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

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

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

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

Example: Baseball practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Scroll down and take the poll)

 

 

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You’re not “so OCD”!

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



 

 

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Be In the (Broken) Moment

be where you areIn my old boss’s office hung a framed picture that said: “Be where you are.”

It’s funny that one would need reminding to be where they are, right? How could one do anything other than “be where they are”? In fact, when people demand too much of us, we often say, “I can’t be in two places at once!” But ironically, we are rarely actually “where we are,” at least mentally speaking. We live our mental lives in the past or the future, in the to-do list or the frustration at a friend, in the what-if and the someday-I’ll…Can you even remember the last time you were fully in the moment?

Having a mental illness only makes us less likely to be in the moment. I recently underwent two brain scans at a place called the Amen Clinic (not the religious “amen, hallelujah!” but someone’s last name, pronounced like a hick saying, “I’m aimin’ fer that there buck over yonder!”). My brain activity showed five different areas where the function/blood flow is off kilter. This is why friends, family, and doctors always eventually call me “complex” (which I think is sort of like calling a girl “big boned”…it’s certainly not a compliment, but at least the person is trying not to say what they’re thinking: “Damn, Tim, you’re so annoying!” or “She’s fat). All this is to say that, when your brain tends to torture you in some way, being in the moment is the last thing you really want to do. Thanks to my OCD, I’ve spent roughly 98.43256% of my life very much outside of the moment, usually trying to solve some unsolvable “what if” question.



Enter mindfulness, which is the practice of being “in the moment without judgment.” I’ve been “practicing” mindful meditation for the past couple of months – by which I simply mean forcing myself to sit down for 10-20 minutes once or twice a day to “meditate” on what I’m thinking and feeling at that moment…forcing myself to live in the moment for at least 10-20 minutes each day. Last Sunday, I decided to give the nearby Buddhist temple a try last Sunday for a “compassion meditation” session. It was awesome. I highly recommend it! The monk who spoke looked like a younger version of the Dalai Lama, and I swear he must’ve done Yoda’s voice in the Star Wars movies. But what was really helpful was that he addressed the topic of meditation in such a practical way. He said that meditation is nothing more than training your mind to do what it’s not very good at doing – just like you train your body to do new things like swing a golf club or run a marathon. During the actual “compassion meditation,” we brought to mind a variety of people, from loved ones all the way to enemies and even “all sentient beings.” The purpose was simply to practice feeling compassion rather than anger, jealousy, or frustration, which, as he said, we’re very skilled at…no practice needed at feeling jealous! Most of us are pros at that from about age 7.

Having never done a compassion meditation before, I didn’t really expect much in the way of change, certainly not after one 20 minute session. But oddly enough, it was like it became a “mini-habit” for about 4 hours. Without even trying, I found my mind drifting toward compassionate thoughts toward anyone in my path. (This wore off around 4:15 when the Falcons blew yet another game in a comically pathetic way, and I started thinking truly terrible things about the players, coaches, and even the actual birds (falcons) themselves! I mean, I wanted to hunt down a falcon, or Mike Smith, and really let them have it.) I didn’t do either, but the compassionate feelings were gone for the day. Oh well! They made me feel uncomfortable anyway. I mean, I sort of like my anger and jealousy and petty irritations. Thankfully, having only been out of practice for a few hours, anger, jealousy, and general irritation came back just like riding a bicycle. Phew!

Man oh man, do I get off the subject! Anyway, what I was trying to get at before talking about Yoda and the Falcons is that my recent practice of mindfulness is actually lasting for more than a few hours. After a couple of weeks of forcing myself to sit down for 10-20 minutes (1-2 sessions) a day, something clicked and my brain started to remind me to “be in the moment” on its own. The “non-judging” part is actually the harder part because I’m so used to evaluating how I feel internally every single moment of my life thanks to usually feeling anxious or depressed and trying to figure out how I could feel better NOW. But not judging the moment means that it doesn’t have to be a perfect moment for you to embrace it and be in it. How many moments are really perfect anyway? Over the course of a lifetime, I’d venture to guess that the “perfect” moments can be counted on your fingers and toes (unless you’ve had some of them chopped off, in which case I’m sorry for this reference). Most (all?) moments are broken in ways big and/or small. The practice of mindfulness meditation isn’t to teach you how to “transcend the moment” in some mystical way. Just the opposite, actually: It’s training to be exactly where you are, even if you’d rather be somewhere else.

One of the phrases that a lot of the mindfulness meditation guides use is, see if you can “make space” for X, Y, or Z, even if X, Y, or Z aren’t what you want to be feeling or thinking. For me, the aha moment came a few weeks ago when I was feeling the tidal wave of depression starting to drown me yet again one morning. I wasn’t trying to do anything other than what I had been doing, which was sinking into the hole of “why me?” or “the world is such a shitty place?” But like any new physical muscle memory that finally clicks, the mindful approach suddenly clicked for me. My brain responded to the depression differently. I didn’t try to wriggle out of it this time; I just said, “Ok, I feel depressed. I wonder if I can make space for it today. Let’s examine what depression feels like in my body with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment. Just examine it and allow it to be present. It’s what this moment has to offer. Sure it’s a sign that something’s broken, but I only get to live this broken moment one time. Might as well sink my teeth into it.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if I could tell you that my problems were solved and I haven’t felt depressed or anxious since then? Quite the contrary; I’ve felt both of them a lot. But something’s definitely different inside of me in my response to the negative feelings. Their power to ruin my broken moments of life are waning. Not gone, mind you, but waning for sure. I’m under absolutely no illusion that my brain will quit being a mess, but since this mess of a brain/day/life is the only one I’ll ever have, I should probably quit wishing moments away and just accept them as the hand I’ve been dealt.

If you’re thinking you should give this mindfulness meditation a try, I definitely recommend it. But here’s the thing: you have to actually PRACTICE it, as in sit down and do it even if you don’t want to. I have known of the concepts of mindfulness for years, but I’ve never taken the time to do the exercise itself. At first, it feels like a waste of time, honestly. But remember the last time you learned a new sport, and think how much effort it took for quite a while. If you’re into golf (or rampant sex with virtually anyone), Tiger Woods makes a good example: He’s changed his swing a few times, and every time he does it, it takes him between one and two YEARS before he becomes the old Tiger who once again dominates (he actually just hired yet another new swing coach because it’s been more than one or two years without returning to the old Tiger this time). This is the guy who’s by far the best golfer in the world over the past 20 years, but it takes him MORE THAN A FULL YEAR before imperceptible changes to his golf swing become engrained enough that the ball goes where he wants it to.

Or watch a child learn to write. My kids are both in various stages of learning that skill. My 4-year-old son’s letters are often backwards and usually hard to decipher. So were my 7-year-old daughter’s a few years ago, but now her handwriting is far better than mine (though admittedly, mine sucks). It’s a cool thing to watch someone learn something new, but it can be very hard to be the one learning.

So, if you’re up for it, challenge yourself to practice mindful meditation for a full month, at least 10 minutes per day. If nothing’s changed for you, I’ll happily refund your time at no additional charge.

But really, whatever you do, try to be more “in the (broken) moment.”

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

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



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Mindfulness and Your Favorite Color

Buddy gifYesterday at my psychiatrist’s office, I knew I was in bad shape when she seemed baffled and disheartened by my current state. She started throwing out words like “treatment-resistant depression,” “ECT” (electric shock therapy), and “alternative methods.” Eesh. What to do? Every therapist or doctor I’ve ever seen ends up saying to me, “Yours is a complex/difficult case, Tim.”

I suppose this is because there are no clearly-drawn lines inside my head. Between bad brain chemistry and a complex personality, I’m apparently somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to my psychological well-being. As a very tangible example, I submit this: The two strongest drives within me are for a) authenticity and b) people-pleasing. Ponder the paradox of those impulses for a moment, and you see a bit of what leads therapists to tell me my case is a tough one. On the one hand, I simply cannot stand fakeness in any form, within myself or others. I am compulsively honest about who I am (thus this blog!). Yet I am also petrified of disappointing people, and even the slightest hint of disapproval from those I love leads me to intense anxiety. Argh.

Another of my “complexities” is my inability to let go of the “big questions” in life. I ponder them incessantly. Just this moment, as I sit at Einstein’s Bagels, one of those cute, sweet little old men is talking to whoever will listen about what an answer to prayer it is that so many Republicans won the elections yesterday. One of the people he’s managed to engage seems to agree with him, but another is annoyed by how many incumbents kept their seats. And I’m sitting here thinking, “Do you honestly think that God answered your prayers by letting Republicans get elected? Do you realize that there are countless Christian Democrats and/or Independents who were praying for the opposite result? And if God is willing to answer your prayers, what does that say about those whose prayers aren’t answered, like my friend Riley’s prayers for relief from his brain that were never answered, leading to his untimely death? Or the 6 billion other examples every day of valid, urgent prayers that fall on deaf ears? How can a reasonably intelligent person possibly believe that ‘God answered his prayers’ with Republican victories?!'”



At this point, you’re probably, and rightly, thinking, “Geez, Tim, let it go. It’s just a little old man looking for someone to talk to.” Ohhhhhh how I wish I were able to do just that, but you see I have this “beautiful brain” (that’s what my doctor calls it; I call it a piece of shit.) that refuses to be still or quiet or peaceful. Ever. Even when sweetlittleoldman expresses his silly views, I’m wandering down the road of who-is-God and how-does-this-all-work and how-can-well-meaning-people-come-to-such-different-conclusions?

I’ve thought about these big philosophical questions for so long and from so many different angles that I’ve come to the conclusion that, for me at least, these fundamental questions simply do not have satisfying answers. Why do children get kidnapped and sold into sex slavery? I have no idea. Why do people like Hitler slowly rise to power while God does nothing about the situation until 6 million of “his chosen people” are dead? No clue. Why do I often hurt the people I care most about through my own foibles and demons when all I want is to do what’s right for them? Don’t know. If a god exists, s/he has never felt the need to explain things to us in any satisfying way. Every religion will tell you that theirs is a truly satisfying answer, but I beg to differ based on the simple fact that there are sincere seekers of God in all religions who have come to fundamentally different conclusions. At the very least, this makes God a not-so-stellar communicator.

All this, of course, leads me to this question: What’s your favorite color?

Here’s what I mean: You probably have a favorite color, but if I were to ask you why it’s your favorite color, you’d probably laugh and say, “It just is” or “I just like it.” There’s no answer to why you like it. You just do. And maybe that’s the same for the big theological and philosophical questions. There are no answers. Or at best, the answer is the cliche: “It is what it is.” Could anyone really explain why green appeals to them more than red?

It is what it is.

Maybe it’s the same with all of the big questions, too. It just is what it is. Don’t bother trying to understand why 9/11 was allowed to happen or why the Kardashians seem to be rewarded for being shallow and selfish (that one’s intended as a bit of levity in a heavy (so far, but be patient with me) post…I don’t actually equate 9/11 and the Kardashians’ fame). Some things have no discernible explanation.

Lately, I’m working on “mindfulness” – a practice born out of Buddhism that seems like one of those “duh!” concepts not worthy of giving a lot of thought to as it’s so simple. I have long believed in the idea behind it, but I have never pursued it or made it a daily practice until recently.

Here’s the basic idea: Whatever you’re dealing with right in this very moment is the hand you’ve been dealt for right now. Rather than trying to wriggle free of the negative aspects of your current experience, accept it, AND give yourself grace both for experiencing it and for the difficulty you may have accepting it. Put more succinctly, mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the current moment with a non-judgmental attitude.

Lately it’s my depression that lays on every cell of my being like one of those lead blankets you get when having X-rays taken. As I feel the weight settling in on me, I tend to think, “Not again!” or “Dammit, this medication isn’t doing its job,” or “I want out of this brain/life!” After practicing mindfulness for a few weeks, I have developed the hint of a new attitude toward my depression. Instead of the normal thoughts, I been trying to say this to my pal depression: “Ok, depression, I will just allow you to exist today. Instead of running from you, I will actually sit here and allow your presence without judging what it means or asking ‘why me?’. Since this is the hand I’ve been dealt in this moment, I might as well be fully present with these feelings, and I might as well forgive myself for feeling this way as I can’t force it away.”

I’ve spent my life looking for ANSWERS that will solve my inner turmoil once and for all. Usually, these supposed answers are religious in nature. How many times I have thought, “Aha, now I know why God has given me this struggle!” But those religious answers have all been drained of substance and meaning for me. At the end of the day, French philosopher Albert Camus is right: No philosophy or theology has solved the age-old philosophical quandary about God: S/he is either not entirely good or not entirely powerful. But Camus, believe it or not, has an optimistic conclusion very similar to the philosophy of mindfulness. Camus uses the ancient Greek character Sisyphus to make his point that any existence can have meaning and purpose, even in the absence of Cosmic Direction. You might remember that Sisyphus’s eternal fate (damnation) is to roll a giant boulder up a hill for eternity without ever reaching the top. Camus concludes that any fate, even rolling a rock up a hill or battling depression or facing a tragedy or simple daily boredom…can be assigned meaning. In fact, it is when we say that one fate or existence is inherently better than another that we get in trouble. For now, the rock I must roll up a hill is called depression, and the hill feels unclimbable. So what do I do? Camus says I have two options: 1. Kill myself (He really does say this; I’m not being dramatic). Or 2. Quit expecting a divine answer/explanation and roll my rock up the hill, not in order to get to the top, but because any and all fates can be imbued with meaning through our own freedom to choose to opt IN to each moment rather than OUT of the moments we consider unpleasant.

Camus called his philosophy Absurdism, by which he meant this: If there is a Big Meaning to all of our questions, we as human beings have never and will never have access to it. It is, therefore, “absurd” to continue beating our heads against the wall of “Why?!” Just like countless religious mystics, Camus concludes that this moment is all we have access to, so we’d better get busy “making meaning” in this very moment, whatever it hands us. To put it in more supernatural terms, this moment IS eternity. NOW will never quit existing, but if you wish NOW away, you have chosen to “kill” this moment and/or yourself. The choice is yours, every single moment.

One final thing: I’m a seasoned veteran in new-ideas-that-will-supposedly-fix-me, so I’m not remotely offering this as The Answer or The Solution. But I will say that this particular practice has led to one very tangible benefit for me…I’ve quit picking at my fingers until they are raw and bleeding, something I’ve done for my entire life. The practice of “being present with my breath,” as mindfulness teaches, along with the practice of accepting what each moment brings, good or bad, has alleviated a lot of my nervous energy. For the first time ever, there are no scabs on my fingers. So, whatever else may come of this new practice, at the very least, my fingers have appreciated the reprieve offered by mindfulness.

Since I grew up in Southern Baptist churches, you’ll forgive me for having a 2nd final thought: If you’re interested in doing some of these “mindful meditations,” there are lots of apps and lots of stuff on YouTube that will get you started. Plenty of the instructors are ridiculously annoying – like they’re trying to sound mystical and magical. But there’s so much out there that if you don’t like one person, just move on to someone else. I highly recommend the app called Headspace. It walks you through 10 minutes of mindfulness for 10 days. It’s a British guy, and he talks in a completely normal tone so as not to annoy easily annoyed people like yours truly (you can check out Headspace here). Whatever “instructor” you choose, I’d love to hear if this helps you make some tangible progress. Give it a couple of weeks and, if you’re so inclined, let me know.

 

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Riley’s Memorial and A New Name

TKwana

2 quick things in this post:

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

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

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

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Rest Well, My Friend

Riley 3Through my own struggles with OCD and depression, I have become acutely aware in recent years that mental health challenges are a life and death matter. Robin Williams’s recent suicide drew attention to the devastating, and usually silent, impact of a long-term battle with one’s brain. On Monday, this hit much closer to home when my dear friend, Riley Sisson, was found dead in his apartment at age 26 after a painful battle with crippling OCD and its frequent friend depression.

I saw Riley just last week when he came over for a cigar. His anxiety was palpable, as it had been every time I’d seen him recently. His OCD focused on telling him that he had inadvertently left something behind that might harm someone else (perhaps we should rename this disease Over-Caring Disorder because every single obsessive thought I’ve ever heard of comes from excessive caring and concern, often for others. What a cruel trick for one’s brain to take something good – care for others – and turn it into a prison that won’t allow one to leave a room without checking it countless times to see what he might have left behind!).

He arrived an hour later than planned because it was so damn hard for him to leave his apartment. He also told me that, as he got near my neighborhood, he was reminded of the 2 years he spent in a nearby treatment facility for his challenges. He broke down crying in his car as he circled my neighborhood, reliving the pain of the past, fearing the pain of the future.

As it often did, our conversation turned to the topic of death. We had shared many conversations, some light-hearted and funny, some somber and scary, about wanting to just be done with our brutal brains. I remember laughing hysterically as we mocked people who express concern for our nutritional habits or our affinity for tobacco products. He told the story of a girl in college who approached him while he was smoking a cigarette and said, “You know those will kill you, right?!” He re-enacted his hyperbolic reaction: he bolted out of his seat, threw down his cigarette and said, “Oh my God! You’re right! Thank you so much for telling me!” and then he gave the girl a giant, derisive hug. She called him an asshole and walked away. (Oh, how I wish I had the guts to do something like that just once!) But even after telling me that story, Riley’s deep compassion won the day, and he became his normal, soft-spoken person quickly, saying, “I shouldn’t have done that,” with real sadness in his voice for treating this girl “unkindly.”

But last week as we spoke, Riley reiterated many times that he really did want to find a way forward in life. He was convinced that suicide was not the answer to his ever-present problems, and he had recently started grad school in order to become a therapist so he could help others from the vantage point of one who understands. (And just for the record and out of respect for Riley’s memory, I want to add that, whatever happened on Monday, it was not suicide. I’m sure of that, though that wouldn’t change my feelings in any way about Riley’s life or death…just feel the need not to imply that his death was intentionally self-inflicted.)

Oh, the brutal irony of the fact that the conversation turned to my struggles when Riley said, “I’m worried about you, Tim.” In our many conversations about our mutual desire to be liberated from our brains (aka dead), I often wondered how he kept going and felt like I was the one in a more stable place, at least for right now. So I was a little taken aback by his concern; I didn’t realize I seemed that bad off. I tried to reassure him that I was not (am not) suicidal. We agreed that wanting to be dead and being suicidal are actually very different things. We agreed that “dead” sounded great. Suicide, not so much.

There again you see who this guy was: I invited him over to care for him, and he ended up caring for me. That was Riley to the core, and I don’t simply say that out of funereal respect for my departed friend. He told me multiple times that the one thing that always kept him going was knowing how much he’d hurt others by killing himself. It caused him palpable pain to think of what it would do to his parents and sister if he died. He nearly broke down when he once told me how painful it was to him that, while his number one desire was to keep others from harm, his personal demons had created pain and anxiety for those he loved the most. That devastated him.

Last school year as I was teaching Hamlet for the 97th time (just an estimate; it might be 96), Hamlet’s final words hit me like a freight train, and in the wake of Riley’s death they seem even more relevant than ever. As he is dying, Hamlet says: “the rest is silence.” Throughout the play, Hamlet is battling obsessive uncertainty: Words are Hamlet’s problem – he can’t adequately express or pin down what he thinks and feels, yet his over-active brain won’t shut the hell up and give him peace from the fruitless quest for understanding of himself and his world. Having focused on this aspect of the 400-year-old play, Hamlet’s final words took on a brand new meaning for me: “the rest is silence”…silence is rest…rest = the bliss of turning off our ever-chattering brains. Ahh, silence. Ahhhhhhhh, rest. For Riley’s sake, I am glad he can rest now. For my sake (not to mention his family’s), I want my friend back.

So, Riley, I miss you and I love you. It feels like a bit more of a cliche than I’d like to express, but I told your mom that we won’t let your pain and untimely death go to waste. Until I join you, I will do my part to share your story (and mine); to say what others like us can’t or won’t say; to tell the world what you and I have lived through so that it doesn’t go unnoticed or untreated.

Rest well, my friend. You deserve both rest and silence. But you are also profoundly missed.

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Seinfeld and The Embarrassment of Mental Illnesses

george costanzaYesterday I was talking with a friend who has recently become a therapist. She is treating someone with OCD who feels humiliated by her obsessive thoughts (scrupulosity in particular, a very common form of OCD), yet also compelled to confess them, thinking that might help her. Boy can I relate! The embarrassment of mental illness might well be the most crippling aspect of the whole disease!

If you’ve read my book, you know that one of my obsessive fears has been impotence (in layman’s terms “not being able to get it up” for sex). This particular thought burdened me throughout my college years and into my 20’s My compulsion regarding impotence was constant “checking,” a common compulsion for all sorts of obsessions. Obviously, this checking wasn’t anything anyone could see (unless I wanted to get arrested for unzipping my pants 23,498 times per day), but every time I’d pass a pretty girl, I’d check to see if my penis had moved (there’s a hilarious Seinfeld episode about whether “it” moved and whether George might be gay AND there’s a great article on this form of OCD by Steven Phillipson here). Essentially, all day every day, I was monitoring my penis’s state of alertness against how alert my obsessive brain thought it should be.



Some of you are probably thinking, “I can’t believe he’s writing about this!” and there’s a part of me that does indeed find it embarrassing to share this. But that’s my whole point in this post: Mental illness is embarrassing and therefore isolating. When you have a broken leg, there’s external proof that a problem really does exist. No one’s embarrassed to wear a cast or use crutches in public. But because most people naively think that human beings have complete control over our thoughts at all times, those of us with a mental illness who have at some point “confessed” our terrible thoughts to others have likely been met with some version of this response: “Just think about something else!” Or there’s the spiritualized version of this thinking: “Just pray about it” or “Quote this verse about trusting God,” yada, yada, yada.

If we were even brave enough to confess our thoughts in the first place, we find ourselves even more embarrassed when we can’t make our brains quit thinking the terrible thoughts or when the Bible verse fails to do the magic we had hoped for. The embarrassment, shame, humiliation, and sense of isolation eventually become the only true friends we know we can rely on.

My advice for those who want to know they’re not alone, though I am not an expert in these things, would be as follows:

  • Find someone to talk to honestly and openly BUT DON’T tell just anyone. Most people are not remotely qualified to deal with a mentally ill brain, and many people, even professionals, respond the wrong way to our confessions. In terms of finding a therapist or friend to divulge your secrets to, start by asking them how familiar they are, in general terms, with OCD, depression, etc. (whatever you’re dealing with) and let them prove to you that they are ready to hear what you have to say before you spill the beans. Also, consider starting with one of your less embarrassing confessions to gauge their reaction; then go from there.
  • Read as much as possible about your particular source of embarrassment. I guarantee you you are not alone. Just start with Google and look up “common forms of ocd” or “things depressed people think about”…and start digging. You’ll find “friends” quickly!
  • Start right here! This website is intended as a place for people to find community online. You don’t have to share your real name or anything like that…but if you need a place to “confess” or to ask if anyone else understands, this can be the place to do just that! Leave a comment on this post, or go into the Chat Room (just be aware that it’s still under construction and somewhat clunky, so for now, the comment section would be best).
  • Feel free to email me at timronblue@yahoo.com. I’ve heard all sorts of “confessions” since I went public with my own internal struggles. I dare you to try to shock me! I doubt you will succeed.

 

I Think It Moved by Steven Phillipson

Steven Phillipson’s tremendous OCD website: OCD online

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Smoke ‘Em if You’ve Got ‘Em! – My temporary cure for anxiety

cure for anxiety
My temporary, and somewhat unhealthy, cure for anxiety. Man does it work!

Until I find the cure for anxiety, cigars are my home remedy. I am simply incapable of relaxing. I pick my fingers until they’re bleeding; I fidget incessantly; the only time I’m at rest is when I’m asleep (well, some nights that’s not even true!). If you want to see me at my worst, just make me sit still for an indefinite amount of time. It’s not that I don’t want to sit still; I just can’t. I’ve always envied those who could spend a fall afternoon lying on the couch watching wall to wall football games.

Here’s a snapshot of my thoughts when I try to chill out in front of the TV: “Oh this game looks good…hmmm, commercials…let’s see what else is on…ooooh another good game and this one’s farther along…which one should I watch? (anxiety starts to move in; OCD starts telling me that if I pick the right show, I’ll be able to relax, but if I don’t, I’ll regret it forever and probably die of a stroke because of what I missed)…maybe there’s a movie on instead (hit “guide” button on remote)…dammit another game I want to watch…and 2 movies…self-criticism starts: ‘Tim, why can’t you just pick something and quit over-thinking this, you idiot! Take a deep breath and just pick one’…okay, I’ll watch this game…crap, they scored twice while I was channel-surfing…now this game is boring…

Sounds pretty relaxing, no?! Yeah it’s not.

In college, I loved having a cigar with friends, not as a cure for anxiety, but as a do-gooder’s attempt to be edgy. Smoking a cigar nearly guaranteed an hour of great conversation and relaxation. Last summer, some of my recently-graduated students invited me to join them for a cigar, and I eagerly said yes. Then I decided to buy a few more and to enjoy them in the coming evenings.

Then I got hooked.

Not hooked in a cigarette sense – cigars are not addictive unless you inhale them, which I don’t. But hooked in the sense of having found a way to force myself to sit still, read a book, think, and quit fidgeting for an hour. I had something in my hands to fidget with if need be; the flavor and management of the cigar kept me engaged in the activity at hand; the slow and quieting nature of cigar smoking naturally seemed to do what nothing else could – make me relax.

Then the inevitable guilt, OCD, and anxiety kicked in: Is this going to kill me at age 46, and my wife and children will resent me for making this choice, knowing I would’ve lived to be a healthy 105 without the damn cigars? Am I a horrible father for smoking and giving my kids mixed messages: “Don’t smoke cigarettes! but leave daddy alone while he has a cigar.” Can I afford this expensive habit? Will my wife tell me I have to quit smoking them just as I’m starting to love them?

So I did what any good, obsessive person would do: I decided to figure out exactly how dangerous this is for me since that fear was at the core of my anxieties. Unfortunately, there’s only conjecture. No one’s ever studied cigar smokers’ longevity. The warnings about any kind of smoking all get lumped in together, but in the case of cigars, that’s a cover-your-ass (cya) measure by our government…”We’d better tell people these will kill them just in case it’s true…even though there are no additives (it’s 100% tobacco), most people don’t inhale them, and we’ve never actually studied this particular sub-group.” So, without the religious-zealot’s certainty I was hoping for, I was left feeling anxious about my new habit. There was no data telling me that I had, in fact, found a healthy cure for anxiety.

After a year of anxious questioning (while still smoking) here are some of the conclusions I’ve landed on (at least for now):

  1. My issues and challenges are entirely different from other people’s. Most people want to live as long as possible; I’d like to be dead by 75. Not that I’m trying to kill myself with cigars, but if you’re argument against it is that it might shorten your life, I for one ain’t aiming for 100! My brain is exhausted already…has been since I was 8!
  2. Most people are capable of some degree of relaxation without the aid of the 4 mental health drugs I take, so they have other options for relaxation – I even have one friend who runs 3,000 miles a year (about 8 miles a day), and that’s his therapy and catharsis. Lucky bastard! His relaxation is actually good for him…more proof of the inequities in life, right?! But smoking cigars helps me immensely. I’ve tried getting the “natural high of exercise,” but I hate exercise. I still try to do it, mostly out of guilt, but I hate every second of it.
  3. No matter what I do, I will obsessively fear my own untimely death and subsequent abandonment of my children; even when I exercise religiously (see #2), I think about the healthy 37-year-old father of 4 who dropped dead 2 years ago in our community. I’m always aware that death is never all that far away. Morbid, I know! That’s why I have a blog about my own insanity, people.
  4. I want to add things to my life that help me to embrace TODAY without living my entire life in the fear of the future or regret of the past. Whether I smoke cigars or not, I’m not sure I’ll be alive tomorrow, so I want to, pardon the cliche, seize the day.
  5. Finally, and this is very similar to the first, but it’s worth repeating: I’m just trying to survive today. I don’t have the luxury of daydreaming about where I’ll retire and life happily ever after. Staying alive is something I routinely question my desire to do! Living happily ever after?! Ha! I’ve lived less than 2% of my life truly happy since I’m ALWAYS anxious, obsessing, or depressed. The rare manic (or even just peaceful) moments are great, but I realized a long time ago that I ain’t got a chance to live happily ever after. I’m just SURVIVING and trying to make my survival a little better bit by bit.

So I smoke cigars. These days, quite a bit. Will it kill me? Maybe…but so will my anxiety and/or suicidal depression if I don’t get a handle on them. If cigars are a somewhat unhealthy part of that handle on sanity and peace, so be it!

 

 

 

 

 

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How to Deal with a Suicidal Person…or NOT!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Not helping 1It could be worse 2

 

 

 

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Acupuncture and Crazy Religious Beliefs

Accu 3

I’ve been wanting to try acupuncture for my overall lack of mental health for quite awhile, and this morning I finally had an appointment with a woman whose English was so bad that I finished most of her sentences for her after losing patience with her stumbling diction and incessant hand motions (you know, the universal sign language that means “If I just wave my hands long enough surely this person will learn to speak my language”). For some odd reason, I found her complete Chinese-ness reassuring. If someone is going to stick needles into my body, they’d better have a thick accent and at least one statuette of a kimono-clad woman in her office. Check and check!

I don’t have any clue yet whether this will help with my mental health, and quite honestly, my brain is so prone to ups and downs (thank you, bi-polar II) that I might well think something has worked when I’m just on a natural high. We’ll see.

But honestly, the more interesting part of the experience had nothing to do with the needles or the broken English or the wall full of Chinese herbs. No, the best part of this story came as I was leaving home to head to the appointment…As I was leaving, my wife’s “small group” from our former church was arriving. It consists of three women around our age and one woman who is about twenty years their senior who “mentors” them. This very sweet and well-intentioned woman asked where I was headed, and when I told her, her face sprouted a concerned look. Then she said, “You need to pray for protection because acupuncture involves spirits, and you don’t want to open yourself up to an evil spirit.”

Having grown up in and around fundamentalist Christianity, I have heard this view expressed before. It’s basically religiously-justified xenophobia, the attitude being very much an us vs. them mentality: “Surely God can’t/won’t be involved in any Eastern methods of healing or hope. No, those versions of health come from evil spirits that the Real God is fighting against. But make sure you ask the Real God to help you in prayer; otherwise, he’ll just ignore your misfortune as you allow evil spirits to invade your unsuspecting body. Muhahahahaha!”

While I find the aforementioned ideas laughable these days, I’m also well aware that dogma is not unique to Christianity. Even the acupuncturist, from what I could understand, was espousing her own version of dogma. She boldly claimed that I should be off of all five medicines that I take with enough acupuncture treatment. If she’s right, I guess those evil spirits know what they’re doing. For now, my cynical self suspects that both ladies are wrong. I’m just hoping for a small step forward here, ladies. Is that too much to ask?!

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