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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40 and Killin’ It!

40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The View From the Roller Coaster

In this podcast, Tim reflects on his past two months – a time during which he has vividly experienced the bi-polar II roller coaster. Tim shares his thoughts on self-awareness, self-care, the dangers of Facebook, gun rights, the Orlando Massacre, and even how to train a ferret. You’ll have to listen to find out which one of those is a lie.

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Wait, Don’t Shut Up

My last post (which I have now deleted because I didn’t like the tone) was, well, an angry post. You see, I’ve been on the part of my own mental health roller coaster when I start to feel, quite tangibly, crazy. This comes after a prolonged period of feeling “on a high,” or hypomanic in bi-polar II parlance. I know the crash is coming, but I can’t stop it. I even know the behavior that leads up to it. But I can’t stop it. This might be the most frustrating thing of all: to watch your own self-destruction without being able to stop the self part of the equation. Or the destruction part.

So here I am. I’m angry. I’m not angry at anyone or anything other than everyone and everything. That’s all. If the entire world would just leave me alone, I’d be much nicer to everyone. If the breeze would be a little stronger when I’m hot or if the person in front of me would drive 64 instead of 62, maybe I wouldn’t want to Google “how to build a hand grenade” (okay, lots of hand grenades). I hate feeling this angry as much as you hate feeling constipated with only a 9-year-old port-a-potty available to crap in. But alas, it’s how I have felt for much of the past few weeks, and I pity the people who have experienced my over-reactions.

So in an effort to balance the karmic effect of my words, I’d like to offer the counter-post to my previous post…I’d like to say thank you to the people who stick by me, who stick by “us”, as we navigate our impossible ups and downs while we battle our brains to the death.

So thank you to our families who DON’T understand but who try their best to learn how to understand. Thank you for asking questions, for gently telling us to calm down, for giving us space to kick and scream like toddlers, for going with us to the doctor or hospital, for defending us to the extended family who thinks what we need is to be kicked out of the house, for forgiving us…AGAIN. Thank you for going to therapy with us, for going to therapy without us while you try to stay sane because of us, for reminding us to take our meds, and for answering the phone after you’ve already gone to bed because you know we really need to hear your voice. Thank you for modeling what love really is: an action, not a feeling.

And thank you to our friends who don’t run away when the friendship quits being as fun as it used to be. Thank you for talking things through when we hurt your feelings, again. Or when we get our feelings hurt, again. Thank you for seeing our worst and still not unfriending us on Facebook, or in real life. Thank you for letting us rehash the same struggles over and over and over and over. It’s perfectly fine if you’re thinking about where you should vacation next summer…thanks for smiling and nodding because sometimes we just need to feel heard or we just need to hash it all out again, trying to solve the unsolvable puzzle that is mental illness.

And thank you to our kids who are too young to understand but still try to grasp the concept of “Daddy’s brain hurting” without flipping out. Thank you for forgiving us for the thousandth time when we speak to you a bit more harshly than your behavior deserved. Thank you for still wanting to hang out with us (assuming you’re not teenagers) even though we don’t have nearly enough emotional energy for your non-stop needs and wants. We want to hang out with you, too, I promise. It’s just that the head-demons make it a little more trying than we might like it to be. But we love you more than anything. Absolutely ANYTHING.

I’m not going to whine, but being mentally ill is really hard. The more friends I make with mental illnesses, the more I realize that we all struggle so similarly, even with different diagnoses. Basically, we’re at war with our own operating system. The very thing that’s telling us how we should react is keeping us from reacting that way. We see it, we feel it, and we can’t change it no matter how hard we try. But friends, family, all of you: We are trying. We adore you for putting up with us. We promise to keep trying. Please keep sticking with us. We love you more than we know how to say.
 
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Feeling Misunderstood

In this episode, Tim shares stories of mentally ill folks being terribly misunderstood; he also provides some suggestions for how those who are mentally ill and those who love and support them can work toward understanding each other and working together toward healthier relationships and lives.

Show Notes:

Music by Lady Antebellum, “Compass”

Atlantic Monthly article on anxiety, by Scott Stossel, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/01/surviving_anxiety/355741/

Please go to iTunes and give this podcast a rating…a good one, preferably. If you have something you’d like to suggest, please email Tim at toknowwearenotalone@gmail.com.

Sign up to follow this endeavor either at toknowwearenotalone.com or on the Facebook page by the same title.

 

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Riley Sisson Eulogy

A eulogy I gave in honor of my friend Riley Sisson, who died in 2014 as a direct result of his mental health and addiction struggles. I challenge the audience to not simply hope they’ll “do something” in honor of Riley, but to put something on their calendar and repeat it so it actually happens. As I put it, “Do something, and keep doing it!” This challenge turned into a post on my blog which was picked up by the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation for their own blog.

Riley, I miss you every day and hope this message honors you and your memory, my friend!

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Mindfulness and Mental Illness

TKWANA – Podcast 4 Show Notes

  • The process of forming a 501(c)3 for To Know We Are Not Alone is underway thanks to a donor who is paying for the legal stuff.
  • Greatergood.berkeley.edu definition of Mindfulness:
  • Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition
  • Huffington Post: Mindfulness Meditation Benefits: 20 Reasons Why It’s Good For Your Mental And Physical Health: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/mindfulness-meditation-benefits-health_n_3016045.html
  • Recommended Apps:
  • Mindfulness I & II
  • Buddhify
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Please Stop Saying That

Hang in there Fuck You

If you’ve ever put your foot in your mouth around someone with a mental illness, this one’s for you, friend. (Disclaimer: These are not my personal gripes. I took a poll on Facebook looking for common things that people with a mental illness get told. These aren’t directed at anyone specific out there who might have said one of these, I promise.)

Hmmm, where to start. I think with the guy who, after I had told him I had OCD, told me that he LOVED hiring “those people” in his business because they were so organized and meticulous. When I tried to stop him, he went on: “That’s a great quality to have, man, in the right scenario!” I chose not to physically harm him, but I wanted to. I just seethed because it was so invalidating: him saying that this disorder which has taken so much life from me is actually an enviable quality in the workplace. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that they would make a great hat salesman what with the bald head and all, would you? Yeah, so please don’t say that sort of thing to someone who’s mentally ill.

Then there’s the good natured, rampant suggestions that those of us with mental illnesses should focus more on our physical health: exercise more, eat more barley, try the latest cleanse, quit eating cheese pizza that uses GMOHGTLMNOP in the sauce, etc. A few years ago, my boss pulled this one on me very unexpectedly. I went into his office to talk about who knows what – NOT mental health. Somehow the conversation meandered around to anxiety, from which he also suffered. But his was the sort that one can get rid of by running around the block. So, kindly, he suggested that I should exercise more regularly. I thanked him, told him I’d give it a shot, and ran…to McDonald’s. Okay, I had two. Then I slashed his tires. But really, I’m quite sure that physical health has plenty to do with mental health. However, I have yet to find someone who is severely mentally ill who has been cured by running a marathon. Most of us have tried that to no avail (for the record, I’ve gone through prolonged periods of exercising many times a week, but I’ve never seen an improvement in my mental health from it). It’s not that we don’t know that you exercisers mean well; it’s just that it feels like you’re telling an amputee that taking fish oil might turn them into a mermaid/merman, thus effectively replacing their legs.

And here’s one that all of us who have been depressed have probably heard: “Just think of all you have going for you! You’ve got this and this and this and this to be thankful for. You’re looking at it all wrong!” When I was suffering from my worst (and first) bout of depression ever, I was basically on suicide watch. I didn’t even feel safe being in a different room of the house from my family. During this time, a friend of mine thought he’d do me a favor by suggesting how much worse off I could be. He shared with me about his friend who was currently in Hawaii. Well, good for him, I thought. Then he shared the reason: his daughter was dying of cancer and it was her Make-a-Wish request. Surprisingly, this did not help with my suicidal depression. In fact, it heightened the urge to find that cyanide pill I had hidden somewhere. If you take nothing else away from this post, try to remember this: mental illness is not about someone’s unwillingness to see things in a positive light…or the “right” light. It’s about THEIR INABILITY to do so. Depressed people are fully capable of understanding that something should make them happy. But they still can’t feel happy. Anorexic people are just as aware as you are what an appropriate meal consists of. But their brains won’t let them act on that knowledge. People with OCD know their obsessions are idiotic. But that’s all they think about, night and day, until, sometimes, they end their lives to make the unwanted thoughts stop. Think of it this way: People who are paralyzed understand how walking works, and they most likely want to walk. But they can’t. A pathway is broken, and we simply don’t know how to fix it just yet.

This last one (for now…there’s plenty more out there) is tricky because it’s been said to me so many times by so many really, really, really thoughtful and well-meaning people. But still, it’s warped. Here it is (well-meaning friend speaking to me): “Ann (my wife) must really be a saint, Tim.” First of all, these people are absolutely right: she is a saint. Ask anyone who knows her; she’s probably the best human on earth. I mean that whole-heartedly. I wrote in my book five years ago that I would’ve left me a long time ago, so let me just say that first. So what’s so wrong with saying that, then? Well, would you say it to someone with cancer whose spouse stayed with him even though it was a terrible road to walk? You might say it to the spouse in private, and that would indeed be appropriate encouragement. But you wouldn’t say it to the cancer patient because that would make him feel like shit, obviously. You might as well say, “Dude, you’re a fucking burden.” On this one, we mentally ill folks don’t even help ourselves because I think most of us feel like a burden and even push our loved ones away so as not to be a burden on them. I know I do that a lot. I feel ashamed and worthless when I can’t earn as much money as I used to or help as much with the kids as I’d like to. Still, please, I beg you, don’t tell me what a saint my wife is unless you want to make me (and others) feel like a pile of maggot diarrhea. Tell our spouses, our parents, our friends what saints they are. Just don’t tell us.

As I finish this post, I feel a bit like a jerk for pointing these things out. I was hoping for a funny tone but fear I’ve landed more on derisive. Take me with a grain of salt, though. Remember, I’m just a mentally ill guy who’s not doing a good job of thinking happy thoughts (oops, was that derisive, too?). Oh well, if you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me as I try to make this point. And if I’ve offended you, now you can write a post called Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Just Trying to Help. Be sure to tag me so I can read it!

Other things that I don’t have the time or energy to address right now:

  • I’m praying for you.
  • I’m a little OCD, too.
  • You shouldn’t cut yourself because you won’t like those scars on your arms.
  • Please add more in the comments section below!

EXCITING NEWS: Tim’s new podcast called, cleverly, To Know We Are Not Alone, is now available on this site or on iTunes.

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Forgive Yourself

forgive yourself

I talked to a long-time friend this week: He’s shut in his house with raging OCD. All of his friends have gradually drifted away. His final remaining friend jumped ship on him this week because he failed to bring his kid to baseball practice…again (their kids are on the same team). Well, that’s easy enough for someone who doesn’t have contamination obsessions to say, but when everything you touch, every smell that wafts into your nose, every germ that might be floating in the air brings the sort of fear that most people only experience for a total of about ten seconds in their lives – when the plane really might seem to be actually, for real, no joke, crashing – it’s a lot harder to take the kid out into public than it might seem. YOU try taking your kid to the baseball park…or anywhere…knowing it’s going to make you feel like you are, by choice, stepping into the crossfire of a gang shootout.

What is my friend’s reaction to his own internal struggle? He berates himself for his “weakness”; he takes the blame when his friend tells him “maybe you shouldn’t have any more kids”; he sees himself through the lens of stigma: “Maybe I should just wear a shirt around that says, ‘Don’t befriend me; I have OCD; you’ll regret it, and you won’t understand,’” he thinks. “I am a failure.”

Then there’s my other “friend”…and by “friend” I mean me. God, what a failure I feel like so much of the time. When I left the first job, I could tell myself, “It was time to go for lots of reasons, not just depression.” I could tell myself that my friend had just died, and anyone would need some time to recoup. Then I got another job…one that seemed much more manageable, even though it was only half the pay and three times the students, I told myself it was do-able; it was the right thing. I made it through a semester and a half and then, once again, failed, failed, failed. I couldn’t walk back through the door, answer another student’s question, fake it through another lecture, or grade another paper. Adios, second job. Hello, additional evidence of my worthlessness. Now what? Who’s going to pay the bills? What will my kids think of me? How long till my wife kicks me out? Then what? Live with my parents? Hmmm, sounds like a winner of a plan, you failure.

***
You hear the word “stigma” associated with mental illness quite a bit. Most people would agree that there’s at least some degree of stigma associated with being handicapped by a mental illness. Many of those same people will say they believe mental illness is as real as a physical illness, yet they don’t necessarily act on those beliefs. Secretly (or not), they think, “he’s got some stuff to work through” rather than “gosh, he’s really sick!”

Tragically, many of us view ourselves the same exact way – as “weak” or “a faker” who just doesn’t have enough will power to get life together. We berate ourselves for our not getting better despite all of the counseling we’ve invested in and all of the medicines we’ve tried. We compare ourselves to our happiest, most stable, most successful friends and wish we just had the balls to face the day head on – to make lemonade out of lemons, like they seem to do so easily.

I’ll use myself as exhibit A (and if you’re observant, you’ll want to point out that I lack an exhibit B…sorry): I’ve lived my whole life with OCD, and I have plenty of evidence that mental illness has a tangible impact on my ability to see the world clearly. I can trace its powerful control over my brain back to age five. Long before I knew anything about mental illnesses, I can point out specifically how my brain was operating differently than everyone else’s. Sure every kid is scared his parents might leave him somewhere; but not every kid constructs every second of every day around making sure his parents are within arms length (literally and figuratively) so he doesn’t get abandoned. Not every kid walks out of the movie theater with a soaking wet shirt because he’s been spitting out the germs he has to have been inhaling in that dirty theater…and he spits them into his shirt because it would be a sin to defile the theater by spitting on the ground. And not every kid tells a story about something that happened on the playground that day but then remembers that he left out a small, unimportant detail and believes he has actually told a lie because of the omission. He then finds some awkward way to bring the story back up so he can fill in the missing details and correct his sinful lie. There’s something haywire in there, right?!

Yet when my obsessions take on a new shape, my first thought isn’t, “my brain is acting up again.” It’s, “Tim, you idiot. Get over it!” By contrast, I seem to have developed chronic tendonitis in my elbow. It hurts bad enough that even lifting the remote control can be quite painful. And yet, I have never once told my elbow what a piece of sh*t it is or wondered why I’m not more able to overcome my “weak” tendon. No, I work around it. In fact, I baby my poor wittle weft ewbow because it hurtsies. I put stinky rub-on medicines on it to make it numb, and one of these days, I might even break down and go for yet another cortisone shot. Another way of framing it might be that I forgive myself for having a faulty elbow.

Recently I was recounting to my therapist what a terrible job I was doing at certain aspects of my life. I was going on and on about how bad it was, and she stopped me and said, “Just stop, Tim. You need to forgive yourself.” It wasn’t the first time I had come across this idea, but it was the first time another person had said it to me. It reminded me, once again, how powerful that concept is. If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that you, too, fight a daily, hourly, second by second battle against the very thing that controls your entire being – your brain. It’s a wild horse that won’t be controlled yet you beat yourself up for that fact. I promise you this, though: If you start practicing self-forgiveness, it won’t fix your mental illness, but it will change your relationship to it.

Self-forgiveness takes practice. I mean like actual, you-have-to-work-at-this practice. Like, you need to put a post-it note on your mirror, teach your parrot to say, “give yourself grace, Billy, you’re doing your best,” or set a reminder on your phone. Without the practice, at least for me, my brain’s default self-talk setting seems to involve words like “loser”, “failure”, and “piece of stinky poopoo”. However, if I speak to myself like I’m a small child who’s trying hard but struggling at something new – “It’s okay; settle down; I’ve got you; don’t worry; shhhh; it will be okay…”, my pain doesn’t go away but it becomes something I can tolerate having inside of me. It’s like putting 3-D glasses on in a 3-D movie. Sure, you can watch it without the glasses, but putting the glasses on radically changes your relationship to the movie. The next 2 hours will be a completely different experience thanks to the glasses.

I hope you’ll give this a try, no matter what you tend to beat yourself up about. Life tends to beat the hell out of most of us one way or another…wouldn’t it be nice to have an attitude toward your own suffering that didn’t, in fact, make that suffering ten times worse? (That’s rhetorical…the answer is that yes, it would be nice and maybe even life-changing.)

PS. A few updates on the endeavor to start a non-profit:
1. The ball is rolling and I’m excited…I’ve taken steps to begin doing some speaking and to get some of the official non-profity stuff rolling as well.
2. Podcast #1 is recorded but there are all sorts of technological hoops I’m learning how to jump through before it’s officially a podcast that you can download on iTunes. It should be out next week (I know you’ve been dying to get your hands on it like it’s Harry Potter or something, but be patient. Perfection takes time.)
3. As always, I want to ask you to join in the fight against loneliness and isolation by letting someone know they are not alone…somehow…anyhow.

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What’s What (in my brain)?

Confused-Image1Six and a half years ago my brain declared a shock and awe attack against me. I had been fighting a difficult but not debilitating war with my thoughts – my OCD – my whole life. For twenty-five years, my brain attacked me in a First Gulf War sort of way…it was rough, but I fought back diligently by trying to pray it away. Once I finally identified the enemy and got on medication, I experienced a few years of peace. In a sense, I feel like I came out the winner – or at least ahead – in that battle.

But the past six years have seemed more like my 2nd Gulf War: aka The War on Terror. It has been an unending, never-certain-who-or-where-the-enemy-is, this-enemy-wants-to-burn-me-alive-on-international-TV sort of affair.

During my personal war on terror, I’ve been on more medications than I can count, I’ve been hospitalized twice; I’ve become so familiar with suicidal thoughts that I view people who want to live to be 100 as a PeeWee Herman/Denis Rodman kind of weird; I’ve had to leave two jobs because my brain couldn’t muster the stamina for them; I’ve nearly lost my marriage; and I’ve applied 12 times to be on the show Naked and Afraid because I want people to be awed at how big the blur has to be to cover “me” up. (Okay, one of these is primarily for levity. I’m not saying which one.)

Much like the real War on Terror, for the past six years, I have been entirely unsure what exactly I’m battling. The most natural conclusion is “depression.” But depression meds don’t do much for me. Some of them have really weird side-effects for me. Which means I might be bi-polar, but bi-polar II is hard to diagnose because the mania looks like productivity or intensity or agitation. Most people, like me, don’t go into their doctor and say, “I was really productive this month…we need to medicate me so I’ll be less intense next month.” So bpII goes undetected, as has probably been the case with me. When I take bp meds, I do better, for a little while. But eventually, I always feel back to where I started: depressed and hopeless. So my supporters tell me, again, to find a good talk therapist.

And then I uncover what I already knew: that I’m still very angry at a God I don’t believe in; angry at the religious dogma under which I was raised; angry that my career hasn’t panned out the way I wanted it to; angry that I am not the super dad I had/have hoped to be…nor the super husband; that I’m scared to make any radical changes because if they don’t work, then what?; that I feel like a failure because I’m not working in a traditional job these days; that I feel so incapable of controlling my ups and downs that it often feels like everyone would be better off without me; and so on.

In other words, on top of having mental illness(es), I have no small number of issues I need to work through that are only partially related to mental illness. Which just makes it all the more confusing. Where do I start? How long do I stick with a therapist that I’m not sure I’m connecting with? Should I see a therapist that takes insurance or pay the $6,093 an hour the other ones charge? What does it look like to do my part in all of this? I mean, as far as I can tell, I’ve worked really hard to get better, so I don’t think I’m being a resistant patient. But doesn’t anyone give up after awhile when they aren’t seeing results?

All of this might sound like a rant, but I do have a point: It’s hard to know what’s what inside our brains. If you have a tumor in your liver, they can take a picture of it and see that it’s pressing on such and such a spot and that’s what’s causing so and so to happen. There’s no such thing with the brain, though: I’ve had the best pictures they can take, and all the doctors had for me were guesses as to what the images might mean. Their suggestions felt like glorified leeching or bleeding.

This isn’t to disparage the good people who are trying to make inroads to understanding brain chemistry. It’s just to express the frustration that I and so many others feel. It’s like we have a college-level Calculus problem and we are being helped by elementary-school-level mathematicians. It’s not the elementary school kids’ fault; they’re trying to help. It’s just that they simply haven’t caught up to the problem that exists inside our chaotic heads.

So, my friends, I’ll wrap up my point: this stuff is really hard. It’s confusing. You get mixed answers from people. Some want you to exercise more while others want you on 10 medications. One doctor says you have OCD and the next one thinks it’s ADHD. Who are you to believe? I don’t know the answer to that. But I know that you’re not alone and, as with any complex problem, one of the best things you can do is to talk to someone who understands. Not someone who knows the answer…go ahead and give up on that for now. But someone who knows what it’s like to get told conflicting advice by two different doctors…or friends…or therapists. Find someone you can vent to, cry with, throw plates into the fireplace with, or whatever.

And that’s what this blog is all about and I think that’s largely what life is all about: We are all confused and we can all meet each other in the midst of that painful reality. When two brutally honest people come face to face what happens is usually called Friendship. For you, my hope is two-fold: 1. That you will know it’s okay to be really, really confused, scared, lonely, and broken. 2. And most importantly, that you will find friends for your journey – not the kind who stand above you with ideas and answers, but the kind who stand next to you, offering nothing more than their authentic, simple presence.

 

PS. A word for you supporters out there: I know how frustrating it must be to deal with our all-over-the-placeness. I know that there are times you’ve given us perfectly sensible advice and watched us go and do something entirely senseless. It must be maddening. But please know…it’s maddening to us, too. I mean, you’re talking to someone who thinks he might have contracted Ebola from the door handle at McDonald’s. Just bear that in mind next time you expect me to act sensibly.

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