Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My thoughts on suicide

 If I owned a gun, I might be dead.

That’s how much pain I was in about this time a year ago. In just a few weeks it will have been one year since I tried to kill myself with a fist or two full of pills and enough alcohol to make a college freshman sick for a week.

Thoughts of the anniversary have been lurking in the dark corners of my mind. My therapist has mentioned it a time or two. But I haven’t dealt with it yet.

And then this week happened.

I felt more numb than sad when I first heard about Robin Williams. Then the numbness gave way to profound sadness as details of his struggles with depression and addiction emerged.

I thought of my favorite Robins Williams films, with “Dead Poets Society,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Patch Adams” topping the list. Such talent, such a brilliantly funny guy. I thought the same thing you thought: How could a man who could make others laugh so hard be in so much pain?

One thing I’ve learned through my experiences is you can’t judge another’s. It’s obvious from reading some real gems on social media this week that some don’t get that. People in immense pain can be masters at covering it up. Especially a brilliant actor who could play a dozen roles in a five-minute interview.

It’s not uncommon for the mentally ill to be especially creative or sensitive. I suffer from bipolar disorder. Google it and you will find an impressive list of creative geniuses who lived with the disorder and left legacies that are a part of every history book.

I understand Williams was a sensitive and caring guy who was loved by everyone in Hollywood. That’s unusual. Being sensitive and caring is not. But I think highly sensitive people who suffer from serious mental illness sometimes have a hard time navigating the world. I know because I’m one of them.

In the movie “Dead Poets Society,” Williams’ character teaches his class the classic Walt Whitman poem “O Captain, My Captain.” It’s about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

A powerful stanza reads:
O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Ironically, one of the young characters in the movie commits suicide when his father forbids him to pursue his dream. Acting. And Williams, whose eccentric teaching ways don’t fit at the rigid all boys’ school, is fired.

As he leaves the classroom for the final time, the boys who’ve grown to revere him stand on their desks in defiance and exclaim “O, Captain, My Captain!”

That movie came out my senior year in high school. As many times as I’ve seen it, that scene still puts a lump in my throat.

The deaths of President Lincoln, shot in the head, and Williams, who hanged himself with a belt, could not be more different. One died an innocent death. The other hanged himself with a belt. Is one more tragic than the other?

I’ve talked to families of those who killed themselves, and the pain they inflicted on their loved ones was too much to bear. Unfair, really. So it is different. It is hard to say it isn’t. So I won’t.

I will say that in my own experience the pain I felt at my desperate hour hurt to my bones. I had carried around the crushing weight of depression for so long one step felt like a thousand. I had choked back tears so many times my soul was full of them.

The racing thoughts had spun so far out of control reality no longer existed. The anxiety was so great I had lost my appetite and my ability to have a clear thought. The thoughts I did have were distorted. I was detached from the world as it really existed. I was stressed from work and life.

And then the switch flipped. There had been thoughts but no real plan. It was an impulsive action that unfolded in the span of a few dark hours.

I wrote a note on my iPad, scribbled a message on the mirror, drank a lot of alcohol, took a bunch of pills and awoke 12 hours later with a friend—who thought I was dead—slapping me in the face.

After four days in the hospital, a long and hard journey to recovery began. You can read about it elsewhere on this site.

My message to those who are hurting is don’t give up like I did. There is better care available than there ever has been. I found it, and you can, too.

My ride is still bumpy sometimes. The last month was a little like the Mindbender at Six Flags, with wicked twists and turns and loops, but I eventually got off the ride. And I’m still standing.

Lean on friends and family. Especially family. Caring friends eventually have to go home. Doctors move on to the patient in the next room. Family will never leave your side. Wrap up in your family like a warm blanket on a bitterly cold night.

Explore your faith. Mine has saved my life and given me hope. Sometimes I pray a big prayer in the morning and little ones all day. Lord, get me through this meeting. Lord, get me through this phone call. Lord, get me through this anxiety. Lord, quiet the racing thoughts in my head. Lord, just give me five minutes of peace. Lord, save me from myself.

Robin Williams is gone. That is a tragedy. An equally great tragedy is that there are more suicide gun deaths than homicide gun deaths in the U.S. every year. The media doesn’t talk about that.

Did you know that talking about suicide doesn’t increase the risk of suicide? Talking about suicide is the best way to prevent it.

It’s sad that it will be silent again when this latest story passes.

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.