Mental Illness and Addiction: Changing the Narrative

I’m finishing up a popular memoir called Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, and while the book isn’t about mental illness and addiction, per se, Vance’s story of unlikely success grows out of his disgust toward his mother’s endless addictions to both men and drugs. Over the course of Vance’s 31 year life, his mother has been married five times and her drug habits have gradually devolved to the point of entering rehab for heroin use.

The mental illness in Vance’s family is undiagnosed, mostly because “hillbillys” are highly unlikely to talk to a therapist about their problems. But as a child, Vance’s mother seemed most negatively impacted by her own parents’ screaming matches and her father’s alcoholism. While her two siblings stood up to the chaos without losing a sense of self, Vance’s mom would cower on the floor and cover her ears, much like she would do when yet another man left her. One could certainly diagnose PTSD and inevitably, there would be other valid mental and emotional disabilities to be medicated or counseled. So, while I know I’m painting with a broad brush, for the purposes of what I want to say here, I’m going to simplify matters and say that in Vance’s life, in my life, and in so many other lives, mental illness and addiction go hand in hand and are culturally regarded in very much the same way.

Toward the end of the book, Vance does an informal survey of his extended family about why his mom’s struggles ruined her. He primarily wanted the opinion of his mom’s two siblings. Both of them take the attitude toward their sister that typifies what I perceive to be our national attitude toward both mental illness and addiction: “Yes, these are real ‘diseases,’ but the cure for them is primarily to quit whining and get your life together. The struggle is probably real, but the cure is willpower.”

Some examples:

1. The Atlanta Falcons recently hired a new Offensive Coordinator who lost his last job because of multiple alcohol related incidents, including showing up to his head coaching job drunk. On TV, a sports commentator’s jaw was nearly on the floor with disbelief that anyone would hire this man. But if alcoholism is a disease, shouldn’t the attitude be different – something more like, “I’m thrilled that this man is back on his feet and is doing what he needs to to stay healthy.” If he had come to work and passed out from not tending to his diabetes, would anyone guffaw that he could get another job after such irresponsibility?

2. A friend of mine suffers from crippling depression; she hasn’t worked in years. Her very gracious brother supports her financially, but he also incessantly tells her she needs to exercise and volunteer. Those are, in fact, very good suggestions. However, they are coming from a place that misunderstands the hurdles that have to be jumped to get to the gym or to sign up to volunteer. This is a woman who has a PhD, who adopted a child as a single mother, and who has held many high-powered jobs over a forty year career. She didn’t become lazy all of a sudden. Something changed in her brain, and getting to the gym for her can be like asking someone who’s petrified of heights to jump out of a plane – unless there’s someone strapped to their back, they ain’t jumping out of that plane.

I can hear the objections to my points through the internet waves. Or maybe it’s just that I have those same objections buried in my own brain from a lifetime of training. They are saying to me: “Tim, you’re letting people off too easy. Are you saying that we have no power over mental illness and addiction? Are you saying we can all excuse our bad behavior because we’re “just wired this way”? Are you saying we should let people come to work drunk and hold their hair back while they puke in the trashcan during an important meeting? To which I say, “Of course not! Alcoholics should wear their hair in a bun.”

But really, I am not saying that. People, even those with mental illness and addiction problems, have a responsibility to manage their conditions. Our treatments for these ailments are embarrassingly rudimentary, but people who suffer still need to seek treatment until they’ve run out of options (and many do, sadly). What I’m addressing here isn’t so much how some boss should handle an employee’s first absence due to depression or anxiety. I’m more interested in the systemic attitude that I hear from Vance’s aunt and uncle about their sister…as well as from many of my own family and friends. Essentially, they say this, “We grew up in the same house/school/town/neighborhood; we made it and succeeded; what’s YOUR problem?”

That is the misguided attitude that has to change.

It’s the same attitude you see in rich, white people toward inner city black kids who “aren’t taking advantages of their opportunities.” At first glance, it seems like a brash, arrogant attitude. But in reality, I think it is a fearful and defensive one. We all want to believe that our successes are because of our own merit – that anyone could do what we have done but we wanted it more, had a better work ethic, or slayed a few more dragons by their bravery. It’s scary and unsettling to think that our success of which we are so proud might have a good bit less to do with our own acts of will than we think. So we call others, those who do not have what we have, weak, broken, or even depraved. That allows us to remain the “good guy” who has it all together by the strength of her own will.

Another way of putting it: Michael Jordan isn’t just tall and athletic; he was also wired for endless hours in the gym and for intense competition. I could have the same exact physique as him or I could have the same intensity or the same competitive spirit, but unless I had all of them combined, I could never be as good as he was. But if I looked just like him and had the same athleticism, inevitably people would say I had wasted my talent. If I’m not wired for all those hours in the gym, though, and like to read instead, does that make me a wasted, would-be Michael Jordan? I think that’s far too simplistic. It’s the same with mental illness and addiction. What looks one way might be something starkly different.

Maybe I’m only making this argument because I’m a forty-year-old, privileged, white man who is trying to start over. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that I failed and that it’s my fault. Maybe the masses are right about me and every other addict and mentally ill person: Sure we have a real illness on our hands, but if we were strong enough people, we’d fight our way out of the messes we find ourselves in. Are all of us just weaker – sure to be destroyed evolutionary principles that cause the fittest, not the weakest, to survive: Slowly, we’ll annihilate ourselves by suicide, overdoses, and a lack of desire to pass on genes. Is that what’s happening here?

I’ll leave that to you to answer, but I ask you to think twice the next time you think that someone needs to just get her act together. People say we need to walk a mile in each other’s shoes, but I don’t think that would do the trick. What we really need is to actually walk a mile in that person’s DNA – to think their thoughts, to feel their fears, to be haunted by their traumas, and, of course, to have their experiences. This might enable us to offer more grace to others, not only who are haunted by mental illness and addiction, but also our plain old, every day brothers, sisters, friends, and family.

For further reading:

A good piece about attitudes toward addiction: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/184/2/155
And one about attitudes toward mental illness: https://www.rethink.org/news-views/2013/11/attitudes-to-mental-illness

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Mental Illness and Relationship Problems

There’s a sign at the Zaxby’s near my house with a quote from John Wayne that reads, “Life is hard; it’s harder if you’re stupid.” I’d like to make a similar sign that reads, “relationships are hard; they’re harder if you have a mental illness.”

I’ve come across countless people since I started this blog who have basically the same story: I’ve lost friends’ and family members’ support because of my illness; I have no one left.

My friend who battles profound depression had a group of friends tell her they couldn’t go through one more bout with her and they walked out of her life.

My friend with severe OCD had a decades-long friend ditch her because she couldn’t get over her germ obsessions to take the dog to the vet when it was sick.

Some don’t get dumped so precipitously. It happens slowly, too: This week I came across a great article by a college student about how anxiety is an unacceptable excuse for not being able to go out with friends. Most people will put up with an anxious friend who often backs out of plans at the last minute, but few will do so indefinitely. They give up and move on to people who aren’t worried about ridiculous things.

My own friendships have been harmed or lost due to my hypersensitivity. Over the years, more times than I can count, I’ve gotten upset by things that wouldn’t upset other people. I am incapable of just “moving on” and so I tend to tell the other people how I feel. Often I do this nicely; sometimes I don’t. But surprise, surprise…a lot of people don’t enjoy this quality of mine which is a mixture of OCD (I can’t just let it go) and anxiety (a fear of abandonment that leads me to wonder why other people have treated me a certain way).

Sometimes just telling another person they’ve upset me, even nicely, makes them distance themselves from me. Thankfully, many of my friends have been able to handle that version of me. What’s harder to handle is the anger that sometimes rears its ugly head in my confrontations. On an aware-of-the-world-around-me scale, I’m living at level 9 out of 10 all the time. So when something causes you to go from your normal 3 to an angry 6 (call it a normal argument level), I would then be at a 12. I say things I shouldn’t say; I get more angry than I should probably ever get; and our argument goes from something normal and irritating to something that might end our friendship.

I’ve had more of these arguments than I care to list. I’m incredibly ashamed of them, and I’m not even willing to go into much detail here because the shame is still so palpable. But over the past few years, as I’ve really struggled to maintain my grip on sanity, these blow ups have been painfully prevalent.

Those on the receiving end of all this perceive it as simply bad behavior. They can’t fathom why you’ve taken a “small” conflict and turned it into something enormous. The reality is, you can’t either. But you keep doing it because your brain doesn’t have a normal baseline, and sadly, your illness doesn’t show up on an X-ray; it shows up as “behavior that you should be in control of.”

If you are mentally ill in some way, I suspect you have stories of your own. Often the trouble comes from people who think you should just “get over it.” Sometimes it comes from your own quirky (I refuse to call it “bad”) behavior. Regardless, mental illness makes relationship more difficult than they already are. My hope is that this blog can in some small way be a touchstone to let you know that you are not alone and that you deserve better: You deserve understanding, patience, grace, and kindness. You are some of the most caring and tender souls in the universe and it’s a cruel joke that you often can’t find the understanding you need. Keep fighting; I hope you will find someone(s) who let you be you, quirks, relationship difficulties and all.

To those of you who are the supporters, this is where you have the chance to help erase the stigma. When someone you love has a mental illness, accept the very real truth of this…just as you would if they were in a wheelchair or had a chronic disease or even something like cancer. You’d change your expectations to accommodate for the illness. You don’t have to quit holding them accountable: you can still tell them when they’ve stepped over a boundary line, but you might start from a different place than consuming frustration or raging anger. Start from the same place you would if your friend in a wheelchair got frustrated navigating the park and just gave up and decided to lag behind for the rest of the trip. Maybe they were whiny; maybe they took their frustration out on you or blamed you for wanting to come to this hilly park; maybe they acted like an ass. You can tell them that, but give them a little grace, too. You’ve never been to a hilly park in a wheel chair.

Finally, please remember this if you take nothing else away: the quote at the top about those who cease to be friends is true. If you give up on a friendship when the other person is still willing to work on it, your part of the friendship wasn’t as genuine as you may have thought. I don’t say this to shame anyone; I use strong words here to drive home my point. Truly caring for a mentally ill person means there are going to be some tough waters to wade through. Please stay the course. We need people in our lives who will do that.

 
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To Know We Are Not Alone is now an official 501c3 entity. Our mission is to educate, encourage, and connect people who suffer from mental illnesses. Please help with a small (or large) donation if you can. You can do so here.

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Podcast: Talking about Mental Illness at Work

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

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

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

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Trolling for Columbine

I have a mighty struggle that rages within me as I write these posts. On the one hand I can write something that will inspire and motivate you. Those posts always perform much, much, MUCH better than the other ones. But here’s the problem: the other ones are, frankly, more honest, more real, more raw. But you don’t seem to like those as much, unfortunately.

You don’t like my anger or my confrontation or my aggression. And I get it. I would skip those posts too. But if you want the news from the front lines of mental illness, you’ll have to read those posts. This is one of those posts, I’m afraid.

I’ve been sinking lately…hard and fast. Everything hurts me. Everything upsets me. Everything makes me want to be done living this life. Everything.

A former student posted a picture of herself holding up a rebel flag. I confronted her. She got upset. Others saw the encounter. I don’t know if I should be embarrassed or proud of myself.

Another person called me an intolerant liberal who criticized those who defended gun rights while allowing those such as gays and transgender people to shout their opinions from the rooftops. He thought this was inconsistent.

Yet another friend told me I was “willfully ignorant” because I didn’t want to shoot his AK-47. He was convinced that, if I shot it, I would realize how much fun it is and would thus quit calling for it to be outlawed.

The fact that I felt the need to respond to these posts, some call “trolling”…someone who goes around looking for fights on the internet. And maybe that’s what I was doing. Or maybe I was just reacting to all the evil in the world, the police shootings, the massacre of police officers, or just the run-of-the-mill racism I hear every time I go to my once-favorite cigar shop and am forced to listen to both Fox News and the real-life people who think Fox News is the only truthful news. Lately, though, I can’t take it. All I hear are racist and anti-liberal comments spouted as if there’s no way anyone in that shop could possibly disagree. I disagree, but I keep my mouth shut. I know an unfair fight when I see one.

I’m angry. I’m hurt. I want to run away from humanity because so much of humanity seems to suck a giant dick. I can feel you cringe when I talk like that, but it’s how I really feel.

In 2002, filmmaker Michael Moore made a movie called “Bowling for Columbine.” If you’re not familiar with Columbine, you should be. Go look it up. But the movie calls attention to the problematic gun laws and attitudes in our country. Moore is an unpopular figure, at least in conservative circles, because he unabashedly calls attention to the ways that the conservative agenda (never heard that one, have ya?!) is perpetuating the problems in our country. And I agree with him.

I often feel like Michael Moore: someone who feels compelled to point out the absurdities and atrocities that so many people seem to ignore. I once heard Moore interviewed, and he claimed that he didn’t really want to be the whistleblower for these issues, but he felt like he had no choice. That’s a bit how I feel in this post. I don’t want to be an angry asshole, but I want to be honest with you: All of the negativity in the world takes a giant toll on me – from the obvious negativity of the recent news to the micro-negativity of people who don’t listen, don’t understand, don’t care, or don’t have the first clue how to interact with someone who is mentally ill.

I’m tired. I’m tired of being more sensitive than everyone else about the horrible things that happen in this world. Being mentally ill is really fucking hard. It’s hard to walk through the daily morass of idiocy that bombards us each day. I might be oversensitive and mentally ill, but I’m not stupid. I have a right to be angry. Sometimes I think everyone else is stupid for not being more angry.

So I take my anger out on my Facebook friends for posting pictures of rebel flags and pro-assault rifle propaganda. It’s easy to say, “Tim, you’re not going to change anyone’s mind on Facebook.” And you’re right, undoubtedly. But my brain goes fucking crazy, wanting to be heard, wanting to have a voice, wanting to be listened to.

I suspect many of you have quit reading by now. This post is too angry, Tim! We want more of the posts that encourage us…that tell us how to get over those speed bumps in our lives. But this post is one of those that acknowledges that the speed bumps can be insurmountable. The anger can consume us. The outrage can be too much to be contained. The hurt feelings, even when no one was aiming their hatred in our direction, can be so painful that all we know how to do is to direct our anger at the next person who does something stupid – a driver, a Facebook poster, or a family member who just doesn’t seem to “get it.”

It’s hard, having these fucked up brains. They don’t work right. And even if we know they are malfunctioning, just like someone with Parkinson’s who knows his leg won’t behave properly, we still can’t seem to get them under control. Please bear with us. Please forgive us. Please love us. We know we are angry and spiteful, but we want, more than anything, to be someone worth loving. We are trying, trying, trying…in both of the ways that can be taken. Please be patient with us.
 
 
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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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Please Stop Saying That

Hang in there Fuck You

If you’ve ever put your foot in your mouth around someone with a mental illness, this one’s for you, friend. (Disclaimer: These are not my personal gripes. I took a poll on Facebook looking for common things that people with a mental illness get told. These aren’t directed at anyone specific out there who might have said one of these, I promise.)

Hmmm, where to start. I think with the guy who, after I had told him I had OCD, told me that he LOVED hiring “those people” in his business because they were so organized and meticulous. When I tried to stop him, he went on: “That’s a great quality to have, man, in the right scenario!” I chose not to physically harm him, but I wanted to. I just seethed because it was so invalidating: him saying that this disorder which has taken so much life from me is actually an enviable quality in the workplace. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that they would make a great hat salesman what with the bald head and all, would you? Yeah, so please don’t say that sort of thing to someone who’s mentally ill.

Then there’s the good natured, rampant suggestions that those of us with mental illnesses should focus more on our physical health: exercise more, eat more barley, try the latest cleanse, quit eating cheese pizza that uses GMOHGTLMNOP in the sauce, etc. A few years ago, my boss pulled this one on me very unexpectedly. I went into his office to talk about who knows what – NOT mental health. Somehow the conversation meandered around to anxiety, from which he also suffered. But his was the sort that one can get rid of by running around the block. So, kindly, he suggested that I should exercise more regularly. I thanked him, told him I’d give it a shot, and ran…to McDonald’s. Okay, I had two. Then I slashed his tires. But really, I’m quite sure that physical health has plenty to do with mental health. However, I have yet to find someone who is severely mentally ill who has been cured by running a marathon. Most of us have tried that to no avail (for the record, I’ve gone through prolonged periods of exercising many times a week, but I’ve never seen an improvement in my mental health from it). It’s not that we don’t know that you exercisers mean well; it’s just that it feels like you’re telling an amputee that taking fish oil might turn them into a mermaid/merman, thus effectively replacing their legs.

And here’s one that all of us who have been depressed have probably heard: “Just think of all you have going for you! You’ve got this and this and this and this to be thankful for. You’re looking at it all wrong!” When I was suffering from my worst (and first) bout of depression ever, I was basically on suicide watch. I didn’t even feel safe being in a different room of the house from my family. During this time, a friend of mine thought he’d do me a favor by suggesting how much worse off I could be. He shared with me about his friend who was currently in Hawaii. Well, good for him, I thought. Then he shared the reason: his daughter was dying of cancer and it was her Make-a-Wish request. Surprisingly, this did not help with my suicidal depression. In fact, it heightened the urge to find that cyanide pill I had hidden somewhere. If you take nothing else away from this post, try to remember this: mental illness is not about someone’s unwillingness to see things in a positive light…or the “right” light. It’s about THEIR INABILITY to do so. Depressed people are fully capable of understanding that something should make them happy. But they still can’t feel happy. Anorexic people are just as aware as you are what an appropriate meal consists of. But their brains won’t let them act on that knowledge. People with OCD know their obsessions are idiotic. But that’s all they think about, night and day, until, sometimes, they end their lives to make the unwanted thoughts stop. Think of it this way: People who are paralyzed understand how walking works, and they most likely want to walk. But they can’t. A pathway is broken, and we simply don’t know how to fix it just yet.

This last one (for now…there’s plenty more out there) is tricky because it’s been said to me so many times by so many really, really, really thoughtful and well-meaning people. But still, it’s warped. Here it is (well-meaning friend speaking to me): “Ann (my wife) must really be a saint, Tim.” First of all, these people are absolutely right: she is a saint. Ask anyone who knows her; she’s probably the best human on earth. I mean that whole-heartedly. I wrote in my book five years ago that I would’ve left me a long time ago, so let me just say that first. So what’s so wrong with saying that, then? Well, would you say it to someone with cancer whose spouse stayed with him even though it was a terrible road to walk? You might say it to the spouse in private, and that would indeed be appropriate encouragement. But you wouldn’t say it to the cancer patient because that would make him feel like shit, obviously. You might as well say, “Dude, you’re a fucking burden.” On this one, we mentally ill folks don’t even help ourselves because I think most of us feel like a burden and even push our loved ones away so as not to be a burden on them. I know I do that a lot. I feel ashamed and worthless when I can’t earn as much money as I used to or help as much with the kids as I’d like to. Still, please, I beg you, don’t tell me what a saint my wife is unless you want to make me (and others) feel like a pile of maggot diarrhea. Tell our spouses, our parents, our friends what saints they are. Just don’t tell us.

As I finish this post, I feel a bit like a jerk for pointing these things out. I was hoping for a funny tone but fear I’ve landed more on derisive. Take me with a grain of salt, though. Remember, I’m just a mentally ill guy who’s not doing a good job of thinking happy thoughts (oops, was that derisive, too?). Oh well, if you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me as I try to make this point. And if I’ve offended you, now you can write a post called Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Just Trying to Help. Be sure to tag me so I can read it!

Other things that I don’t have the time or energy to address right now:

  • I’m praying for you.
  • I’m a little OCD, too.
  • You shouldn’t cut yourself because you won’t like those scars on your arms.
  • Please add more in the comments section below!

EXCITING NEWS: Tim’s new podcast called, cleverly, To Know We Are Not Alone, is now available on this site or on iTunes.

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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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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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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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Bubble Boy

bubble boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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