patrons nor the periodic stopping by of the waiter could embarrass me enough to stop the flow of tears. With my poor friend sitting across from me, helpless, I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I couldn’t stop.

My Mexican-restaurant friend couldn’t possibly have handled it any better. He let me cry and he didn’t try to offer stupid platitudes that were supposed to make me feel better or stop crying. After I had been going for a while you gently asked me, “Tim do you know anyone else who has the same sorts of struggles and battles that you have? Anyone who might have felt like you feel now?” I told him through a sardonic laugh, “yeah, but he just died!” And then he asked me something life-changing. He said: “Tim, if you knew that Riley was feeling like you’re feeling right now, what would you tell him to do?”

At that time, for me, the answer was obvious: I was in a miserable work situation that was making my life harder and harder by the moment for many reasons I won’t list here. I knew I needed a break, if not forever, for at least a good while. But this decision came with a lot of unknowns and a lot of fear. If I were talking to Riley, I would have told him these things would work themselves out, that his sanity was worth more than any paycheck or job security. But in my own life, I simply couldn’t accept the advice I would’ve freely offered to Riley. I was trying to muddle through, even if it killed me.

I don’t want it to seem that I was crying about my job; I was crying about Riley. But I also knew that my job was contributing to my extreme depression, the kind that might well lead me down the road Riley had just taken, a dangerous intake of alcohol and drugs that stopped his heart. I knew that my job was a weight on my shoulders that would make it impossible for me to move forward or heal in the way I needed to at that time. I knew I needed to walk away from my job, at least for awhile. I knew that’s what I would tell Riley to do.

Psychologists often talk about parenting your “inner child”. It’s really a beautiful practice to take out an actual picture of yourself as a precious little boy or girl whose eyes indicate a deep hunger to understand and to be understood…to be cherished…to be safe…to be loved. We have all been that child. In psychological terms, inner child work means treating your current self as you would that little boy or little girl who is easy to feel compassion for.

And sometimes when I’m trying to have compassion for myself, I imagine the little boy in the pictures I have who is in fact me. I have a few different pictures in my mind of myself as a seven or eight-year-old child, and I can see the pain and struggle behind those eyes. It’s easy to feel deep compassion and love for that little boy.

But I don’t always imagine my childhood self in order to feel compassion for my inner self. Sometimes, it’s easier to think of someone else for whom compassion comes easily. Believe it or not, I often imagine Riley. Sometimes it’s easier to have compassion for someone else than for ourselves. That day in the Mexican restaurant, the person I imagined who was hurting and desperate was Riley. And Riley was a stand-in for me, for my inner child. As I thought about my job and how much it was harming me, I imagined what I would tell Riley to do if he were in the same situation, and it wasn’t even difficult to know the right thing to say. I told him that he deserved a break, that he was fighting a damn hard battle, that he deserved to wake up in the morning and want to be wherever he had to be that day, that he deserved a work environment where he was supported and loved and accepted for exactly who he was. Talking to my inner child as if I were Riley made it remarkably easy for me to know what to do.

It’s never hard for me to find compassion or grace for Riley. Sure he had addictions and mental health problems that Some might say made him imperfect, but never for one second do I feel incapable of loving the person who he was inside, who cared for people so much that it almost hurt him more than he could bear. I feel that way too, but I’m also far too hard on myself. So when I imagine my inner child, or my inner Riley, I can be a lot easier on myself because I know that I’m hurting and I know that I’m scared and lonely and broken and often desperate. But like Riley, I also know that I’m trying my best.

So that’s the lasting legacy, among others, that Riley has left with me. In a weird sense, he is my inner child. I can always have the proper perspective on myself when I look inside and see that I’m a lot like Riley, just someone who’s trying my hardest – often failing, but always trying.

I’m grateful to Riley for many things. He will forever be one of the people who really understood me. I will always be able to imagine conversations with Riley where I felt understood and loved and appreciated no matter how warped I actually felt. When I can’t bring myself to care for the little boy inside of me, I can always look to Riley and imagine how I would care for him. And if I care for myself in that way, I can care for myself the right way. For that and for many other things, I will always be grateful to Riley for teaching me how to love myself a little better.
 
 
For more about Riley, check out the foundation Riley’s Wish
 
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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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Lessons from a Tattoo

I got my first tattoo three years ago. I had always liked tattoos but knew that if I got a dolphin coming out of the waistband on my lower back, I’d probably regret it at some point. I knew I couldn’t get one unless I could be sure I’d never think it was ridiculous. I figured that my kids’ and wife’s initials with an infinity symbol would probably be safe. Hell, even if Ann divorces me, we have two kids together so I’ll keep her initials. I’ll just require her share of the retirement money in exchange for doing so. But I digress.

People often tell you that once you get one tattoo you’re going to want more…they’re like Lays Potato Chips apparently. And, well, they are in fact just like Lays, only less fattening.

After the ice (my skin) was broken, I immediately wanted another one, and I knew what it would be. It would come from a 10th century Japanese poem I found in a book I was reading. This poem wouldn’t leave me alone. It haunted me, in a good way, and I wanted to have it with me all the time. Here’s the poem:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
~Izumi Shikibu

It was so simple but so profound: it seemed to fully encapsulate my own experience of life…Life is windy, terribly windy. Life is a ruined house with a shitty roof to boot. But damned if that stupid roof doesn’t sometimes let in a little moonlight that’s make-you-weep beautiful. So often, any sort of book or greeting card or song that has a look-at-the-bright side message wants to oversell the good side. Like this:

Although the sea breeze can be a bit harsh every fourth year or so
the SUNLIGHT is so beautiful that you have to be an idiot to
focus on anything else. So quit complaining if the air conditioning blows a little
too cold for your liking.
~Tim Blue (ca. July 1,2016. 8:33 pm)

And shit like that makes my skin crawl because life is really really hard. At least it is for me. I’m a bundle of anxieties, obsessive thoughts, deep bouts of depression, uncontrolled fits of anger, and every once in awhile, gentle kindness with a fun sense of humor. Unfortunately, the light I can see is usually “just” moonlight. I am unceasingly aware of the crappy house I live in (the one called my body and brain).

But man can moonlight be beautiful. Way more beautiful than sunlight, IMHO (ask someone who texts a lot). And if we’re all honest with ourselves, the houses we live in are all pretty broken. I mean, we are all living in houses that are going to ultimately fail us when that little monster called Death comes calling. We’re on the Titanic, people. We know how the movie ends. But ironically, we all went to see the movie anyway. I, for one, wanted to see Kate Winslet’s boobs. But the other 2 hours and 59 minutes were pretty worth watching too. So why go see a movie when you know the ending and that most of the people will die? Because there’s something very, very beautiful about the doomed, moonlit lives they were living.

And the same goes for us. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that your life is more of the moonlit kind than the sunlit kind. Maybe you, like me, curse the ruined house you live in once or twice a minute. I’d love to wrap this up by saying “it’s all going to be fine!” But it won’t. The old bumper sticker put it well: Life’s a bitch, and then you die. And life is a bitch. And we will die.

But I hope you’ll look up and see some moonlight every once in awhile too. And I hope you’ll cut yourself some slack for how hard life can be. If you’re like me, you’re pretty tough on yourself. But you’re probably trying your best. And you probably deserve a lot more moonlit nights than you think you do.

So here’s to moonlight. And here’s to those of you who keep fighting despite rarely noticing much light of any kind. And here’s to remarkably painful tattoos that serve as a permanent reminder to notice the moonlight while you’re looking up, cursing your drafty roof.
 
*****
 
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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Our Beautiful Connectedness

If you’ve read more than one paragraph I’ve ever written, you’ve picked up on the fact that I’m somewhat of a glass is half empty sort of guy. But allow me to depart from my usual vantage point to share with you about what a beautiful day I’ve had.

I need to set the scene a bit to help you appreciate the good events of today. Yesterday sucked. I heard from an unhappy customer who listed multiple things I had done wrong in my cleanup process. I had literally told her I would have to leave some of the cleanup work to her because the deck I’d stained would be wet. She ended her litany with, “I don’t know where you were in such a rush to get to!” Now I do get my feelings hurt easily, but she was being downright ridiculous and unreasonable…so it hurt all the more. Then I sat in a cigar shop and listened to two very outspoken men express their own litany of political passions (essentially opposite of my own, of course) for about two hours; really? All I wanted to do was enjoy a cigar. A few other things happened that are too personal to list here for fear of hurting people’s feelings who might actually read this post. I also broke an expensive piece of my work equipment AND a treasured ashtray that I made at a pottery painting place while on a date with my daughter. It was truly one of THOSE days.

But today made me feel like humanity is redeemable and meaningful connections, both close ones and passing ones, are possible.

I had dinner with a former student who, if I may say so, is like a little brother to me. I just love the kid (he’s 21, so, not a kid I guess). He is endlessly compassionate toward me; he almost never ceases to give me a gift of some sort when we’re together. Tonight, in honor of my recent birthday, he insisted on treating me to dinner (so I had two drinks and four entrees and seven desserts). When we parted we hugged and said, “I love ya buddy” to each other.

While we were at the movies, I had one of those passing encounters that make me feel like maybe, just maybe, we all COULD get along. At least under the right circumstances. I was waiting in line to pay the equivalent of a car payment for a drink and some Twizzlers and got to chatting with a couple behind me. We were just lamenting how expensive these snacks were while ironically waiting to pay for said snacks. We were talking about the fact that you sort of get psychologically tricked into thinking the prices are reasonable since you have no other options for food or drink. Then I mentioned Vegas and the psychological tricks they play on you so you’ll spend more money gambling. I asked if they’d ever been and they said they might go for their honeymoon. Then the lady, beaming, showed me her engagement ring and said they had just gotten engaged TODAY! Overcome with goodwill as it was my birthday and had been a good one, I blurted out, “Well then, I’m buying your snacks.” Don’t go thinking I’m too generous because my mother, who expresses love by handing out money to her children, had given me $100 earlier that day. Anyway, they were very touched and the lady wanted a picture with the three of us. (The line was long…so we had plenty of time for all of this to unfold). We took a picture together and she sent it to me; we got our snacks; we hugged and I congratulated them, and off we went to our movies. It was just a beautiful encounter.

I got home and checked my email and yet another beautiful act of love and grace was waiting for me. An old friend from high school (okay, if I’m honest we even “dated” for a little bit, but since we were too young to drive, I’m not sure we went on many dates. Truth be told, I treated her like none-too-well when I broke up with her, and I wouldn’t have held it against her to still think I’m a jerk. If she does, then what she did is even more remarkable…) We had been dialoging about me maybe speaking at her church sometime. She said she’d mention it to the pastors, and I expected a two or three line email that would probably amount to nothing. Well, she wrote something more like a research paper and cc’d me on it. She cited mental health statistics and elaborated on the lack of proper education about these topics in the church, and much more. I had to bookmark where I stopped reading so I can finish it tomorrow. No, not really, but it was such an “above and beyond” act of kindness that I was and still am overcome with a sense that there is goodness in the world and in people.

I have nothing more to say about this because I just want to let the stories speak for themselves. In this moment, I just want to breathe in the grace and beauty and dignity of being a part of humankind.

 

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After Orlando

My friend Matt, from California, texted me this week to say how much things like the Orlando shooting affect his moods. I understood what he meant. When I’m not doing well, I literally can’t read the news – any news – because the bad news (most of it) will inevitably send me spiraling downward.

Rather than heed the internal voice that told me to stay away from the news about Orlando, in an attempt to make my own life miserable, I did the equivalent of a diabetic eating nothing but donuts: I started sharing my political views on Facebook. There’s a reason people suggest not doing this, and now I know what it is: people are fucking crazy. And illogical. And mean. And, well, stupid. (Not you, of course!)

Not to mention the “me” part of the equation: I’m hypersensitive, opinionated, liberal (with lots of conservative friends), and mentally ill. I don’t know how long it’s going to take before I realize that I am not emotionally equipped to have “spirited” debates about things like whether or not a 9-year-old should be allowed to take her AK-47 to the playground for recess, but 40 years haven’t done the trick. I STILL think, “this time, I’ll be fine. My brain is in a good place (which it’s not, actually)…I can deal with a little backlash.” So I post something nice and benign, something Gandhi would probably post, like this: “I think semi-automatic rifles are helpful…for identifying the people with the smallest penises and the greatest need for a therapist who specializes in daddy issues.” Oddly, people react negatively, and then guess what? I get my feelings hurt because I’ve been misunderstood. Again. (For the record, I do like the idea of the post above, but what I actually posted was a good deal more nuanced and generous.)

But completely seriously, I’ve discovered yet again how bad it is for my brain to get into debates without some really safe boundary lines. I only have a few people in my life with whom there is enough trust and safety that I know we can discuss anything openly without me losing my shit at some point. It’s true that perhaps the quickest way to send me over the edge is to make me feel misunderstood about something I am passionate about. I still can’t entirely identify why it makes me so angry to feel like someone isn’t hearing me out or catching my drift, but aside from threatening my wife or children, it’s the quickest way to see my very worst side. Please don’t try it!

In talking with my mentally ill pals, what I’ve discovered is that this sensitivity is a common theme. Our brains are already hardwired for chaos, fear, depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, etc. We don’t need any help going down rabbit trails that are unhealthy. So when a “friend” calls us “willfully ignorant” or “just another liberal who espouses tolerance while being intolerant,” we are not able to, as some seem capable of doing, think to ourselves, “Oh well, that’s just X’s opinion. We’ll agree to disagree.” Instead, we lay awake at night going back and forth between mentally drafting angry responses to wanting to cry for how misunderstood we feel. And this, my friends, has been my week: attempts at dialogue leading to arguments leading to hurt feelings leading to lost sleep, anxiety, incessant what if questions about how to proceed, withdrawal from family, extra doses of Xanax, and so on.

So the first point I’d like to make is this: If we are going to take care of ourselves as mentally ill people, we have to be willing to set different boundaries than our “normal” friends set. So often I am guilty of berating myself for not being able to do things like so-and-so does them, and my friends tell me this is true of them, too. But we have do some inner child work here. We would never tell a five-year-old that he should be able to do what a fifteen-year-old does. Likewise, we must parent our own inner, mentally ill child and reassure him that it’s okay to not be like the other boys and girls. It’s okay that he can’t handle the madness of Facebook the week after another massacre. If Sally can handle it just fine, let her. I’m not Sally. I will do what’s best for me. It’s not so different from alcoholism. The alcoholic has to forgive herself that she can’t hang out at bars with friends. Sure, the rest of her friends can do so, and sure, she wishes desperately that she could. But the bad too far outweighs the good, and she has to gently, lovingly care for the inner child that simply isn’t capable of handling the temptations of a bar.

There’s another angle on the Orlando shootings in regard to mental illness, though. It has to do with the “all of these mass murderers are mentally ill…that’s the problem we should be focusing on” utterances of this week. On a practical note, and for the record, anyone who says, “THIS is the issue we must focus on” is oversimplifying the problem. It’s never just one thing. But the reality is that virtually every shooting is perpetrated by someone who is mentally ill. I once talked to a very experienced therapist who made the point that he didn’t think anyone who WASN’T mentally ill even had the capacity to commit murder. It may just be that, in order to kill someone, by definition, one must be mentally ill.

This week, yet again on Facebook, during one of these, uh, er, discussions I was having on Facebook, someone pointed toward mental illness as the thing we really need to be talking about. I whole-heartedly agreed. But I don’t think I meant what she thought I meant. I wouldn’t put mass murder at the top of the list of reasons why we need to address mental illness in this country.

First on my list would be simply the quality of life for mentally ill people…then maybe preventing mentally ill people’s suicides…and so on. As horrific as these mass murders are, what might be even more horrific is the daily trauma faced by millions of people who suffer inside their own minds and can’t find anything to make the problem better.

It’s amazing to me that we can send a rover to Mars that communicates with earth and we can send an email to Japan that takes less than one second to get there, yet despite the collective thousands and thousands of years those of us who participate in this blog have spent seeking mental health treatment, many of us are more hopeless than ever. We’ve tried the drugs, the talk therapy, the shock treatment, the magnetic field treatments, the deep brain stimulation, the support groups, the illegal drugs, the alcohol, and yet, we are still DESPERATE for something that provides even just a little bit of relief. People who like to point to the mental illness crisis as the reason for these mass shootings may mean well, but if they really knew what they were talking about, they would sound this drum day in and day out on behalf of those of us who grimly hope that we will one day be the victim of a mass shooting. Many more lives are being lost at the hands of mental illness than the victims of shootings. Millions of people right here in America have lost their lives in an entirely different sense. Let’s talk more about how to help those people.

Please.
 

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Wait, Don’t Shut Up

My last post (which I have now deleted because I didn’t like the tone) was, well, an angry post. You see, I’ve been on the part of my own mental health roller coaster when I start to feel, quite tangibly, crazy. This comes after a prolonged period of feeling “on a high,” or hypomanic in bi-polar II parlance. I know the crash is coming, but I can’t stop it. I even know the behavior that leads up to it. But I can’t stop it. This might be the most frustrating thing of all: to watch your own self-destruction without being able to stop the self part of the equation. Or the destruction part.

So here I am. I’m angry. I’m not angry at anyone or anything other than everyone and everything. That’s all. If the entire world would just leave me alone, I’d be much nicer to everyone. If the breeze would be a little stronger when I’m hot or if the person in front of me would drive 64 instead of 62, maybe I wouldn’t want to Google “how to build a hand grenade” (okay, lots of hand grenades). I hate feeling this angry as much as you hate feeling constipated with only a 9-year-old port-a-potty available to crap in. But alas, it’s how I have felt for much of the past few weeks, and I pity the people who have experienced my over-reactions.

So in an effort to balance the karmic effect of my words, I’d like to offer the counter-post to my previous post…I’d like to say thank you to the people who stick by me, who stick by “us”, as we navigate our impossible ups and downs while we battle our brains to the death.

So thank you to our families who DON’T understand but who try their best to learn how to understand. Thank you for asking questions, for gently telling us to calm down, for giving us space to kick and scream like toddlers, for going with us to the doctor or hospital, for defending us to the extended family who thinks what we need is to be kicked out of the house, for forgiving us…AGAIN. Thank you for going to therapy with us, for going to therapy without us while you try to stay sane because of us, for reminding us to take our meds, and for answering the phone after you’ve already gone to bed because you know we really need to hear your voice. Thank you for modeling what love really is: an action, not a feeling.

And thank you to our friends who don’t run away when the friendship quits being as fun as it used to be. Thank you for talking things through when we hurt your feelings, again. Or when we get our feelings hurt, again. Thank you for seeing our worst and still not unfriending us on Facebook, or in real life. Thank you for letting us rehash the same struggles over and over and over and over. It’s perfectly fine if you’re thinking about where you should vacation next summer…thanks for smiling and nodding because sometimes we just need to feel heard or we just need to hash it all out again, trying to solve the unsolvable puzzle that is mental illness.

And thank you to our kids who are too young to understand but still try to grasp the concept of “Daddy’s brain hurting” without flipping out. Thank you for forgiving us for the thousandth time when we speak to you a bit more harshly than your behavior deserved. Thank you for still wanting to hang out with us (assuming you’re not teenagers) even though we don’t have nearly enough emotional energy for your non-stop needs and wants. We want to hang out with you, too, I promise. It’s just that the head-demons make it a little more trying than we might like it to be. But we love you more than anything. Absolutely ANYTHING.

I’m not going to whine, but being mentally ill is really hard. The more friends I make with mental illnesses, the more I realize that we all struggle so similarly, even with different diagnoses. Basically, we’re at war with our own operating system. The very thing that’s telling us how we should react is keeping us from reacting that way. We see it, we feel it, and we can’t change it no matter how hard we try. But friends, family, all of you: We are trying. We adore you for putting up with us. We promise to keep trying. Please keep sticking with us. We love you more than we know how to say.
 
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Forgive Yourself

forgive yourself

I talked to a long-time friend this week: He’s shut in his house with raging OCD. All of his friends have gradually drifted away. His final remaining friend jumped ship on him this week because he failed to bring his kid to baseball practice…again (their kids are on the same team). Well, that’s easy enough for someone who doesn’t have contamination obsessions to say, but when everything you touch, every smell that wafts into your nose, every germ that might be floating in the air brings the sort of fear that most people only experience for a total of about ten seconds in their lives – when the plane really might seem to be actually, for real, no joke, crashing – it’s a lot harder to take the kid out into public than it might seem. YOU try taking your kid to the baseball park…or anywhere…knowing it’s going to make you feel like you are, by choice, stepping into the crossfire of a gang shootout.

What is my friend’s reaction to his own internal struggle? He berates himself for his “weakness”; he takes the blame when his friend tells him “maybe you shouldn’t have any more kids”; he sees himself through the lens of stigma: “Maybe I should just wear a shirt around that says, ‘Don’t befriend me; I have OCD; you’ll regret it, and you won’t understand,’” he thinks. “I am a failure.”

Then there’s my other “friend”…and by “friend” I mean me. God, what a failure I feel like so much of the time. When I left the first job, I could tell myself, “It was time to go for lots of reasons, not just depression.” I could tell myself that my friend had just died, and anyone would need some time to recoup. Then I got another job…one that seemed much more manageable, even though it was only half the pay and three times the students, I told myself it was do-able; it was the right thing. I made it through a semester and a half and then, once again, failed, failed, failed. I couldn’t walk back through the door, answer another student’s question, fake it through another lecture, or grade another paper. Adios, second job. Hello, additional evidence of my worthlessness. Now what? Who’s going to pay the bills? What will my kids think of me? How long till my wife kicks me out? Then what? Live with my parents? Hmmm, sounds like a winner of a plan, you failure.

***
You hear the word “stigma” associated with mental illness quite a bit. Most people would agree that there’s at least some degree of stigma associated with being handicapped by a mental illness. Many of those same people will say they believe mental illness is as real as a physical illness, yet they don’t necessarily act on those beliefs. Secretly (or not), they think, “he’s got some stuff to work through” rather than “gosh, he’s really sick!”

Tragically, many of us view ourselves the same exact way – as “weak” or “a faker” who just doesn’t have enough will power to get life together. We berate ourselves for our not getting better despite all of the counseling we’ve invested in and all of the medicines we’ve tried. We compare ourselves to our happiest, most stable, most successful friends and wish we just had the balls to face the day head on – to make lemonade out of lemons, like they seem to do so easily.

I’ll use myself as exhibit A (and if you’re observant, you’ll want to point out that I lack an exhibit B…sorry): I’ve lived my whole life with OCD, and I have plenty of evidence that mental illness has a tangible impact on my ability to see the world clearly. I can trace its powerful control over my brain back to age five. Long before I knew anything about mental illnesses, I can point out specifically how my brain was operating differently than everyone else’s. Sure every kid is scared his parents might leave him somewhere; but not every kid constructs every second of every day around making sure his parents are within arms length (literally and figuratively) so he doesn’t get abandoned. Not every kid walks out of the movie theater with a soaking wet shirt because he’s been spitting out the germs he has to have been inhaling in that dirty theater…and he spits them into his shirt because it would be a sin to defile the theater by spitting on the ground. And not every kid tells a story about something that happened on the playground that day but then remembers that he left out a small, unimportant detail and believes he has actually told a lie because of the omission. He then finds some awkward way to bring the story back up so he can fill in the missing details and correct his sinful lie. There’s something haywire in there, right?!

Yet when my obsessions take on a new shape, my first thought isn’t, “my brain is acting up again.” It’s, “Tim, you idiot. Get over it!” By contrast, I seem to have developed chronic tendonitis in my elbow. It hurts bad enough that even lifting the remote control can be quite painful. And yet, I have never once told my elbow what a piece of sh*t it is or wondered why I’m not more able to overcome my “weak” tendon. No, I work around it. In fact, I baby my poor wittle weft ewbow because it hurtsies. I put stinky rub-on medicines on it to make it numb, and one of these days, I might even break down and go for yet another cortisone shot. Another way of framing it might be that I forgive myself for having a faulty elbow.

Recently I was recounting to my therapist what a terrible job I was doing at certain aspects of my life. I was going on and on about how bad it was, and she stopped me and said, “Just stop, Tim. You need to forgive yourself.” It wasn’t the first time I had come across this idea, but it was the first time another person had said it to me. It reminded me, once again, how powerful that concept is. If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that you, too, fight a daily, hourly, second by second battle against the very thing that controls your entire being – your brain. It’s a wild horse that won’t be controlled yet you beat yourself up for that fact. I promise you this, though: If you start practicing self-forgiveness, it won’t fix your mental illness, but it will change your relationship to it.

Self-forgiveness takes practice. I mean like actual, you-have-to-work-at-this practice. Like, you need to put a post-it note on your mirror, teach your parrot to say, “give yourself grace, Billy, you’re doing your best,” or set a reminder on your phone. Without the practice, at least for me, my brain’s default self-talk setting seems to involve words like “loser”, “failure”, and “piece of stinky poopoo”. However, if I speak to myself like I’m a small child who’s trying hard but struggling at something new – “It’s okay; settle down; I’ve got you; don’t worry; shhhh; it will be okay…”, my pain doesn’t go away but it becomes something I can tolerate having inside of me. It’s like putting 3-D glasses on in a 3-D movie. Sure, you can watch it without the glasses, but putting the glasses on radically changes your relationship to the movie. The next 2 hours will be a completely different experience thanks to the glasses.

I hope you’ll give this a try, no matter what you tend to beat yourself up about. Life tends to beat the hell out of most of us one way or another…wouldn’t it be nice to have an attitude toward your own suffering that didn’t, in fact, make that suffering ten times worse? (That’s rhetorical…the answer is that yes, it would be nice and maybe even life-changing.)

PS. A few updates on the endeavor to start a non-profit:
1. The ball is rolling and I’m excited…I’ve taken steps to begin doing some speaking and to get some of the official non-profity stuff rolling as well.
2. Podcast #1 is recorded but there are all sorts of technological hoops I’m learning how to jump through before it’s officially a podcast that you can download on iTunes. It should be out next week (I know you’ve been dying to get your hands on it like it’s Harry Potter or something, but be patient. Perfection takes time.)
3. As always, I want to ask you to join in the fight against loneliness and isolation by letting someone know they are not alone…somehow…anyhow.

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A Daily Dose of Death (and Grace)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Wisdom of Rust Cohle

rustIf you haven’t seen the HBO series True Detective (season 1) with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, quit reading right now, and go watch all 10 hours of it. Did you do it? Seriously, it’s way better than this post is going to be…go watch it.

Now that you’ve watched it, thanks for coming back to read the rest of this.

So do you remember the scene when Woody’s character tells Rust’s character that he has a really grim perspective on life and to basically keep said perspective’s to himself? Cohle responds, “Given how long it’s taken me to reconcile my nature, I can’t figure I’d forego it on your account.”

When I first saw this scene, I went back to this line over and over because I wanted to remember the beautiful line out of the mouth of a man who sees the glass as not only half empty, but what’s left in said glass is inevitably poison.

I’m only about half way done with my life, statistically speaking, but it seems to me that the first half of our lives is spent trying to become what other people have told us to be, and the second half (I hope) is spent finally “reconciled to our nature,” living out a life of authenticity.

One of my favorite books to read to my kids is called “I Like Me.” On the cover is a pig dressed like a ballerina. The pig spends the book telling her readers all the things she likes about herself, from her round belly to her curly tail. The book is clearly one of those everyone-gets-an-award, self-esteem books, but I don’t say that in any pejorative sense. I think everyone should get an award…at least everyone who brings something unique to the table…which is everyone.

Having spent my entire adult life as a teacher, I have had a front row seat to watch mixed messages get sent to still-developing adolescents. Schools/Adults/Institutions… tell kids over and over and over that it is great to be oneself, that every person’s unique gifts are needed and valued. Then we give awards to the kids who were good at school (smart), good at sports, or good at popularity. The kids who are great at computers or great at making the uncool kids feel cared for or good at diffusing tension between her friends…they just get overlooked because those skills are harder to appreciate and value than the skill of having the highest GPA.

It’s a hard problem to remedy (maybe impossible), but most of us spend a good portion of our adult lives unraveling the damage done to our psyches by the cultural messages we receive as kids about what makes people valuable or worthless. I’ve met virtually no one who felt that their Truest, Innermost Self was highly valued as s/he was growing up. Even the kids who do win the awards end up feeling like people aren’t seeing the Real Them.

Eventually, whether we were cool kids or decidedly dorky, we have to decide to love and value our truest selves no matter who is paying attention or wanting to hand us an award.

The beauty of Rust Cohle’s statement isn’t that we should all strive to be more like him. He’s essentially a Nihilist, so the world would get pretty ugly pretty fast if we all saw things through his lens. What’s so beautiful is that he accepts himself for who he is. No apology; no trying to be someone different because he makes his police partner uncomfortable. He just is who he is, like it or not. And that’s a pretty beautiful thing.

For me personally, one of the more harmful notions of conservative Christianity has been the belief that, to be a human, is to be something flawed. Think about that message for a second: From the moment you are born (conceived, even), you are tainted, broken, warped, sinful. That message doesn’t exactly help any of us grow up with a strong sense of our own value and worth. Add the societal messages of how our value comes from our brains, our athleticism, or our popularity, and we’re all basically doomed to see ourselves as pieces of poop (forgive the aggressive language).

Here’s the good news of the gospel of humanism: It’s ok to be you. Are you quirky? Quirk it up like a boss. Are you fat and can’t get skinny no matter how hard you try? Put on a bikini and rock it, girl (or boy). Fuck what other people think you should wear to the pool. Are you weird? Weird people are far more fun to be around than normal people; please, please, come hang out with me, weirdos! Are you neurotic? Yeah, me too. So what! Our brains don’t seem to have the let-it-go gene that others have. Letting it go isn’t inherently better than not letting it go, so just do your best to find whatever peace you can inside your neurotic head…but don’t hate your neurosis; they’re inevitably doing you some good, too. Start looking for it.

The pretty girl wishes she was the smart girl while the smart girl wishes she was the carefree girl while the football player wishes he could come out of the closet and get the lead in the musical. Reconcile yourself to your nature and then don’t fucking forego it on anyone’s account. You are beautiful just as you are. Anyone who tells you different or makes you feel different should be promptly removed from your Facebook friends list (and your life).

 

 

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Honor Your Realities

Be-True-1-2-640x430Every so often, I use my bathroom mirror for some other reason than to take shirtless selfies (according to my computer, “selfies” is either misspelled or not a word…get with it, MS Word!).

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, my bathroom mirror. So recently I got the idea to buy some dry erase markers and write myself daily reminders on the mirror. I’m sort of thick-headed and need regular reminders about all sort of things – like to put clothes on before leaving the house (but after taking the selfies for the day).

The other day, I wrote this: Honor your realities, without shame or judgment.

Our realities are our realities, plain and simple, right? You can’t wish away the fact that you are older or younger or happier or depressed-er or fatter or skinnier or shyer or outgoinger or shorter or taller or saner or insaner than you are (apparently, Word doesn’t like some of those words, either…picky, picky!). People spend entire lives wishing that their realities were something other than what they are…but no dice. Our realities are our realities. Period.

So what should we do about them? Here are a few of the options I’ve tried in the past:

Resent them.

Pray for them to change.

Try to hide them.

Lie about them.

Overanalyze them, hoping they will morph into something else.

Philosophize about why they are what they are.

Talk to therapists about them, hoping to understand them and, by doing so, change them.

Numb myself to them with shiny new things or sudsy beverages.

And thus far, not one of these strategies has effectively changed even one tiny aspect of my realities…my truths, if you will. Some things are just true for me and they will never NOT be true for me (if you’d like to know what these are, there’s a whole year’s worth of blog posts for you to wade through at your leisure…I won’t recount them here).

So I decided to change my approach to my own realities: Instead of trying to analyze them away, I will honor them without shame or judgment. Why should I be ashamed of things I can’t change or even control? Why should I judge myself for that which I did not choose? Yeah, I’m moody and complex. Okay, there’s plenty of good stuff that comes with those qualities, too, so why shouldn’t I try to quit feeling ashamed of them? Walt Whitman, yet again: “I exist as I am…do I contradict myself…I am large…I contain multitudes…I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”

Everyone’s realities are complex, messy, unsavory in some ways, beautiful and profound in others. Here’s a helpful metaphor: We all have bodies. Parts of our bodies are beautiful and appealing, and parts of our bodies, we don’t even want to look at in our bravest moments. Hopefully we all have something about us that we can acknowledge is beautiful, but I’m 100% sure that we all have parts of our bodies that we aren’t eager to post pictures of on Facebook.

But the fact is that every part of our bodies serves some useful purpose, from our internal organs to our kneecaps to our eyes to our armpits to our toes. Why do we spend so much time wishing our bodily realities could be different? They never will be. Ever! But isn’t it beautiful to see someone who’s “comfortable in her own skin,” even if that skin is wrinklier or more blemished or pudgier than the “ideal” skin is supposed to be? Of course! It’s beautiful when someone honors her realities without a sense of shame or judgment.

Children are very good at this, especially in regard to both their bodies and their emotions. They aren’t aware (yet) that their naked bodies aren’t something to parade around no matter who is looking; they aren’t aware (yet) that some things shouldn’t be cried about or screamed over. Children honor their realities without shame or judgment.

So join me in trying to look my realities in the face without the shame or judgment that almost always accompanies these truths that cannot be changed or undone.

 

 

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Tiny, Beautiful Things

imageLast night, walking down the hall of the apartment complex where I am temporarily living, I passed a blue balloon. It was dancing down the hall without a string or any obvious owner. My first response was to think how excited my kids would be to find such a treasure…as excited as I would be to find inner peace, probably. Then I thought about being a good citizen and throwing it away. Then I thought about stomping on it to pop it just to blow off some steam. Instead, I just walked past, pulling out my keys.

But then I remembered something I read recently by my recent authorial obsession, Cheryl Strayed. In her advice column, she wrote a letter to her younger self, advising her from the vantage point of twenty years of maturity and growth. One of the bits of advice she gave her self was to accept “tiny, beautiful things” when they are offered to you. Oddly, in her case, she was also referring to a balloon – one offered to her on a city bus by a young girl. Strayed refused, believing that her recent heroin use and sexual promiscuity denied her the right to this small token of human kindness. The older Cheryl Strayed tells the younger one to take the balloon from the girl because even a drug-using, promiscuous person deserves “tiny, beautiful things.”

So I turned around and picked up my own tiny, beautiful gift from the cosmos and brought it into my apartment.

This morning I had coffee with a close friend who, like me, battles sometimes-crippling depression. He’s wading into a new romantic relationship after a decade out of “the game.” This morning, two Xanax hadn’t taken the edge off of his panic about this new relationship. He was tempted to scrap the few months of positive experiences because it would just be easier than forging ahead with all the potential pitfalls (of the heart and the head) of trusting someone new. But again, I thought of my balloon and reminded my friend that he has made some tiny, beautiful strides: Just allowing himself to date someone at all has been a big step, not to mention the three or four inevitable should-I-keep-trusting-this-person steps that come in the early stages of any romance. Each time, my friend has wanted to run away, but he hasn’t. Despite his fear…panic, really…he has trudged onward, insisting on personal growth even despite the discomfort involved. As I recounted all of this to him, he smiled bigger and bigger and said, “You’re right; thank you!” We had a moment of mutual awareness that some tiny, beautiful progress had been made, and was still being made.

Then I thought of my other friend, with whom I’ve recently reconnected. When we met, nearly a decade ago, he was in the throes of alcoholism, a heavy smoker, and in the midst of an ugly divorce. Since then, his grown son has died of a drug overdose. But guess what? My friend hasn’t had a drink in years; he no longer smokes; and he’s engaged to a woman who supports him and loves him. As the second anniversary of his son’s death approaches, my friend is holding strong, learning, growing, celebrating the tiny, beautiful things that still exist in his life.

And today I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the tiny, beautiful things in my own life: the friends who have supported me, the pleasure I get from hearing that my writing has helped someone, an evening cigar, the raunchy TV show Inside Amy Schumer, the weight I’ve lost as I try to make some healthy changes in life, my new job, a great book to read, the fact that my kids don’t need their asses wiped very often anymore, etc.

The past year of my existence has been a fruit basket turnover of mayhem, internally and externally. But I still get to smile and laugh and learn and love and eat and sleep and swim (preferably naked). Life is filled with tiny, beautiful things, even for me – someone who is decidedly convinced that the glass is more than half empty. I’m not…I’ll never be…a “just focus on the positive” sort of person. The negative is there whether I like it or not. But if I can just tweak my perspective enough to see that the balloon in my path isn’t another nuisance to be stepped over, but rather a tiny, beautiful gift, I can loosen up a bit, smile in thanks toward the uncertain giver of such a gift, and celebrate the tiny, beautiful things in my life.

 

 

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

 

 

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