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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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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You Really Should Start Smoking

20150905_164621

I started smoking cigars when I was in high school. Throughout my teenage years, my primary act of rebellion was coming home 20 minutes late for my curfew…ONCE…and for good reason: I was making out with a girl. The only time I was even at a party where I was offered alcohol, it was a New Year’s Eve party, and my friend’s father was the one pushing the champagne on me. I was basically raised in the Duggar family, minus the sexual molestation of my siblings.

But I needed to act out in SOME way so I would be capable of telling my students some day about what a fucking rebel I was. So I smoked $3 cigars with my friends late at night, suffering God’s punishment of waking up with a feeling/taste in my mouth that resembled the after-effects of eating a live chipmunk. But man were those late night talks over cheap cigars some of the best memories from my adolescence.

Fast forward 20 years and I rediscovered the magical power of a cigar to force you to sit down and slow down for an hour. Once I took up the habit in earnest, my reading intake increased about ten-fold as I would always sit and read while I smoked. Then I discovered the various cigar lounges around Atlanta, and I’ve met some of my closest current friends in these shops. Almost two years ago, I met a plastic surgeon named Mark (he subsequently performed my penis reduction). Turns out he was a bibliophile and tobacco-phile, just like me. We started a book club that’s now been meeting for almost two years. We’ve gone on a fishing trip together (though my fishing abilities are equivalent to my ability for filtering what comes out of my mouth). In other words, I don’t fish well. But we’re going on another “fishing” trip soon. Mark will catch fish and I will just enjoy sitting near the river…smoking.

Over the past weeks, I’ve been in one of my lowest places ever. My depression has been so all-consuming that I’ve really wondered how I will keep going. But once again, cigars are helping to save me. My friend Marian called my cigar habit “sacramental.” Having lost any sense of the presence of God in my life, I have, in an odd sort of way, found the things usually offered by a religious community in the cigar shop on Piedmont Road, in the Disco Kroger shopping center. I’ve found a community of people who are willing to take me as I am. Some of them seem to want to talk; some want to be in their own little world; some are regulars; some are one-timers. But it sort of feels like the bar in Cheers – a place where anyone is welcome and no one gets judged.

I love Marian’s notion of the sacramental. Routines are so important for us humans. We need those little daily disciplines that help us remember what’s really important. For me, smoking a cigar reminds me to slow down; to savor the beautiful things our world has to offer me; to embrace life in the here and now without fretting over what’s going to happen down the road. There’s always that little voice that says to me, “But Tim, what if this gives you cancer?” To which I answer, “My life isn’t exactly the sort of existence I’m hoping to prolong for 100 years, and if this kills me, it will have caused me immense pleasure along the way. It’s far more important to find a way to make TODAY worth living than to worry about what might cut my life short.”

So today I’m celebrating the sacrament of a cigar: my daily reminder that this earth has beautiful things to offer me – the cigar itself and, even more beautifully, the sense of connectedness and community that comes along with it.

 

 

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

 

 

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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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When Words Just Won’t Help

http://timulator.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/16.jpgA friend of mine has been in a deep hole of depression lately…suicide attempt, hospital…the works. I called him the other night and reached him at his Iowa home, where he was sitting alone, mindlessly watching TV, hoping he wouldn’t wake up tomorrow.

We talked for over an hour about everything from our mutual desire to understand why things in the world are the way they are to whether the Falcons were going to be any good this football season. At the end of the conversation, I felt the sense of impotence that my wife must feel when talking to me about my depression: I WANT TO SAY THE MAGIC THING THAT WILL CURE HIM, BUT DAMN IT! I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS!!!



What’s ironic is that I, as much as anyone, know that when I’m depressed, no logical argument or perspective can drag me from the hole. Yet I still had to fight the constant temptation throughout our conversation to wrack my brain for just the right perspective-inducing comment…

“You have so much to live for!”

“Tomorrow is another day.”

“Let go and let God.”

Or even the guilt trip method: “Think how much pain you’ll cause if you kill yourself!”

But from an unfortunate amount of experience, I can say that none of that does the trick. EVER. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, simple human presence and preferably the presence of someone who doesn’t want to try to fix me, is the only thing that does much good.

That’s it. The end. I have no advice to offer you on this subject. I suppose my point in posting this is simply to say that depression is really fucking hard to deal with, both for the person suffering from it and for the person trying to find the right words that will help.

 

 



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R.I.P. Robin Williams

Wow, does the Robin Williams suicide news hit close to home!

Like just about everyone else, I have long been a Robin Williams fan. Dead Poets’ Society was not only one of my favorite movies growing up, but it became something much more than a great movie when I decided to become an English teacher. I vividly remember telling my first boss – a 70-something, southern-proper (or “propah,” as she would say), lifelong educator, after whom the building we sat in was named – that I intended to watch that movie for inspiration before my first day of teaching. She looked at me with her ever-present smile and queen-like dignity and told me that she didn’t care for the subversive message of that movie. Having never a) had a boss or b) known anyone who didn’t like Dead Poets’ Society, I was dumbstruck but smart enough to know I shouldn’t argue its merits with her. So I did what I always do in such situations and pretended that the other person’s point was actually the very one I was trying to make!

But really, that’s what I did.



But I digress…My point is this: Robin Williams’s death hits me hard partly because I felt connected to him through his movies, but also because I fight the same battle he fought against overwhelming, crippling, consuming depression. Just yesterday, as I was trying to tell a fellow teacher about how bad my depression has been lately, he said to me, “I don’t understand you, but I support you.” While he was trying to be nice, the first part of his comment made me feel alone – like I should probably quit trying to tell people what goes on in my head; they just can’t see it…just like they couldn’t see it with Williams because of his persona. I am certainly no Robin Williams, but like him, I know I come across as light-hearted and fun-loving much of the time, and like him, I enjoy how alive I feel when I’m making others laugh (which is about 42% of the time that I’m trying to make them laugh).

Williams’s death was both terrifying and (am I allowed to say this?) strangely reassuring. There are people who get what I’m going through, people who are liked (loved!), respected, and successful, I thought, who have come to the conclusion I have nearly reached so many times: life is just too hard to sustain. Oddly, I felt comforted to know I have “friends” who understand how hard it can be. Nevertheless, I wish with all my being that these friendships could be found more easily before people take the ultimate step away from life.

Why is it so hard to find a community of people with depression? Or any mental health problem? I’ve looked, and it’s hard!

That’s what this blog is (supposed to be) for, and I hope that anyone reading this will send the link to a few people who might need friends in the mental health community. I know I do!

R.I.P. Robin Williams. Wherever you’re spending eternity is where I’d like to as well. You’d keep us laughing, and maybe we could help you experience the happiness you couldn’t find here on earth.

 

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How to Deal with a Suicidal Person…or NOT!

For the first 33 years of my life, my brain had been consumed with OCD and rampant generalized anxiety. But I had never wanted to kill myself, even remotely. I describe OCD as an optimistic disease, in a sense, because you’re always thinking, “If I can just solve this particular conundrum/anxiety/problem, I’ll have it all fixed and I’ll be good to go.” Periodically, at least for me, my brain would hit on some “solution” to whatever obsession I was overwhelmed by at the time, and I would think my problems were solved forever. They never were, but at least I kept naively hoping that I’d someday find the permanent fix for my brain.

Depression, obviously, is a far different beast. For those of us who get truly depressed, there’s no such thing as seeing the glass as half full or picking ourselves up by our bootstraps. Our brains are as incapable of seeing the bright side as a paraplegic’s legs are of “sucking it up” and walking. When, for the first time in my life, raging depression overtook my brain 5 years ago, I reached out to my family and friends as a last ditch effort to find some help so I wouldn’t jump in front of a bus. My parents, who were away on vacation at the time, very generously left their vacation to come home and help me muddle through. I didn’t even have to ask; the sound of my voice was that desperate.

Like most people, neither they nor my wife had much of a clue how to deal with a suicidal person. So, our first night together after their return, I tried to force down some pizza between my intermittent, inexplicable sobs. My dad, in a sincere effort to make me feel better, told me this story: “You know, Tim, things could always be worse. I just got an email from a friend who’s in Hawaii with his granddaughter whose Make-a-Wish before she dies of cancer at age 11 was a family trip to Hawaii. Talk about a reason to be depressed!”

Under normal circumstances, I might have been able to gently explain to him that this is not the ideal strategy to deal with a suicidal person – telling them how much worse it could be. Instead, I just wept. The horrific story of a child’s final wish, to me, was just one more reason to jump off the first overpass I could find.

As those of us who have “been there” know, being depressed isn’t fixable with a “snap out of it” mentality. The best remedy is probably a mixture of human companionship (as long as your human companion doesn’t tell you how much you have to live for or to be grateful for) and good old distraction.

It’s funny, and sad, how poorly equipped most people are to deal with those of us whose brains go haywire. I suppose part of our job is to educate them (as gently as possible) on how to deal with a suicidal person, or just a generally depressed on. I’ve tried to do some of this with my friends and family, but when I’m feeling good, it seems unnecessary, and when I’m feeling bad, it’s nearly impossible to reach out. The fact is, when I’m in a terrible mental place, I don’t even know how to ask for help. I’m aware that calling my friend and saying, “Hey man, just sitting here counting reasons to live; so far I’m at zero!” isn’t going to get me anywhere except a hospital. But in reality, I should probably make that very call anyway.

All of this “training” of friends and family is, of course, easier said than done, but it might spare you and me more situations like the one I’ve painstakingly and beautifully rendered below…

 

Not helping 1It could be worse 2

 

 

 

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