Sunday, July 13, 2014

Hope isn't dangerous; it's all some have

I sat down just now to bang out a blog on fear. I planned to trot out quotes from FDR, the 23rd Psalm and my own harrowing experiences in dark places with no way to get out.

Then I decided to write about hope. Fear and hope may be the two ends of the mental health spectrum that best describe how I feel at any time. Not my physical feeling. Not my mental state. The state of my soul.

Hope is the most powerful thing in the world, not a dangerous thing as “Red” suggests in The Shawshank Redemption. It has been the difference between giving up and pressing on for me, probably even life and death.

My hope comes from my faith. It is also comes from something God put in my chest when I was born. The only reason I’ve kept fighting when I’ve wanted to give up so many times is that, no matter how bad or pessimistic or miserable I felt, there was always some small glimmer of hope deep in my soul telling me not to give up.

I can’t write this blog without acknowledging that I did give up, overwhelmed by pain and confusion and disillusionment. I guess you could say I lost hope that day. I’ll write more on that later. If all this seems a little contradictory or dualistic, well it is. So is life with Bipolar Disorder.

I don’t know what else to credit for my improvement other than faith and hope. God had another plan for my life. A second act. It includes some suffering too, but all for a greater good.

Ever since I left for The Menninger Clinic last September, my faith has been a lighthouse in the foggy distance. There have been moments of misery, times of deep despair that challenged my faith and tried to break me. But they didn’t.

In 10 months since the worst day of my life, I’ve rediscovered my family, made a professional change that has so far worked out swimmingly, gotten in better shape, lost 30 pounds and learned to trust God more fully. I would call that a pretty good comeback.

I hesitated to share all this because I’m a bit superstitious when it comes to my mental health. I know a spectacular crash can happen at any time for any reason. That’s just how it is, and that’s why fear lurks somewhere in the dark corner of our souls even on the good days.

I share it because I’ve talked to too many people suffering from mental illness. They need more than a good therapist. They need more than the best drugs. They need a little hope.

Red is right. Hope can feel like a dangerous thing, and I suppose sometimes it is. But if we can’t hope for better days, for a better life, what do we have to live for? That would be the most dangerous thing of all.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The thief who steals precious time

As I watched foamy white fingers dance across the dark green waves at the beach recently, all I could think about was time.

It’s the one thing we all share. It’s the one thing we can’t control. And it’s the one thing we can never get back. As orderly and predictable as time is, none of us can predict how much we have.

Toes pressed into the sand, I watched my children, so big and grown, play in the surf. Memories that made me smile and made me cry flashed through my racing mind.

I could see myself sitting in the sand with my daughter—a toddler at the time—building sand castles in that perfect spot on the beach, the smooth place where the waves slowly run out and then retreat to the water. She’s 15 now.

I could see my middle child, who didn’t like the sand much, sitting in a chair for hours with his finger in his mouth, soaking it all in while never complaining. He’s too big to sit in my lap now, and probably wouldn’t want to anyway.

I could see our baby the first time we took him to the beach, when he fearlessly crawled so far into the water waves were crashing into his face before I scooped him into my arms. He starts his last year of elementary school in two months.

Time. My relationship with time is stormy and complicated. I resent time because I’ve lost so much of it to my disease. There are things I can’t remember. There are life experiences that run together, tormenting me because I can’t remember each precious day I’ve had with my family.

Even our most recent trip to the beach is a blur in some ways, maybe because I was distracted with unexpected work and spent too much time staring at this laptop.

Time is hard for those with serious mental illness. Our days of suffering feel interminable, our good days fleeting and few. Maybe that’s normal, but I suspect it isn’t. My disease has caused me to miss much of life. What I would do to have every one of those really bad days back to do over again when I’m feeling healthy.

They say you should live with no regrets, never looking back. I don’t know why that’s so hard for me to do, but it is.

Mental illness distorts one’s thinking, so I guess it only makes sense it would distort our sense of time. We worry about the time in front of us, regret the time behind us and fail to appreciate the time passing by at every moment.

I hope those who read this don’t take it as whiny discontent or juvenile bitterness. I write about mental illness to help me cope, to give others hope and to help the “normal” among us understand what life is like inside a troubled mind.

I haven’t written in a while, partly because I’ve had longer periods of good mental health—but also because I’ve secretly been hoping the dragon has been slayed, never to return. I fear speaking his name might rouse him from his slumber.

The truth is I know the dragon is out there somewhere, still waiting for me.  He might even be just beyond those green waves.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The maddening pursuit of normalcy

I don’t know what good looks like. I don’t know what normal feels like, either.
Finding a “new norm” is one of the challenges facing the mentally ill on their journey toward recovery.

Take this week. After a few good months of mental health—a miracle for me—it felt as though recovery was slipping through my fingers. Not feeling great isn’t the worst part. It’s the paralyzing fear that things might go south, that the airplane bound for recovery might slowly lose altitude and nosedive into a fiery crash.

Next to the pain of depression and the madness of anxiety, fear is the most troubling emotion.

My therapist has been helping me deal with fear and establish a “new norm” since my bipolar diagnosis. For all I know, this squirrelly week may not be too far outside the norm. Only I wouldn’t know because I’m not sure what normal feels like.

My doctors at The Menninger Clinic in Houston told me something important when I left. Relapse is often part of recovery. In other words, it’s “normal” to have set backs.

I’ve only experienced one really tough relapse since returning from Houston, which is a blessing. It was painful, but it was brief. If I only experience one or two of those a year, I’ll take it.

The pursuit of normal may be a futile chase, like me trying to find a destination without a navigation app. Who’s to say what normal looks like for anyone, much less a bipolar patient with an anxiety disorder?

We all end up strapped in roller coasters from time to time, unsure of how we got there. We all feel the stomach drop when the coaster slowly ticks toward the top of a big hill, preparing us for what’s to come.

We all know the feeling when it bends over the apex and rushes down in a free fall. All of us. Not just those of us dealing with a wicked hand of genetic cards we’ve been dealt.

That’s one reason I think we can all benefit from therapy. Or at least talking to a friend who listens.

I’ve had coffee with several struggling people. I mostly listen. Even though I don’t know what I’m doing, they all seem to come away feeling better. It’s not anything I do. It’s the power of telling our story.

All of this advice makes me a hypocrite this week. I haven’t had the best week, and I haven’t told anyone how I feel. My wife finally asked me today if I’m okay, and I wasn’t fully honest.

I know a lot of people can relate. We don’t want to burden others. We don’t want to admit we might be struggling. We don’t want to scare our loved ones. We don’t want to accept the reality that every day or every week or every month won’t be a good one.

That’s why I jumped on the computer today and banged out this blog. It might not be the best one I’ve ever written, but at least it’s a reminder of something I know to be true.

This disease can’t be defeated by an army of one.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Finding liberation from the pain of secrets

I’ve shared a lot here about the pain countless people have suffered at the hands of a cruel disease.

I’ve also shared how my recovery really began when I decided to tell my story.

Telling my story unloaded a heavy burden of shame and guilt. As I have shared before, I learned something I hope and pray others who are hurting come to know. Shame loses its power when we tell our story. 

I get a lot of feedback from folks who read this blog. Some of the best I’ve ever received came from little brother, Bill.

Bill is my hero in many ways. He’s the smartest and toughest person I know. The only thing bigger than his boundless personality is his heart.

There is one more thing about Bill some of you know and some of you don’t. Bill is gay.

He’s on my mind tonight because I’m on a plane bound for Washington, D.C. to see him. A bunch of other friends and family will also be making their way to Washington this weekend. Bill is getting married.

Another reason Bill is on my mind is I remember a conversation we had about the power of light to ease our pain and take away our shame.

Bill said he and millions of other gay people could relate to what I had written. They know the pain of holding onto secrets they should be able to share. They know what it is like to struggle with figuring out who they are.

They know what it’s like to wonder why they are different and if it’s okay to be different. They know the pain of finally figuring out who they are but wondering if they can be who they are.

I can only imagine how liberating it must feel to figure out who you are and then share it with family and friends. My guess is any shame melts away.

I think a lot of people can relate to what Bill must have felt. People who have suffered because they weren’t sure they could be who they are. People who have been abused but somehow think it’s their fault. People who have suffered in silence, scared and alone.

Part of me hopes this blog doesn’t offend anyone, but most of me doesn’t really care. All of me hopes those who are alone with their pain can someday find healing in the light of day.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Life is the best gift of all

I turn 43 on Sunday. This birthday is more special than any other except one I can’t remember. April 6, 1971.

I’ve shed a few soft tears, tears of joy and thanksgiving, knowing I have already received the best gift I’ve ever gotten. Life.

I’ve seen vivid snapshots in my mind of all I nearly missed.

I would have missed the first dance with my daughter, who looks so beautiful in her mother’s wedding gown, bathed in the soft glow of warm yellow lights neatly strung under a big white tent.

I would have missed my middle son’s sheepish grin as he’s inducted into the honor society. And his first high school goal, rocketed past a diving goalie.

I would have missed my younger son’s first pitch for his varsity team—and all the times he gently touches my arm and asks if I’m okay, always knowing when I’m not.

I would have missed the chance to kiss my wife on the forehead and tell her she’ll be great on the first day of her now job, which starts this summer.

It’s not all about what I would’ve missed. That’s a little selfish.

My daughter would not have had her father’s arm to cling to as she walked down the aisle.

My middle son would not have had his dad to help guide him through the fear of his first day of high school.

My youngest would not have had a dad to talk to him about his first date, his first big disappointment in life or the colleges he might want to attend.

I would have missed so much that makes life worth living, even when it’s sometimes tougher than it should have to be.

I would have missed so much if things had turned out differently on September 2, 2013, a day that still haunts me, a day my family wished they could forget but never will.

The second greatest gift on this my 43rd birthday? Two months of good mental health, made possible by perseverance, the love of family and friends, the grace and love of a God who gave me a second chance—and a new drug that seems to be a potent weapon against bipolar disorder.

I am so grateful for all of those things.

Thank you, God. Thank you, family and friends. I will think of each of you when I blow out the candles and make a wish from the depths of my healing heart. I love you all.