Shame: Coming Out of the Closet

ashamed15 years ago, after 20+ years of fighting my raging mental battles, I finally found myself in a psychiatrist’s office…a place for “crazy” people, according to yours truly. I was embarrassed to be there in the first place. And then he went and opened our session with this question:

“Do you have any secrets?”

I panicked. I had spent my entire life trying to keep the torturous thoughts inside of me a SECRET. Now someone I had just met wants me to tell him these very secrets? Uh, that’s a hell, no, sir.

So I did what any good people-pleaser would do and started making up secrets so he’d feel like he was getting somewhere:

“Hmmm, well once I got a pedicure, and I sort of liked it.”

He didn’t blink. I needed something more sordid for this wizened shrink.

“I used to be a woman.” Blank stare from him, so I added, “A-and I have four other families in different cities.”

Still only a subtle I’ve-heard-worse grunt. Man, this guy is tough, I thought. I decided to try a few lies about drug use.

“I smoked pot in the 60’s with Bill Clinton AND inhaled his second-hand smoke. Now I sell heroine to elementary school kids.”

He was unfazed, almost bored.

“Tim, you can be honest. C’mon, out with it!”

(For you gullible ones: The above secrets, sadly, are fictitious, and I didn’t actually say those things to him, but I felt damn uncomfortable, that’s for sure. What follows is more along the lines of factual.)

“What is it, Tim? Go ahead. You won’t shock me,” he urged.

“Well, er, um, this is tough to say…”

And then I told him the things I was so deeply ashamed of that I felt I was literally in danger of hell for even having the thoughts in my head. Are you wondering what those secrets were? Well, despite the fact that people tell me I’m “raw” and “deeply real,” I, too, have stuff I’m only willing to share with my closest of friends…stuff that I’m still trying to get the guts to say out loud to someone.

Don’t worry; you don’t need to call the police; I haven’t killed anyone (for a long time, at least. Is last week a “long time” ago?). All of my shameful secrets exist almost entirely within the confines of my head – the thoughts that barrage my brain with crippling fear and anxiety…thoughts everyone supposedly has from time to time but they don’t spend the next 10 years obsessing about what it means about them that the thought even wandered through.

When I published my book a few years ago, people told me how brave I was (they still do). But here’s the truth about my book, paradoxical as it may be: I was so ashamed of what I was about to share that I was convinced I would be judged and/or rejected. By everyone. Honestly, it wasn’t even something I wanted to do as much as something I needed to do. I’ve often used the well-known phrase “coming out of the closet” because I imagine that my feelings and fears were probably much like someone who feels s/he has lived a lie his/her whole life and finally has no choice but to admit his/her sexuality in their mid 30’s. By “coming out” you are choosing authenticity over pleasing people you love most, who love you most. You’re admitting: “My need to be honest is so overpowering that I’ll risk complete abandonment to honor this need of mine.”

Thankfully, and to be entirely honest, this still sometimes surprises me three years later: People have been gracious, kind, and thankful to me for coming out of MY version of the closet.

Since I published my book, I’ve had a lot of people “come out” to me about a variety of things – a secret abortion in a conservative Christian family, latent-but-lingering homosexual desires despite being married-with-children, sexual abuse as a small child, drug problems, and of course mental health problems. These “confessions” have come from people who range in age from their teens to their 60’s, but what is always constant no matter the age or the circumstance is this:

SHAME.

Shame is the demonic offspring of guilt. Guilt is about something. Shame is an identity. It’s the sense that we cannot be separated from the Shameful Thing. It’s as attached as our eyeballs and belly buttons.  If we start unpacking the layers of shame, it can cause us to wonder if this particular onion is growing two new layers for every one we peel off. Eventually we aren’t ashamed about something so much as we are just plain ashamed to exist and to be who and what we are.

I won’t pretend that becoming open about your shame will solve all of your emotional problems. To be frank, when I first started telling people honestly about my internal battles, it was as hard as anything I’ve ever faced. It’s still not easy. People don’t know how to react or what to say, and if you’re like me, you assume that the blank look on their face means they’ve just put you into a mental file folder with child-molesters and gang bangers (what’s a gang banger anyway?).

Who knows? Maybe that is what they’re thinking, and I will not blow sunshine up your skirt by claiming I’m immune to the pain that can come from the blank stares or weak attempts at sympathy.

But telling someone the things you’re ashamed of is for YOU, not for them. That’s why we should share our shame. Not with everyone but with someone.

So let me offer some cheap advice (please send me $15 if you read the following advice. I said cheap, not free): Whether you want to write a book or just tell your most trusted friend, you’ll be doing yourself a giant favor to come out of whatever closet you’re in. Tell a friend, a family member, a therapist…shoot, you can even email me about it if you’d like to. That’s why I write this blog – to let you know that you’re not alone. And no matter what your secret is, you’re NOT ALONE.

You see, even if no one on earth shares your particular source of shame, everyone, if they’re honest, can relate to the confusion and persistent pain of being human. Even if they won’t admit it. This is my soapbox, and I’ll keep shouting this forever: We are all confused, struggling, hurting, ashamed, but also beautiful, majestic, powerful, and profound HUMAN BEINGS. Watch the news for 2 minutes see the horrors that humans are capable of. Then again, hold a baby and you’ll get a sense of how transcendent we are. And BOTH of these are true of ALL of us.

To fully embrace the human experience we have no choice but to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly about ourselves. Failure to acknowledge and explore even the dungeons inside of us will only allow those demons in the dungeon to creep throughout the rest of our human houses called bodies, forcing us to put extra layers on the outside of our houses so we become an impenetrable fortress. We go from wearing a little makeup to cover the pimples to wearing a full-fledged mascot’s uniform…something that looks more like Elmo than whoever’s inside the costume.

But if you’ll take off the makeup before it gets as thick as a mascot’s costume, I hope and think that what you’ll see is that your secrets aren’t quite as damning as you feared. And little by little, you will start to shed the skin of shame…and once you get started, you might just start finding the Real You worth showing off from time to time…or always.

And finally, if you’re looking for some beautiful encouragement along these lines, I’ve re-posted Anis Mojgani’s spectacular poem called “Shake the Dust” below. The four minutes of your life it will take to watch might be the best 4 minutes of your day. In the spoken-word poem, he encourages everyone from “midnight cereal eaters” to “fat girls” to “celibate pedophiles” to “shake the dust,” which I take to mean this: Stand up, keep fighting, keep devoting yourself to having compassion for yourself in whatever battle you’re fighting. And WHATEVER battle it is, no matter how dark or dirty, your growing and healing process can only begin when you come out of the closet. Not to everyone, necessarily. But to SOMEONE.

PS. I have no job and only 3 skills: writing, talking, and over-sharing. Thus, blogging and being an advocate for mental health issues is how I’d like to solve the no job problem. People often ask if it’s okay to share what I write with others, as if I am trying to keep it private. Uh, yes, it’s okay since I do publish this on the interweb. But really, I’d be most appreciative if you share this blog (or post) with others. Who knows where it will lead? Thanks for your help!

 

Scroll down to see “Shake the Dust” and a couple of interesting links regarding shame…

 

Anis Mojgani performs “Shake the Dust.” This is worth watching every day:

 

More resources:

Here’s a great web page that examines shame in a more clinical sense…great resource:  http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/shame.htm


Post Secret
– an entire website dedicated to letting people share their secrets. I’m torn as to whether this is a good thing or not because the person “shares” the secret but still remains anonymous…and probably very ashamed. I think the sharing is good, but it needs to be done in real time, even face-to-face to start the deeper healing process. Still, a fascinating site.

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Hug a Transvestite

bruce-jenner-addicted-surgery-ftr-300x225Now that I’ve hopefully enticed you to my blog through a manipulative, provocative title, I hope you’ll stay awhile.

But back to transvestites.

This morning, I had breakfast with a friend I’ve known for 25 years. We sat and attempted to solve the world’s problems for an hour or two, and thankfully, we achieved our goal, so keep reading.

Here’s the solution to the world’s problems: Love people. All people.

When was the last time someone’s judgment of others changed anything for the good? Is ISIS convincing you to adopt their worldview? I suspect (and hope) not. Even if judgment changes external situations, it won’t change anyone’s heart. Speaking as someone who has recently gone through a drastic and difficult (and still occurring) set of circumstances, and speaking as someone who finds it really easy to feel anger and resentment toward any number of people who have hurt me, I can tell you first-hand that people’s love and kindness has softened me and helped begin a healing process that is surely (hopefully) only just beginning. People’s condemnation and judgment have yet to do me any good at all.

Now, I’ve never been a transvestite (thus far), but I have been an evangelical Christian with a Christian job, a family full of Christians, friends who were (and are) mostly Christian. And let me tell you, when your entire existence, from your marriage to your career, revolves around this aspect of your life, it’s a bit scary when your doubts and questions prove too persistent and powerful to dismiss any longer. Like many religious converts, I have ironically waved the white flag, surrendering to the doubts and questions that my faith can no longer quell. Let me tell you, this has not been a pleasant experience in any way, shape, or form. I have no more tried to lose my faith than I would try to lose my child.

The angst has been extreme for me: I’ve lived in a closet of sorts for the past few years, petrified that if I say what I’m actually thinking, I will be left by my wife, disowned by my family, disinherited by my parents, and abandoned by my friends who promise, patronizingly, to pray for me as I walk away into a lonely wilderness.

However!

My friends and family have almost exclusively met my struggles with mercy, compassion, and love. They have expressed this to me in ways that have humbled me to the core, letting me know that their love is far less conditional than I had feared (my issues…not theirs!). I’ve even had some beautiful messages of encouragement from people who tell me, despite what I feel, that I’m more “Christian” now than ever, that God still loves me, and that I’m still able to make a difference for Good in this world, no matter what my philosophical views are right now. Those messages have touched me in a way that is revolutionary and will continue to resonate in my soul as I practice meditating on moments of grace and compassion in my life.

(The voice in Tim’s head: Get to the transvestites, Tim. So far, this paper gets a D- for staying on its stated topic!

The more affirmative voice in Tim’s head which remains mostly silent a lot of the time (pathetic emoji here): But wait! You’re wrong, internal voice of guilt! This post is already very much about the transvestites you promised to discuss. You’re just taking a circuitous route to get there…you know, building the suspense. Cue the Jaws Theme.)

So, where was I? Oh yeah, transvestites:

No matter how you slice it, transvestites still remain very, very much on the fringes of “acceptable society members.” Homosexuality is widely accepted, even embraced. Bisexuality is, well, it’s getting there, but still on the fringe. But that “T” in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (and for the record, I’m aware that transvestite, transgender, and transexual are not all the same thing…)) acronym still struggles for acceptance. Thus, I picked that one to get your attention by using a radical example of my point….which is:

Underneath Bruce Jenner’s now-feminine appearance is a human being who is, without question, living a difficult existence (after all, even if his current gender transition causes him nothing in the way of angst, he was part of the Kardashian family for awhile, and that’s gotta be rough). Do we have to affirm his sex change to believe that people who are in emotional pain need friendship and support? And one step further: Do we owe it to Bruce, since we’re all friends with him, to tell him he’s making the wrong choice? That he’s dishonoring God? That he shouldn’t feel what he feels?

My point has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with arguing the morality or immorality of getting a sex change, being bisexual, being homosexual, being addicted to pornography, wishing your wife wanted to 50-Shades-of-Gray your unused room in the basement, or even ordinary, daily lust (ladies, I know you don’t deal with this, but Jerry Seinfeld puts it best when he says, “For guys, once you’ve seen one breast…you pretty much want to see all of them”).

No, I want to argue the immorality of judging people rather than loving them.

These days, I refuse to even argue the morality of people’s sexual preferences, assuming consenting adults are the only ones involved. Before we have that argument, I’ll insist on this one: Can you see that the person who’s making this “choice” is inevitably feeling judged, scared, and probably very lonely? And do you believe that people who are feeling judged, scared, and lonely deserve your compassion (this word literally translates “to suffer with” so consider suffering with them). Do you think your friend or family member whose “lifestyle choices” you disagree with might need your human compassion and kindness? And do you think you’re somehow doing God a favor by telling the person they have chosen a sinful path? Find me a person whose sexual preference has been magically changed by someone quoting condemning Bible verses to them. Once you find one, email me and I’ll reconsider my opinion.

For now, my firm belief, my soapbox about any and all “outsiders” is this: If you care about someone who is an outsider, the absolute best solution is to plainly, simply, only love them. You don’t need to argue with them about morality. It doesn’t matter if they “chose” their behavior or were born that way. What matters is that they are hurting because society has told them they are of less value than those in the mainstream.

A few years ago, I expressed similar sentiments in a devotional I gave at a Christian school. I was a bit more tame there and simply told the high school students that there were undoubtedly closeted, hurting, gay people in our midst, and whatever else I know about following Jesus, I know it means loving strangers and even enemies. There was a rather awkward silence that filled the room, and after I was finished, the Headmaster walked up to me and said something along these lines: “Tim, thank you for your transparency. I know that in the wake of what you just said that you will have students come out to you. And, Tim, I just hope you’ll direct them to the Bible.”

I smiled and nodded and thought, I don’t know what to say to that because I literally had just used the Bible to prove that we are commanded incessantly to love people radically, to wash people’s feet, to turn the other cheek, and in Jesus’s case, to pray for the forgiveness of people who are in the process of murdering us.

So, with respect, Headmaster sir, which parts of the Bible would you like me to point these coming-out-students to?

If you want to change someone’s heart, not just behavior, there’s only one route: love them…without trying to fix them while you’re “loving them.” Just love them, accept them, listen to them, laugh with them, feed them, embrace them, and treat them like a HUMAN BEING who is just as confused and broken and hurting as you are. Their hurt and pain are no more right or wrong than your hurt or pain. But they, the outsiders, are forced to live out their struggle in the midst of people constantly judging them simply for having the struggle.

And if you think, “But they’re CHOOSING a sinful life,” I must be a bit confrontational here: So are you. And so am I.

I am selfish, owning far more than I actually need at the expense of people who need the money I spent on the latest iPhone with teleportation powers. I am a glutton who eats when he feels like it, usually without much restraint. This is considered by Catholics to be one of the Seven Deadly Sins, so it’s no small “sin,” yet I keep on eating what I want when I want. I ignore people’s pain far more than I’d like to admit, failing to go very far out of my way to help people I know damn well have very immediate needs. And I’ll confess to at least one (maybe 3 at most) moment of succumbing to Jerry Seinfeld’s view of women since puberty. I am far more familiar with the ways of the Pharisees than those of the Good Samaritan.

I stand at least as guilty as you are of my failures, my “sins,” my weaknesses.

I think the most apt Biblical story here is that of Jesus with the “woman at the well,” who was, to use a more modern term, somewhat of a “ho.” Some people came up to Jesus, quoted to him from his own Holy Book – the Old Testament – and asked permission to go ahead and stone her as the Old Testament commanded. Jesus simply said, “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.”

The crowd of stoners (tee hee…get it? Stoners! I wonder if they liked Dave Matthews and Phish) dropped their rocks and walked away. The woman was dumbstruck and changed – truly changed, on the inside. Sure, a good stoning might have done the trick to get her to quit sleeping with every Tom, Dick, and Harry (so many sexual jokes that I am resisting based on those names), but her heart was only able to be changed by compassion, kindness, and mercy. Not judgment.

So, hug a transvestite today. Or hug someone who you’re prone to judging. Ok, you can just love them in some way without actually hugging them. But afterwards, don’t worry about telling them how to get their lives straight. Just keep loving them, no matter what. They’ll be changed, maybe not into a 100% heterosexual, upwardly-mobile, neighbor of yours. But far more importantly, their self-worth will be validated. They will feel less alone, and the more you make a habit of non-judgmentally loving them, spending time with them sans agenda, the more softening will take place in both of your lonely and hurting hearts.

 

**People often ask if it’s okay to share what I write with others, as if I am trying to keep it private. Uh, yes, it’s okay since I do publish this on the interweb. But really, I’d be most appreciative if you share this blog (or post) with others. Who knows where it will lead? Thanks for your help!

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Always Certain (but rarely right)

customer wrongEarlier this week I had lunch with a friend I see only once or twice a year. I caught him up on my recent journey, and he listened with immense compassion and sincere sadness in his eyes. It felt so encouraging to be listened to that deeply by someone who I know genuinely cares about me.

And then he started to do what we all want to do when someone tells you their life has imploded: he started trying to help, God bless him.

In particular, he tried to help me reignite many of the Christian ideas that I used to find helpful. Unfortunately, these days, most of the Old Answers ring hollow, whether I like it or not. After all, one doesn’t intentionally TRY to rip his lifelong foundation apart without a new one to settle upon…the foundation cracks and crumbles, and before you realize how bad the problem is, you need a new house.

We spent three and a half hours at lunch (don’t worry, I left a very nice tip because I always feel badly for the waiter in those situations), most of it with him (kindly, gently, helpfully) offering the adages I’m very familiar with about why bad things happen, where God is in the midst of all of this, and how detrimental it is to be adrift from the God-anchor. I’ve had this same conversation in my head at least 4.82 zillion times, but a small part of me hoped he’d offer some new perspective I hadn’t considered. Sadly, he didn’t.

But in the midst of that conversation, my concerned friend said the very thing I’ve been saying for years: “I’m sure we’re both wrong anyway, Tim!”

Yes, yes, and yes! But why is it so hard for most of us to admit that? I suppose it’s very threatening to think that, when it comes to the Big Questions, I might be off track…even way off track. Who wants to live under the assumption that s/he’s wrong about very important things.

But let me defend wrongness for a second:

Think back to ten years ago – what you believed, what you naively thought life would be like ten years down the road, the advice you gave to friends that you’re now embarrassed to have said out loud, the things you said you’d never do/say that you’ve now incorporated into daily life. If you’re like me, you’d sometimes like to go back to your old self and kick yourself in the shin under the table before you open your big mouth. Or again, like me, you might owe a few people apologies for being “always certain…but rarely right.” The more you realize the second part of that equation, the more you (I) want to apologize for the first part. But even back then when you were behaving so “kickably” I’m sure you (and I) were trying our best. Even those old versions of ourselves deserve our compassion.

So after our three and a half hour conversation, my old friend and I both slowly conceded that the conversation wasn’t going to end with a tearful conversion…on either part. I suspect he was sad for me to be “lost,” and I was sad that it’s very hard to find people who see eye-to-eye with me these days; it gets lonely when your life raft gets lost in the fog and can’t find its way back to the group anymore.

But at least there was that moment of genuine human connection: “I’m sure we’re both wrong, Tim”

Think about the profound beauty of that scary statement. THAT is ALWAYS the point of our deepest human connection, if only we are brave enough to admit it. BUT! We can, if we are willing, connect with people who come from different, even radically different, places if we will start with the fundamental premise that we are all confused, sometimes desperate, human beings who simply long for acceptance and love.

Your angry, reclusive neighbor? A human being who is confused and hurt and wants to be cared about.

Your baffling sibling? A human being who is confused and hurt and wants to be cared about.

Your demanding, impatient boss? A human being who is confused and hurt and wants to be cared about.

Your spouse who doesn’t always say the right thing? A human being who is confused and hurt and wants to be cared about.

Your friend who keeps seeming to sabotage her own life? A human being who is confused and hurt and wants to be cared about.

I sort of doubt that this blog post will change the world (at least until later today), but I’d love to live in a world where people’s first reaction to everyone else’s expressions of loneliness, hurt, and pain is, “We’re in this together. I’m confused, too…and hurting…and lonely…and ashamed…and scared, but it sure is nice to have another single-occupant lifeboat appear out of the fog to let me know I’m not completely alone.”

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

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

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

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

Example: Baseball practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Scroll down and take the poll)

 

 

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You’re not “so OCD”!

"Sounds like an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Normal people don't spend that much time washing their hands."Last week, within 24 hours, I heard two blithe references to people “being OCD” on TV – one on The Mindy Project when someone said they organize their closet by color and Mindy said they were OCD, and one on Rachael Ray’s afternoon show when a chef said he’s “very OCD” in the kitchen. (Quit judging my TV habits, please.)

This is more than a touch annoying to someone who battles the demon of OCD daily, and my friends with OCD agree that this is one of the more obvious demonstrations of how poorly mental health problems are understood, especially OCD. I’ve recently learned that the World Health Organization lists OCD as one of the 10 most debilitating diseases known to man. Ponder that for a second.



Just to clarify, OCD means Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It causes one’s brain to fixate on horrific and terrifying things (these vary but they usually involve death, harming others, sexual aberrations, etc.). The person doesn’t want to have these thoughts and feels overwhelmed with anxiety because of them, leading to compulsions which are an attempt to get rid of said thought(s) – the (warped) reasoning being that, since the compulsion leads to a momentary lessening of anxiety, continuing the behavior will remove the anxiety completely. It doesn’t, but someone with OCD keeps trying their compulsions anyway. Many movies and TV shows have attempted to portray OCD, but they always do so in a very generic way, as with the show Monk or the movie As Good as it Gets, wherein Jack Nicholson plays a reclusive writer who does things like separate his M&M’s by color and turn the lock on his door a certain number of “magic” times.

The problem with these depictions is that it’s impossible to show the inside of a person’s brain, so all people see is the weird behaviors, and thus these sorts of Hollywood characters become lovably quirky rather than the inwardly tormented, often suicidal people that they really are. It’s virtually impossible to explain what it’s like unless someone actually has it. The best TV depiction of OCD is all of the shows about hoarders, as hoarding is a variety of OCD. The person thinks that if they get rid of something, a disaster will happen that could’ve been prevented if only they’d kept that empty yogurt container. Strange, yes, but that’s why those people fill their homes with “junk.” It shouldn’t be any more entertaining to watch than the show Intervention. The hoarding shows should be educational and sad, not entertaining, as they tend to be…”Let’s watch someone be crazy and chuckle at their silliness!”

But here’s the thing that actually makes it a true brain disorder: The person with OCD is every bit as aware as you are that his/her obsession(s) are absurd. My friend Riley who just died of OCD (sure, it will be chalked up to an overdose, but I’m telling you, Riley’s overdose was only an attempt to make his brain shut the hell up for a few hours. Countless people have died of OCD, but not one of them has that listed on the certificate of death…another indication of how little people understand). The person with OCD can offer far more “reasons” than you possibly could of why s/he should quit thinking about these things. And that’s the fucking madness of it, my friends…we want to stop, but our brains won’t let us. Literally.

As I’ve thought about how to write about this issue, here’s the analogy that came to my mind: If you know about ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), it seems like just about as cruel a fate as life could offer. Like Stephen Hawking, those with ALS have brains that remain perfectly functioning while their bodies make it impossible for them to do anything, including communicate. Those who are forced to watch it happen must feel almost as tormented as the person to whom it is happening.

A severe mental illness is essentially the other side of the same coin: One’s brain is the torture chamber while the body remains perfectly normal. By no means am I trying to belittle something as awful as ALS or to say that any one life-sucking affliction is worse than another. Rather, I’m trying to get your attention just a bit by describing the inner torment of a mentally ill person. I once said to a counselor that I’d agree to have my legs removed in order to get rid of OCD…in a heartbeat. She sort of looked at me doubtfully, and I reiterated it: “I wouldn’t even hesitate for a second.” Others with OCD have echoed my sentiments throughout the years.

Let me tell you about the treatment for OCD so you might understand why so few people are willing to follow through with it. If medication is ineffective, the only other hope for someone with OCD is to undergo Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) treatment. I tried this for awhile, but my obsessions are so intangible and my compulsions virtually unnoticeable and unstoppable because they are about 95% internal, the doctor agreed that I was hard to treat. But in the same conversation he told me that the easiest version of OCD to treat is germophobia.

Now, if you’re someone who carries around hand sanitizer and uses it a lot, you are NOT a germophobe. A true germophobe might take a shower that lasts 3 hours and come out bleeding or raw from scrubbing themselves so hard. If they mess up their shower rituals, they will start all over to make sure they do it “right.” A germophobe isn’t someone you see on a plane wearing a mask. A germophobe isn’t on the plane at all because they are locked in their house vacuuming a room 18 times in a row to make sure they’ve done it “right” and gotten all the dirt up. If someone has OCD, they are in a mental prison than never goes away – ever. I have literally had the same maddening thoughts in my head (see my book) for 12 years, and I cannot think of a moment when those very thoughts are not at the forefront of my brain.

So, the ERP treatment for this true germophobe, according to the doctor I saw is one of two options: 1. Don’t bathe or wash your hands for a week. 2. Put your hands in the toilet and don’t wash them while sitting with the doctor for your entire session. Even a completely normal brain would struggle with either assignment, I suppose, but in the context of OCD, you are asking someone to do something that scares them so much that their lives are completely dedicated to preventing the disaster that might happen by being exposed to a germ. If you’re scared of heights, this would be equivalent to being forced to stand on the plexiglass platform jutting out into thin air at the Sears Tower for an hour. Or if you’re scared of snakes, this would be equivalent to letting snakes crawl all over you for the 45 minutes of an ERP session.

Why do I feel compelled (funny pun, huh!) to write all of this? It’s not so you’ll feel sorry for me or anyone else with OCD…It’s so you’ll be a bit more thoughtful about minimizing the torment of mental illness. If you like your closet a certain way, don’t say you’re “OCD.” If you having an emotionally up and down week, don’t say you’re bipolar. Shoot, you might not even want to say “I’m depressed” when you have a bad day anymore. These things aren’t jokes. They take people’s lives away in a literal sense but even those of us who haven’t harmed ourselves are living in a prison that you can’t see. Even when we act like we’re doing okay, we’re actually hiding from the embarrassment of telling you how hard things actually are (see my post about why “how are you?” is the world’s toughest question).

Over the past few years, I’ve had two casual conversations with business men who have said OCD is a great quality in employees because “those sorts of people” do the best work. My friends, this is akin to telling someone you think cancer is a great quality because you prefer bald heads to hairy ones.

Even psychiatrists and therapists will tell you that OCD is one of the least understood mental illnesses. Depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety, and ADD are FAR better understood and more easily treated than OCD. There are some anti-depressants that happen to help with OCD, but there is no such thing as a drug specifically for OCD, as there are for the other mental illnesses I just listed. If you have OCD, doctors basically start throwing darts semi-blindly and hoping one of them gets close to the problem. Often, medications don’t work, and for obvious reasons, people resist the idea of ERP. Then comes the decision of how long one is willing to live with the inner torture.

So this post has been a tad heavy, no? At least the comic at the top is funny, right? But I don’t write this to weigh you down, but as always, with the hope of educating a few folks as to the often-hidden suffering of those with a mental illness. Eventually, I have no doubt that the masses will recognize mental illnesses for what they are – faulty wiring in the brain – no more and no less. But sadly, we still live in a world where, according to one recent survey, nearly 50% of evangelical Christians still believe that prayer is all that’s needed to heal a mental illness. Would they say that about cancer? Obviously not. In the 1980’s, many people thought AIDS was God’s judgment on gay people. Thankfully, with enough education, most people don’t see it that way anymore. I hope that mental illnesses will be next in line to get fair treatment in the minds of the mentally healthy, but the only way that will happen is for people to get educated.

So, as always, I’d like to suggest that you either reach out to someone you know who’s battling a mental illness to let them know they are not alone. Or if you know someone who might need a bit of education on these matters, share this post with them.

Thanks for putting up with some not-so-light reading! You’ve survived. I’m done.



 

 

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Vulnerability – Bravery, not Weakness

brown vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

See Brene Brown’s Ted Talk below…



 


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Adios, Identity

i exist as I am

 

Time: Tuesday morning, December 15th.
Location: Red Wings Shoe Store.

Upon entering the store, the clerk asks the obligatory, “How can I help you?”
Tim: I’m looking for some sturdy work boots.
Clerk: What sort of work do you do?
Tim: (In my head: “I’m a teacher…but wait; I can’t say that anymore…what do I say?”) Aloud: “I’m a handyman and I build custom furniture.”

Wow, did that throw me for a loop! My identity for the past 17 years has been “teacher.” People know what that means, obviously, and most often the response is something like, “Oh cool, what do you teach?” or “Man, I admire you. I couldn’t put up with those kids.” And every once in awhile there’s the condescending comment from an over-educated, I-measure-myself-by-my-income response like this: “Wow, that’s really noble of you.” To which I respond, “Yes, yes it is. I’m a noble person, but don’t worry, I still accept you, non-noble person…sort of. I’ll pray for you, though, for sure.” The key is to out-condescend people; that’s the lesson for this post. Go practice.

So back to the Red Wings store. For the past few months, I’ve been on leave from my teaching job in an effort to manage my depression. The good news: it’s working, and I feel like a much healthier person. I’ve quit hoping for a meteor to fall on me, so that’s nice. The bad news: there’s simply no way I can return to the triggers that exist in my teaching job. I guess it’s sort of like shattering a glass – you can piece it back together, but it can never be un-broken again. When I left my job in September, something broke, or was already broken, and as I’ve thought about returning to finish out the year, I felt certain that I would end up back where I started. So to make a long and extremely tumultuous story short, I discussed my thinking with the school, and being the type-A place that it is, they had filled my job 8 and 1/2 seconds after I told them I wouldn’t be ready to return in January, and maybe not at all. Then I was asked to keep the news quiet until everyone is out on winter break and therefore not paying too much attention. Ouch. But at least that helped me see how tenuous my teacher identity had been.

All that is to say, whether I like it or not, I am officially no longer employed as a teacher, and that feels about as bizarre as if I grew a 4th arm. (If you’re skimming, you should read more carefully, because I just implied that I already have 3 arms, and that’s funny. Seriously, laugh.) But for real, I can’t even explain how Twilight-Zone it feels to drive on campus and to realize that I am no longer “part of the team.” I no longer have an identity that ties me to a job and a place that gains me instant credibility with people.

I wish I could say that, when I answered the shoe store clerk’s “what do you do” question, it was with pride, but I’m disappointed to report that I felt a sense of shame. I certainly don’t believe there’s anything inherently shameful in what I plan to do with my life now, but somewhere deep inside, deeper than where my active beliefs live, I suppose I’ve been indoctrinated by a lifetime surrounded by people who measure people’s worth by their schools, degrees, and career choices. I don’t have a lot of friends who are bartenders, circus clowns, or handymen.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asking for pity or for anyone to affirm that I’m still their friend. I’m just pondering the radical change of identity I’m undergoing as we speak. And when I stop to think about it, I’m glad to have the opportunity to reshape my identity because so much of my life to this point has felt more like a performance than an authentic existence. In Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, there’s a line that gets at the heart of each person’s true identity: “I exist as I am; that is enough.” He goes on to say that he is content if everyone pays attention or if no one pays attention. To me that seems like a truly meaningful existence – one that is unencumbered by others’ expectations or biases about what makes a person useful and meaningful.

So who am I? A teacher? Not anymore. A handyman? Not quite yet. A builder of wood furniture? I’d like to be, but we’ll see. Or just a human being who is trying to live in the midst of the inherent confusion of this life without incessantly striving for something more or different or better. Can I say, “I exist as I am; that is enough” and let that be my identity? I hope so, but it will take some time.


PS. As usual, I’d like to encourage you to share this with someone who might need to read it…or to just reach out to someone to let them know they are not alone. One of the things that this time has taught me is that the majority of people tend to steer clear of those who are sick. I suspect it’s the whole “I don’t know what to say” thing. Well, let me tell you, saying the wrong thing is far better than saying nothing. So please, encourage someone that they are not alone – that’s my main hope for this blog.

PPS. If you’d like to help my new career/identity, please visit timblue.com or my Etsy shop to see some of my work, and let your friends and family know, too.

PPPS. I’ve added a number of mindfulness meditations to the Mindfulness section…check them out!

PPPPS. Are you annoyed by these PS’s yet? I’m writing like a 5th grade girl to her secret crush. Sheesh, Tim, stop!

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Why Don’t Doctors Give More Hugs?

need a hugA few weeks ago, I went through a thorough brain evaluation at a place called the Amen Clinics (I really hate that name as it sounds like some hokey pray-it-away sort of religious place. It’s not, but so far they have ignored my comment card suggesting a new name), and part of the work-up involved sitting down with one of their therapists to go through my entire history with mental health problems. When I sat down on her couch, I saw here Wake Forest diploma on the wall and we initially connected over having both gone there. Over the course of the interview, it came out that we had also gone to the same high school, were both the 4th of 5 children, and had dealt with nearly the exact same sort of behaviors and coping mechanisms throughout our lives. It was both eerie and extremely comforting to meet someone who is so much like me.



After the meeting was over, I stood to leave and felt that rising awkwardness of uncertainty as to the appropriate physical gesture in this situation. Under any normal circumstances, it would’ve been one of those long, I-just-met-you-but-we’re-already-life-long-friends sort of hugs. But these were “professional” circumstances, and the normal gesture would be a handshake, even though that felt remarkably formal and awkward, too, given the conversation we’d just had with our own dopplegangers. In true OCD/anxiety fashion, I gave her an awkward hug and then proceeded to second guess myself for the next week about it.

This encounter reminded me of the time 5 years ago when “the cheese fell off the cracker” (as a friend puts it), ultimately leading me into a 3-day-stay in the mental hospital. As said cheese was falling, I was desperately grasping at any help I could get from a medical professional. As such, I visited my primary care doctor for a second opinion after my psychiatrist (not my current one) told me I was “just depressed.” Well, duh.

As usual, the doctor’s visit was preceded by the nurse who took my blood pressure, etc. When I told her how I was feeling, I started to sob – something I did more of in those few days than the rest of my adult life combined. She did something very, very weird and extremely “unprofessional”: She hugged me. And I mean it was not just a pat on the back hug; it was a long, let-it-all-out-now-Tim sort of hug (just in case a few certain friends who shall remain nameless, who can turn buying deodorant into a sexual joke, are reading this, I feel the need to clarify: this nurse wasn’t one of the sort that Matt or Kevin (oops, I outed them) are probably imagining. She was a grandmotherly sort of nurse. Sorry guys!). Ironically, the doctor himself couldn’t have been more opposite in his reaction. He acted almost offended that I was seeking a second opinion from him and said in no uncertain terms that anti-depressants CANNOT cause depression despite the black box warning on all of their labels (I was convinced that my depression had to do with a new anti-depressant I had tried). He literally said this to me: “Anti-depressants probably make suicidal people feel just enough better to act on their impulses.” Ohhhhhh, that makes sense, mister doctor! Someone who can’t even get out of bed finally feels well enough to do so and his/her first thought is, “Finally I have the energy to load my gun and off myself. Thank God! Actually, I’m feeling so much better I might just draft a doozy of a suicide note, too!”

In reflecting on these two encounters which took place in the same examination room 5 minutes apart, I came to 2 conclusions. First, just because someone is “book smart” enough to become a doctor does not make them emotionally intelligent or even good at their job. As one of my friends who actually is a doctor once said, “Doctors are essentially highly trained mechanics.” My translation: Doctors may know the human body, but they may not be very familiar with the human condition. Second, doctors of all sorts should give more hugs.

I know, I know…they’d get sued. But I can say from a lot of experience with all sorts of doctors (my brain isn’t my only problem. Soon I’ll be starting blogs about back pain, digestion issues, sinus problems, and heart palpitations) that doctors are some of the least qualified people to care for the suffering of humankind. I’ve encountered so much more in the way of common human decency from teachers, counselors, ministers, etc. than from the sum total of doctors I’ve seen. When I wrote my book and expressed my dissent from the traditional Christian view(s) of hell, I worried that everyone I knew would tell me I was wrong and attack me. But that only happened with 2 people: a Southern Baptist and, you guessed it, a doctor. Everyone else who read it expressed what you’d hope – compassion, understanding, and care for me and my internal struggles. I find it interesting that a doctor was one of the ones who was more concerned with being right than with expressing human decency. As for the Southern Baptist, well, you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip now, can you?

In my doctoral dissertation, I essentially made the same argument about teaching that I’m making here about doctors: Both professions involve a fundamentally human encounter. In the English classroom, we encounter the human experience in the form of literature about the human condition. In the doctor’s office, we (doctor and patient) encounter the reality of our human frailty. In the doctor’s office, we come face to face with the fact that we are sick; we’re actually in the process of dying, and nowhere is this more obviously true than in a doctor’s office. But in both the classroom and the doctor’s office, too many professionals prefer to “keep their distance” and to BE “professional.”

But I ask this to every professional who comes face to face with the human condition: Would you rather keep your distance and miss the chance to help hold someone who’s suffering up for a brief moment or take the chance of being misunderstood once in awhile while acknowledging our shared humanity with the people we work with and for? Either way there’s a risk involved. In my opinion, the risk of ignoring people’s suffering and simple humanity is fraught with far greater potential danger than the dangers involved with a gesture of compassion like a hug or shared tears or a personal email/note acknowledging the common ground we all share. Sadly, when I make this argument, I always feel the need to add the caveat that I’m not suggesting candlelit dinners with your smoking hot clients so as to affirm their humanity. I’m not suggesting free back rubs for your patients, students, or clients. Yes, these things will get you fired rather quickly (or divorced, or imprisoned). But why do I even need to say that? Of course those things are improper. But when a patient is sobbing in a doctor’s office, what’s so wrong about hugging that person? Or when a client turns out to share your exact same background in nearly every way, why can’t the meeting end with a hug that acknowledges our need to connect with others, to be understood?

So, though I am not a medical doctor, here is my prescription for everyone: Give more hugs. And while you’re at it, be honest enough with people about your own humanity that you might get a hug or two as well. We’d all be a lot better off with more decency, more compassion, more honesty…

And more hugs.



PS. As I’ve been doing lately, I’d like to encourage you to think of someone who might need a hug or a pat on the back or to read this post and reach out to them. The purpose of this blog is for you to know you’re not alone in your struggles. If this has done that for you, please share the love and let someone who might be suffering in any way, shape, or form know that they are not alone. How you express it doesn’t really matter…just do it. (Sorry, Nike!)

And one final plea for your help: If you find this blog helpful, you’d be doing me a big favor if you’d “follow” it by entering your email address either at the bottom of this page or on the home page (right-hand side) rather than relying on Facebook or Twitter to get these updates. I’m trying to develop this blog into something that broadens beyond my immediate circle of friends, and the more people who follow the blog, the more likely that is to happen via search engines, etc. You’ll get an email when I post…otherwise, nothing will change. And I certainly won’t ever do anything with your email like sell it to cats.com so you can get cute cat quotes and pix (though, who wouldn’t want that?!). But really, it would help me out if you’re so inclined. Thanks!

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Religion and Mental Health

its not you

A few days ago, I was the guest on an internet radio show called “The Stigma of Mental Illness Radio,” hosted by my friend, Chrissie Hodges. Chrissie and I are kindred spirits – same age, similar upbringing, lifelong OCD, and a desire as adults to discuss our struggles openly so as to help others and erase the stigma of mental illness. The topic for discussion was religion and mental health (or lack thereof). Both Chrissie and I were influenced heavily by conservative Christianity over the course of childhood, which led to what is known in the OCD world as “scrupulosity” – excessive self-examination in hopes of keeping God happy, leading to compulsions that are intended to alleviate the anxious uncertainty about whether we are “in” with God or not.



For me, this version of OCD took center stage in middle school. Like many with OCD, I repeated “magic” numbers in my head to ward off Satan’s evil spirits that I was sure were swarming around my head and body at every moment, ready to find their way in if I let my guard down for a second. “731, not 666,” I would say over and over again, literally thousands of times a day. For some reason, I had determined that 7, 3, and 1 were all Godly numbers, and in case you are unaware, the number 666 is known as “the mark of the beast (or Satan)” in the Bible. In addition, every time I thought I might have sinned inadvertently…telling a story “wrong” and then feeling like I had lied; lusting for some girl (I think my middle school lusts involved hand-holding and perhaps a peck on the cheek!); or accidentally thinking some unholy thought about not liking a teacher…I repeated “the sinner’s prayer.” This is the Protestant’s prayer that supposedly marks the beginning of a person’s salvation. It goes something like this: “Dear God, I’m a sinner. I need a savior. I accept Jesus as my savior, and I ask for your forgiveness for all my sins.” This prayer is so magical, that once one says it, s/he switches from a destiny of eternal torture in hell to a destiny of eternal bliss in heaven. Wow! What a simple way to make God like you! Since I was such a terrible kid, what with these thoughts of hand-holding (and I’m talking the interlocking finger kind, people! Serious, serious depravity), I needed this magic prayer a few hundred times each day just to make sure that when the kidnappers came and captured me, only to kill me eventually, I would go to heaven, not hell. (Yes, I worried about the kidnapping incessantly, too.)

I was a bundle of fun, you see. Still am.

Anyway, I certainly can’t speak to the way that religion impacts every person with a mental illness, but I can add that once my depression sprouted wings, it has also mixed very, very poorly with my former religious views. Sticking with my favorite topic of hell, here’s what my depressed brain does to/for me when the topic comes up: “Just the concept of torture, even for one minutes, is beyond comprehension. Most people have never come anywhere near torture, yet Christianity blithely claims that ‘unsaved’ people will go to hell. Nevermind that, while claiming this, they are sitting comfortable in their living rooms while people die by the scores each day in their very own cities while said Christians binge watch Lost on Netflix. I mean, really, I dare you to rip out just one fingernail, Christian! That’s torture. Now submit to that for an hour, a day, an eternity…and you’ve got hell. Not only that but you don’t get the relief of death that usually comes at the end of a good torture session. You keep staying healthy enough to have more skin ripped off your body, more fingernails torn off, more limbs stretched until they rip loose from their sockets…no sleep, no relief…just torture. Forever. How could this God who supposedly loves us so much allow such a thing? You say it’s because he’s so holy that he has to remove us from his presence, but isn’t the story of Jesus about God actually wanting to be with us rather than wanting to be rid of us?! Then again, why wouldn’t hell exist? Shoot, I feel like I live in hell a lot of the time. Children are sold into sex slavery; poverty is rampant worldwide; human beings seem inherently selfish much of the time, and that asshole just cut me off in traffic (pause in worrying about hell so I can focus on shooting the bird to this evil, hell-bound driver who returns the gesture by making his hand into a gun and pretending to shoot me (this actually happened a week ago, but don’t worry, after I shot him the bird, I prayed for him to accept Jesus as his personal savior)). I mean, actually, doesn’t this world actually prove the validity of the idea of hell – an unfair punishment for people who never asked to be put into this insane world in the first place. I feel like Hamlet – a guy who wants to die but is too damn scared of what happens afterward to do anything about it. So maybe hell does exist, but one thing I am sure of is that anyone who actually believes in this sort of hell but who has failed to tell every single person they’ve ever encountered about it belongs there. ‘Effective witnessing tactics’ be damned! When a blind man is about to step into traffic, one doesn’t think to himself ‘Well, he’ll think I’m a lunatic if I just grab him. I’ll wait and see what happens and try to warn him of the situation slowly and gently.’ No, one grabs the blind man no matter what he may think of the tackler and leaves the befriending and explaining for later, after the man’s life has been saved.” I could go on for quite some time, but I’m wearying myself here, so perhaps you’re sick of my ramblings, too.

(Pause for a few days so Tim can calm down from how worked up all this rehashing of the agony my brain has crippled me with for so long.)

3 days later:

Now, where was I? Ahh, yes, religion and mental illness. What this blog post is supposed to be is a simple encouragement to those of you who are stuck in religious dogma to consider, as my friend Chrissie put it, “breaking up with God.” This is the phrase Chrissie used about her current “status” with God. I feel the same way about my own relationship with God.

Tim: “You know, God, this isn’t working. It’s not you (actually, I think you do deserve some of the ‘credit’); it’s me. I’m sorry.”

God:

Tim: “Ok, well. Good luck to you, running the universe and all. Maybe I’ll see ya around.”

God:

(Close scene)

I know, I know. I’m being a heretic, but I’ve become quite comfortable with my heresy, and here’s the weird thing: Letting go of my belief that I can have some personal contact with God…that she’ll someday explain to me the purpose of all I’ve been through…that I’ll reap rewards in heaven for serving God here on earth…all of this letting go has been enormously cathartic for me. There’s no more angry birds shot at the heavens (I mean my middle finger; not the red birds on your iPhone); no more “Why me, God?!”; no more searching the Bible for encouragement or hope. Just me in this moment, standing in awe of the great cosmic mystery and allowing it to be just that – a MYSTERY, forever. I don’t need to know all the answers. I don’t need God to validate my decisions. I don’t need to know what happens to dead people. To reference Albert Camus yet again, when we live our lives in the hope of some other, future existence (whether it be heaven or even retirement or the next job, etc.), we are committing a sort of suicide – failing to experience this moment, this life fully. To live in fear of hell is to kill my attachment to this moment, beautiful or horrible as it may be. To live as if heaven will be where everything is set right is to ignore the fact that things right here, right now are both wrong and right. We should be more concerned with embracing this momentary reality, this eternal NOW. We can deal with what comes next if and when that happens.

Now after expressing some of these thoughts on the radio, a few very wonderful people posted things on Facebook about how much their religion/faith has helped them, as if to argue with Chrissie and me. To them (to you?), I say this: I genuinely think that’s wonderful. Just the other night I was at a fundraiser for the disease that took the life of our 6-year-old friend a few years back. Ironically, her death has driven her formerly-agnostic parents to church while it played no small part in driving me out the church door. Not just because she died but because of the inadequacy of the explanations for how things work and what all of this means and where dead people go that I have found in the church for nearly 40 years. My questions led me to break up with God, and in that breaking up, I’ve found a surrender to life, to my experiences, that has offered me a greater peace than I’ve ever known. The little girl’s parents’ questions and fears led them to a different sort of surrender. Funny how these things go. But I don’t need any more to figure out which one of us is in the right place. They are where they are, trying to figure out their new normal without their child. I am where I am, trying to quit figuring everything out so I can exist in this moment. It’s helping.

Too often, we forget that religions are human inventions created for the purposes of connecting with the Transcendent, offering guidelines for a “good” life, and proving community. God hasn’t seemed terribly concerned with making sure that “all who seek” find the same thing. Spiritual seekers do find a lot of common experiences, but they never find the Whole Truth contained in a religion. Usually, spiritual seekers of the deepest kind find something far beyond religion; usually, they have become fed up with religion and gone looking for something that cannot be contained in a church or a mosque or a temple. Religions can be a fantastic way of beginning to connect with our spiritual selves, but if you stick with a religion for too long, you’ll become one of those people who think that God has remarkably similar likes and dislikes as you and your friends.

So I’ll sum all of this up this way: Wherever you are in your journey toward mental health, be all there. Don’t try to be more religious (or less). Be who you are where you are. Start by accepting this moment just as it is. Start by forgiving yourself for struggling…this is some hard shit! Treat yourself with the compassion you’d offer to someone else who felt like you feel. Love yourself as best as possible today; then tomorrow; repeat each day/moment forever. You don’t need to be any different than you are RIGHT NOW. And as far as religion is concerned, use it if it helps you, but make sure you are using it to connect with NOW, not just to imagine that when you die you’ll get “fixed” forever. If a loving God exists, s/he’ll wait around while you wander toward and/or away from him/her. If s/he doesn’t exists or isn’t loving, then abandoning him/her won’t matter anyway because s/he can’t be trusted.

I know this is a very, very loaded topic and that I have probably offended or shocked some of my (4-5) readers. I have no interest in upsetting anyone or in arguing whether I’m right or wrong about what I’ve written. What I do have an interest in is letting those of you who need to know this that you’re not alone, that it’s okay to jump out of the “God life raft.” The water’s actually quite nice if you’re finding the boat a bit cramped and stifling. All I hope to do is encourage. If you find my thoughts upsetting, please, please, please give them no attention whatsoever. Just go pray for those of us who are floating adrift but oddly, inexplicably at peace in the unpredictable water.

 

 

PS. As you know, I write this blog in the hope of encouraging others who feel alone. Please, if you know someone who might need to read this post or to know about this blog, then pass it alone or just reach out to let them know you care about them. Who knows? It might be just what that person needs. That voice in your (and everyone’s) head that says, “I’d just be imposing” or “I don’t want to make things worse” is full of shit…who doesn’t like being cared for and thought about by others?!

 

 

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Riley’s Memorial and A New Name

TKwana

2 quick things in this post:

1. I’ve changed the name of my blog to toknowwearenotalone.com (to know we are not alone…comes from the CS Lewis quote on the front page). A few people had mentioned that the other title (bad-bad-brain had a (clearly) negative connotation). I agree, so I’ve changed the name.

2. I’ve posted the audio of my eulogy for Riley (above). It’s very similar to what I had previously written, but perhaps you’d like to listen instead…

3. I lied. I have 3 things. Thanks to all of you who have been very supportive in the wake of Riley’s death. I don’t know when I’ll quit feeling numb, but I still do for some reason. Wish I didn’t, but perhaps it’s a defense mechanism or something that will help my therapist justify another 100 visits or so. But my point here is this: Thank you for showing me the value and power of social media! I am grateful to Ann for posting about my need to hear from you all, and I am grateful to all of you who reached out to me. I wish we could always operate that way – letting others know we care for them and support them no matter how deep their current hole.

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