Only as Sick as Our Secrets

SickSecretsThe very first psychiatrist I ever saw opened with this question: “Got any secrets?”

I was 25-years-old at the time, and had spent 24.9986 years believing that only freaks went to shrinks. To me, parking outside of a psychiatrist’s office was similar to parking outside of a strip club…Pray no one sees you getting out of your car and keep your head ducked until you’re safe and sound inside. Except when you go into a strip club, you’re probably happy to be there once you’re inside. Not so with a shrink. It only gets more embarrassing inside because they make you talk about shit.

(For the record, I’ve never actually been to a strip club. Strip clubs have always struck me as a great way to end up remarkably frustrated…like working up a good appetite, grilling a delicious steak, and then just staring at it. No thanks. Not to mention that I’d sit there wondering what the stripper’s backstory was, who had wounded her emotionally, whether she felt terrible about herself, I’d want to walk up on stage with a robe and tell all the oglers to have some decency: “She’s a human being, you assholes!” Around the time my friends tried to cheer me up with a lap dance, I’d probably start crying because I’d feel so sorry for the girl. I’d apologize that I didn’t have anything bigger than ones to tip her with. I’d promise her she was worth far more than ones as I shoved all of my dollar bills tearfully into her G-string. She’d feel bad for me and probably hold me while I cried, causing her to lose a lot of good tip money. Which would make me feel worse.)

But back to the shrink’s office, inside of which, sadly, I found everyone to be fully clothed. So after I made my way inside, I kept my head buried in an issue of Psychology Today until I was my turn to join the ranks of the certifiably crazy. When I got into his office, he didn’t make me lie down on a day bed, thankfully. I was allowed to sit up while he sat across from me and opened the conversation with the most direct question one could ask, I think: “Tell me your secrets.” He didn’t even have the courtesy to kiss me first. But, whatever; I’ve had worse first dates.

This was twenty minutes before I was diagnosed with OCD, so what I didn’t realize at the time was that the hyper vigilant internal survey I took of my twenty-five year life in the following four seconds was a symptom of the very thing I was there to treat: obsessive-compulsive disorder. I actually started to panic a little bit, wondering if the secrets that came to mind were “good enough” secrets to land me in this man’s office. I worried that if I told him the real secrets, he’d laugh at me and say, “Are you kidding? That’s all you’ve got? You don’t need to be here. Have a good life, loser. And get some better secrets!” Then again, what if my secrets were so bad that he’d have the opposite reaction: “You WHAT?! I’ve never heard of someone doing THAT. You are unfixable…warped…demented…you’re HOPELESS, Tim. Get out!!!”

So I told him I’d never been to a strip club. He suggested a few of his favorites, and I thanked him and went on my way.

Actually, what I told him is none of your damn business, but he diagnosed OCD (still the only diagnosis I feel entirely confident of despite having racked up about ten others now), and he prescribed Paxil. This subsequently killed any sex drive I had (for a twenty-five-year-old male, this “feat” would be akin to successfully making Donald Trump humble), and I quit taking it after about two weeks. I saw that doctor one more time, told him I didn’t think this was “for me,” and never went back to Dr. TellMeYourSecrets.

And here I find myself, fourteen years later, in a group therapy program, still trying to dig down into the secrets that are killing me. The therapist routinely tells us that “we are only as sick as our secrets.” As she says, when we talk to the group, we practice telling the truth to other people in a safe environment. We literally are there to practice saying our secrets out loud…And this does take practice.

We in the group have some remarkable secrets: most are about sex, drugs, or rock n’ roll. Excluding the rock n’ roll. You can look around the room and almost see the secrets hiding behind people’s eyes, wanting desperately to come out of the closet. But if you look carefully, you can see the anguish on our faces as we work up the courage to say what’s true – the thing we’ve never said aloud before. You can watch our eyes dart between the anonymity of looking at the floor and the risk-assessment of looking at these strangers, wondering how they’ll judge what we’re about to say for the first time ever. We’ve never said it to family, friends, spouses…even other therapists. It’s almost like the secret won’t really have to be true if we just don’t put words around it that somehow make it capital-T true.

So the secret sits there, festering, oozing, bleeding, never getting any better. Getting worse actually. Getting harder to say aloud with each passing day. The thing that one of us chose to do, or that was done to us…the thing that happened just yesterday and therefore is very raw and fresh…or the thing that happened fifty years ago that has lived inside for so long, it seems like the sunlight of exposure will hurt too bad to survive…whatever the secret, the secrets are what we are all dying from in that room.

What’s amazing, though, is how easy it is to start healing from a secret. All you have to do is tell it. You can do it right now, or you can wait until it’s got such a stranglehold on you that you need to enter some sort of a program in order to try to overcome the fear of telling people who you really are. Either way, the cure is the same: say it out loud. This truth is so powerful that there’s a rather famous website called “Post Secrect” (www.postsecret.com) where people anonymously tell the world their secrets. Given that it’s anonymous, I doubt it does them a ton of good, but it does show how profoundly we feel the need to tell our secrets to someone.

Mark Twain once said, “Mankind is the only animal that blushes…or needs to.” Animals aren’t afraid to poop in front of you, to have sex in broad daylight, to groom themselves without needing privacy, and so on. They are who they are. They don’t have secrets. They don’t blush. They don’t have any reason to blush. Mark Twain also called humans the “lowest animal” in a satirical essay entitled, well, “The Lowest Animal.” From a completely non-theological basis, Twain criticizes the Theory of Evolution by arguing that humans are evolutionarily inferior to animals in a moral sense, basing his belief on the fact that animals never kill more than they can eat. Meanwhile humans kill far more than they can eat, not to mention that they kill things they have no intention of eating.

Twain’s point, and mine: Humans are full of complex motives and desires. We are also filled with inscrutable sources of shame and self-loathing. Between the things we do to others and the things that are done to us, most of us have a secret or two stashed away somewhere that probably needs to see the light of day. Putting words around the memories that have been hiding inside of you will be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. But once you’ve done it for the first time, the second time will be about 1/50th as hard, and by the 5th or 6th time, it won’t feel a whole lot different from admitting that you had a sip of beer at age 14 when your dad left his drink unattended for a few minutes or that you held someone’s hand before you were married (interlocked fingers, too!). Each time you say it out loud, you’ll realize that, first of all, most people don’t look at you like you’re Hitler, as you had feared. Second, even if they do, their judgment doesn’t kill you as you thought it might. In fact, their judgment doesn’t feel nearly as strong as the relief you get from telling the truth.

Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner is a perfect example. Yesterday, Vanity Fair published the first picture of her as a woman (I just felt some of you cringe that I said “her”; you should get over this J). She (Caitlyn) said that her secret had been killing her for sixty-five years, and she knew if she laid on her deathbed without telling it, she’d have wasted her life. Whether you admire her decision or condemn it, what matters is that this human being was being crushed by a secret. She told her secret and now says that this new person, Caitlyn, doesn’t have any secrets. She’s at peace. Think what you want about being transgender, but my point is about secrets, not LGBTQ issues. Bruce Jenner, quite literally, had to kill himself slowly in order to reveal a secret that was, ironically, killing him. I’m sure he wishes he had told his secret many years ago. But it ain’t easy to look the world in the eye and tell them you’re a liar. Ironically, though, it’s the best thing you’ll ever do for yourself.

So I’m ready to tell you my secret. Here it is: I prefer bottled water to tap water, even though I feel guilty about the plastic bottles that go to waste. I judge people who drink from a tap, who say, “It’s all the same!” One should never kiss someone who drinks tap water. This is how every plague in history has begun: with tap water.

Ok, ok, that isn’t my secret. I’m still not going to tell you my secret(s). Sorry. I still have more work to do before I quit being afraid of your rejection, and I’m thirty-nine, not sixty-five, so I’m still twenty-six years ahead of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. But stick around awhile and maybe I’ll be bold enough to do so someday down the road. Maybe I’ll show up at your door as a female…You never know. For now, I can just promise you that the truth really will set you free. (And no, mom, I’m not actually a woman.)

 

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Dear Facebook Un-Liker

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A little background on this post for those of you who don’t follow me on Facebook. When I posted my “Un-Fuck the World” post on FB last week, I received an update from FB about how the post was doing (on FB, not from the blog itself). Well, it told me that one person had found the content offensive and “hidden” it from their timeline. I found this funny (more on this in the post), but they weren’t done. Later that week, I got another report that said someone had “un-liked” my page, not just the post. This means that they, essentially, had un-joined the To Know We Are Not Alone Facebook page. To my knowledge, this is my first lost customer. This loss deserves some reflection…

 

 

 

To my first Un-Liker:

My temptation is to say “I’m sorry,” because in the past, I have lived in utter dread, every single moment of my life, of someone not liking me…of doing something that would push someone away from me. You see, I have what are called abandonment issues, and as illogical as it is, whether it’s the waitress at the Waffle House where I’m sitting and writing this at 4:47 a.m….or a friend I’ve had for a week…or a long-time friend…a serious girlfriend…a parent or child or wife…I live pretty much petrified that someone will walk away from me because of something I did. I’ve gotten my feelings hurt a million times by “losses” of people who probably couldn’t remember my name two days later

This is not an ideal way to function

I’ve worked on this issue, M(r)(s)(rs)(iss) Un-Liker, for decades. I know why I operate this way, and I could articulate it for you in about 4 sentences. Knowing my issues has never been my problem; changing the way I respond to life’s inevitable losses has been my problem. My friends lost their child; I have relived that loss every day for three years as if it were my own child. No doubt their pain is deeper and far more acute, but I don’t think I ever look at my children without thinking of their friend who has been gone for three years. My daughter’s best friend’s dad dropped dead three years ago; I think about it every day and wonder how to comfort my daughter about my own longevity. My dog died 6 years ago, and it’s still too painful to think about without crying. I stepped on an ant in 1982, and I’m still looking for its family to try to make it right

I’m sad for the drunk 20-somethings sitting across the Waffle House from me because I know that they kind of fun they are having doesn’t last very long (not meaning the hangovers they’ll have in a few hours, but meaning the few years from now when being awake at 5 a.m. will be for reasons more like mine than theirs (I’m not drunk (this time)). I’d sad at how damn happy all the people who work this graveyard shift seem, wondering why my own standards for my life are so absurd when happiness obviously doesn’t just come from job status or pay grade. I’m sad for Whitney Houston’s daughter who’s apparently never going to wake up from that suicidal coma. I am sad for Bruce Jenner (and proud of him), and I am also sad for his children and family. I mean, how in the hell is it possible for someone as cynical as I am to feel empathy for how much Khloe Kardashian is hurting because of Bruce’s decision? Or to admire Kim Kardashian for how thoughtfully she managed the family meeting about Bruce’s decision? See how far I’ve fallen? I feel proud of Kim Kardashian. This is cataclysmically scary.

As a friend told me this week, I have a “superpower” called empathy. It’s a bitch.

But back to you, Un-Liker. I hope you’re still reading. I can tend to ramble. As an English teacher and writer, I call this “using lots of detail.” When my students do it, I call it “rewrite it and make it much shorter!” So, you see, I am a “feeler”…emotionally unstable if you want to put a clinical term on it…and the number one thing that brings out this instability is other people’s rejection. And you’ve rejected me. In this context, I think you’re the first. Statistically, I know this is bound to happen. Somewhere between 300 and 400 people read these posts, and 1 out of 350 isn’t too bad, but to me, it might as well be 350 out of 350 who have unfollowed me in terms of how it feels to me.

Strike that: In terms of how it — USED to feel to me.

So when I discovered your departure a few days ago, guess what I did? I laughed. More importantly, guess what I felt? I felt genuine amusement and pride. Not the teeth-gritted this-is-how-I-want-to-feel sort of amusement, but the genuine, oh-well-not-everyone’s-going-to-like-what-I-say sort of amusement. Every time I have thought of it since, too, it has seemed funny to me. And I beam with pride as I look at my inner child and see that he’s growing up a little bit.

What sent you away, Un-Liker? I’m still curious about that. Maybe it was the overuse of the word “fuck” or maybe it was the message that everyone needs to try to make the world around them a little bit better…I don’t know which of the two turned you off. But whatever it was, I’m #sorrynotsorry. I’ve spent my whole 39 year life obsessively monitoring my status in the people’s lives around me. I get far too devastated by “losses” that don’t even cross other people’s radar screens at all – not even blips. Not too long ago, I wrote a post about how I care too much about the feedback I get on this very blog. I talked about how consumed I become by how many people read it and how many people “like” it and how many people respond with a comment. I’ve probably decided to quit writing the damn thing at least 30 times, and not so long ago, your “un-liking” would’ve undoubtedly been the final straw for me.

But something has changed in me of late. I think I’ve found the rock solid, proverbial “bottom.” It’s sort of like a grand finale at a fireworks show. You know how there are always a few times during the show when they set off a bunch of fireworks at once and you think “I guess it’s almost over”? But then it keeps going and eventually, when it really is the grand finale, there’s no doubt that THIS is the grand finale. I’ve had plenty of “is this the bottom” moments in the past few years, but this one even has other people telling me, “Tim, you’ve found your bottom” (it was in my pants the whole time!).

I’m not going to share with you how I know this is the bottom, but trust me on this one, Un-Liker: Where I’ve come from over the past month or two only has one final, lower rung – 6 feet lower to be precise. I know, I know, this sounds dramatic. Well, it has been dramatic. It will make for some very good blog posts once I’m removed enough to share the stories (you actually might want to re-follow me in a year or two for some doozies).

But the best thing that happens when you hit the bottom is you finally realize that the bottom is a softer landing spot than you ever would’ve thought. It’s soft enough that your friends and family will still visit you at the bottom; they’ll even still accept you and love you and root for you, even if you did plenty of the things that landed you at the bottom of your own free will. You’ll also meet great new friends at the bottom – the other who have landed there around the same time. You’ll be surprised at how similar they are to you – surprised that the “bottom-dwellers” aren’t all living on the streets or doing meth or pregnant by a guy they met on Marta. Most of them have respectable jobs and nice clothes and families and degrees, and most of them are suffering with the exact same affliction that has landed me on the bottom: the ICan’tDoThisButGoddammitI’mTrying affliction. I’m pretty sure that’s the one common diagnosis in my current treatment program.

It takes a long time to get to the bottom, and I’m not sure anyone can will themselves there any faster than the gravity of their lives will allow them to fall. But I do know that that final turn on the road to the bottom is on a street called YourRightYouCan’tDoThis. It’s the moment of surrender. Not a religious surrender, though for some it takes that shape. Certainly not a surrender to any new dogma that will only serve to reinforce how little you actually know about anything. No, it’s a surrender to failure and uncertainty and human frailty and death and I’llNeverMeasureUP and SoandSoWillNeverUnderstand, etc.

Here at the bottom, I can look square in the face at the fact that someone out there in the world does not like what I have to say. I can accept that because I finally, genuinely see that there’s no amount of effort I can exert that will change that fact…because I know that, when you’re at the bottom, you’ll realize that some people aren’t going anywhere no matter how many times you say the F word in a blog post…because the bathroom mirrors at the bottom tell the whole truth: that you have some ugly spots and some beautiful spots, and sometimes they overlap in ways that make it hard to tell which is which…because at the bottom I finally believe of myself what I have long accepted in others: people aren’t good OR bad; people are good AND bad (stolen from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men).

I am good AND bad, and I am no longer capable of pretending that, if I only work hard enough, I can be completely good…or even that I can make people think I am.

So, Un-Liker, I’m tempted to send you off with an F-bomb farewell, partly for irony’s sake and partly to have the final word in this anonymous feud we’re having. But what’s funny is that I have absolutely no desire to get you back or to tell you to F off (see, I didn’t even try to sneak it in right there). I feel no animosity toward you whatsoever. I’m not sorry, but I’m also not mad. Maybe I’m a little sad that humans can’t communicate with each other more clearly, but that’s not about you as much as it is about the human condition. The human condition still makes me sad, and I doubt that will ever change, but who knows? Un-Liker, I actually wish you well. I hope you will find writers who say things in ways that help you, not hurt you. I understand as well as anyone the power of words to both help us and to hurt us, and if my words were not helpful to you, you did the right thing. Find someone who says things in a way that helps you. That’s my parting wish for you. I don’t think I’ll ever quit wishing for everyone I come across to “get my drift” at all times. But you, for one, don’t. And I’m cool with that while also wishing it was different. I think this is called intrapersonal growth, and I appreciate that you’ve given me the chance to see it in myself.

With the utmost sincerity, I wish you a great fucking weekend!

Sincerely,

Tim

PS. Come back in a year or two when I’m ready to share the stories of my reaching the bottom. Some of them are very entertaining, and by then I will most likely have quit swearing.

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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!

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Have a great day celebrating my birthday!

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Lady Antebellum
o Heart of the World
o Need You Now

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

Fleetwood Mac (or Dixie Chicks)
o Landslide

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

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

Sawyer Brown
o The Walk

Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss
o Whiskey Lullaby

 

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Now IS the “Good Old Days”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So try to remember that life is indeed short, so each day, just buy the damn pony (even if today’s pony is a three-legged, one-eyed, ready-for-the-glue-factory sort of pony).
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Riley, We Haven’t Forgotten You (with Podcast)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just try. And keep trying.

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

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

 

 

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Beautiful, Beautiful You

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

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

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

This was a beautiful moment.

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

This was beautiful to me.

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

She is beautiful to me.

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

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

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

He is precious and beautiful.

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

She is beautiful inside and out.

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

I am beautiful.

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

You are beautiful.

 

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

 

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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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In Defense of YOU: Self Compassion

Shake the dustMy friends, I feel like writing this post as a letter to you, whoever and wherever you are. It just feels right based on what I have to say today. Today I want to tell you to have “self compassion” and watch what happens. I’m not very good at this, but I’d like to be, so this letter is to me, too. So give me a minute to defend YOU, and me…to tell you why we should practice compassion toward ourselves. The entire essence of this can be boiled down to this simple question:

Are you trying?

I mean in life…are you trying to be a good employee, spouse, friend, parent…I suspect you are not only trying but trying damn hard in fact. I know I am. So what more would you ask of yourself than to try your best? Would you berate a child who tried and tried to hit a baseball or learn the alphabet but couldn’t quite get it? I hope not, but if so, please consider some therapy.

As a parent I can say that nothing is more endearing than to watch my kids TRY. In fact, it’s even more endearing when they keep trying despite “failing.” It makes me want to wrap them up in my arms and make sure they know damn well how proud of them I am, even if they never “succeed” at this particular task.

Why shouldn’t I treat myself the same way?

I read recently (can’t remember where) that the best people on planet earth are probably not the ones we think of as Good People. The best people are probably the people with horrible internal battles who keep on fighting to grow, to stay alive, to learn to love. This reminded me of one of my favorite poems called “Shake the Dust,” by Anis Mojgani. It’s a “spoken word” poem meaning it’s meant to be performed rather than read, and it’s about as beautiful a message as there is in existence. Take 4 minutes and watch it. If you regret it and can tell me that with honesty, I’ll buy you a new puppy. But while you’re listening, I’ll bet there will be one particular line that will stand out to you. Just listen and I’ll continue below…

 

Did you hear it? The line that you can’t help but pay attention to I mean? No, it’s not “shake the dust.” It’s this one:

“This is for the celibate pedophile who keeps on struggling…shake the dust” (I suspect about 42% of you skipped it and are now going back to watch it. I’ll wait here…).

So have you ever thought about that? That there are such things as celibate pedophiles who keep on struggling against their monstrous urges every day, never giving in to this life-shattering crime. Maybe these are the best people on earth. But the beauty of this poem is not that it includes such people but that it spans the gamut from “fat girls” to “celibate pedophiles.” That’s quite a gamut! Whichever category you resonate with, what better, more profound message is there but to acknowledge your own inherent beauty and goodness, to shake the dust and be proud of who you are? I can’t think of one.

Maybe, just maybe, plain old people like you and me are at least passably good people for getting up in the morning, putting on a brave face as we go about our ordinary existences fraught with endless emotional paper cuts, broken brains and bodies, and the failures we’re embarrassed to admit make us cry in private. But also filled with the simple success of saying something kind when you want to shoot someone the bird…the two-steps-forward-one-(or 2 or 3 sometimes)-step-back dance of a romantic relationship that some days doesn’t feel all that romantic…the daily dilemmas of wanting to be a perfect parent when you are confronted daily, even hourly, with quandaries no one prepared you for in school.

So I’ll ask again: Are you trying? If you answered yes, then cut yourself some slack, give yourself the pat on the back that your boss should’ve given you, treat yourself to dessert without berating yourself for the extra calories. Tell yourself what the narrator of one of my favorite mindful meditations tells his listeners at the very end: He says, “You’re doing the best you can, and that’s enough.” You are doing your best, right? Well, that IS enough.

So shake the dust, my friends, and know that in your humanness, you are never alone,

Tim

 

*You probably know someone who needs to shake the dust. Share this with them. Or just give them a call. Or a hug.

**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!

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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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