Mental Illness and Exhaustion: Give Yourself a Break

Mental illness and exhaustion: Friends that seem like conjoined twins.

My friend texted to say she’d had a rough trip with her family. “Lots of stressors and I forgot my Xanax,” she said. By the time she texted, she was hiding in the bathroom, running the shower so people would think she was just taking a long shower, and sobbing.

Which got me thinking about mental illness and exhaustion, something virtually every mentally ill person I know deals with.

Any psychologist will warn you about stressors in your environment. My psychiatrist even tells me that she could make literally anyone psychotic if she were allowed to put them under certain kinds of stress. As she is a 5’2”, kind-as-can-be female, I don’t get too concerned when she celebrates this fact.

Everyone has stressors, and everyone can be pushed over the edge; it’s just that those of us with a mental illness are a good bit less capable of dealing with mental/emotional/psychological ones. And at least for me, here’s why: I already have about 80% of my capacity for stress happening inside of my brain at all times.

Whether it’s depression or anxiety or OCD or bi-polar disorder, if our illness(es) are up and running, we already feel like a normal person probably would after their most stressful week at work: Boss in a terrible mood, layoffs on the horizon, huge projects coming due, 70 hours, and missed three of your kids’ events to boot.

After all that, even a normal person would probably be pretty unhappy to find out that s/he had Friday night dinner guests coming over. But they could probably take a deep breath, muster up the last vestiges of energy they had, and smile when the guests arrived.

Now, maybe, we’re on a level playing field: you with your long week and me with my brain that never stops questioningaskingwonderingwhatifing, are both running on fumes, but if we hit the lights green and put the car in neutral as we’re going downhill, we can make it to the gas station. Maybe. If we’re lucky. If things go well, we might even enjoy the evening.

But we’re on exhausted and not at our best. If someone says the wrong thing; if your kid spills a drink; if your spouse uses that tone with you; or a million other “ifs,” we’re going to have to use the last of our energy to keep from performing professional wrestling moves on our dining room table. Actually, we’ll probably become angrily quiet and use the bathroom seven times until these intruders finally leave and we can go to bed or yell at our innocent families or pets.

I offer this not as an excuse but as an explanation from someone who has been both people in the above scenario. In my younger days, before my depression became overwhelming enough that it might well end my life if I ignore it, I could work a 70 hour week and still hang out with friends on a Friday night. Without even planning to slash their tires on my way out. I could even stomach a couple of busy weeks in a row with a not-very-restful weekend in between. Looking back, it seems like I had a puppy’s energy level in those days. I dealt with OCD back then, but it was well-medicated and fairly calm. I was pretty “normal.”

Not anymore, though. Between my OCD and my often-crippling depression, I feel like I’ve had a long week when I wake up after ten hours of sleep. If the kids are loud, or in bad moods, I’m pretending I need to use the bathroom for half an hour at a time just to attempt a reset. Which almost never works. Depression makes me feel completely sapped of energy, much like you would on the worst day of a bad cold. Technically, I probably could do the tasks that need doing, but just standing up from a chair feels like tasks 1-34. Then the guilt sets in that I can’t just suck it up and do what everyone else is able to do. And now I’m at war with two demons: the energy-drain of mental illness AND the guilt of being a human being who wants and wishes to do more.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve found a medical solution for this problem regarding our constant exhaustion. Maybe someday. But for now I offer two small things: First, you are not alone. If I can tell you anything from doing this work for awhile it’s that exhaustion is one of the most common symptoms of mental illness. I promise that you are not alone in this feeling. Second, give yourself grace. Any healing that might happen has to start there. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with providing for yourself the kind of care you need. Imagine if your body was lifting weights all day, every day, and even when you slept. You’d expect it to be exhausted. And that’s what your brain is actually doing.

To sum up: You’re very tired, and so am I. Others may not see why, but we can see why in ourselves and in others. So give yourself grace, and when you’re up for it, let someone else know they are not alone in their pain.

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BEFORE YOU GO: Friends, in my consistently inconsistent fashion, I have finally gotten started with the page I began working on about six months ago. I’m as excited about it as anything I’ve ever done because it takes my story out of the center of this blog and puts yours there instead. Please head over to https://tkwana.org/stories-about-mental-illness/ and listen to one or two of the stories there. THEN email me and let me know you would like to add yours. I’ll send you instructions. It can be anonymous if you want. I can even mask your voice a bit through the magic of technology. So don’t be shy! ALSO, NO MATTER WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY, YOUR STORY WOULD HELP SOMEONE. It doesn’t have to be jaw-dropping. The more ordinary the better. I just want people to know they have company in this world. I want there to be hundreds of 15-30 minute stories there eventually. All you need is a smart phone and a quiet place to record. I can edit out all of your mess-ups so you can just talk and not worry. Please, please consider joining in the effort and email me at: toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com

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Articles for further reading:

From The Mighty

From the Mental Illness Alphabet

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I write this blog because I want people to feel encouraged that they are not alone. Please share it with someone who might need to read it. Thanks!

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These Only Go to 7: Mood Disorders and Healthy Expectations

In the cult classic “mockumentary”, “This is Spinal Tap,” there’s a famous scene where a would-be rock star explains to an interviewer why his amplifiers go to 11, not the usual 10. Rather than try to capture the magic for you, I’ll let you watch for yourself…

I haven’t seen that movie in over twenty years, but I still regularly say “these go to 11” just about every time I am stumped and don’t have a proper response.

Over the past few years, I’ve had so many doctors ask me to use the 1-10 scale to tell them how I’m doing with my mood disorders that I’ve become accustomed to thinking in those terms. I’ve certainly never made it to 11, but the truth is that I rarely live above a 5. What got me thinking was a great evening I had the other night. Ann went out with some friends, so I took my kids out for pizza and ice cream. A lot of times, sitting around the dinner table, trying to figure out how to have a meaningful dialogue with small children can be hard for me. I tend to feel like I’m failing unless we’re discussing the pros and cons of universal healthcare or something like that. But they had recently downloaded the game Family Feud on my phone. Just like the TV version, the game we were playing gave us a certain amount of time to guess what the top answers were to some random question.

We had a blast playing this game while we waited for our food. Everyone was happy, even me. Then the pizza came and it was delicious. Afterwards we walked across the street for ice cream. We got in the car; no one spilled their ice cream; I don’t think I had to referee even one argument for the entire evening. Once we were home, everyone did their own thing for a bit, and then I put my babies to bed.

A perfect daddy/kids date night, right?!

Well, almost. Ish. I mean I hate to say no, but the truth is that I’d rate the night about a 7. The reason for the 3 docked points? Simple: my mood-disorder-laden brain.

My brain that, even while playing Family Feud was racing with all the possible negative outcomes for the evening or just for life in general. I couldn’t help but psychoanalyze the picture perfect family in the corner, knowing that, as with all such families, it takes a lot of work to seem so put together, to pretend so hard. And every time someone wandered through the door, there was my grim, obsessive reminder that all mass shootings begin with someone innocently walking through a door. I played out scenarios in my head, wondering what I’d do. Would I be able to protect my kids? What if I turned out to be a coward and got one of my kids killed? Would I kill myself? And of course, there was the meta analysis of my own situation: I wondered why I couldn’t just relax. I chastised myself for failing to relax. I took some deep breaths. But nothing calmed my uncalmable brain.

We boxed up our left-over pizza and headed for ice cream. It was delicious. My daughter asked for a taste of the flavor I always get and then ordered herself a cup. She seemed so grown up, ordering something other than chocolate ice cream with sprinkles. So I began thinking of how much I want to hold onto her and keep her safe. I thought about the mean girls and mean boys that are just starting to enter her social world. I thought of how much harder it will get in a few years when the hormones knock all of us upside the head for a few years. I just love her so much; can’t I keep her from getting hurt in any way, shape, or form? Please! Grant me this one power!

And I thought about my little boy who is still every bit a little boy, naive to all the complex realities of life that his sister is starting to taste. He likes Legos and Hot Wheels. And I adore him and want him to stay like he is. But I also want to help him grow up. What if I’m not up to the task?

So by the time we arrived home I was far off in a distant land, pondering the same things I ponder day in and day out, worrying about the same things, obsessing over the same things…scared of letting my family down, but also wanting a massive stroke to take me out any day now so I can be done with this incessant pain.

When I thought about our perfect evening together, I realized I’d probably give it a 7. Not because anything was wrong, but because for me, even when everything is right, the broken wires in my brain tell me not to get too comfortable because that’s when disaster strikes. The broken wires force me to feel like some futuristic movie robot who is constantly receiving a Google search’s worth of information about everything I lay eyes on. Maybe in an ideal world, I could shift my expectations and just accept that, for me, what I experienced that night was, in fact, a 10. Hell, you can call 10 whatever you want to, just like the Spinal Tap so wisely teaches us.

But not really, unfortunately. There’s something in the human brain…or even in an animal’s brain come to think of it…that knows when things aren’t quite right. No amount of wishing or wanting has enabled my brain to simply accept reality on its own terms, to embrace an evening that is a “Perfect 7”. Plain and simple, there is just something broken: call it depression or bi-polar disorder or the more vague-sounding “mood disorder”…Whatever it is, it won’t let me turn the nob past seven.

And this is my message yet again. It will be the same message in 20 years I’m sure: People with a mental illness deserve some grace just as much as people who are in a wheelchair or bald with terminal cancer. Life is different for us…fundamentally and irrevocably different. I even had a therapist balk at this concept one time – the idea that a mental illness qualifies as a disability. She didn’t want me thinking I could just get away with a poor-me attitude all the time. And I get that. That’s not helpful for someone who has cancer or is in a wheelchair or who has a mental illness.

On the other hand, I think it can be very helpful to recognize that we are in fact different and we have different needs and capabilities because of our broken parts. For me at least, this doesn’t lead to a woe-is-me mentality as much as it leads me to have grace for myself when I need more time alone than others or when I can’t handle a chaotic restaurant or when I feel both joyful and profoundly sad when I spend time with my kids because my brain won’t let me forget how temporary this all is. I’ve spent my whole life chastising myself for not being able to “just get over” certain things. But when I treat myself with respect and grace and kindness, seeing the unique ways that my brokenness comes with a flip side of compassion and understanding for others, I can treat my “weakness” a bit differently.

I’m still sad that my amps only go to 7. Very sad. Devastated, actually. But having compassion for myself inches me a bit closer to feeling like that 7 is something to be excited about, even though it will never be a 10 (or 11).

 
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I write this blog to let people know they are not alone. If you know someone who might need to read something like this, please pass it along or encourage them to email me at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com.
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To Know We Are Not Alone is now an official 501c3 entity. Our mission is to educate, encourage, and connect people who suffer from mental illnesses. Please help with a small (or large) donation if you can. You can do so here.

More importantly, if you know someone who needs to know that they are not alone in their struggle with relationships or mental illness, please share this post/blog with them. Thank you!

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The Haunted Dreams of Mental Illness

I tell people that my brain never stops worrying, even in the middle of the night, and it’s true. If I wake up to pee, the thing I went to be worrying about is still churning, churning, churning. Sleep is the closest thing to relief that I get, but last night’s dream demonstrates that even my dreams are haunted by obsessive worry.

In the dream, I was in my psychiatrist’s waiting room. When the dream began it was just me and a couple of other people. Apparently, I didn’t have a set appointment but needed a refill on one of the medicines I take that gives me a few hours of relief from the internal strife. My doctor had come out from her office in the back to talk to me, and we were discussing whether it was in fact time for a refill on this medicine. She was worried that I was possibly abusing it (this is something that is a real-life concern of hers, though it’s unfounded). We weren’t exactly arguing, but I wasn’t convincing her that I actually needed the refill. In typical “dream time” fashion, the waiting room was suddenly full of about twenty people, all with appointments to see her. I was holding them up, in other words, and in the dream, I was well aware of how far behind my doctor now was.

And that was about it. There was no clear ending to the dream. It just stopped. So let me play Freud here and offer an analysis…

First, I’m constantly worried about not having the right medication. There have been times when I’ve waited too long to refill my meds and then the pharmacy is out of something or my insurance company has decided they need prior authorization for a medicine I’ve taken for seven years or something like that. I freak out, come close to panicking, and then it gets resolved like no big deal. If only I could live in that reality – that it will work out – when it happens.

Second, there’s the worry that my doctor will quit giving me this particular medication that offers me some relief. It’s true that I have addictive tendencies, but it’s also true that I have never abused this medication. In fact, I don’t even take it as often as I’m allowed to because I’m afraid of getting addicted to it and because I always want to have a little left over to prevent the situation in #1.

Third, I am constantly anxious about time, thus the part of the dream where my doctor is running late because of me. My siblings and I joke about how my mom used to have dinner ready at 6:00 sharp. This didn’t mean 6:01 or 6:07, like it would in most households. It meant 5:59:43. If any of us happened to be out and about in the car and 5:57 rolled around and we weren’t home yet, the old school car phone would ring and we knew exactly why: “Where are you? We’re about to sit down. We’re going to start because everyone else is here and the food is warm.” Most of us were pulling up the driveway because we knew not to be late. But that call was inevitable unless you were 15 minutes early. So, to this day, when I start to sense that I’m going to be late or that I’m making someone else late, my anxiety level quadruples.

Finally, I want people to like me. In the dream, I could see the frustration building in the waiting room, and naturally, they were all blaming me for taking the doctor’s time rather than blaming the doctor who wouldn’t just write the prescription. I’ve said before that I battle an unwinnable internal cognitive dissonance: 49% of me wants everyone to like me; 51% of me wants to speak my mind and feel heard. These two do not play well together to say the least. Every time I pick one, I’m slaughtering the other half of myself essentially. But the part that needs to speak up usually wins out, and in this case, I needed for my doctor to understand my need for a refill, even if it meant all the other people hated me. But of course, that didn’t mean I didn’t have to suffer with all the anxiety that came with people being angry with me.

So there you have it: a night in the life of my anxious brain. There’s another dream I have, a sort of recurring (thematic) dream in which I need to get somewhere or escape something dangerous, but I am moving in slow motion or stuck in quick sand. The dream never comes to a conclusion…I just try to escape something or get somewhere with no hope of ever doing so.

There’s no off switch. Alcohol helps, but it makes me angry. Not good. Pot helps, but it makes me too numb. Not good. Psychiatric meds help, but in a slow and subtle way that quits feeling very magical after a few weeks. I’ve heard good things about Heroin, but I’ve also heard it comes with a drawback or two. Sleep helps, but only if I’m not having an anxious dream, and I have a lot of them. I honestly don’t remember life without profound anxiety, even extending into my dreams. It often feels like torture to be fully honest.

I wish I had a solution, like warm milk before bed, but I’m writing more to identify with those of you who feel like there is no escape than to provide some remedy. And twisted as it might be, that’s always my goal, really…not to fix you, but to encourage you. I know you’re out there and you’re not alone. Talk to someone who understands; hell, email me if you need to. But as always, my belief is that one of the best forms of help in our situation is to know that others are in the boat with you.

Sweet dreams.

 
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I write this blog to let people know they are not alone. If you know someone who might need to read something like this, please pass it along or encourage them to email me at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com.
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To Know We Are Not Alone is now an official 501c3 entity. Our mission is to educate, encourage, and connect people who suffer from mental illnesses. Please help with a small (or large) donation if you can. You can do so here.

More importantly, if you know someone who needs to know that they are not alone in their struggle with relationships or mental illness, please share this post/blog with them. Thank you!

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Anger and Mental Illness

I’ve been told many times that I might have a teeny tiny tendency to fly off the handle in the midst of conflict. To which I say: “Guilty as charged!” I have anger issues.

Therapists say that anger is a “secondary emotion,” meaning that there’s an underlying cause, which is the actual problem. So when someone gets angry, it’s really hurt or fear or sadness manifesting itself as anger. Unfortunately, anger, at least for a man, is more socially appropriate that sadness or fear or hurt feelings – not that those are the only three things that become anger, but those are the top three for me.

I hate to brag, but part of my problem is that I’m often way ahead of people, but not in a I-already-looked-up-the-directions-to-the-restaurant sort of way (I never look up directions until I’ve actually started moving in the car). My way-ahead-of-you-ness is more like this: When you pissed me off yesterday by saying something that you thought was no big deal but I was upset by because I’m hyper-sensitive, I started having a conversation in my head that involved all the possible things you might say to me, and if you say x, y, or z, I’m going to lose it because there’s a backstory to why those sorts of comments infuriate me going all the way back to fourth grade, but there you went and said that very thing, and now I’m as pissed as if you punched my wife in the face, so please forgive me while I slash your tires because you said THAT.

I’ve never actually slashed anyone’s tires, and for the record, I’ve never punched anyone, slapped anyone, or even grabbed anyone by the hair and swung them around just to scare them. Never. Basically, when I’m mad, I become the world’s best arguer, you see, because I’ve already had this conversation 64 times before we got started. I did not want to have this conversation 64 times, but my feelings were hurt, and I have these overwhelming abandonment issues, you see, so the second things go awry, I’m basically a little child who is scared.

And like a scared little child, I lie awake and think of all the awful things that might happen mixed with all the awful things that have already happened, and I’m inconsolable. I just happen to be a grown man with a pretty good handle on the English language so that makes me a little child who is good at making you feel pretty bad about yourself. And because I’m a grown man, I’m not allowed to do what kids do: ask incessant questions to try to feel safe…or cry to the person who upset them because they haven’t learned the stupid social code that tells them not to admit weakness…or even just sulk until someone drags it out of them. Nope, I just start putting up the defenses, which involve an angry tone of voice, body language, and words.

Certainly not all folks with a mental illness respond to the world around them in anger. However, all mentally ill people I know struggle mightily with feeling misunderstood. Because our brains won’t cooperate, we respond to situations in extreme ways. Here’s a metaphor: We’ve all had that road rage encounter where something very minor goes awry, and another driver absolutely loses it – honking, shooting the bird, maybe even pointing a finger gun at you and pretending to kill you, as I once had happen. The natural reaction, of course, is to think, “What has humankind come to? What kind of crazy people are out here wandering the streets? I hope that guy accidentally cuts all of his fingernails way too short and lives in pain for a week.”

But we also, hopefully, know that whatever happened in that moment is certainly not the whole story…that the healthier reaction, if we could sit down with Road Rage Man would be to ask, “What’s going on that something so minor upset you so much?” For our own sanity and the sanity of the world at large, the better reaction would be to feel sorry for someone who overreacted so badly. No one overreacts without cause, and who knows what justifiable reasons that driver actually has to pretend to kill you just because you moved over a lane when he wanted that empty space to himself?

I assume the analogy is clear, but I like overstating the case, so I’ll spell it out for you: Mentally ill people (and plenty of others, too!) are the angry driver. Are they overreacting? Of course. Are they far too angry about the situation at hand? Definitely. But might they have a very good reason? Yes.

That doesn’t mean you allow people to walk all over you or yell at you unnecessarily. But it means you will improve your relationship with your mentally ill loved one if you can learn to see past the surface behavior and try to understand what’s at the root of said behavior. For my part, I know I’m angry. That’s not news to me any more than my awareness that I’m male. But it’s also true that, when someone will stick around long enough to get past my fit of rage, they will realize that I’m actually just sad and fearful and broken. And those emotions are far easier for most people to interact with than anger.

So for those on the “giving” end of the anger, you’re not alone, and mercifully, I’ve discovered that there are some people out there in the world who can see past your anger. Try not to shut them out the first time they infuriate you. Many of them really do want what’s best for you. And for those on the “receiving” end of the anger, take deep breaths; try to be patient; and try to see that your loved one might not mean to fire finger guns at you; they’ve just been sitting in traffic for a long, long time.

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Well, the time has come to ask what I hate asking because I am pathologically afraid of annoying people. But the reality is that this endeavor has grown beyond a simple blog. I’m already spending a couple of thousand dollars a year now that I’m podcasting and doing some advertising (promoting) on Facebook. In the near future, I also plan to start at least one and hopefully multiple small groups dedicated specifically to helping mentally ill people know they have company. That, too, will require time and money. Long story short, I need some additional resources. Now that I have 501(c)(3) status, I can ask you for help while at the very least offering you a tax deduction. There are 3 ways to donate:

  1. You can transfer money directly from your bank via PayPal donations (seriously, why don’t you have a PayPal account by now, people?!).
  2. You can use PayPal to make a credit card donation.
  3. FOR THE TWO ABOVE, YOU CAN MAKE THEM RECURRING MONTHLY IF YOU’D LIKE TO. Just check the box to this effect.

  4. You can write an old-school checks (ask your grandmother to show you how to write one, and then email me at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com for the mailing address).

All covering-up-my-discomfort-with-humor aside, I want to grow this endeavor into something that helps more people and helps them in more of a variety of ways. Anything you can contribute would be profoundly appreciated.

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More importantly, if you know someone who needs to know that they are not alone in their struggle with anger or mental illness, please share this post/blog with them. Thank you!

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Podcast: Christianity and Mental Illness


 

Religion and Mental Illness Podcast Show Notes:

Psyche (root of psychology): originally viewed as the human soul, mind, or spirit. Today we view the psyche as essentially rooted in our brains…something distinctly separate from our spirit. However, in religious circles, these two are still decidedly overlapped. Herein lies the problem/issue that is addressed in this podcast.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigmund_Freud%27s_views_on_religion

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-24/edition-4/mental-health-religion-and-culture

No matter how you slice it, we have a serious problem in that religion and psychology are usually seen as being at odds with each other. Many religious people refuse mental health treatment, believing that God can/will cure them.

Early 20th-century interest in religion and mental health was sparked by Freud’s view of religion as intrinsically neurotic. Freud described religion and its rituals as a collective neurosis, which, he suggested, could save a person the effort of forming an individual neurosis. For example, in an early paper, Freud (1907/1924) spelt out the similarities between religious rituals and obsessional rituals. He argued that guilt is created when rituals are not carried out, and assuaged when they are, so a self-perpetuating ‘ritualaholic’ cycle is set up.

Freud’s views prompted furious reaction from the religious establishment, leading in some circles to the dismissal of psychotherapy and psychotherapists as worthless atheistic frauds; but there were parallel counter-movements. Within psychodynamic theory and practice, and in the social scientific and psychiatric arenas, there were serious attempts to explore religiosity and spirituality and their mental health implications.

http://amysimpsononline.com/2013/09/evangelicals-youre-wrong-about-mental-illness/

A recent LifeWay Research survey produced some interesting statistics related to mental illness…48 percent believe serious mental illness can be cured by prayer alone.

OCD

Can Christianity Cure Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

The author shows that Luther, Bunyan, and Therese had textbook OCD and overcame it by trusting in God with their obsessions. They gave the obsession and outcome into God’s hands and trusted in Christ’s righteousness as being their righteousness. I struggled with the Calvinistic bent Bunyan and Luther have. They seem to trust more in God’s sovereignty over ALL areas of life, whereas I still allow for free will. I admit that my OCD would be less intense if I were a Calvinist, but I’m not still not convinced. I do believe this would be a great read for a Christian with OCD. The author doesn’t push “trust therapy” (my own term) to the exclusion of other therapies (medication, cognitive-behavioral, etc.) but mentions that “trust therapy” leads to spiritual growth. This is a very important point. I think the book could be reduced in length because the “trust therapy,” but it’s still a fairly quick read. It is written on a layman’s level. If you suffer from OCD, may God show his grace to you. And remember, don’t give up. https://www.amazon.com/Can-Christianity-Cure-Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder/dp/1587432064

Scrupulosity: A form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) involving religious or moral obsessions. Scrupulous individuals are overly concerned that something they thought or did might be a sin or other violation of religious or moral doctrine. https://iocdf.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/IOCDF-Scrupulosity-Fact-Sheet.pdf

DEPRESSION

It hasn’t been easy. There are times when Earle is angry and withdrawn. He is often exhausted. I often feel overwhelmed with having to shoulder much of the responsibility for running the home and family. And I sometimes get discouraged knowing we serve a Lord who could reach down and heal this in an instant — but has chosen not to do so. http://www.focusonthefamily.com/lifechallenges/emotional-health/depression/depression-in-the-christian-family

http://www.beliefnet.com/wellness/health/emotional-health/christians-take-depression-seriously.aspx#GTjQOHT6zrLGeAQA.99

Finally, it might be that in some cases overcoming depression requires nothing more than praying for the will to be joyful.There’s a woman I know whose health has failed in many ways. She can only breathe with the help of oxygen tanks; her husband has deserted her; she needs charity to survive. But she is determined to be happy—and she is. Lincoln once said that most people are about as happy as they decide to be. In the end, you may have to pray for the grace and courage to decide to say “yes” to life and, by so doing, prove to the world that you have indeed been saved: “by grace through faith.” To make such a decision is not to be a Pollyanna. It is willing to will the will of God.

As we consider the causes of depression, those of us in the church must face the ways we might be responsible for creating it. Supposedly, we offer a gospel that delivers people from guilt, but often, when we think people do not feel guilty enough to take our gospel seriously, we preach to them in a way that makes them feel guilty. Sadly, we do a much better job of making people feel guilty than we do of delivering them from the guilt we create. We need to confess this and change our ways.

ANXIETY

http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2012/may/how-god-can-use-your-anxiety-for-good.html

God may be using anxiety to draw us closer to him, allowing us to recognize our need and limitations as anchors to the One who is sufficient. Focusing on the way Jesus set boundaries in community and kept a constant line of communication open with his Father, (The Anxious Xian by Rhett Smith)Smith helpfully and practically reconciles the experience of anxiety with the reality of God’s goodness.

https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2012/05/02/eight-reasons-why-my-anxiety-is-pointless-and-foolish/

6. Anxiety is pointless.

Matthew 6:27: “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” [Answer: no one.]

7. Anxiety is worldly.

Matthew 6:31-32: “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things. . . .”

James 4:4: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

8. Tomorrow has enough to worry about and doesn’t need my help.

Matthew 6:34: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Lamentations 3:23: “[God’s mercies] are new every morning.”

http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/religion-spirituality-and-mental-health:

Studies have gone back and forth on the benefits of religion for mental health, but all that’s really clear is that the relationship is very complex.

This supports my belief that it’s an individual issue – some are helped and some are hurt.

http://www.thenewsnerd.com/health/apa-to-classify-belief-in-god-as-a-mental-illness/

The controversial ruling comes after a 5-year study by the APA showed devoutly religious people often suffered from anxiety, emotional distress, hallucinations, and paranoia. The study stated that those who perceived God as punitive was directly related to their poorer health, while those who viewed God as benevolent did not suffer as many mental problems. The religious views of both groups often resulted in them being disconnected from reality.

http://www.livescience.com/52197-religion-mental-health-brain.html

A 2010 study by Newberg and colleagues that included brain scans of Tibetan Buddhist and Franciscan nuns found that these long-term meditators had more activity in frontal-lobe areas such as the prefrontal cortex, compared with people who were not long-term meditators.

Strengthening these areas of the brain may help people be “more calm, less reactionary, better able to deal with stressors,” Newberg said. However, these studies can’t say that prayer changed the brain — it’s possible that these differences existed before the meditators took up their prayer practice. [Mind Games: 7 Reasons You Should Meditate]

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Well, the time has come to ask what I hate asking because I am pathologically afraid of annoying people. But if I am going to have the time and resources to keep writing, podcasting, and researching possible methods and models for small groups dedicated specifically to helping mentally ill people know they have company, I need some additional resources. Now that I have 501(c)(3) status, I can ask you for help while offering you a tax deduction. There are 3 ways to donate:

  1. You can transfer money directly from your bank via PayPal donations (seriously, why don’t you have a PayPal account by now, people?!).
  2. You can use PayPal to make a credit card donation.
  3. FOR THE TWO ABOVE, YOU CAN MAKE THEM RECURRING MONTHLY IF YOU’D LIKE TO. Just check the box to this effect.

  4. You can write an old-school checks (ask your grandmother to show you how to write one, and then email me at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com for the mailing address).

All covering-up-my-discomfort-with-humor aside, I want to grow this endeavor into something that helps more people and helps them in more of a variety of ways. Anything you can contribute would be profoundly appreciated.

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More importantly, if you know someone who needs to know that they are not alone in their struggle with anger or mental illness, please share this post/blog with them. Thank you!

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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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A Life Changing Question (with Podcast)

life changing question

 

 

Please check out my new podcast feature at the bottom of this page! Now the post…

 

 

After Riley died (see previous post) I felt completely numb. I had comforted the friend who had the devastating fate of finding Riley unresponsive in his apartment bedroom. I had hugged his broken-hearted mom many times. I had even spoken at his memorial service. Not once did my eyes well up or my voice break through all of this. I felt callous and guilty. I tried to tell myself that I saw this tragedy coming, so I had been ready. I tried to tell myself that, at the end, Riley had been so miserable that he was better off, despite what the rest of us still selfishly wanted. But nothing made me really feel the pain of losing a close friend, a kindred spirit.

Finally, after three weeks of numbness, I cracked. I’m not like an actor who can choose when these emotions will come or how strong they will be. The Mexican restaurant in Dunwoody was far from an ideal location for this needed release, but that’s where it happened. Sitting in a booth with a long-time, very close friend – one of about three people on earth I have ever completely fallen apart in front of – I shed a tear…my voice broke…and I fought back sobs for forty-five minutes.

My friend Mike had never seen me like this despite all of the times we had gotten naked in front of each other…all the times we had stripped bare together. No, no, I fear that the dirty minds out there might be misreading my completely appropriate, non-sexual metaphors. You should be ashamed.

Let me try again: Mike had never seen me cry despite fifteen years of pretty much telling each other about every up and down and deep, dark secret. He had seen my anger and plenty of sarcasm – my two preferred ways for letting pain seep out. But this was different. Mike sat there in respectful silence and said the perfect words of comfort: “Tim, we’ll figure this out together. Obviously, you’re hurting, and I’m here for you. I’m with you in this.”

We sat awhile longer as I tried to compose myself, and then Mike went and changed my entire outlook on myself…

“Tim, can you think of anyone you know who might feel what you’re feeling right now?” he asked.

I responded with the anger I had been feeling at losing someone who got IT: “Yeah, my friend who just died.”

Then he asked me a life changing question: “Tim, what would you tell him if he was feeling what you’re feeling right now?”

Clouds parting…beams of light…eyebrows raised at how much easier it suddenly felt to give myself some grace. In the span of time it took to pose that one simple question, I felt I had been given a new lease to love myself and care for myself despite how depressed and hopeless I felt around that time.

Would I ever tell Riley he needed to suck it up and keep moving forward if I knew he felt like I did right then? No, I’d tell him to take a few days off and see how he felt. Why couldn’t I make the same decision for myself without feeling guilty…like I was failing somehow?

Would I tell Riley that he’d be failing his family if he needed to call time out for a bit, spending some time alone or playing the music that was his only escape? No, I’d tell him that the best version of himself is what he owed his family, and by insisting on forging ahead on the current collision course with disaster, he was certainly not doing his family any favors. I’d tell him it was okay to be weak and to hurt and to be exhausted. I’d tell him it was okay to love himself and to get better.

Mike’s question was raised six months ago now, and I still think about it all the time. Through my mindfulness meditation practice, I’ve also been given some similar images to hold in my mind as I practice self-compassion:

One option is to call to mind a moment when your child seemed particularly vulnerable and those I’d-do-anything-for-this-child instincts took over. By imagining yourself as that very child, you can begin to feel a softness toward yourself just as if you were watching your child try not to cry after falling off his bike. You’d look at the quivering lip and say, “It’s OKAY, little one! It’s okay to cry. I know it hurts; let’s go get an icepack.” You’d hug your child and comfort him/her. (Well, I hope you would!)

Or imagine your own self at a moment in childhood when you felt particularly vulnerable, wishing someone would tell you it was going to be okay, wishing for mom or dad to pick you up and wrap you in comfort and safety. Then return to that moment and be the Adult who parents that hurting, scared child who is still inside of you…inside all of us.

If you’re like me, being tough on yourself comes rather naturally. Why can’t you be more like so-and-so, Tim, and just let things roll off your back? Why can’t you be less of a roller coaster to live with? Why do you insist on thinking about unanswerable questions incessantly? Stop, dammit! What the hell is your problem? Everyone else seems to be handling life’s realities waaaay better than you. Get it together, Tim!

But I’d never say those things to my children or to my friend, Riley, especially if I could look inside their heads and hearts and see the angst raging in them that I feel inside myself so often. I’d just want to sit with them, to let them know they’re not alone…ever. I’d want to say, “I’ll keep sitting as long as it takes because I love you. We’re in this together, all the way to the end.”

So why don’t I say the same things to Tim that I would say to Riley?

What I’ve learned in the past six months is that, when I do practice self-compassion – and I don’t think you are likely to improve much unless you take the time to actually practice – my entire outlook on my struggles changes. By being kinder to myself, I end up being more loving and patient with others. I become more honest about how I’m feeling, less ashamed to admit it. Oddly, I even feel more hopeful that the rough seas are survivable. The water may even become calm someday.

But if it doesn’t, Tim, you’re still valuable, and I still love you, always.

 

 

If you listen to the podcast, I’d love your feedback! Leave a comment below with thoughts and suggestions if you have them.

 

 

Also, if you’d like more Mike Edwards wisdom, take a look at his blog, especially if you like to hear someone express very non-traditional theological views. Enjoy: http://mikeedwards123.wordpress.com/

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Riley, We Haven’t Forgotten You (with Podcast)

Riley 3Six months ago, the world lost someone whose life was a testament to the power of perseverance. His name was Riley Sisson; he was 25-years-old; and he was my friend. But I’m being self-serving…More importantly, he was a son, a brother who cherished his sister, a friend to just about everyone who was interested, a kinder-than-normal soul, a former college athlete, salutatorian of his high school class, one-time Prom King, and now I’d like to mention once again: he was my friend.

Riley died of OCD. Sure, the death certificate says it was an accidental overdose, but Riley’s addictions were symptoms of the often-invisible (because people hide in humiliation), brutal, life-sapping disease that is woefully misunderstood – OCD. The World Health Organization lists it as one of the top 10 most debilitating diseases on earth. I’m going to keep telling people this until I’m blue in the face (pun ALWAYS intended). I’ll sound the drum for my own sake, but more importantly, I’ll do it for Riley, whose attempt to get just a tiny, fleeting glimmer of relief from the raging storm inside of his head lead directly to his death.

Please do what you can, when you can, to help me raise awareness of the reality that OCD is a torturous disease of the brain that takes away even the possibility of peace for its sufferers. It leaves parents without their children, sisters without their only brother, and it has left our world without the compassionate, gentle, and wise Riley Sisson.

When Riley died, he was in graduate school seeking a master’s in psychology. He said to me many times that the only way he knew how to turn his OCD into something positive was to become qualified to help others navigate its relentless torture. Now, I am NOT one who believes that terrible and tragic things happen SO THAT something good can come of it (we can talk philosophy/theology on this one at a later time). But, the fact is the bad things do happen, and while all of us who are left living in the aftermath of a tragedy would love a rewind button more than anything else, our only actual option is to hope we can somehow find the strength to make lemonade out of Cosmic, Rotten Lemons.

Riley’s bold and beautiful mother, Margaret, is actively showing the rest of us how to make lemonade. I met Margaret over the phone when she got in touch with me after reading my book. She only had one agenda – to meet someone else who understood the mayhem of OCD. She reached out to me based solely on her I-just-have-a-hunch-we-might-do-each-other-some-good instinct that most of us ignore all too readily.

Margaret kindly insisted that I join her and Riley at the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation’s summer conference as it was in my own hometown of Atlanta. For Margaret, the people at OCF had become her brothers and sisters who spoke the language of OCD, around whom she could speak openly and honestly, even if it came from misery’s need for company.

I, on the other hand, would prefer to reject others before they get the chance to reject me, so I avoided places like conferences. Who wants to walk into a room full of strangers and feel like an outsider? Who wants to feign interest in getting to know new people when I’m actually scared of new people, scared of rejection? Who wants to see all the evidence of people who are much farther down this same road than I am, people who have already achieved the results that I can only hope to get some distant day in the future?

Not me. I’d prefer to just spare myself the possible letdown and keep judging people while I stand outside in the rain with my defensive walls securely around me, thank you very much.

But Margaret dragged me in graciously, and she continues to do so, helping me grow more and more comfortable taking the same sorts of risks she takes in “putting myself out there” despite the fear of rejection. But I’m not the only one Margaret is drawing into this much needed sphere of advocacy. A couple of years ago the OCF awarded her the “Hero Award” for her work raising support and awareness for this cause. If you know Margaret, you’re not surprised by her tireless, gracious, persistent insistence that the mental health world pay better attention to her son…and now, tragically, to his memory. When she received the award, she told her son and everyone else that it was all for Riley. She was “just” a concerned mama wanting to protect and nurture her boy.

Today, Margaret is carrying on Riley’s legacy through a foundation she’s starting called “Riley’s Wish.” If you like being in on the ground floor of things that WILL become something world-changing, I suggest you head to the Facebook page, like it, stay tuned, and ask Margaret how you can help.

If you’re not one of the Margaret Sissons of the world, what with endless motivation and energy, it can be hard to know what you are supposed to do in the face of the inevitable losses we experience on this earth, but I happen to have an opinion on everything, and this situation is no different. So, a few suggestions for all of us who want to help make the world a kinder place in some way…

First, many of you didn’t know Riley, but I assume you know someone who has lost a loved one. Maybe it was a month ago, or maybe it was ten years ago, but I’ll promise you this: By letting the survivor(s) know that you have not forgotten their beloved, you will add a bit of hope to this world. It seems to me that when someone dies, especially a young person, the ultimate desire of his left-behind, grieving relatives is to keep him alive through fond memories and hearing his name spoken aloud. This is why they start foundations in their child’s honor, but eventually, inevitably, they start to feel like others have moved on; they feel embarrassed to still be hurting so much. So I suggest that you consider reaching out to someone today who is hurting from a loss – even one that happened a long time ago. Trust me, your friend is still hurting every day, and the best ointment for their wound is you taking the time to say their lost one’s name, to remember her aloud, to keep him alive in some way.

Next, I want to encourage all of us to make a habit of these small acts of kindness. My initial “challenge” at Riley’s funeral was for people to simply “do something…but be sure to keep doing it.” If you keep the action small and tangible (at least to start with), you might actually make a new habit out of it. You’ve probably been having those nagging hunches that you “should” do x, y, or z for so-and-so for a while now. So go do it. Follow that hunch! Then put a weekly or monthly or yearly reminder in your Apple Android G5 2.0X, and bug yourself regularly to keep making this small improvement to someone’s world.

If you’re like me, you’ll never do anything if the goal is to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict or to put Google out of business with your new idea. Start smaller…maybe call that grieving sister or heart-broken son once a week. Remind them that, while others may have quit asking how they’re holding up, you never will. And don’t fret – the Israel-Palestine thing, most likely, will still be around in a few years after you’ve worked up your stamina.

I took my own challenge and set a reminder to stay in touch with Margaret at least once a week in some way. Sure, I’ve missed a few, but the reminder is there, every Monday. I don’t need it at all anymore because we talk more than once a week these days, but I plan to leave it there just in case (Sorry Margaret – you’re stuck with me!). Six months after Riley’s death brought us even closer than we were, I now consider Margaret among my very best friends.

The one thing that we are ALL capable of doing, and doing regularly, is simply letting someone who’s hurting know s/he’s not alone. Yeah, you may fail. Who cares?

Just try. And keep trying.

People need to know they are not alone, and you can change someone’s world.

And as Margaret is fond of saying, if even one tiny tidbit of goodness comes into the world because of him…Riley would be so pleased.

 

 

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How To Help Someone with Mental Illness

supportIt can be awfully hard to know how to help someone with mental illness! Take me for example: Saturday morning, I was comatose with depression on my couch for four hours, hoping for a stray meteor to find its way to me. Today, I’m overflowing with so many exciting ideas for how to solve the world’s problems that I would challenge Steve Jobs to a Battle of Creativity. This, my friends, we call Bi-Polar (type 2 to be exact). You can imagine what fun my wife and kids have playing the “what mood will daddy be in ten minutes from now” game (for now, Ann has a small lead over Josiah, and for some reason Ellie Ruth isn’t very good at the game…she’s way behind, but I’m starting to develop some special signals for her so she can catch up).

So perhaps I’m the wrong person to write this post, since I haven’t had to be the supporter in any substantial way. Thus, what follows is simply the advice of someone WITH mental illness(es) to those who, thanklessly, painfully, fearfully…are supporting someone with mental illness.

A friend of mine recently called looking for advice on how to support his deeply depressed wife. Like many people who are NOT mentally ill, he was frustrated and baffled by his wife’s behavior and her unwillingness to listen to reason. He continued attempting to have conversations with her about how he could help, but he was thwarted by her erratic answers – sometimes she simply told him, amidst sobs, that she didn’t know how he could help; other times, the “saner” moments, she was reluctant, even embarrassed to discuss her previous behavior and couldn’t/wouldn’t offer much in the way of advice to her husband about what she needed when she was in “that place.” My friend was stumped, scared, and frustrated.

Perhaps you’ve been there if you’re reading this…You want to help, but you don’t know how, and the person you are trying to help behaves so inconsistently that you never know if you should leave them alone, hug them, take them to the hospital, or tell them to snap out of it. I’m quite sure my amazing wife, Ann, would understand your frustration as she has felt it with me (but not for at least an hour or two!).

I certainly can’t speak for everyone with mental illnesses, but I’d like to offer a few pointers that might be of help:

    1. Take charge lovingly. Recognize that you are the one who is seeing the world more clearly than your mentally ill loved one, and take charge of the situation lovingly with that in mind. For example, my young children wear me out mentally. I’m just not cut out to be with small people for prolonged periods of time without becoming extremely overwhelmed and ultimately depressed/angry. But I want to be a good dad/husband, so I often am with them for long periods of time, thus becoming overwhelmed, depressed, and/or angry. My wife knows when I’ve had enough based on how I speak to the kids, and she is usually kind enough to ask me, “Do you need a break?” But here’s the problem: My broken brain can’t see straight in those moments, so guilt usually wins out over my mental health and I say, “No.” The truth is, and I’m not saying that this is fair, that I want Ann to say to me: “Tim, you need a break. Go take 15 minutes of alone time and then we can reassess.” I would take her up on it 100% of the time, but when I’m left to make the choice for myself, I’m not able to think reasonably, “You know, I do need a break, and yes, my wonderful wife, I’ll accept your offer!” Again, that’s not necessarily fair, but if you, the healthy one, will take charge of the situation, I for one would appreciate it, and I suspect others with a mental illness want the same thing.
    2. Don’t expect them to be reasonable. Once again, I’ll use my children as an example. When one of my children throws a temper tantrum, I, of course, get frustrated by their behavior. Despite having plenty of evidence that you can’t reason with a small child who is throwing a tantrum, I continue to try to reason them out of this behavior by saying things like, “You’re not helping the situation” or “You’re making your own life worse by acting this way.” Any reasonable person would understand what I mean, right? Of course! But a tantrum-throwing child isn’t in a reasonable state of mind, and “fighting” a tantrum with reason will only lead to frustration for both parties. The best solution when a child throws a tantrum is to literally put them in a safe place so they can “process” their anger without hurting themselves, your dog, their sibling, or your eardrums. It’s the same thing with a mental illness: Help the person get to a place, literal or figurative, where they can feel what they’re feeling safely and productively. Having dealt with OCD my whole life, I am well aware that my obsessive thoughts are unreasonable…that’s why they’re so disturbing! But that hasn’t enabled me to stop them from running through my mind. This is where this piece of advice ties back to #1: You, the sane one, need to lovingly take charge. If someone is in the throes of depression, don’t tell them to look at the bright side. Instead, gently insist that they go do the thing(s) that tend to help them improve. For me, it’s time to myself to think and write…it almost always helps. If not that, then working with my hands on a tangible project will sometimes do the trick. Sometimes, there’s nothing that helps, but when I’m in the midst of depression, it’s virtually impossible for me to stand up for myself and to take what I need. I can’t be reasonable, but if someone around me can push me in the right direction, it might help me get back to a good place more quickly.
    3. Set boundaries about how you will respond to their struggles. As you probably know if you’re reading this, it’s exhausting to support someone with any illness, especially one that is unpredictable and turns your normally-rational loved one into an irrational mess. The friend I mention above confided in me that his wife is not above a little melodrama, so he’s never sure how much of her behavior is attention-seeking and how much is authentic. My advice to him was to tell his wife that he had no choice but to take her at her word…the stakes are too high. Thus, if she says she’s suicidal, he should tell her that he will take her to the hospital because he can’t take the chance that she’s just being dramatic. Another important boundary involves the mentally ill person taking his/her pain out on the care-taker. I’ll use myself as an example here: When my OCD regarding my wife (see my book for more on this) is raging, one of the natural compulsions is to think that talking to her about it might help me get to the bottom of my concern. It won’t! Ever. And it’s entirely unfair for me to talk to her about my negative thoughts about her. All that will do is to hurt her deeply. In this case, we have a boundary that when I’m obsessing about her, if I need someone to talk to, I need to pick one of the other close friends (or a therapist) to discuss this stuff with. The scenarios are endless for what boundaries you might need to set, but start paying attention to yourself, and know that the best way to love someone is to be the healthiest version of yourself so you can be there for them when they need you most. It might take time to figure out the appropriate boundaries, but don’t feel guilty for needing to set them. It’s ONLY by setting them that you can help your mentally ill loved one thoroughly.
    4. When they’re feeling good, ask them how they want/need to be dealt with in the bad moments. Most people with a mental illness have their good days and their bad days. As someone who offers support to a mentally ill person, your best resource might well be that very person, but only when they’re in a good place. This will have to be an ongoing conversation about what is and is not helpful to your loved one, but every day, week, and month you gather more data that can be used to help both you and the other person move forward to a more healthy place. As I’ve mentioned before, one thing I need when I’m in a bad place is for my wife, who is quick to recognize it these days, to take the lead and tell me what to do. In my case, she needs to tell me to take some time away to hit the reset button. When I’m in that bad place, I’m nearly incapable of taking care of myself, but by staying physically present with my wife and kids when I’m not doing well can cause a lot of unnecessary damage – a lot more damage than would be caused by my taking a “time out” to get my head clear. Your loved one might not know how you can best help them right away, but tell them to ponder and pay attention to what they need when they’re not doing well. Maybe it’s a hug; maybe it’s a time out; maybe it’s a trip around the world on a Disney Cruise ship…who knows? But let your mentally ill loved one be your most helpful resource when they are in a healthy enough state to think clearly about what they would want/need in their bad moments.
    5. Take care of yourself. This goes back to #3, but I can’t say enough about it. If you’re not healthy, you can’t be of very much help. Think of it this way: If you were taking care of someone with the flu, you’re not much good to them if you run yourself so ragged that you get sick, too. Not only do you endanger their health further, your own ability to respond to the sick person promptly and thoroughly is diminished if you aren’t healthy. The same goes for mental health. Figure out how to fill up your own gas tank so you can help the person you care about. If your tank is empty, you’re of no real use to them.
    6. Give grace…to yourself and your loved one. Start with yourself. This shit is hard! It ends friendships, marriages, and even lives. Don’t fall into the trap of blaming yourself for not always knowing the right thing to say or how to be of the most help. Instead, literally say this to yourself, “I’m doing the best I can, and that’s all I can do.” It sounds corny, but having been forced by a therapist to do this myself, I can say it actually works: Look in the mirror and affirm yourself for trying, for loving someone who isn’t always easy to love, and for demonstrating the truest version of love – the unconditional kind. And don’t forget to give grace to your mentally ill loved one, too. Hopefully, they’re trying as well, and some day down the road, we’ll be better and figuring out exactly what part of a person’s brain is malfunctioning. Those x-rays or images will make it easier to understand that the person isn’t necessarily choosing to be an erratic ass. Most likely, they’re similar to a person with a broken leg trying to walk without a cast or crutches. If the bone was sticking out of their leg, it wouldn’t be hard to give them grace for going a bit slower than normal or yelping in pain every few steps. But mental illnesses aren’t visible…yet. So whatever metaphor helps you recognize that they’re dealing with something that really is physical and that really can’t be just wished away, try to remind yourself that you can’t expect someone with a broken brain to process life the same way you do. And once again, when you fail, give yourself grace. Then try again. That’s the best you can do.

 

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

Other articles you might enjoy:

Amy Glynn reflects on Robin Williams’s suicide in a compassionate and helpful way, acknowledging that we should wish our friends who commit suicide had been equipped to stay around longer, but we should never simplify their behavior as “selfish” or “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” A refreshing piece! http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2014/09/twenty-five-years-after-dead-poets-society.html

“7 of the Most Helpful Things You Can Say to Someone with Depression” An excellent piece that “gets it right” about how to help someone who is depressed.

(This post is also a page on the blog. It can always be accessed from the top menu.)

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Self Compassion Meditation

self compassionLast week, I had one of the more intensely damning experiences of my life. Perhaps someday I’ll share the details, but for now, suffice it to say that I’ve never had someone so explicitly condemn me at the very core of who I am and who I want to be.

I sunk.

Deep.

Deeper than ever, I think.

The kind of deep that feels like, even if you start swimming to the surface, you’ll never make it before you run out of air or energy.

I obsessed: will those indictments ever disappear from my brain?

I despaired: Maybe I am useless, worthless, a burden to everyone who knows me.

I worried: Will Ann leave me? Will my kids understand me? Will they love me? Am I even lovable? Do I deserve to be left as this person had told me? Maybe I do.

After the Night from Hell and the following Day of Despair, I went to my Compassion Meditation class. I’ve been attending a class at Emory about self compassion meditation. The actual name for the class is Cognitively Based Compassion Therapy (CBCT). Basically, we’re spending an hour and a half (in class) a week plus anywhere from 10-30 minutes per day practicing meditation, particularly as it pertains to compassion, which begins with self-compassion, and there I was rescued, at least for the moment, by what I’ll call a “re-aha!” Having been practicing mindfulness meditation, one of the core principles I’ve tried to live by is self compassion. As one meditation teacher says, “You’re doing the best you can, and that’s enough.” But I had forgotten that.

I had forgotten that it’s okay to be me; that no one else on earth has to understand me for me to be Worth Something; that it is perfectly okay to hurt when someone tells you horrible things about yourself; it’s even okay to hurt more than others might hurt, to hurt in my own unique, special way.

It’s okay to be me, trite and corny as that may sound. But it’s amazing how that one small reminder – it’s okay to feel what you feel, Tim – changed me, softened me, opened me to allow my experience to be my experience. No one needed to validate it because it was, it is, mine.

I remembered this beautiful poem by renowned mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, called “For Warmth”:

 

“I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.

I hold my face in my two hands
to keep the loneliness warm:
two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing

my soul from leaving me
in anger!”

 

I will nourish my anger, my hurt, my loneliness rather than judging myself for them, rather than wishing I were more like so-and-so who doesn’t seem bothered by criticism or judgments. As Walt Whitman says, “I exist as I am; that is enough.” Nourishing is not wallowing. Nourishing is allowing myself to feel what I feel so I can move on, not so I can wallow ever-deeper in the mire of being misunderstood.

I am enough. I am okay, even if no one else understands.

And so are you, my friend.

 

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

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