Colin Kaepernick and Brock Turner

Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was released from jail this week after serving only three months for “sexual assault,” also known as rape.

This is precisely what we wanted.

Yes, us.

Meanwhile, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been raked over the coals for sitting down during the National Anthem this week. He says he’ll stand when minorities are treated like human beings in our country. As we chastise him and try to silence him, we should carefully consider that what we are actually doing is trying to perpetuate a system wherein a rapist like Brock Turner can get out of jail after three months – a system that privileges rich white people over everyone else – minorities, immigrants, and women.

I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t pass on my money; pass on my work ethic.” In case that doesn’t make sense to you, the person is saying that poor people are poor because they are lazy. When we live in a society where that person doesn’t have enough friends who tell him how horrific his bumper sticker his, that means we live in a culture where we’d rather allow someone to be a bully than to put ourselves through the discomfort of confronting a bully. And that’s what causes the bullied to end up dead by their own hands, raped by their peers, and silenced when they would like to protest. All because many of us don’t want to be put through the trouble of defending those whose voices are smaller and weaker. And really, just imagine the opposite situation: if a black person from the inner city drove around with a bumper sticker that said, “If it weren’t for those elitist white racists, maybe I could get a better job,” it scares me to think of the reaction that might invoke.

So what does this have to do with mental illness? A lot.

My friend who has been incapable of working due to depression for over five years has every doctor on planet earth say that she needs government disability, yet she has been denied twice, forcing her to hire a lawyer she can’t afford in the hopes of finally getting the whopping $1,400 a month she hopes to get. She’s the little guy; she has no power. Yet she is lucky enough to have connections who know a lawyer who can help her. Most aren’t so lucky.

There are those who criticize “all those lazy people looking for a government handout.” To them I say please try living off of $1,400 a month for awhile…after living off of $0 while you fight the system for a few years trying to get that meager sum. Think how defeated in spirit someone has to be to “live” off the government when that life means subjecting yourself to a life of poverty because you have no other option besides homelessness or death.

This site is called “to know we are not alone” because my passion, even more than speaking out about mental illness, is to speak out against loneliness. And one of the loneliest places on earth is being the little guy whose voice doesn’t really matter – the inner city mother living on welfare, the mentally ill person living on disability, the black kid whose life doesn’t seem to matter as evidenced by the people trying to silence someone who stands up for him, the girl who gets raped by a peer but whose voice doesn’t matter because her rapist’s parents have means…these are all the same.

The troubling reality, though, is that once we dress bullying up a little bit as adults, many of us unwittingly become a part of the crowd that bullies and oppresses. Our victims don’t usually end up hanging themselves in their parents’ basement, like the victims of a middle school bully. Our victims get sent back to the projects, further convinced that it’s impossible to climb out of the hole they’ve been born into. Our victims get sent back to Honduras or Haiti or Guatemala, separated from their wives and children who, for some reason, got to stay here. Our victims get raped and then told that their rape doesn’t really matter that much to the rest of us. And our victims sink further and further into the mental nightmare that won’t end – as trapped in their mental health hell hole as the kid from the projects who knows he’ll never escape.

This isn’t where I tell you who to vote for. It’s just where I tell you that there are a lot of people whose voices don’t seem to matter. If you want to know what happens to those people over time, just go visit an Indian Reservation. The fact that we’re still calling them “Indian” Reservations shows how little their voices matter. You wonder why the inner city looks like it does? It’s not because those people are lazy; it’s because those areas are just another version of an Indian Reservation… “Let’s put them there and then blame them for failing to rise above their situation,” is what our society has said from day one.

Please, I beg you, there are a lot of “little guys” out there, and they need for you to mount a protest on their behalf. If you don’t, then please don’t post things on Facebook about how awful it is that Brock Turner just got out of prison.
 
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Please help if you can…everything helps. You can do so here.

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

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Dear Taylor Swift

This was originally published a year and a half ago. For some reason it was on my mind again and I thought I’d re-share.

 

Dear Taylor Swift,

Yes, I am a 40-year-old man writing a letter to you, but don’t get weirded out just yet. Give me a minute to explain myself.

You see, this morning on the way to my daughter’s school, she (as usual) asked for my phone so she could listen (primarily) to your music. She’s 7, and you are her favorite (and don’t tell anyone but I do love your music, too while I pretend to be strictly a Death Metal sort of guy). This morning, my little girl played your song, “Never Grow Up.”

I am somewhat sure it changed my life. No, seriously.

As is often the case in the morning, I was a tad grumpy, and to be entirely honest, I gave her the phone in part so I wouldn’t have to feign fascination with 7-year-old questions and observations. Now don’t go judging me, Taylor, until you have kids of your own. They’re amazing, but they ask a lot of questions, and at least in my daughter’s case, come out of the womb with plenty to say and may well never stop talking for 7 years. But back to my life being changed…

So I’m not a big crier. I suppose that for a male I might be somewhere in the normal range, which means I might tear up at a movie when a dog dies or when the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is especially awesome, but for the most part, it’s mainly when that irritating thing called death comes close to home that I do my real crying. Unfortunately, that means someone close to me has to die about twice a year so I can get my stuffed-inside-pretty-damn-deep-emotions out. I will admit that once the tears make their way over my lower eyelids, they can tend to be all-consuming for a few minutes. But that’s usually the end of it, even when death happens.

But thanks to you, for literally the only time in my life that I can remember, I cried all day. As my daughter played the song this morning, it was just a little tearing up that led me to reach back and grab her hand just to hold it for a minute. Suddenly, instead of wanting the carpool trip to be over, I found myself wanting to hit pause so I could absorb the maniacal beauty of this fast-fleeting time in life when kids’ shrieks (some good, some bad) dominate my life.

But when she got out of the car, I started to replay that song over and over. I don’t know what in the world attracts us to things that evoke that mixture of joy and pain that makes us do that strange thing known as crying, but whatever that impulse is kept me listening over and over again. And gradually, the watery eyes turned into actual rolling tears. And then I couldn’t stop…for hours. There was so much wrapped up in the words of your song that got me crying…

I cried because I love my kids so damn much it actually hurts sometimes.

I cried because I don’t always do a great job of expressing it to them, and sometimes I’m sure I hurt them in ways even they won’t understand until they have their own day-of-crying at age 40.

I cried because I wished I could go back to my own childhood, but not because it was so blissfully naive. It was quite the opposite. I spent my childhood petrified of all manner of things: being left somewhere by my parents, germs that might fly into my body invisibly, accidentally telling a lie, making God mad and being sent to hell, and just generally of something tragic happening to my loved ones. I obsessively ended conversations with my parents with “I love you” because when you have OCD and hear one of those horrific stories that I think people make up just to scare the shit out of kids so they’ll appreciate their parents more, you tend not to forget such scary stories (you know, the story where a kid doesn’t get what he wants for his birthday, tells his parents he hates them, storms off, and then during the day, they’re hit by a Mack truck, and the kid comes home to find the present he wanted waiting as a surprise which had been planned all along (did you hear these same stories, Taylor? For me, they struck a nerve that was already all too alive.)). So I cried for myself, honestly, for the fact that I have felt far too “grown up” since I was 4. I cried because your song says that to a child “everything is funny,” but I don’t remember anything funny about being a child; I just remember being confused and unbelievably scared. Are you sure you didn’t mean to say that to a child “everything is scary as hell”?

I cried because last year one of my students did a talent show dance to your song and needed a little ballerina to join her, and she asked my daughter. When it actually took place, I only teared up, beating myself up inside that I couldn’t shed some real tears about this overwhelmingly perfect moment in time. But I made up for that lack of tears today.

Ellie Ruth in last year's Wesleyan Talent Show

I cried because that memory reminded me that I’ve had to step away from a lot of people and activities I love to try to get better in my brain.

I cried because I used to believe that God loved me and cared about me, but nowadays I struggle mightily to believe anything of the sort. It’s not that I wanted that foundation to crumble; sometimes foundations start crumbling and don’t know how to stop, it would seem…sort of goes along with the whole loss of innocence your song is about, I guess. You don’t want to lose your innocence (or maybe you actually do) but you don’t really have much of a choice once the cage door is opened.

You’re probably getting depressed, but I’m done with my sad list now, and I’m actually writing to say thank you, so let me get to that part.

Thank you for helping some dam inside of me break open. The truth is, many people, at least historically, have perceived me as put-together and on-the-ball. You know: stable, self-assured, level-headed…those sorts of things. But on the inside I’ve always been very aware that I’m a pretty emotional guy. Unfortunately, the emotion I’m best at expressing is anger, but you and I and the 7 people who might read this now know that my anger, humor, and sarcasm are actually masks for a lot of pain I feel inside but don’t know how to get out. I got a lot out today, so thank you for providing the chisel that broke a dam I’ve been building all my life.

Thank you, also, for a poignant reminder that our little ones do grow up. The part that really gets me is the bridge where you talk about daddy’s coming home and remembering little brother’s favorite songs. During that part, my daughter blurted out, “Josiah’s favorite song is definitely Jingle Bells!” since that is literally the ONLY song he ever wants to listen to. If he wants music, it’s that song on repeat since Christmas of 2013. But all day as I’ve listened over and over to your song (enough times to move that song up a few notches on the charts), when it comes to that part, I really crack. Those images are so relevant to me, and I dread the day when the “DADDY!!!!!!” shrieks fade into unintelligible grunts when I walk through the door.

Finally, Taylor, and please keep this between us as I’m very private about these things, I’ve been going through a bit of a tough time lately. Usually, when someone close to me dies, the tears are incredibly cathartic. It’s probably pretty obvious to say that crying is a natural part of grieving, but I am quite sure I haven’t begun to grieve the recent losses I’ve experienced.

Until today.

So thank you for playing a small, unwitting part in this cathartic ripping open that I apparently haven’t solved just yet. Maybe when you read this post you can have a good cry, too, for you have had to grow up pretty fast for different reasons than I did. You seem to be handling it pretty well, but then again, perhaps, like me, you’re spending most of your energy to stay “put together” so the 29 zillion people who recognize you won’t see the little kid inside of you. The same one that’s inside all of us; the same one that we all need to take good care of, to “re-parent” as the psychology term says, to cherish and love because no one will ever understand us as well as we understand ourselves.

Sincerely,

Tim

P.S. My daughter really wants to meet you, so let us know when you’re available to meet. I’m sure you can squeeze us in, right?

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

    1. You can transfer money directly from your bank via PayPal donations (seriously, why don’t you have a PayPal account by now, people?!).
    2. You can use PayPal to make a credit card donation.

FOR THE TWO ABOVE, YOU CAN MAKE THEM RECURRING MONTHLY IF YOU’D LIKE TO. Just check the box to this effect.

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

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

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

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Want to know when there’s something new here? Sign up for the blog below. Tim also has a Facebook community called To Know We Are Not Alone and frankly, so if you’re on Facebook, join us there, too. [jetpack_subscription_form title=”” subscribe_text=”” subscribe_button=”Sign Me Up”]

 

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I’m Still Here
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I’m Still Here

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

Then I got unceremoniously fucked by a cosmic elephant.

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

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

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

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

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

Still, I tried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Want to know when there’s something new here? Sign up for the blog below. Tim also has a Facebook community called To Know We Are Not Alone and frankly, there’s a lot more dialogue and group interaction that goes on there than on this blog site, so if you’re on Facebook, join us there, too. [jetpack_subscription_form title=”” subscribe_text=”” subscribe_button=”Sign Me Up”]

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Podcast: Self Harm

Show Notes:

  • Statistics taken from: http://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/self-injury-self-harm-statistics-and-facts/
  • Self-harm is more an act of self-preservation than self-destruction.
  • Aron Ralston: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aron_Ralston
  • Tim shares first-hand stories from 3 people’s self-harm experiences.
  • Tim discusses Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectical_behavior_therapy 
     
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    Friends, I need your help growing the reach of TKWANA. Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Thank you!

    *****

    Want to know when there’s something new here? Sign up for the blog below. Tim also has a Facebook community called To Know We Are Not Alone and frankly, there’s a lot more dialogue and group interaction that goes on there than on this blog site, so if you’re on Facebook, join us there, too. [jetpack_subscription_form title=”” subscribe_text=”” subscribe_button=”Sign Me Up”]
     
    *Image from: https://trojantopher.wordpress.com/tag/to-write-love-on-her-arms/

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When You’re Not “Fine” (Attempt 2)

A few nights ago, I posted a version of what’s below. Within about fifteen minutes I had gotten enough “Tim, don’t kill yourself!” emails that I took the post down. So I thought I’d try again. Here goes…

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“How are you?”

My least favorite question.

Sometimes, mercifully, the answer really is “fine.” Some of the time, the answer is more like this: “barely putting one foot in front of the other; feel like crying all the time; want to lash out in anger at most of the people I know for one reason or another.” Worse yet, sometimes this would be the honest answer: “barely surviving…if I told you how badly I want to die, you’d put me in the mental hospital right this second. I fantasize about ways to kill myself. Better yet, I long for something/someone else to do the job for me so no one has to live with all the what-could-I-have-done guilt. If only I could get into a car wreck that looked like a true accident, one that would be guaranteed to kill me. Ahhhh, now that would be the ticket.”

If I told you how often I think like this, you’d probably have me committed. But I also know enough people who think like me to know that I’m not alone and that thoughts like these are not at all abnormal for those who are mentally ill. However, those of us who actually think these things aren’t allowed to verbalize them. Understandably, people are not prepared to hear someone else say they are longing for death. My purpose in writing this post is to encourage those of you who support someone who is mentally ill to understand the difference between wanting to die and being suicidal.

The truth is that all of the mentally ill people I know think about dark things far more often than you would want to know about. We are at war with our brains…constantly. No matter how much we want peace, it won’t come. No matter how much we want to get over our emotional pain, it won’t heal.

Here’s an example of my brain’s incessant negativity even about the smallest things: A friend introduced me to someone who has become one of my favorite musicians EVER (Sturgill Simpson). We were talking about him and I made some analogy comparing Simpson’s song-writing to my blog writing. I was by no means comparing our writing skills, but my friend laughed and said something like, “If only you could write as well as he does.” He didn’t mean anything harmful by it, and I understood his point, but here’s the rub: every damn time I listen to Sturgill Simpson, his songs are poisoned by my hurt feelings because of what my friend said. My brain won’t let it go. Trust me, I don’t want to hold on to these things; why would I want to hold on to something that hurts me and that I can’t do anything about? I can’t go back and confront my friend because he didn’t mean anything by it. I can’t prove him wrong because how would I do that? How would I prove that I’m as good a writer as Sturgill Simpson is? I’m probably not, but that’s not the point. The point is that, when Simpson’s songs play (and I have all of his albums so I hear him a lot even when I hit shuffle), I have a wound that won’t heal. I hear it over and over in my head: “You’re not as good as him; you won’t ever amount to anything as a writer, Tim. You’ll never impact people the way he does.” Maybe that’s not what my friend meant but it doesn’t matter. Whether I want to or not, that’s the “song” that plays on repeat in my head when Sturgill Simpson plays on my iPhone.

Our brains are broken, irreparably. In order to support someone who is mentally ill, you need to brace yourself for the ugliness of what we have to share. If I were to share the above with someone, most likely, they would say, “You’ve got to let go of that, man!” And I would say, “No shit. I want to let it go more than you can possibly imagine. I would give ANYTHING to be able to let it go.” But someone who tells us to “let it go” doesn’t understand the battle. We have bled, sweat, and cried, “Please help us let it go!” to no avail. And if you are going to be our supporter, you are going to have to reconcile yourself to the fact that we aren’t able to control our brains in the same way that you are. “Let it go” or “think positive” are meaningless to us. It’s not that we don’t want to; we can’t. Can a cancer patient make her hair grow back by thinking positively? Can a paraplegic make his legs start working again by letting go of negative thoughts? Obviously, no. And those of us with mental illness can’t quit thinking negative thoughts no matter how hard we try. Trust me, I would give literally anything to be able to let go of negative thoughts. Yet, the truth is, negative thought essentially consume my brain 24/7. I don’t want that to be the case. But it is.

So what should you do to support your friend who is mentally ill? You should prepare yourself for a very ugly reality. Instead of saying, “think positive,” you should just say, “I’m sorry” or “I will listen for as long as you want to talk” or, “tell me everything and I promise not to judge or freak out” or, “what’s your favorite mixed drink and I’ll make you five of them.” Better yet, in a peaceful moment, ask your loved one what they want you to say to them, and say that.

People talk all the time about “removing the stigma” of mental illness. Well if we are ever going to do that, there have to be people in our lives who see it all, know it all, hear it all, and still treat us with dignity…without minimizing our pain as if it were something that a clever phrase or new perspective could help us overcome. Our brains are broken. Allow us to tell you about our real, raw experience.

Here’s the truth: just because we think constantly about death, doesn’t mean we are suicidal. Those of us who think of death as a welcomed relief need people who can listen without freaking out when we talk about longing for death. These thoughts are the fundamental reality of our lives. Our lives are hard…so hard that we want to die. This doesn’t mean we are suicidal; it just means we are mentally ill. It just means that our brains are broken beyond repair. We’ll keep trying; we’ll keep fighting. But if you want to be part of our support system, you’ll have to accept that our reality is a dark one. And the best thing you can do for us is to listen without judgment…even when we tell you we want to die.

 
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Friends, I need your help growing the reach of TKWANA. Its aims are to 1. encourage 2. educate and 3. connect people with mental illnesses and their supporters. Beyond blogging, podcasting, and speaking, I ultimately hope to develop a small-group model for those with mental illnesses – something not too different from what AA is for alcoholics. If you see the value in this endeavor, please consider sharing TKWANA with your Facebook friends or with someone in particular who might need it. Thank you!
 
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Want to know when there’s something new here? Sign up for the blog below. Tim also has a Facebook community called To Know We Are Not Alone and frankly, there’s a lot more dialogue and group interaction that goes on there than on this blog site, so if you’re on Facebook, join us there, too. [jetpack_subscription_form title=”” subscribe_text=”” subscribe_button=”Sign Me Up”]

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After Orlando

My friend Matt, from California, texted me this week to say how much things like the Orlando shooting affect his moods. I understood what he meant. When I’m not doing well, I literally can’t read the news – any news – because the bad news (most of it) will inevitably send me spiraling downward.

Rather than heed the internal voice that told me to stay away from the news about Orlando, in an attempt to make my own life miserable, I did the equivalent of a diabetic eating nothing but donuts: I started sharing my political views on Facebook. There’s a reason people suggest not doing this, and now I know what it is: people are fucking crazy. And illogical. And mean. And, well, stupid. (Not you, of course!)

Not to mention the “me” part of the equation: I’m hypersensitive, opinionated, liberal (with lots of conservative friends), and mentally ill. I don’t know how long it’s going to take before I realize that I am not emotionally equipped to have “spirited” debates about things like whether or not a 9-year-old should be allowed to take her AK-47 to the playground for recess, but 40 years haven’t done the trick. I STILL think, “this time, I’ll be fine. My brain is in a good place (which it’s not, actually)…I can deal with a little backlash.” So I post something nice and benign, something Gandhi would probably post, like this: “I think semi-automatic rifles are helpful…for identifying the people with the smallest penises and the greatest need for a therapist who specializes in daddy issues.” Oddly, people react negatively, and then guess what? I get my feelings hurt because I’ve been misunderstood. Again. (For the record, I do like the idea of the post above, but what I actually posted was a good deal more nuanced and generous.)

But completely seriously, I’ve discovered yet again how bad it is for my brain to get into debates without some really safe boundary lines. I only have a few people in my life with whom there is enough trust and safety that I know we can discuss anything openly without me losing my shit at some point. It’s true that perhaps the quickest way to send me over the edge is to make me feel misunderstood about something I am passionate about. I still can’t entirely identify why it makes me so angry to feel like someone isn’t hearing me out or catching my drift, but aside from threatening my wife or children, it’s the quickest way to see my very worst side. Please don’t try it!

In talking with my mentally ill pals, what I’ve discovered is that this sensitivity is a common theme. Our brains are already hardwired for chaos, fear, depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, etc. We don’t need any help going down rabbit trails that are unhealthy. So when a “friend” calls us “willfully ignorant” or “just another liberal who espouses tolerance while being intolerant,” we are not able to, as some seem capable of doing, think to ourselves, “Oh well, that’s just X’s opinion. We’ll agree to disagree.” Instead, we lay awake at night going back and forth between mentally drafting angry responses to wanting to cry for how misunderstood we feel. And this, my friends, has been my week: attempts at dialogue leading to arguments leading to hurt feelings leading to lost sleep, anxiety, incessant what if questions about how to proceed, withdrawal from family, extra doses of Xanax, and so on.

So the first point I’d like to make is this: If we are going to take care of ourselves as mentally ill people, we have to be willing to set different boundaries than our “normal” friends set. So often I am guilty of berating myself for not being able to do things like so-and-so does them, and my friends tell me this is true of them, too. But we have do some inner child work here. We would never tell a five-year-old that he should be able to do what a fifteen-year-old does. Likewise, we must parent our own inner, mentally ill child and reassure him that it’s okay to not be like the other boys and girls. It’s okay that he can’t handle the madness of Facebook the week after another massacre. If Sally can handle it just fine, let her. I’m not Sally. I will do what’s best for me. It’s not so different from alcoholism. The alcoholic has to forgive herself that she can’t hang out at bars with friends. Sure, the rest of her friends can do so, and sure, she wishes desperately that she could. But the bad too far outweighs the good, and she has to gently, lovingly care for the inner child that simply isn’t capable of handling the temptations of a bar.

There’s another angle on the Orlando shootings in regard to mental illness, though. It has to do with the “all of these mass murderers are mentally ill…that’s the problem we should be focusing on” utterances of this week. On a practical note, and for the record, anyone who says, “THIS is the issue we must focus on” is oversimplifying the problem. It’s never just one thing. But the reality is that virtually every shooting is perpetrated by someone who is mentally ill. I once talked to a very experienced therapist who made the point that he didn’t think anyone who WASN’T mentally ill even had the capacity to commit murder. It may just be that, in order to kill someone, by definition, one must be mentally ill.

This week, yet again on Facebook, during one of these, uh, er, discussions I was having on Facebook, someone pointed toward mental illness as the thing we really need to be talking about. I whole-heartedly agreed. But I don’t think I meant what she thought I meant. I wouldn’t put mass murder at the top of the list of reasons why we need to address mental illness in this country.

First on my list would be simply the quality of life for mentally ill people…then maybe preventing mentally ill people’s suicides…and so on. As horrific as these mass murders are, what might be even more horrific is the daily trauma faced by millions of people who suffer inside their own minds and can’t find anything to make the problem better.

It’s amazing to me that we can send a rover to Mars that communicates with earth and we can send an email to Japan that takes less than one second to get there, yet despite the collective thousands and thousands of years those of us who participate in this blog have spent seeking mental health treatment, many of us are more hopeless than ever. We’ve tried the drugs, the talk therapy, the shock treatment, the magnetic field treatments, the deep brain stimulation, the support groups, the illegal drugs, the alcohol, and yet, we are still DESPERATE for something that provides even just a little bit of relief. People who like to point to the mental illness crisis as the reason for these mass shootings may mean well, but if they really knew what they were talking about, they would sound this drum day in and day out on behalf of those of us who grimly hope that we will one day be the victim of a mass shooting. Many more lives are being lost at the hands of mental illness than the victims of shootings. Millions of people right here in America have lost their lives in an entirely different sense. Let’s talk more about how to help those people.

Please.
 

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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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Self Compassion Meditation

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

I sunk.

Deep.

Deeper than ever, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

my soul from leaving me
in anger!”

 

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

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

And so are you, my friend.

 

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

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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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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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