Friday, October 31, 2014

Why do we suffer?

 I recently went through a period of profound suffering. It was pure misery, and I lost hope. The biggest mistake I made was suffering in silence. I didn’t even tell my wife, even though she knew. She always knows. She’s like the people at the airport with the wands who make you spread your arms and legs to scan your body for weapons. She scans me every day. Some days I can fool her, but she eventually catches on.
I suffered in silence because I didn’t think our marriage, our family, needed it. But I forgot my own advice I often give others who ask me for help. Don’t try and do it alone. It’s too heavy a burden.
By the grace of God, I found hope again. The black cloud lifted. I’m still perplexed by the mystery of suffering, so I thought I would share an excerpt from my book on the subject.
The book is basically finished. The proposal is done, and it’s in the hands of my agent, soon to be pitched to publishers. It may not happen, but if I have to I’ll make 50 copies at Kinko’s to share with family and friends. It’s been a lot of work. I hope you enjoy this little excerpt.

Before I left my home for Houston and treatment in the summer of 2013, my 14-year-old daughter wrote me a letter. I folded it and placed it in my Bible. I slid it out, unfolded it and wept as I read it on the plane on the way to Houston. I share it here, just as she wrote it, with her permission:
Dear Daddy,

Tonight is the night before you leave for Houston. I know this is the best thing for you to do right now, but I still don’t want you to go. A whole month seems like forever thinking about it right now, but I’m hoping it will fly by without a second thought.

So many people love you, including our whole family. They’re going to be supportive throughout every step of this whole thing. Memaw, Mimi, Pop, friends, neighbors, Uncle Joel and Uncle Bill, I could go on and on. The point is that all of those people who I just mentioned and more absolutely love you and want you to get better.

I’m so thankful that you’re alive. You were given a second chance at life. Not everybody is. There’s a reason you didn’t have enough pills, and there’s a reason you’re alive reading this letter right now. God is not done with you. Once we make it through this tough little patch, He is going to use you in absolutely amazing ways. Your testimony will inspire people everywhere.

Right now, you just need to do what’s best for you and get better. Houston will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you. You’re going to make unbelievable friendships. You’ll be able to meet and talk to people who have the same situation as you. You will learn how to cope with this disease and have a happy and joyful life.
I’ll be praying for you every single day and thinking about you constantly. I’m so proud of you for doing this. It’s going to change all of our lives for the better. I love you more than words can describe.

Love, Sutton

At the very bottom of her letter, Sutton wrote a verse of Scripture that not only changed my perspective. It changed my life.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
Sutton’s letter touched my soul in its deepest and most vulnerable place. Here was a young teenage girl offering her insights into suffering and her understanding that, at least while fighting for my life, I had to be selfish. I had to put myself first and treat myself with kindness and compassion.       
         I also found comfort knowing that she was as much a part of my recovery as I was. She also reminded me that countless friends and family loved me. I learned that the love and support of our friends and family doesn’t make real human suffering go away, but it gives hope to our hearts and helps light a path out of the darkness.
         It also struck me that she was mature enough at age 14 to understand that not only was I hurting, I was suffering. The scripture she shared inspired me to read the entire book of Romans in a new light.
         I came to know Paul better, to understand on some level his suffering. More deeply, I began to understand the way true believers cope with suffering. In Romans 5:1-5, Paul writes about how he turned suffering into hope. I share the verses below because they may be the most profound words ever written on the subject of suffering.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the Glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
As my NIV study Bible points out, Paul does not say we should rejoice “because of” our suffering, but “in” our suffering. Paul doesn’t write that we must ask God for suffering or praise God because we are suffering. Instead, he writes that we should praise God even as we suffer.
I don’t accept suffering as easily as Paul. I still have questions. Why does God allow children to suffer? Why would a God who can do any miracle he wants allow children in third-world countries to starve or live in squalor? Why must any of us suffer at all?  As Genesis tells us, God created the heavens and the earth, he separated the land from the sea, and he created light from the darkness. God never took his hands off his creation, but once he set the world in motion, he didn’t take away the darkness. He didn’t create a world without death or destruction or natural disasters.
If we believe in an all-powerful God, then we have to believe God could have created a world in which there would be no flood or famine, pain or suffering. He didn’t. In my limited understanding, that must mean God even had a plan for suffering. If God allowed suffering and we are to be faithful, then we must rejoice despite our suffering.
Rejoicing in our suffering and using it to spread the love of God surely cuts the enemy down at his knees. He wants us to give up hope, abandon our faith, and wallow in our misery. I know this because I have felt it and experienced it. When I am deeply depressed, I want to give up. I want to isolate myself from people and from the world. I listen and believe the voices that tell me I will never feel good again, that I am not good enough and that God doesn’t want me to have the life I hoped to live. All of those thoughts and feelings come from a dark place, not a place God created. That’s easy to remember when my illness is in remission. It’s just as easy to forget when I am sick.
Paul tells us that when we persevere through our suffering, we serve as an example and inspiration to others. Paul even used his suffering to spread the gospel. He was imprisoned in Rome when he wrote his letter to the Philippians.
“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” (Philippians 1:12-14)
         In no way am I comparing my story of bipolar and depression to Paul’s ministry, but those words ring true. As I have shared my stories and my pain, countless people who have suffered in silence have told me they wept when they read my story because it sounded so much like their own. They have been encouraged to speak to others or seek help for their problems.
         The words of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Confession and Communion are really about sin, but his words could just as easily be about suffering and shame. One could substitute the words “suffering” or “shame” for “sin” and Bonhoeffer’s profound thoughts tell us a lot about how to deal with suffering:
         “In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted.”
         I have found that what Bonhoeffer wrote about sin has been true in my battle with mental illness as it relates to suffering. It is indeed a “hard struggle,” until we can tell our story, ask others for prayers and support, and break free from the chains of shame. When those of us who suffer from mental illness talk openly about our pain and suffering, our secrets and our shame, we begin to understand that our disease lies to us. It tells us something is wrong with our character. That is a lie. It tells us God must not care about us. That is a lie. It tells us we are not good enough. That is a lie. It tells us we will never get better. That is a lie, too. They are lies we have to fight every day not to believe.
         A breakthrough moment for me came on that flight to Houston for my three-week stay at The Menninger Clinic. While I felt relieved and encouraged knowing I was going to a place where I might get some answers and some help, I was also scared. My biggest fear was coming home the same way that I left or failing to find a treatment plan that made me better. I even put pressure on myself to make sure it worked since family and friends had become so invested in me. I didn’t want to let anyone down, a pathological problem I’ve had all my life.
         Flying on a peaceful night on a quiet plane, my views on suffering and my prayers changed when I read my daughter’s letter.
         For as long as I can remember, I had prayed for healing. Like Paul asking God to remove the thorn from his side, I had asked God to cure this cancer of the mind that had caused so much suffering and despair.
         My prayer changed that night. For the first time, I didn’t pray for God to heal me. I just prayed that His will be done, no matter what that meant for me. If it was God’s will that I suffer, so be it. If it was God’s will for me to go through storm after storm so I could help others, so be it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

One year later

“In quietness and confidence is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)

The person who found me read that scripture hours before driving to my house with her husband. The scripture about quietness resonated so loudly with her she scribbled it on her mirror.

She had no idea she would read different words on another mirror a few hours later, where the sound of terror had given way to an eerie silence the night before.

What they found when they arrived was a sad sight, the wreckage of a life that had slowly spun out of control and then crashed into a helpless mess.

But that’s enough about that story.

Anniversaries can be a time to celebrate. A time to reflect. A time to mark sad or special events. They can also be a time to move on.

For me, it’s a time to reflect on one big miracle and a bunch of tiny ones.

It might sound like no big feat, except for those who suffer from depression or bipolar or crippling anxiety, but since being released from the hospital a year ago, I’ve spent one day in the bed. With a migraine. That’s a miracle.

I’m still here with my family and my wife, despite the tremendous toll bipolar disorder takes on marriages and the unfair strain it puts on families.

I’m still providing for my family, though some days, a lot of days, I wonder when the next relapse will sneak up behind me in the night and grab me around the neck.

I’ve nearly given up hope a few times, and then found it again, realizing something when my faith has gotten slippery. Hope not grounded in faith offers little assurance. It’s almost guaranteed to disappoint us.

I’ve learned there are no limits to the compassion and kindness of friends, whose outpouring of love and support are medicine for the soul.

I’ve learned there is no blessing like a family that will stop at nothing to offer love, support and loyalty when all seems lost.

I’ve learned that secrets lose their power to hurt us when we drag them into the light.

I’ve learned that getting lost in the wilderness is a terrifying experience, but God never leaves your side if you just call on him.

I’ve learned that for me, praying for God’s will makes me feel better than praying for a cure.

Most of all, I’ve learned that the longer we suffer, the stronger we get.

Thanks to my family. Thanks to my friends. Thanks to the readers I don’t know. And thanks be to God. It is because of Him that I’m still here.

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.