Great News

No, I’m not cured of bipolar disorder. That’s not the great news. I’m happy to report that I got my annual HIV test results today, and I remain negative. That’s no small accomplishment for a gay man. You never know when something might have gone wrong. I am grateful that my higher power continues to grace me with such good health. I’m very lucky.

I know many who aren’t lucky. I have a very dear friend who needs a hip replacement due to arthritic deterioration, and I have another very, very close friend with breast cancer that spread from his breast to his spine and has now metastasized in his brain. The former friend is only 46, and the latter is only 66. One is battling a debilitating disease, and the other death.

While I was visiting with my doctor today, he paid me an unexpected compliment. He said, “You’re honest, and that’s very rare for me to see.” He described how most of the time he has to deal with murky disclosures or outright lies, and he’s constantly having to read between the lines of what his patients are saying. With me, he said he feels relaxed. He doesn’t have to second guess what I’m saying.

Being honest did not come naturally to me. I’ve been in therapy for 24 years, and I’ve worked the 12 steps of A.A. on a daily basis for 11 years, 11 months, and 4 days as of today. I would say that it’s a combination of those two things that has taught me honesty.

I hold nothing back from my doctor. When I went in to request the HIV test, I was honest with my worries. I hold nothing back from my psychiatric prescribing nurse either, nor the psychiatrist before her. They can only deal with the information that I give them, and if I lie, then I’m only hurting myself. I don’t lie to my therapist, caseworker, or my A.A. sponsor. Even in depression, I stay honest and report my suicidal thoughts.

Perhaps that’s the most important time for me to be honest, during depression. That is the time when I am least equipped to deal with my own issues, and I need the professionals in my life to guide me. I talk to so many people suffering from depression or bipolar disorder who innately distrust their physicians. I’m glad I have doctors and professionals that I feel are looking out for my best interests.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a pushover. I have declined changes in the doses of my medications in the past when I felt it was wrong. I have pushed to get other medications when I thought it was needed. Sometimes I’m right, and sometimes I’m not.

The important point is that I have built up a rapport based on honest interaction with my healthcare providers, and we complement each other.

Today, I’m breathing sweet air. I’m eating good food. I have a roof over my head, and so much more. All of that is great news.

A bumper sticker

I can remember seeing “Easy Does It” on bumper stickers and thinking that it was cool. If I were to put I sticker on my car, I thought, it would be that. The problem was I could never find one.

Fast forward to the year 1999, and I discovered A.A. I also found out where to get that particular bumper sticker. “Easy does it” is one of the most important clichés heard at A.A. meetings and in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It still means a lot to me.

In early sobriety, it meant that when I was worked up over something, I needed to stop and breathe and relax. When my brain was spinning out of control, I needed to stop and pray for relief. When I was overly worried about some problem, I needed to stop and think about how much I could really control and what was simply out of my hands. Then I needed to let go of that latter part.

With ten years of sobriety under my belt, “Easy does it” still resonates but at a deeper level. I need to not put myself into situations where I am likely to become worked up. I need to stay out of the way of hurt and fear.

How do I accomplish that? The most important way is by having the right attitude. I give thanks for my very life in all its imperfections every day. I give thanks for the good things and the bad.

I also keep an open mind to the experiences that life throws at me. I try not to judge situations too quickly. I have learned to let things develop on their own time and not push to much to get things to turn out the way that I want them. By keeping an open mind, I learn a lot from the good things and from the difficulties.

“Easy does it” is short enough for a bumper sticker and long enough to cause me to stop and think…and relax.

A better day

Yesterday, I couldn’t watch television, and I felt awful. But this blog is about winning despite mental illness, so what did I do to make myself feel better?

I wish I could say I was perfect and turned around my thinking before I went to bed, but I can’t lie. I went to bed without brushing my teeth and feeling like crap. I’ve learned over the years that I can best judge my mental state by my level of self-care. When I don’t brush my teeth, something is seriously wrong.

But I did one thing right last night, I lifted my hands upward and gave thanks for my life and said that I believed I would wake up feeling totally new. Did I? Not exactly.

But I did the things that I knew would help me feel better. I went for my powerwalk around a beautiful park. I went to a noon A.A. meeting. I picked up my daughters from their school so that they could wait at my apartment to be picked up by their mother after she got off work. I took a nap. I went to another A.A. meeting in the evening, after which I went to one of the member’s house for some food and fellowship.

The result is that I feel good tonight.

Action.

I cannot think myself into right action, but I can act myself into right thinking.

I did the things that I knew had worked in the past, and now I feel better. I did not allow myself to wallow in self-pity. The grand result is that I am writing this just before bedtime. I’ve already brushed my teeth and flossed.

I feel good. I got into action, and I feel good.

Helping Myself

There are some pretty simple ways that I take care of my own mental illness.

1. I take my medication daily as prescribed. You can read about that here.

2. I exercise. You can read here what I wrote about walking.

3. I keep my appointments with my psychiatrist and my therapist, and I tell them everything that is going on in my life.

4. I remain sober. I’ve written about the hell of my drinking days here. I plan to write more on the miracle of sobriety.

5. I try to eat wholesome food. This is probably where I fall short, because I think I live on peanut butter.

6. I share what I have learned. I don’t believe that it’s possible for me to remain happy and healthy without helping others. I do it by participating in a 12-step program, through this blog, and by being available to talk heart-to-heart with friends and others.

7. I stay active by reading, being with family and friends, watching educational TV, playing games, laughing, loving, etc.

8. I take care of myself and my apartment. I brush my teeth twice a day. Some days, that’s the only thing I can accomplish, but in my view, if I’ve done at least one nice thing for myself each day, then it is a successful day .

9. I meditate. I’m not a religious nut, but I believe that meditation helps me remain healthy and happy and useful. You can read my entry entitled “My Happy Place” for more on this subject.

10. When I get depressed, I remind myself that it is not a permanent condition. I tell myself that I will eventually feel better. And I say positive things to myself, even if I don’t believe them at the moment.

Life in Hell

I lived in hell for too many years to count. All right, it was somewhere between 16 to 18 years. The hell centered around alcohol, preferably gin. I might start the evening with beer or wine, but it was gin–Bombay Gin–that I poured for myself over and over. I kept it in the refrigerator so that I never needed to add ice, which just took up room in the glass that could be better occupied by gin.

I drank for one simple reason: to numb the pain. It never worked. Not once. The alcohol would warm my blood and muddle my brain, but I was still miserable even drunk. I still loathed my self, my homosexuality, my mediocrity, my looks, my job, my lying, my relationships. Everything.

And I woke up every morning for years wanting to die. The first thought that would enter my head before I opened my eyes would be that I wished to be dead. I don’t know how many years it lasted, but it was easily decades. I hated myself. I hated you. I hated the world. Everything.

And I wanted to be dead. I have a vivid memory of lying on my bed one day with the usual thoughts of death rolling around in my head. Suddenly, I had an incredible flash of inspiration of just what it’s like to be dead. I was in a coffin. I pictured my body mouldering and decaying and wasting away. The skin was stretched tight across my bones. I was rigid and putrefying. Mostly, I was aware that there was no air. The image is still real for me many years later though it took only a second to see it all.

Some time in that last 10 years of my drinking, I grew aware that there was a sound underneath all my thoughts. It was a crying, a low heaving as happens when you gasp for air as you cry continuously. The sound was present always. I could be in the middle of a conversation or reading or at the movies, and it would creep into my forethought. Crying.

Gin never stopped it. In fact, gin exacerbated it. When I was drunk, the crying was at the forefront of my brain. It was scratching at the inside of my skull trying to get out.

There came a time when the crying grew to sobbing, and I tried pouring more gin on top of it to shut it up. It sobbed, because I was gay and doomed to die and go to hell. It sobbed, because, knowing that, I got married, hoping to cure my sexuality and save myself from hell. There was sobbing in my brain for the children I fathered who would never have the right kind of dad. The sobbing was with me at all times and in all places.

There was no escape, and the beer and wine and gin and whiskey never gave me freedom from it nor the death I dreamed of. The alcohol just gave me more misery.

I can still remember the day the sobbing changed. I was driving, and I realized that there was a screaming inside my head. There were no more tears. There was gut wrenching anguish, and the only way my body knew to deal with it was to scream. There were no words to describe my fear at the change. There were only more bottles to try to alleviate it.

My self-loathing grew exponentially, and my alcohol consumption grew, too. Until, the scream became a howling, and when that was not enough, the howling became the wail of the banshee.

Nothing worked. I drunkenly threw myself at my wife for sexual satisfaction while fantasizing about men. I tried harder at work to succeed only to fail at an attempted promotion. I played at being dad when it didn’t interfere with my drinking.

The drinking was daily. I drank the cooking wine once when we ran out of other stuff. I did run out one night and got to the store too late. I still remember the look of pity on the cashier’s face as she told me they were closed.

On May 1, 1999, I drank everything in the house. That was an entire bottle of tequila. I hated the stuff, but it’s all there was in the house. There was 3/4 of an opened 2 liter bottle of wine, and there was a 12 pack of beer. I drank it all.

I remember like it was yesterday going to the refrigerator to get more beer and finding it all gone. There was none left. I’d drunk everything alcoholic in the house, so I went to bed.

The next morning was the usual hell of a hangover. I opened the refrigerator while I was waiting for the coffee to brew, and there staring at me from the top shelf were two beers.

Two beers.

The picture of the empty fridge flashed across my mind, and then it hit me. I’d been so drunk the night before that I hadn’t even been able to see booze. I knew in that same instant that I was going to die, if something didn’t change. In the next instant, I knew that I was going to make sure I died, if something didn’t change.

That was the morning of May 2, 1999, and I haven’t had a drink since. Instead, I found A.A.

More of that journey later.

Thoughts in Hell

For years whenever I closed my eyes, I was submerged in a bog. A mirey glue held me under its surface. I couldn’t close my eyes to rest. I couldn’t close my eyes to nap. Going to bed at night was an exercise in strong denial. It makes me want to cry just remembering it now.

The bog was thick and deep. I could not feel anything solid underneath me, and I could not reach up to the surface. It was all encompassing, and I was suffocating in the black, slick waste.

I would pull myself one arm at a time upward trying to reach air. I would grab and pull and attempt to get myself out of the wretched mess, and eventually, my face would break the surface, and I could breathe. I was still trapped, but I was breathing. This imagery went on for years. My eyes would shut, and I would be trapped in sludge.

I think back on it now, and the emotions are strong. It makes me want to sob remembering the terror.

There came a day when more than my face broke through. Somehow, my hands broke the surface, and I attempted to grab something to pull myself free. To my horror, the bog was covered with razor sharp rocks. Points and edges of the rocks were honed to a fine edge. Grabbing hold would slice through skin and muscle on my hands and cut to the bone. My head was free, but I was still captive to this vicious muck.

I can’t remember when it happened, but I gathered the strength to lift my torso out of the mire. The rocks sliced through my hands, but I denied the pain and wrenched my body upward. I remember being exhilarated by the ability to twist from my waist up in the open air. My legs remained encased and unusable, but I felt exultant. I could move.

This exercise took years. For ages, I remained in the bog, and I saw it every single time I shut my eyes. Even to pray.

I don’t remember now which came first: the smoother surface or lifting my entire body above the razor-like rocks. Still, that day did come when I stood above the bog ready to move.

Was there celebrating? Was there exuberance? No, for I found myself at the bottom of a pit. The only way out was up a slope of razor-like rocks. Again, the pain. More pain. Fierce, blinding cutting pain. Searing behind my eyes.

For years, I languished sunken in a putrid mire. Now free of that black bog, I faced a mountainous climb up rocks meant to slice me to pieces. And I did begin to climb.

I don’t know how the healing began or even when, but the day came when I could close my eyes and not see myself in the bog or being sliced to pieces trying to escape. It was sometime after my fifth anniversary of sobriety. I spent a great deal of my life self-medicating with gin. The pain did not stop on my first day sober. It did not stop in the first year. It was sometime after five years of continuous sobriety.

It also came two or three years after my bipolar diagnosis, and the beginning of medication.

Today, I am relieved to report that I close my eyes, and I see nothing. Blessed nothing.