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.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Friends potent medicine against mental illness

A single twig breaks, but a bundle of twigs is strong-Tecumseh

A little black book bound in leather sits on my bedside table.  In it are dozens of handwritten quotes, verses and lyrics. From Tecumseh and the Apostle Paul to Allison Krauss and Eleanor Roosevelt, it is chock full of uplifting words.

My little black book is one of my most cherished possessions, given to me by a special friend during my darkest hour.

The words have lifted me up when I was down. They have reminded me that we can lose everything but everything will be okay. At least long as we have friends.

Ever since we shared my struggles with the world, friends have inspired us. They have taken care of us. They have loved us and they have helped us.

I had been at the Menninger Clinic for a day or two when anxiety overwhelmed me. I worried about my wife and children and felt guilty for the pain I’d caused them. The thought I would be away from them and from home for weeks was torture.

It was hard to focus on my recovery until I heard the excitement in the voices of my children about their upcoming trip. They were to leave the following week for a 7-day Disney cruise.

Some dear friends who wouldn’t take no for an answer insisted on an all-expense paid trip for my wife and children. It turned out to be the trip of a lifetime. More thoughtful friends brought gift cards for restaurants along the drive to the port. Still others brought gifts, care packages and hugs. It didn’t cost us a penny.

It was like Christmas morning for my children, only better.

Their trip lifted my spirits more than anything had in a long time. Knowing they were embarking on the trip of a lifetime gave me peace and helped me focus on my recovery.

Countless other friends showed their love and support too. They fed us for a month with casseroles and gift cards. They cleaned our house while my family was sailing toward Mexico. They cut our grass. They brought breakfast—Pop Tarts, waffles and cereal—so mornings would be a little easier for my wife.

They sent notes of encouragement and prayed for us daily.

When I had a chance to reflect on all our friends have done for us, it made me smile. It also made me think about so many who suffer in silence with little support.
They suffer in silence because of the stigma of mental illness. They feel ashamed. They feel scared to ask for help, and they don’t. So they suffer alone.

Soon after my overdose, I felt God calling me to tell my story. I hoped it would help me cope and give others hope.

What I didn’t understand at the time is telling our story is the best medicine of all. Shame loses its power when we drag our problems into the light.

And it does so much more than that. It lets those who love us care for us and pray for us. When we are not ashamed to admit we are hurting, it lets our friends shower us with love and hold us up when we can’t stand on our own.

Maybe the best thing about the support of friends and family is what it does for our loved ones who suffer as much as we do, just in a different way. They need hope and encouragement too, something friends can only provide if they know mental illness is choking the life out of a family.

I hope someone who is alone and in agony will find the courage to share his or her story. You don’t have to start a blog and share your pain with the whole world. But tell a friend. Tell a family member. Tell a coworker. Tell somebody.

I know it isn’t easy. When we are depressed, we want to withdraw. We want to isolate. We didn’t even feel like answering the phone or returning a text.

But knowing we aren’t alone makes the struggle against mental illness a little bit easier. For me, it has made all the difference in the world.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Mental illness hurts loved ones, too

I was sifting through banal emails at work, deleting junk in my inbox.

Then one from my wife caught my eye. The subject line read “Your submission to teen ink.” I settled in with a warm cup of coffee, hoping to find another uplifting poem or story written by our 14-year-old daughter, Sutton.

Then I read the message from my wife at the top of the email. “Check out her link. It breaks my heart. I hate to think to think she feels this way.” 

I clicked on the link and found this poem she’d written…

This thing, 
This monster,This demon.
It is a black hole, endless and infinite.
It swallows me whole, Shredding my soul.Ripping my body to pieces.
Thought by thought, Word by word, It presses on.Consuming me. Controlling me. Changing me.
This darkness, This plague. It takes over me.
Until it is me. 
It has conquered me, and it has become me.
The darkness and I are one.
I can't remember how to turn on the lights.

My heart sank. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach by a horse. I panicked. Thoughts raced through my mind at warp speed.

How could I, of all people, have missed the signs?
How long has she felt this way? Did she inherit my disease?
How could this happen to such a bright light in a dark world?
Where can we take her to get help?

My wife sat down with Sutton to talk about the poem. She insisted it wasn’t about her. It was about her daddy.

Mixed emotions filled my head after hearing the news. I was touched that she understood and shared in a profound and powerful way all that I have felt. I was also troubled when I realized how much young people sense and know about their parents.

My wife and I had a talk and agreed we had to be more careful. I had to find a way to “fake it” when possible, although I’m sure Sutton would see through it. She can see it on my face when I walk in the door after a difficult day. She senses it even on the weekend, if I’m listless and disengaged.

We decided if we had any disagreements due to the strain bipolar puts on marriages, we couldn’t have them in front of our kids.

The experience caused me to think about the devastating impact mental illness has on families. Here’s a sobering statistic for you: Ninety percent of all bipolar people who get married end up divorced.

I suspect the majority of those divorces happen because the patient's partners just can’t do it anymore. They can’t endure the manic highs, which often result in impulsive or reckless behavior. They can’t handle the devastating lows, which leave their partners wallowing in a pit of misery, unable to show compassion or emotion.

Severe mental illness hurts more than the patient. It hurts loved ones, too. They pray fervently for help that doesn’t always come. They lie awake at night, wondering what happened to their husband or wife, son or daughter. They wonder if it will ever get better, doubting how it could after failed treatments and years of suffering.

My wife and I have been married for 18 years, but my illness has taken its toll on our marriage. She’s often left frustrated and exhausted during times when I’ve struggled to do much more than roll out of bed and get dressed.

Mental illness hurts more than spouses. It hurts children, young ones and old ones with parents who can hardly function and often become a burden. It is hard for me to imagine how difficult it must be to care for a mentally ill parent years before they reach old age.

Patients like me have all sorts of resources. We have psychiatrists. We have therapists. We have drugs that may or may not work but at least give us a chance.

Other than therapy, I’m not sure what loved ones have. They probably don’t have time for therapy either since they often become single parents by default.

Churches don’t do much—at all—for the 25 percent of their congregations suffering from mental illness. They do even less for loved ones hurt and confused by the mental illness sucking the life and joy out of their homes.

I do not have the answers, but chipping away at the stigma of mental illness is a start. If an individual can’t or won’t let others know they suffer from mental illness and need prayers and support, they don’t get any prayers or support. 

The reason some never drag their illness out of the dark and into the light? Stigma. That’s what that word we toss around really means.

My mind and my prayers aren’t on me tonight. They are centered on my family and other families struggling to deal with a loved one’s mental illness.

They need our help as much as I do.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Your time will come

You plunged a knife deep into my chest and cut out my heart. You drained the energy from my being. You whispered your lies into my ear, and I could not rest.

You waved your wicked wand of misery over me as I slept, casting a spell of despair that followed me like a shadow.

You tried to poison my soul. You filled my mind with doubt and you stole the essence of who I am.

You crushed my spirit. You bludgeoned me into submission, forcing me into the corners of the ring. I hung helplessly from its ropes, unable to fight back.

You have threatened my home, my family and our deepest longing. Peace and happiness. You have hurt those who are innocent. This time, you have gone too far.

Your biggest fear will soon be realized.  I have had enough. I will not fight this battle alone anymore. I will suit up every day in the Armor of God, the One who protects my sanctuary of hope, a sacred place you will never hurt and never find.

I will be strong again. When you slip into my mind in the dark of night, I will be waiting. Waiting with the sword of the Spirit at my side.

We will one day fight to the death, and you will lose. I have seen through the eyes of my soul how this will end. I will be the victor, and you will be the vanquished.

You have won this battle for too many years, but rest assured. Your time will come.