Mental Illness and Addiction: Changing the Narrative

I’m finishing up a popular memoir called Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, and while the book isn’t about mental illness and addiction, per se, Vance’s story of unlikely success grows out of his disgust toward his mother’s endless addictions to both men and drugs. Over the course of Vance’s 31 year life, his mother has been married five times and her drug habits have gradually devolved to the point of entering rehab for heroin use.

The mental illness in Vance’s family is undiagnosed, mostly because “hillbillys” are highly unlikely to talk to a therapist about their problems. But as a child, Vance’s mother seemed most negatively impacted by her own parents’ screaming matches and her father’s alcoholism. While her two siblings stood up to the chaos without losing a sense of self, Vance’s mom would cower on the floor and cover her ears, much like she would do when yet another man left her. One could certainly diagnose PTSD and inevitably, there would be other valid mental and emotional disabilities to be medicated or counseled. So, while I know I’m painting with a broad brush, for the purposes of what I want to say here, I’m going to simplify matters and say that in Vance’s life, in my life, and in so many other lives, mental illness and addiction go hand in hand and are culturally regarded in very much the same way.

Toward the end of the book, Vance does an informal survey of his extended family about why his mom’s struggles ruined her. He primarily wanted the opinion of his mom’s two siblings. Both of them take the attitude toward their sister that typifies what I perceive to be our national attitude toward both mental illness and addiction: “Yes, these are real ‘diseases,’ but the cure for them is primarily to quit whining and get your life together. The struggle is probably real, but the cure is willpower.”

Some examples:

1. The Atlanta Falcons recently hired a new Offensive Coordinator who lost his last job because of multiple alcohol related incidents, including showing up to his head coaching job drunk. On TV, a sports commentator’s jaw was nearly on the floor with disbelief that anyone would hire this man. But if alcoholism is a disease, shouldn’t the attitude be different – something more like, “I’m thrilled that this man is back on his feet and is doing what he needs to to stay healthy.” If he had come to work and passed out from not tending to his diabetes, would anyone guffaw that he could get another job after such irresponsibility?

2. A friend of mine suffers from crippling depression; she hasn’t worked in years. Her very gracious brother supports her financially, but he also incessantly tells her she needs to exercise and volunteer. Those are, in fact, very good suggestions. However, they are coming from a place that misunderstands the hurdles that have to be jumped to get to the gym or to sign up to volunteer. This is a woman who has a PhD, who adopted a child as a single mother, and who has held many high-powered jobs over a forty year career. She didn’t become lazy all of a sudden. Something changed in her brain, and getting to the gym for her can be like asking someone who’s petrified of heights to jump out of a plane – unless there’s someone strapped to their back, they ain’t jumping out of that plane.

I can hear the objections to my points through the internet waves. Or maybe it’s just that I have those same objections buried in my own brain from a lifetime of training. They are saying to me: “Tim, you’re letting people off too easy. Are you saying that we have no power over mental illness and addiction? Are you saying we can all excuse our bad behavior because we’re “just wired this way”? Are you saying we should let people come to work drunk and hold their hair back while they puke in the trashcan during an important meeting? To which I say, “Of course not! Alcoholics should wear their hair in a bun.”

But really, I am not saying that. People, even those with mental illness and addiction problems, have a responsibility to manage their conditions. Our treatments for these ailments are embarrassingly rudimentary, but people who suffer still need to seek treatment until they’ve run out of options (and many do, sadly). What I’m addressing here isn’t so much how some boss should handle an employee’s first absence due to depression or anxiety. I’m more interested in the systemic attitude that I hear from Vance’s aunt and uncle about their sister…as well as from many of my own family and friends. Essentially, they say this, “We grew up in the same house/school/town/neighborhood; we made it and succeeded; what’s YOUR problem?”

That is the misguided attitude that has to change.

It’s the same attitude you see in rich, white people toward inner city black kids who “aren’t taking advantages of their opportunities.” At first glance, it seems like a brash, arrogant attitude. But in reality, I think it is a fearful and defensive one. We all want to believe that our successes are because of our own merit – that anyone could do what we have done but we wanted it more, had a better work ethic, or slayed a few more dragons by their bravery. It’s scary and unsettling to think that our success of which we are so proud might have a good bit less to do with our own acts of will than we think. So we call others, those who do not have what we have, weak, broken, or even depraved. That allows us to remain the “good guy” who has it all together by the strength of her own will.

Another way of putting it: Michael Jordan isn’t just tall and athletic; he was also wired for endless hours in the gym and for intense competition. I could have the same exact physique as him or I could have the same intensity or the same competitive spirit, but unless I had all of them combined, I could never be as good as he was. But if I looked just like him and had the same athleticism, inevitably people would say I had wasted my talent. If I’m not wired for all those hours in the gym, though, and like to read instead, does that make me a wasted, would-be Michael Jordan? I think that’s far too simplistic. It’s the same with mental illness and addiction. What looks one way might be something starkly different.

Maybe I’m only making this argument because I’m a forty-year-old, privileged, white man who is trying to start over. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that I failed and that it’s my fault. Maybe the masses are right about me and every other addict and mentally ill person: Sure we have a real illness on our hands, but if we were strong enough people, we’d fight our way out of the messes we find ourselves in. Are all of us just weaker – sure to be destroyed evolutionary principles that cause the fittest, not the weakest, to survive: Slowly, we’ll annihilate ourselves by suicide, overdoses, and a lack of desire to pass on genes. Is that what’s happening here?

I’ll leave that to you to answer, but I ask you to think twice the next time you think that someone needs to just get her act together. People say we need to walk a mile in each other’s shoes, but I don’t think that would do the trick. What we really need is to actually walk a mile in that person’s DNA – to think their thoughts, to feel their fears, to be haunted by their traumas, and, of course, to have their experiences. This might enable us to offer more grace to others, not only who are haunted by mental illness and addiction, but also our plain old, every day brothers, sisters, friends, and family.

For further reading:

A good piece about attitudes toward addiction: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/184/2/155
And one about attitudes toward mental illness: https://www.rethink.org/news-views/2013/11/attitudes-to-mental-illness

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Born with Burns


Born with Burns

Sometimes I feel like I was born with a scorched body that never healed. I’m walking around in the world, a world full of sharp edges and prickly branches and concrete landing spots. These things hurt everyone when they pass them by or fall onto them, but for me, after 41 years of observation, I feel quite confident saying these things hurt me much more than they do the average person.

At the moment my wife 14 years and I are going through a divorce. It’s not that we don’t love each other or care about each other. It’s just that things aren’t working and they haven’t been for a long time. There’s a lot of friction that causes unnecessary pain and angst for us and for our children. It’s been a hard and years-long decision, but the last few weeks as we have taken definitive steps has been brutal.

On top of that, and forgive me for complaining publicly, but most of my closest friends and family have entirely failed to offer any comfort in the midst of this. I watch as my wife’s family and friends rallied to her side day after day and just feel consumed by loneliness at the lack of calls on my phone or texts to say “I’m with you.”

Today I actually feel like I want to die for the first time in a very long time. I’m grateful that his been so long since I felt this way, but I forgot how awful it is. I’m at that point just prior to being truly in danger where I just hope something tragic will happen to me and it will all be over. Like I said, I feel like a burn victim who is more wounded by the ordinary events of life than most others would be.

Life is painful no matter who you are but when you have a mental illness what might otherwise be tolerable pain becomes virtually intolerable. What might be deep sadness turns into soul-and-life-threatening sadness. What might be Xanax-requiring anxiety about the future turns into wanting to drink yourself into oblivion even though you haven’t had a drop in over seven months, as is the case with me.

As much as it may seem so, I am not writing to air any dirty laundry or to be passive aggressive toward anyone. I am writing because it is more apparent to me and ever day like today how much we need each other. People without mental illnesses simply do not and cannot get it. They can try and some of them are very very good at trying. But unless a day like today has led you to feel what I have described it is probably very hard to relate to what I’m talking about. I could understand if you wanted to say to me “Tim, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and move forward.”

But I’m not writing to those of you who feel that I should do such a thing. I’m writing to those of you who read what I said and immediately thought “I completely understand what he is saying.”

And I have a challenge for you that I will never quit giving as long as I write this blog: if you understand what I’m talking about please find someone in or around you inner circle and make a habit of inserting yourself into their lives.

All of us need each other. But those of us whose sanity feels so tenuous need the support of others all the more. If there can be one good thing that comes out of me having a really terrible day, I hope it will be that you are reminded of how much good you can do for another human being simply by understanding what they’re going through. That’s the greatest, and really the only, gift we have to give.

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40 and Killin’ It!

40

As of Saturday, April 30th, 2016, I will be 40 years old. I’m right where I always thought I would be: I have left behind two great teaching jobs over the past two years because my fragile brain can’t keep pace anymore with the energy of people half my age; I have been forced to leave behind the home of my dreams for something more modest…something I could afford what with all this leaving of jobs; my wife has gone back to work to help us survive; and I moved out of my house for six months of the past year, probably leaving my kids with some confusion and a scar or two…Just how I dreamed it up!

But despite all of this recent trauma of late, most troubling of all, I’m still scared of the dark. At age 40.

So after the separation, my wife and I are trying again. One of the things we’re working at is intentionally spending more time just the two of us. Kids, after all, make meaningful conversations impossible. I swear, some couples must go 20 years without actually talking to each other while they’re raising kids.

Last weekend, as a surprise for my upcoming 40th, Ann arranged for us to go up to Lake Hartwell for two nights away while her parents were in town and could keep the kids. I grew up going to the lake in the summers, and it is, without question, my happiest place on earth. This particular rental place was rather out of the way, and getting to the house required driving past many, well, to put it politely, very run down mobile meth labs. I mean homes. Sorry, I’ve been binge watching Breaking Bad.

Truth be told, I got a bit concerned about where we were going after we hadn’t passed a lawn without a wheel-less car for seven miles. I know, I know, I’m making terrible assumptions about people with rebel flag covered windows and “Guns don’t kill people; I kill people” bumper stickers on their cars, but remember: I’m a liberal, so I make these sort of unfair judgments about people. I mean really, just look at the unfair things the liberal media is saying about Donald Trump for proof that liberals just aren’t fair to conservatives.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, I was a little worried that Ann had rented us some sleeping bags under a holey tarp when we finally found our weekend home. It was very nice after all: two bedrooms; one bathroom; clean…just the right amount of cabin/real home mixture. And a spectacular view of the lake.

As soon as we walked in the door, we dropped the bags, looked at each other with that “game on” look in our eyes, and did what any couple who was finally kid-free-for-the-first-time-in-forever would do: we opened a bottle of wine and drank the entire thing.

But back to being scared of the dark…When it came time to turn in for the night, it hit me how physically far from anything familiar I was. We weren’t quite Bear Grylls out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, but I was grateful that I knew how to skin a deer and make a delicious stew out of its spleen thanks to Mr. Grylls, just in case. At my real home, I know my neighbors and could walk to 50 people’s homes I know before starving to death. Here, on the other hand, I wasn’t entirely confident I was still in Georgia, or North America. I’m not great with directions to begin with, and we had taken the scenic route to get there, so there was literally no chance I could drive myself out of there on my own. Cell phone service was non-existent, so as I lay there trying to fall asleep, I couldn’t comfort myself with useless news or scrolling through Facebook. I remembered what it was like to be a little kid, lying awake in the dark, 100% sure that I’d be dead in some horrific way by morning.

The thing is, I didn’t actually feel alone or frightened. Instead, in that moment of uncomfortable, overwhelming solitude, I was entirely comforted by the simple fact that Ann was there too, even though she was sound asleep. And then something truly fundamental to my human existence struck me: It literally only takes ONE other person to alleviate someone’s loneliness.

There I was – truly in the middle of nowhere, essentially alone and isolated from anything familiar. But right next to me was just ONE person who knew me, who cared about me, who would know where to look for my body if went out looking for the source of the banjo music and never came back. I’m sure of this: had I been literally alone, I wouldn’t have slept too well that night. I’m not really all that scared of the dark (I lied earlier for literary effect), but I’m scared as hell of loneliness…of isolation. If I had to lie there truly alone in that strange house, deep in the woods, far from everything I’m familiar with, I would’ve slept like a baby…with colic.

And I realized that I had the perfect metaphor for what this blog is about: it’s about helping to alleviate the worst of all human burdens: loneliness. In this case, I’m interested in specifically addressing the loneliness created by mental illness, as it just so happens to be THE raging reason I have suffered from excruciating loneliness throughout my life. If it were up to me, we’d all just naturally care for each other even when everything was hunky dorey…it would just be a part of the human fabric to stick together whether things were good or bad. Sadly, humans aren’t very good at the sticking together when things are good part, and it takes tough times to remind us to keep giving those hugs. Another way of putting it is this: It takes poop to make fertilizer (sorry, but FB won’t publish these with naughty words, so you’re getting a somewhat-less-than-intellectually-honest version of foul-mouthed me). And the poop of both mental illness and loneliness have fertilized in me a desire to help others feel less alone – to be someone who lets them know they’re not alone…or, better yet, just helps them find that one person. It doesn’t have to be me. Maybe it’s you.

And that’s what I want this blog to be about – connecting those of us who have suffered from the loneliness inflicted by the illnesses in our brains. We need each other, and I want to provide a way for us to connect.

So, drumroll please…I’d like to formally announce this: At the beginning of this post, I wasn’t just complaining about my job status…I was foreshadowing (see, I’ve taught English for 20 years, and it’s hard to stop doing English teacher-y things). I am currently without a formal job, but I’ve invented one: I am going to start a non-profit organization called To Know We Are Not Alone. On top of continuing to write, I would like to begin doing more speaking (anyone out there need a speaker sometime soon?), and I will be developing both online and face-to-face resources where people who suffer from any and all mental illnesses can find each other and feel a little (or a ton) less alone in the battle. I am also hard at work on creating a podcast…should have it out early next week. Otherwise, in the coming weeks and months, I’ll add addendums to my posts to let you know what’s going on. For now, if you’d like to send me a check for $5,000 or even just send me a word of advice or encouragement, I’d certainly welcome it.

Oh, and please make checks out to Tim Blue since I don’t have an official entity called To Know We Are Not Alone just yet.

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Faking It

When-Harry-Met-Sally-when-harry-met-sally-restaurant-1200x675If you’re like me, you’re plagued by the fear that the people you’re with think you’re faking it. Whether it’s someone new, someone you’ve been with many times, someone you love, or someone you just met at a bar, there’s always that question: Do they think I’m faking it?

I’m referring to mental illness of course.

If you’re a paraplegic, I don’t think it crosses anyone’s mind that you were just tired of standing up. If you have cancer, I don’t think anyone says, “let me see those x-rays, please.” But mental illness is completely invisible, other than in one’s behavior.

If I can’t get out of bed because of depression, it would be easy for someone to say, as many do, “What you need is some sunshine (or exercise). You need to get up and get moving. Then you’ll feel better.” Would they ever say that to a cancer patient?

If I am consumed with anger and lash out at someone I love, it looks like I’m being a jerk. It looks like bad behavior. In reality, it is a symptom of a brain that won’t cooperate. I know I shouldn’t be angry, but I still am. I still lash out. And then I hate myself for it, convinced that I could “do better” if only I would try harder…try different.

And I know that sometimes my loved ones think the same thing: that I could behave differently if only I would get my act together…quit hiding behind my diagnoses and just make different choices.

A dear friend of mine is financially supported by a family member. Recently, this family member has grown frustrated. He has told her to exercise more, to get outside, to act healthy so as to become healthy. He’s even gone so far as to tell her that his support won’t last forever and she should find a rich man who will enable her as she lays in bed and “refuses to leave the house.” Would this family member ever say this to her if she had cancer? If she had ALS? If she was paralyzed? Obviously, no.

The fact is that it’s easy to worry that people think we’re faking it because, well, they do. Those who have never battled their own brains, understandably, think they know the answer(s) to our problems. When they feel a little sad, it helps to go for a run. When they feel like staying in bed, they are able to overcome that feeling and reap the rewards of getting up and moving.

But that’s like me telling someone with terminal cancer that I understand how they feel because I’ve had the flu. Imagine if I tried to tell someone with cancer how to get better based on my experience with the flu. That would be offensive in every possible sense of the word.

But mental illness is still a mystery. I even went to a talk recently where a psychiatrist talked about how to avoid weight gain when on bi-polar meds, which notoriously cause weight gain. Every ounce of his advice was the exact same advice you would give to someone who just likes to eat: snack on nuts, not donuts; don’t eat after 8; etc.

This was a doctor who treats bi-polar people all day every day. Yet he treated us like we were normal people who just overate, not people who were on medication that makes it nearly impossible to lose weight.

Honestly, I’m not complaining, at least I don’t think I am. I’m just stating the reality that, for those of us with a mental illness, it’s easy to feel like those around us must think we are faking it. Every single day, as I battle my frustrating brain, I wonder what people think. I know that some of them think I should exercise more often. Others think I should pray more. Some think I should fake it till I make it. The vast majority of them have the good sense to keep their opinions to themselves, thankfully. But that doesn’t change the fact that mental illness comes with a healthy dose of insecurity, at least for me.

I guess the takeaway is simply that those of us who struggle in this way need to be bold enough to be honest with people about how we feel no matter how they respond. Maybe they’ll think we are faking it. So what?! Some of them, thankfully, will actually believe what we tell them and will grow a little bit more sensitive to the issues we face on a day to day basis. Either way, some will get it and some won’t. We might as well speak up.

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Un-F*ck the World

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

Still reading? Okay, I warned you.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Happy Birthday to Me? Well, Thank You!

funny-birthday-cake-messages-4

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Have a great day celebrating my birthday!

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Lady Antebellum
o Heart of the World
o Need You Now

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

Fleetwood Mac (or Dixie Chicks)
o Landslide

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

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

Sawyer Brown
o The Walk

Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss
o Whiskey Lullaby

 

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Bubble Boy

bubble boy

A friend of mine got a call earlier this week from a friend who was suicidal…as in he had picked a day to kill himself and had been cutting himself on the wrists. My friend, like most people, didn’t know what exactly to do. He didn’t want to interfere or to butt in, but he didn’t want to leave the guy hanging either (eesh, terrible unintended pun). Brad, my friend, did the right thing: he went over to the guy’s house. But once he got there, he had no clue what to do. Here’s what he wrote to me the following day:

“So I walk into this room and my friend is inside a clear bubble. He hears and sees the outside of the bubble but the laws of nature inside the bubble are not the same as those outside. There is no sense in even attempting to reconcile the world inside vs. outside. What is worse is that I can see that my friend is in tremendous pain. But the bubble eliminates all possibility of rendering aid. So all I could do was sit there, listen, and talk on occasion…provide a momentary break from the monotony of pain inside the bubble. It sucked in the worst way.”

And there you have it: the perfect descriptions of what both a depressed person and their allies must face. Being depressed is like living in a bubble. I’ve often said I feel like I’m floating in space, watching everyone else from miles away, aware of their existence but unable to break through into their world. And I’ve been outside the bubble, too. It’s the same sort of helpless feeling – like being the ghost in some movie who wants to shout a word of warning to their still-alive friend, but no matter how loudly they yell, their voice won’t reach the land of the living.

All that being said, my friend Brad still did the right thing, unquestionably. He did the brave thing: he faced the feelings of helplessness and concern head-on rather than excusing himself from the pain of involvement by “not wanting to interfere” or “leaving matters in the hands of his friends’ family members.” It’s easier not to get involved, and there are always excuses available to stay out of such situations.

But staying out of them is ALWAYS the wrong thing to do. What’s the worst that can happen by getting involved? The person might be mad at you and unfriend you on Facebook. Ok, but what’s the worst thing that can happen if you don’t get involved? Your friend might kill himself; his children will be orphaned, his wife widowed, and you will be left wondering if you could’ve helped. For the rest of your life.

Am I being heavy-handed here? Maybe. But these aren’t “light-handed” sorts of issues. Just remember: The consequences of doing SOMETHING will always be better than the potential consequences of doing nothing. People who are depressed don’t have a damn clue what they need. You wouldn’t expect someone lying on the beaches of Normandy without his legs to rationally tell you how to doctor his wounds, would you? No, you’d take charge, comfort him, and do what you – the rational one – believed was the right thing. You wouldn’t leave him lying there, excusing yourself because you’re not a trained doctor (I hope). You wouldn’t listen to his shock-induced rants or even to his cries of pain. You’d act. And you’d hope your actions were of some use.

It’s no different with someone who’s deeply depressed. They’re lying on the beaches of Normandy without a clue what they need or want. If they’re still alive, they still want and need help, no matter what words are coming out of their mouths. Who cares if you don’t quite tie the tourniquet perfectly. Just tie the damn thing.

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Silver Linings Playbook and Mental Illness



Silver-Linings-Playbook-poster1Many of you who read this blog already know this, but I’ve been out of work for the past 2 months for depression treatment. The two worst periods of depression in my life have also come with insomnia, which of course only adds to the problem – “Make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep,” says yet another person. “I’m taking more sleeping medicines than Michael Jackson was, my friend, but 5 good hours qualifies as a step in the right direction for me these days.” After all, one can’t force oneself to get more sleep.

So, I’ve resorted to sleeping on the basement couch so that when I wake up, I don’t feel guilty about turning on the TV or tossing and turning for awhile. And ever since God invented Netflix (Al Gore helped, I heard), I have plenty of good TV to watch. Last night I finished Silver Linings Playbook, which I had seen before but was reminded of how beautiful a well-made movie can be. If you’re not familiar with it, Bradley Cooper plays a man, Pat Something-or-Other, who has been in a mental hospital for 8 months after nearly killing the man his wife was cheating with. He moves back in with his family and proceeds to try to win his wife back while resisting (at first) his need for medication and therapy. He is befriended by Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Tiffany, (yesterday I saw that she was one of the 10 most Googled people, so I assume you are familiar with her!) whose husband of 3 years has recently been hit by a car and killed. The movie centers around the budding relationship between these two lovably quirky, mentally ill people.

Both characters lack any filter whatsoever (see, folks, this is my excuse…mental illnesses lead to lack of filtered words…thus every inappropriate thing you’ve ever heard me say), and Pat tells Tiffany that he’s heard she’s a slut. Her reply is deeply poignant, raw, and beautiful. She says:

“I was a big slut, but I’m not anymore. There will always be a part of me that is sloppy and dirty, but I like that, just like all the other parts of myself. I can forgive. Can you say the same for yourself, fucker? Can you forgive? Are you capable of that?”

And to you, Tim: Can you say the same for yourself? Can you forgive yourself for being sloppy and dirty?

And to you, my friends: Can you…will you forgive yourself for your sloppy, dirty, slutty, fucker-y, unsightly parts?

One of the key components of mindfulness is non-judgment of oneself. Compassion is another key word…for yourself, for your friends who sometimes suck, for your family that sometimes makes you hope to find out you’re adopted, even for your enemies, who, like you and me, are broken, sloppy, screwed-up people who might even be trying their best? But don’t worry about your enemies for now! You’ve probably got plenty of work to do, like me, on just loving yourself.

So do this: Maybe literally, maybe figuratively, maybe both…Look yourself in the mirror and allow yourself to zoom in on some part of you that you’re particularly un-fond of. Then forgive yourself for this flaw. Say it out loud: “I forgive you, brain. I know you’re trying. I know you’re broken, and despite all the trouble you cause me, you actually do me plenty of good, too. We’re in this together, and I’m okay that you’re a part of me. You don’t have to ever become perfect. I love you; I forgive you.”

Or this: “I forgive you, fragile emotions. Yeah, you do get hurt easily, but some of the most valuable things in the world are the most vulnerable things. I’m with you; I love you; I accept you…even when others tell you to get a grip. I forgive you, self, for having these fragile emotions.”

If you’ve been around long enough to be capable of reading this, you must know by now that the acceptance of others is fickle, as is their understanding and affirmation. This quandary is unlikely to change within the next 80 million millennia, so we both might as well quit trying to get Coke out of that Pepsi machine. But you’re always capable of sharing J-Law/Tiffany’s beautiful self-acceptance. You’re more capable than anyone else in the cosmos of gently caring for all the parts that make you you. Like a parent can care for a sick child whose projectile vomit lands inside her new Coach purse, you can look at the “children” inside of you who are imperfect and messy…even downright ugly…and offer unconditional love and acceptance.

Give it a try. What can it possibly hurt? And if it feels too uncomfortable what with all the weird compassionate feelings that might arise, you can always go back to berating yourself like a wicked step-child, castigating your sloppy, smelly components as if that might somehow drive them away. I’ll even offer free self-loathing training if you try this self-compassion and forget how the self-loathing works over time. But my guess is that what will happen for you is what’s happened for me: You’ll see yourself a bit differently; you’ll laugh a little more easily at your screw-ups and foibles; and oddly enough, you’ll even start feeling this way toward other people who might piss you off a teensy bit less than they used to. (Or not. Baby steps.)

PS. If you’ve been encouraged by this post, please consider “sharing” it, either privately with a friend or publicly, like on Facebook or Twitter, so that your friend(s) will perhaps know that they are “not alone.” See next PS for further explanation of this not-so-subtle plea…
PPS. Please consider “following” this blog either at the bottom of this page or on the home page. All that will change for you is that you’ll get an email when I post something new. What (might) change for me is more people finding this blog on search engines. Beyond my fragile ego, here’s why I’m asking: I find myself at a crossroad, trying to navigate my way into a life that is sustainable given the realities of my mental health. Sadly, it’s likely that I won’t be able to continue running at the necessary pace to sustain my teaching career, and I’m hoping this blog can become a first step in a new direction of mental healthy advocacy, speaking, writing, etc. So, needily, desperately, perhaps pathetically, I ask for your help in seeing where this blog might take me. Thank you!


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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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Shame: Coming Out of the Closet

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

“Do you have any secrets?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was unfazed, almost bored.

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

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

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

“Well, er, um, this is tough to say…”

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

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

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

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

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

SHAME.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

More resources:

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


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

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