Podcast: Do What Works (but how do I know if it’s working?!)

Show Notes:
In this podcast, Tim discusses a mantra that he often references: “Do What Works.” The truth is that, for those who are mentally ill, it can be very hard to know what’s working since it often feels like nothing works. Tim attempts to offer some new ways to look at life that redefine what is or is not effective.

In the podcast, Tim references Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a therapeutic model based around the mantra, “do what works.” More information on DBT can be found at one of these links:

http://psychcentral.com/lib/an-overview-of-dialectical-behavior-therapy/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_behavior_therapy

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

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I’m Still Here
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I’m Still Here

Just a few years ago, I had a prestigious job title, I was making more money than I ever thought I’d make, I had recently purchased a new house in a popular part of Atlanta, I was making use of my PhD on a daily basis, and because of where I worked, I had an excellent place to send my kids to school. I was fulfilling my purpose as an American, adult head of the house – I was taking care of my family, and even if I wasn’t always in the best frame of mental or emotional health, in a tangible sense, I was a success.

Then I got unceremoniously fucked by a cosmic elephant.

Sorry, was that crass? Well, I’m not sorry actually. That’s what it’s felt like. Correction…feels like.

I no longer have a prestigious job: I pressure wash and stain decks. That’s about all I have the mental and emotional energy for most days. And I’m trying to start a non-profit but don’t have much to show for it yet. My PhD is useless. No one, when choosing a stain color, has asked to see my diploma. I don’t even make enough money to even support myself, meaning that a lot more pressure is on my wife, who has never had to work until recently. This week, my kids started school at a place that is, well, the sort of school that most snobby, upper-middle-class people like us move away from when it comes time for kids to start school. Sad, but true.

And with all this “failure” in my life, I have spent a lot of time feeling like such a waste of human flesh. Like so many mentally ill people, I tell myself that my family and friends would be better off without me. I don’t just say this to myself; I genuinely believe it, no matter how hard they try to convince me otherwise. The brutal truth is that everything I’ve been taught to believe should give me my self-worth has been taken away.

Lately, though, I’ve decided, for giggles, to actually try and implement something a therapist recently told me: “Think about what you can do, not what you can’t do. Start from scratch, Tim.”

I argued: “There’s nothing I can do! All I want to do is lay in bed. When I get out of bed, I’m angry and sad. I’m useless!”

Still, I tried.

For me, a lot of my negative mental energy focuses on how much better I’d like to do as a father and husband. Being in my house is the cause of tremendous anxiety and depression because I feel like everywhere I look is a sign of my failure – a to do list item I still haven’t done; a dishwasher that a better husband would empty; a kid’s game that a better father would play for hours on end.

But lately, when one of those failures rears its head, I try to just remind myself of this: “I’m still here.” Meaning…I’m not dead; I haven’t done the unthinkable thing that would wound my wife and children irreparably.

I’m still here, meaning my wife still has a partner, and whether I am ever able to help her as much as I want to or not, she assures me that she’s glad I’m still here. Rather than tell her she’s wrong for wanting me around, perhaps I will try to take her at her word that she wants me to stay put.

I’m still here, meaning my kids, who can’t even cognitively grasp that things might be otherwise, see my face every day and get a good morning and goodnight hug and kiss. My own father traveled for weeks at a time, and I remember how comforted I was when he came home, for no other reason than that it was another adult in the house. That’s all I needed or wanted. I may never be Ward Cleaver, but maybe it’s enough just to be a staple in their lives. Maybe I don’t have to coach the baseball team or stay up all night for the sleepover. Perhaps just continuing to exist is a good-enough start.

And that’s it. That’s the big aha for this post: I’m still here. It doesn’t feel like enough…for the post or for daily life. But the more I remind myself that this is all I have for now, and that nobody gets to tell me that I have to be something more or something else, the more it feels like a good starting-over point.

 
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Friends, TKWANA is officially a 501(c)(3) organization! Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Also, in the weeks to come, I will be starting to accept donations that will further the reach of TKWANA. I hope you’ll consider contributing in due time. Thank you!

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The Wisdom of Rust Cohle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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Honor Your Realities

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

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

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

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

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

Resent them.

Pray for them to change.

Try to hide them.

Lie about them.

Overanalyze them, hoping they will morph into something else.

Philosophize about why they are what they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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Turtles, Parades, and Unconditional Love
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Turtles, Parades, and Unconditional Love

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My friend Scott recently put me on to a new country musician named Sturgill Simpson. I can’t remember the last time I got so hooked on a new musician. Part hillbilly, part existentialist philosopher, part drug experimenter, part brilliant musician and lyricist…that’s basically a summary of Simpson. If you have any fondness for country music, you should definitely check him out.

In the song “Turtles All the Way Down,” Simpson recounts his experiences with various drugs, saying, “Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, DMT; they all changed the way I see, but LOVE’S THE ONLY THING THAT’S EVER SAVED MY LIFE.”

Another artist I’ve been obsessed with of late is the beautiful, gut-wrenching writing of Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, which was made into a movie that was up for Best Picture at the Oscars. She also wrote a book called Dear Sugar, essays compiled from an advice column she used to write for an online magazine (nothing like the advice columns you’re used to). Strayed lives in the Pacific Northwest, which, by default, makes her a raging liberal. Every year, she takes her two young children to the gay pride parade in her city. Her kids find it entertaining. They love to see the people who are dressed up in their most thoroughly “gay” clothing…drag queens…Village People…the whole nine yards. But while her kids like the “costumes,” she says she always ends up crying, and her kids ask her why. Her answer is that they’re looking at a “celebration of love born out of hatred.” I am proud to say that, while relaying this story to someone just yesterday, I, too, choked back tears for the same reason Strayed does: People saying “this is who I am whether or not you approve” brings me to tears. It’s not that I understand homosexuality any better than any other straight person (I happen to believe that God’s three greatest inventions all exist between a woman’s neck and her thighs), but I don’t believe I have to understand someone in order to support their desire to express love and commitment to another human being. Like many these days, Strayed uses the “love wins” mantra to sum up her celebration of gay pride, gay marriage, etc. Maybe love does win…would that be such a bad conclusion to all of this human chaos?

 

Something else I learned from Sturgill Simpson is the turtles-all-the-way-down story. It goes like this: In the days when people believed that the world was flat, there was a myth that earth rested on the back of a giant, cosmic turtle. Makes perfect sense, right? Well, one of the smart kids finally asked this important question: “But what is the turtle standing on?” To which some unnamed genius responded, “Well, it’s turtles all the way down, you see.”

The turtles-all-the-way-down story illustrates a fundamental problem in the human condition: Our reason/logic will always reach an end point. ALWAYS. Christians use the Bible as their turtles-all-the-way-down trump card; Muslims use the Quran; scientists use data that will eventually be called into question or disproved. None of us really know for sure what to believe.

I’ve had to abstain from Facebook lately because of all the rhetoric lately about who’s right and who’s wrong on the gay marriage issue (or Obama Care…or South Carolina’s flag). It just gets me too worked up to see all of the us-vs-them or we-are-the-good-guys-they-are-the-bad-guys posturing. Human beings are not broken up into two (and only two) teams: good guys vs. bad guys. I genuinely believe that the world would be a better place if all of us would simply admit that we aren’t quite sure what the hell is going on around us. We’re not sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? We’re not sure whose religion understands the nuances of God better than the other religions. We’re not sure which political party has the right answers. We’re not sure of very much, in fact.

But we can be sure of one thing: That we are UNSURE.

I tend to think we are ALL wrong at some level about EVERYTHING. So let’s quit worrying so much about who’s right and who’s wrong and start with something we can probably agree on: PEOPLE NEED TO BE LOVED AND ACCEPTED AND FORGIVEN AND CARED FOR NO FUCKING MATTER WHAT. Wanna change the world? Start with radical, careless, overwhelming love and acceptance, and you’ll make some good progress.

I’d rather see humanity moving in the direction of loving and accepting and caring for MORE people rather than fewer people. I’d rather see us quit trying to conserve values that are fatally flawed in the first place…like the “sanctity of marriage.” Uh, people, ½ of marriages end in divorce. We should quit claiming that marriage is so sacred until we figure out how to honor its sacredness ourselves, as straight people. Once we’re above an 88.356% success rate, we can start talking about not wanting “foreigners” inside of our “sacred” institutions. For now, we should wonder why gay people even want the “privilege” of marrying. Are they that eager to hire divorce lawyers?!

As we try to figure out these complex issues as a country and as individuals, why not err on the side of acceptance and love rather than erring on the side of “reasoned” disagreement?

Your supposed reason is faulty.

So is mine.

But there is no doubt that human beings could use more love, affirmation, and acceptance. Even if they are morally corrupt, they aren’t likely to make changes because you have a more “reasonable” thought process than they do. People grow and change through love, plain and simple. Even if you’re right and the Supreme Court is wrong, expressing that opinion will ostracize about ten thousand people for every one it converts to your point of view. Showing people that you love them without needing them to “get their shit together first” will reverse that ratio, winning over ten thousand for every one you offend with your unconditional love (though it’s hard to imagine love like that turning anyone off, but I wanted to keep the math nice and tidy).

So whether you’re like Sturgill Simson, who realized through drug use that love is the most powerful drug on earth…or if you’re like Cheryl Strayed who cries at the bravery it takes for people to come out of any closet that society has locked with a dead bolt…or if you’ve spent so much time thinking about who’s right and who’s wrong and you’ve come to the conclusion that all philosophies eventually dissolve into “it’s turtles all the way down,” I, for one, don’t believe we will do the world any harm by opting for extreme and radical acceptance of our fellow humans as “simply human.” Like you, they are confused, broken, scared, unsure about God, unsure about what happens when they die, unsure about whether it’s more important to fit in or to be authentic. Gay, straight, transgender, murderer, or even Republican…all of us deserve the benefit of the doubt. All of us deserve the life-changing benefit of radical love.

So I’ll end with this admission: I’m sure I’m wrong about most things. But I, for one, do think it’s turtles all the way down.

But I’m willing to admit that maybe it’s actually giraffes. Or cats. If it’s cats, I’m gonna be pissed. I hate cats.

 

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

 

 

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Un-F*ck the World

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

Still reading? Okay, I warned you.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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That Train Has Sailed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
 

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Happy Birthday to Me? Well, Thank You!

funny-birthday-cake-messages-4

Gosh, it feels like just yesterday I was thirty-eight-years-old. Like all thirty-eight-year-olds, I was reckless and thought I knew everything. But when I woke up at 3:30 (again) this morning, after a full and restful night of 5ish hours of sleep, I knew immediately that something had changed. During those five hours, I grew up, learned my lessons, and now pronounce myself old and wise: ready to share with you what I’ve learned in thirty-nine years. You are quite welcome.

Oh, and I like Ferraris, free vacations to exotic locations, pet elephants, and rare diamonds, all of which can be found on Amazon. I do accept late gifts.

But I want to give you something, too, so here’s what I know at this point in my life:

  • Not much at all. I mean, virtually nothing, so you should probably stop reading.

 

  • Life, afterlife, themeaningoflife, why-do-bad-things-happen-to-good-people, do we owe God an explanation or vice versa…all of life’s biggest questions, in other words simply do not have clear-cut answers. If you think they do, you’re setting yourself up for a rude awakening. I’ve undergone my own rude awakening on this front, and it’s pretty brutal to think you have it all sort of figured out only to discover one morning that virtually nothing you thought you could be sure of is 100% certain. We/you/I will have to learn to live with the mystery – the whatthefuck – of it all if we are ever going to have peace. This is life’s ultimate irony: Peace comes from accepting uncertainty.

 

  • Dogs are probably the closest thing to pure Goodness that exist on earth. When people don’t make life worth living, a good dog can probably keep you going until you find a person worth living for.

 

  • Death is central to whatever life is all about. It may well be The Meaning of Life. It’s the only universal, and it’s something none of us will wriggle our way out of, and it’s something that starts happening, literally and figuratively, from the moment we’re born, or conceived even. No one wants to die; unfortunately, we don’t get a choice in the matter. But! When the lighting is just right and your mood is maybe a teensy bit alcohol-enhanced, you can start to see how beautiful death can be. I mean, seriously, this view of death happens for me about once every 6 years, 4 months, 17 days, 9 hours, 54 minutes, and 12 seconds. But I got a glimpse of it on Monday while I sat in my car crying, yes again, and listening to my “Sad” playlist (yes, I have one of those (see below), and you should, too). I thought about how hard everything had become, how everything redeeming and Good in my life had been stolen from me, either literally or through my own screwed up perspective that completely obliterates things that should be filled with joy. (Uh Tim, where’s the “beauty of death” part of this?!)…And then, after hours of listening to the same songs over and over again, that little glimmer of sunlight hit the world in just the right way, and right there in the midst of one of my lower moments, I just decided to accept all of the holes in my heart and brain as they were, to “not judge” them as a dear friend recently encouraged me to do. I just let them sit there and crush me, and for just a few minutes they felt like down blankets on a cold winter night, protecting me, embracing me, listening to me, accompanying me. Then I wanted to kick the blankets off again, but it felt like a healthy moment in the midst of a really bad afternoon. On the whole, we might as well try to become friends with Death because he’s a fairly insistent, stalker sort of “friend” whether we like it or not. I do not recommend becoming Facebook friends, though, as his page is really, really disturbing. I unfriended him a few weeks ago

 

  • Parental love is the closest thing to truly Unconditional Love that exists. Some parents reject their children, of course, but if there is justice, those people will someday receive the worst punishment imaginable – which is unconditional love from someone else, which will graciously but horribly illuminate for them what they’ve missed out on by not providing this sort of love for their children. But good parents can love just about anyone who they helped create: Jeffrey Dahmer’s dad loved him to his dying day (see some previous post that I’m too lazy to link to here); Dylan Klebold’s (one of the two Columbine killers from 1999) said she’d ask him to forgive her for not knowing how badly he was hurting, and she said she’d forgive him even though no one else would (listen to the Ted Talk called “Love No Matter What” for this account); Ted Bundy’s mom said he’d always be her baby boy…Point being, parental love is well nigh truly unconditional. I’m pretty damn sure I’d still love my kids no matter what they did, though a not-so-small part of me hopes they won’t test this by becoming like any of the people I’ve just listed.

 

  • All that matters is people…relationships. This one might be a cliché, but it’s also a cliché to say that something is “easy as pie.” If you’ve seen American Pie, you know that this is completely true: pies are easy (mom and dad, that is an extremely dirty joke, and I hope you don’t get it. I also hope you don’t blame yourselves for how much of a degenerate I’ve become. Like Lady Gaga, I was born this way. You don’t get that either, but just move on. And I love you. And thanks for your support!). But back to relationships. If you’ve been reading this blog for very long, you probably are aware that I’ve been in some pretty deep holes lately. Holes that feel like going cave (scuba) diving and realizing you’ve become disconnected from the rope that’s supposed to lead you back out of the cave…you know, so you can live. But what always keeps me swimming for dear life back out of the cave is the people in my life. My kids are at the top of the list, with apologies to anyone else who’d like to be there (see #6). Not trophies or gold watches from promotions or paychecks or 2nd homes or the latest technology, but people. Sounds simple, but for some reason, it’s VERY not simple. People come out of the womb messy and die messy and even create some unnecessary messes along the way. But despite that inevitability, I do know that relationships are the only thing truly worth staking your life’s meaning on.

 

  • Finally, here’s what I know after 39 stupid-fast years on earth. Drumroll, please: Almost nothing. I will post again in 39 years and hope to have 16 things on the list by then, but for now, you only get 8. Okay 7, if you count 1 and 8 as the same. Which they are.

Have a great day celebrating my birthday!

 

PS. After receiving a few responses to this that made me realize how negative it sounded, I feel the need to offer this afterword:

I actually wrote this post from a pretty good “place.” Indeed, I’ve had a rough stretch over the past few weeks, but before that, I had one of the longer good stretches I’ve had in a long time. Also, every one of the points above has actually been a very GOOD revelation for me, even the one about death. Learning to come to terms with unanswerable questions, the pinnacle of which is the death question(s), has been a major part of growing and healing for me over the past six months. I don’t think I’m usually guilty of being tone-deaf to my posts, but I was to this one. It sounds very negative for sure. But it’s not. You might just have to take my word for it, though.

 

*The idea for this post was stolen from Anne Lamott, who recently wrote a similar post about turning 61: https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/662177577245222

 

*My Sad Songs Playlist (well, part of it and forgive the annoying format that I’m too lazy to fix from copying and pasting from Word):

David Wilcox (A folksy, guy-and-a-guitar, North Carolina-cult-following musician who had more influence on my college years than my penis.)
o All the Roots Grow Deeper
o Common as the Rain
o Language of the Heart
o Last Chance Waltz

John Mayer (You’ve probably heard of him, either because of his music or his inability to decide where his own penis belongs.)
o The Heart of Life
o Stop this Train

Tim McGraw (I know nothing about his penis. Sorry!).
o Red Ragtop

Lady Antebellum
o Heart of the World
o Need You Now

Johnny Cash (originally Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails):
o Hurt

Fleetwood Mac (or Dixie Chicks)
o Landslide

R.E.M.
o Nightswimming (there’s nothing particularly sad about this song except the sound of Michael Stipe’s voice, which means you could replace this with just about any R.E.M. song).

Eric Clapton
o Tears in Heaven (almost too sad to listen to most of the time, at least for those of us whose greatest fear is losing a child).

Sawyer Brown
o The Walk

Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss
o Whiskey Lullaby

 

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Now IS the “Good Old Days”

buy the pony
Ahhh, the good old days! Learning to ride a bike…going to school…realizing school sucks and getting out for summer break…realizing summer doesn’t suck but being too ignorant to realize how fleeting it is, thus being able to enjoy it without thinking how little of it is left like I do…first crush…first kiss…second kiss…twenty-eighth kiss…college…college…college…first job…marriage…first baby…every baby…new house…

I took a trip to the good-old-days yesterday, thanks to the realization that 1,000 photos on my phone is probably more than I need to keep readily available. As I was trying to pare it down to more like 100 so as to give my phone about half of its memory back, I couldn’t believe how much my kids had grown in the time it took to take those 1,000 pictures – less than two years. Probably 200 of them were pictures actually taken by my kids, which means they were of things like the back of the driver’s seat in our minivan, or, when they are feeling more artsy, the floor of the car near their seats, revealing a breath-taking array of crushed potato chips, Chick-fil-a french fries, assorted cellophane wrappers, and a discarded, forgotten toy, the desire for which brought them to tears only two days ago…before they got that other toy…which will be in tomorrow’s picture, taken by one of the kids.

But the pictures I actually took, meaning the good ones, were a poignant reminder of how fast life goes. I still feel like my kids are brand new, though I haven’t changed a diaper in almost two years (thank God), and my kids act more like humans than raccoons the majority of the time, which wasn’t the case for what seemed like decades but now seems like four minutes. Even though the pictures I was sorting through were no more than two years old, I felt like an eighty-four-year-old grandpa wondering where the time went.

And then I realized that there will come a time when today seems like ages ago, when the frustrating parts are forgotten, and the photographs we took today will seem like snapshots of a simpler time when everyone was innocent and happy. That’s not the case, of course. The reality is that today my son literally hurt himself while sitting still in his car seat. Actually, he hurt himself when he fell out of his car seat, somehow, while the car was perfectly still and absolutely nothing other than the pulsating energy of an almost-five-year-old body could inexplicably cause him to fall. For a few minutes, I questioned the design flaws in human beings, wondering why we don’t come ready-made to avoid harming ourselves by defying the laws of inertia. But once the can-you-possibly-be-hurt-that-bad-crying stopped, life was pretty good again, and a picture would’ve probably captured what will soon seem like “the good old days.”

My brain isn’t very good at enjoying the moment, embracing the journey, savoring the process, living in the moment, blah, blah, blah. No, my brain would much prefer fretting about how Josiah will hurt himself tonight while he’s sleeping in his padded room…or feeling too sad to look at old pictures because they just remind me that life will never have a pause button – not for the few seconds of bliss that come about once every five years, nor for the moments when I need to hit pause so I don’t hit the person who just did or said something selfish and stupid at my expense.

I have always been hyper-aware of the brevity of life. I’ve thought incessantly about death since I can remember, wondering when it will be my fated turn to get THAT phone call. And then I beat myself up for being so damn morbid. And then I repeat the same pattern over and over. And then I get mad at myself for all the moments I’ve missed repeating this pattern. And then I repeat the pattern again. This is why I am writing this well past my bedtime and why I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in over six months. How I wish I could turn off the madness and live right in the moment, content with whatever my circumstances are right then, whether it’s the moment in the photograph or the moment five minutes later when I’m apologizing to my kids again for using the F-word and the S-word and the D-word when Ellie Ruth does a cartwheel right into Josiah’s face…again.

The point of this post isn’t to beat myself up for sucking at what I’m encouraging you to get better at. It’s just a little note written to all of us to remember that today will probably seem like the good old days at some point. Hopefully this will remind us not only to cherish each moment, but also to remember that the good old days had their bumps and bruises just like today does. There are no good old days. OR, if you’re an optimist (unlike me), every day is the good old days!

So try to remember that life is indeed short, so each day, just buy the damn pony (even if today’s pony is a three-legged, one-eyed, ready-for-the-glue-factory sort of pony).
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Beautiful, Beautiful You

you-are-beautifulDoes the beauty of life ever overwhelm you?

Do you ever have one of those days when everyone from the grumpy barista at Starbucks…to the slow driver on his phone in the fast lane of the highway…to the fat man crossing the street too slowly…to the tree you’ve never noticed outside your office window…to the kindness of the person who lets you go ahead of them in line at the grocery store since you only have 3 items…to your home, your spouse, your kids.
Given the inner workings of a brain like mine, these days only come so often, and sadly, the days when the opposite description of the people above would be more apt. But I’m learning to embrace them when they come.

This morning I sat in a coffee shop working on a new book about my spiritual journey thus far in life. When four men sat down in my quiet, somewhat private section of the coffee shop, I was annoyed. They started in about “church and the message on Sunday.” I thought, “Great, here I am trying to write about my recent need to escape church, and some men’s Bible study group sits down about 18 inches away. And then they talked for two hours about everything from Jesus to reincarnation – just philosophizing, not dogmatizing. It was as if they were there to tell me to press on with my new book.

This was a beautiful moment.

And this morning my sister-in-law sent a picture of her boyfriend’s motorcycle helmet, which now reads “Shake the Dust” prominently on the side. Someone besides me is now my compatriot in wanting to “shake the dust,” to embrace all the beautiful-but-broken people and facets of life that Mojgani illustrates almost magically in his poem.

This was beautiful to me.

And there’s my beautiful and saintly wife standing across the room from me, engrossed in some new technology for work, mumbling things to herself as usual, finishing her lunch…existing with me, often for me…this ordinary saint of a woman who has shown me unconditional love.

She is beautiful to me.

My dog lies contentedly on the floor, existing in the moment as only an animal can. Unconcerned by anything other than this moment spent with me, my wife, and my son.

Her simplicity and complete acceptance of her dog-ness is beautiful.

My son sits on the couch next to me playing some sort of game on my iPhone. He’s peaceful, engrossed, unaware of the world around him in that way adults wish they could still taste from time to time.

He is precious and beautiful.

My daughter – my precious daughter who was seemingly born last week – is off at First Grade. Who taught her to read and write and to love dance music and never to be scared of anything or anyone? Who taught her to befriend the boy with special needs in her class, to walk with him even when he lags behind the others in the group?

She is beautiful inside and out.

And even I, as I learn to forgive myself and accept myself as I am, without judgment, with plenty of grace, mercy, and patience…can I say it? I am beautiful, too. Complex, maddening to myself and others, moody and unpredictable. Broken, but trying, forging ahead, hoping, accepting myself now, as I am.

I am beautiful.

And you…Not only when you get dressed up or act a bit more patient than usual or do something selfless for someone. Where you are, how you are…no changes necessary. Fall into it; forgive yourself; embrace all the components of your complex but captivating self. You are the only YOU. You’re trying, hoping, growing, but no matter how far you have to go or how “un-far” you feel like you’ve come, you are unique and profound.

You are beautiful.

 

PS. Share this message with someone who needs to know s/he is beautiful. Thanks!

 

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