Where to Next?

Today is Tuesday, October 10, 2017, and it is World Mental Health Day. I can’t write about mental health as it exists all over the world, but I can write about my experiences with challenging mental health.

Much of this year, I’ve been wondering about my story. I really can’t explain it. I recovered, and I don’t know why. I have a slight grasp on how, but why eludes me completely.

I like to sum up the how in just five little words:

  1. medication
  2. meditation
  3. therapy
  4. exercise
  5. sleep

I think WRAP has something to do with it too, but I’ve pretty much internalized that and rarely actually look at the written document. (You can search for WRAP on this blog in the tags on the right side of the screen of your computer. I’m not sure where the tags are, if you’re on a mobile device. There’s also a little place where you can enter search items. Just type in WRAP.)

But, why?

Why did I recover?

I work in mental health now. I talk on the phone to my peers as part of my job, and it’s quite eye-opening. I hear about the difficulties others are having with many different types of situations. Each caller is doing their best to overcome whatever may be happening that is disagreeable. Sometimes, reaching out to me is one of the ways they’re trying to overcome problems. Other times, they just want someone to listen. It’s usually very clear right from the very beginning what the caller wants from the conversation.

What’s unclear to me is myself. My own story baffles me. You can search the archives of this blog going back more than 7.5 years. I came through some dark times. When I remember those times, I’m amazed I made it through and got to where I am today.

I think I’m spending so much time thinking about the why, because it has something to do with healing. I want to share healing with my peers.

But that’s off. The healing is what happened. Does it matter why it happened, or is the how it happened more vital?

There’s one more point about how that may hold the key: one. I kept it to one step. I concentrated on just the one step I was taking. I never thought ahead to a second step. I thought only of the one. Then, I would take one more step. Then one more. It was always just one.

When I was bedridden with depression, I would do one nice thing for myself for one day. Some days that one nice thing was brushing my teeth. It was one little reminder that I was worth just that tiny bit of self-care. Some days, it was making one healthy thing to eat, or just eating one piece of healthy food like an apple.

Taking only one step. Doing one nice thing for myself. One.

Life is complex. When you add mental illness to it, it can be chaotic. There is so much to think about that it’s overwhelming. Concentrating on only one thing relieves the chaos.

One.

By concentrating on one step, I made many steps. I got from there to here. It took years. I had a lot of help along the way, but I was the one doing the walking. I was the one taking just one step. I want to share that with others.

And now I ask where to next?

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Healing Demons

I have now seen a meme twice. A meme is a viral phenomenon that spreads an idea from person to person in a given population. It’s also the slang term used to describe a trite saying usually accompanied by a picture on the internet.

This particular meme says, “We never lose our demons. We only learn to live above them.”

I can happily report that we can heal them. We do not have to simply learn to tolerate their rude behavior as they live downstairs. It is possible to completely heal them, releasing ourselves from their power. Why can I say this? Because I healed mine.

It’s popular to talk about our baggage, the stuff we carry with us from the past that weighs us down. Baggage is something we talk about with a therapist. In the early days of going to AA, I heard a lot about baggage, and I realized that I don’t simply have baggage. I had a freight train.

Indeed I did. I had so much junk attached to myself on many different subjects: homosexuality, religion, being an American male from the South, parental expectations, etc. The list is very long.

I started therapy when I was 23. The first big item I tackled was anger. It may surprise you to learn that I actually had to teach myself how to be angry. I remember it quite well. I had to keep a small notepad in my pocket and write down every time I felt angry. It took many months before I was able to recognize my real anger. I suppressed it before. I didn’t know that I was allowed to be angry. It was an enormously unhealthy way to live.

I haven’t thought about that episode in my attempts to unpack my freight train in a very long time. My anger is healthy now. I feel it. If necessary, I act on it. I let it pass. It flows like it’s supposed to.

That is a perfect example of healing a demon, and that’s what bugs me about that meme. Saying that the best we can hope for is to merely live above them does us all a disservice. We can indeed heal them. We can completely disarm them and free ourselves from their grip.

I have healed many demons. I don’t live above anything unpleasant.

I am free!

I am very happy to be a gay man now, but I used to loathe myself. I healed the loathing. I did the necessary self-care that led to a very happy realization that I like being gay. I live completely out now. It was a difficult journey fraught with upset, but I did it. I did it!

I am free!

If you think you have pain that can only be tolerated and never healed, you are wrong. If I can heal the trauma of growing up gay in a time and place that abhorred it, you can heal, too. You can. I promise.

The question becomes how to start. Therapy worked for me. I know that it works for a great many people, because they’ve told me it works. It’s also important to do some work on our own.

Meditation is an amazing habit to form. It teaches us to find our calm center. We each have one. Most of us need help to find it. Meditation doesn’t have to be scary. Sit quietly doing nothing. Don’t sit and rock. Don’t sit and drink water. Sit. Just sit. Let your mind wander, and look for the spaces between the wandering thoughts. Try to enlarge those spaces in between. Don’t judge yourself as your mind wanders. Just watch it.

Exercise is important for me, too. I powerwalk. It’s something I enjoy, and it only requires good shoes. It doesn’t take any other special equipment. Think about what you enjoy, and do it.

There are many ways we each can begin the journey of healing. What do you want to look like after you have healed? Think about it, and think about the ways you want to get to that place. Find the help you need, and use it.

You can be free, too. I promise.

Staying Calm in the Midst of Chaos

It’s no secret that there is a great deal of turmoil in the world at present. There are large protests in the US. Many countries in Europe are experiencing difficulties related to the large numbers of refugees coming in. I don’t know about yours, but my news is full of stories of upheaval and tumult.

It’s very easy to become overwhelmed when the headlines are shouting about mayhem. Those of us with mental illness know the importance of remaining calm and maintaining equilibrium.

Here’s my plan.

First, I remember the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

There is a great deal in the world that I cannot change, and it is important for me to recognize where I can have an effect and where I need to release. For example, I have a vote, but I only have one vote. It is important for me to exercise my choice by voting, but I must release the outcome since my single vote will not determine any winners. I am one voice in a sea of many. I do my part and release the rest.

Second, I simply do not read all of the news. I pick and choose. I have a few topics that I am passionate about, so I read that news. I skip over the rest. As a solitary individual, there is little I can do to affect the vast majority of situations. I choose to invest my energy in only a couple of major issues. I keep myself basically informed of some of the other major issues in the news, but I simply skip over a great deal. I’m not hiding from the news. I’m editing my consumption. I act this way to maintain my sense of inner peace. I had a friend who tried to stay abreast of all the news a few months ago, and it had a disastrous affect on her mind. She was quickly overwhelmed. I protect my personal calm by limiting what I ingest from the news.

Next, I give a small amount of money to causes that I believe in. I have limited money at my disposal. I cannot give great sums to every worthy cause, so I have chosen a few that I feel the most strongly about, and I donate there. It makes me feel good that I’m helping organizations who are battling for ideas that I believe in. Helping these organizations makes me feel like I’m a part of the fight, and in actuality, I am. I am very active in theatre in my city, so I support those organizations that bring live theatre to brighten our lives. Giving them small donations helps me feel good.

Finally, I take care of myself. This is my greatest contribution to making the planet a better place for all of us. When I concentrate on being the best possible me that I can, I know that my little bit of humanity is running smoothly. Honestly, isn’t that a great gift to give the world? I like being me, and I like making me a happy member of the world. I do it by living in recovery. I have a few pillars of my recovery that I work diligently to maintain: medication, meditation, exercise, therapy, and sleep.

I am lucky in that medicine works for me, so I take my medicine as prescribed. I have friends in recovery who maintain themselves other ways than medicine.

I am also an avid meditator. I have a set routine that includes a period of meditation, and I do it every morning without fail. Meditation gives me a calm center to cling to. When I feel emotions that encroach on my calm, I know I can return to the even feelings by just doing some simple breathing techniques.

Exercise is an important part of my recovery, too. I enjoy powerwalking, so I go out for a vigorous walk 4 mornings every week. I feel exhilarated each time. It’s such a joy!

I believe wholeheartedly in talk therapy. I’ve been involved with it for 30 years. I have a therapist that I tell absolutely everything to. I tell him about all the little things in my life that arise, and we talk about how they make me feel. I’ve discovered a lot of people don’t really understand the nature of a therapeutic relationship. A therapist is not like a medical doctor who assesses symptoms and administers a cure. Therapists cure no one. Instead, they listen to my situations, and then they guide me through a discussion, until I settle on my own cure. In essence, a therapist is a guide while I cure myself.

Finally, sleep is an amazing balm for me. I am adamant that I get adequate and high quality sleep every night. It resets all my inner world, and I can start each day fresh.

These things work for me. I hope you can find the pillars of your own recovery.

How to Help Someone with Depression

Today, a friend confided in me that her son has been diagnosed with clinical depression. It is a great honor that this friend trusts me with this information. We all come to mental illness with many ideas of what such a diagnosis means, and we all have to recognize that many of our ideas are true and some are not.

This friend is doing so many good things, and it reminded me of so much I’ve been through and how far I have come in my own recovery.

The son is also doing many hard things the right way. First, he sought help from his mother. He returned home where he could be nurtured and where he can heal. Next, he actually called a doctor himself. Then he did a very hard thing by going to his appointment with the doctor. Now, he’s continuing the hard work by taking the medicine prescribed. All these steps point to one vastly important bit to know. Since he’s actively reaching out for help, he wants to recover. With this attitude, he can get better.

I made some recommendations to my friend on how she can help her son.

1. She should use physical touch to maintain contact with him. Depression makes us feel so very lonely, and touch reminds us we are not alone.

2. She should encourage her son to exercise. A walk in the sunshine and fresh air will help him very much.

3. She should use ample positive reinforcement when he does anything to aid his own recovery like keeping doctor’s appointments or taking medicine as prescribed.

4. She should tell him often that he is worthy of recovery. Depression robs us of all our good feelings of self-worth and replaces those with hopelessness.

5. She should remind him often this is a disease, and there is no reason to feel ashamed.

6. She should mention often that his current feelings are not permanent. He can and will feel better with the help of a good doctor, good medicine, and helpful people.

7. She should help her son look for a good psychologist for talk therapy where he can learn many valuable tools to help him feel better.

8. Importantly, she must not neglect herself. The caregiver needs nurturing, too.

These ideas can be used by anyone to help another hurting from the disease of depression.

Changing Medication

I’m going to try to ease back into blogging regularly by mentioning that I changed medication in October. I was taking two different medicines for bipolar disorder, and those have been replaced with one.

I have had a nice side effect. One of the old medicines caused a great deal of weight gain. Now that I’m no longer on that old one, I am shedding pounds. It’s almost effortless. I think I’m at the end of that stage, though, and any more weight loss will require effort.

I have had some not so nice side effects. I went through a period of irrational, high anxiety, and I’ve experienced general irritability. Both are common with my new medicine. I have an anti-anxiety medicine I can take, but I don’t like to. It makes me sleepy. The irritability is another matter.

I have made an important decision. I have stopped explaining and qualifying my experiences. I am what I am. I feel the way I feel for complex reasons. I have stopped apologizing.

A person with a visible disability is not required to volunteer information. I stop the same. I proclaim my independence from judgement.

Capable Incapacities

Sailing off into the sunset on a placid sea is not for me as yet.  I remain on the path to employment as a Certified Peer Specialist. My internship was successful, and now, I wait. The man in charge of such things at the state level called me himself to congratulate me on a job well done, and he said he would like to hire me on a contract basis to lead groups in WRAP and Seeking Safety. That was 3 weeks ago. I’m still waiting.

It’s the government, and they are not known for working at high speed. To be fair, they are currently reorganizing their workforce, and adding a new employee, even just a contracted one, is not high on their priority list. Thankfully, I’m dealing with state government and not the federal one, which is shut down at the moment. I also have to state that the man in charge works alone. He has no secretary to help him at his job. He has no staff. What’s more, I’m patient. I am not worried. It will come.

In the meantime, I am involved with theatre, co-directing a play at the local university here where I live. It’s thrilling, and it brings a smile to my face and a flutter to my heart thinking about the theatrical process.

I am very organized. I have the rehearsal times all intertwined with the many actors’ individual schedules, no easy feat. I studied the script diligently to learn the proper motivations and their actions for the various pieces I’m responsible for directing. I wrote solid notes about salient points. I subtly questioned each actor, eliciting their own ideas about why certain words are uttered by certain characters. I offered my thoughts as well and let the actors choose how best to proceed with the growth of their work.

I’m maintaining an excellent work ethic with my group. They really are coming along fine, and the other director, a much more experienced one, complimented my actors, which I passed along to them.

All is well?

No.

I am haunted by my own incapacity to protect my most vulnerable core. In the quiet of my being, people come and use me. I allow it. I participate in it. I want it.

I tell no one. Revelation brings judgement, and I’m sick of it.

After waiting more than two months, I was finally paid for the hours I worked during my internship. It was a large sum for me, but small compared to my past earnings before my illness began. I used a good chunk to pay past medical bills, and then I spent the remainder on toys. I bought a computer tablet and a new TV and Blu-Ray DVD player.

I have the Kindle app on the tablet, and I downloaded a vast number of free Kindle books, all classics. I bought a few select new books as well. I have spent long hours reading, and that is a positive accomplishment. For many years, my illness robbed me of reading. I couldn’t concentrate, and it was beyond frustrating. It was debilitating. Getting the right medicine helped remedy that, and I can report that I enjoy a good book now. Reading on the tablet is very easy. The screen size is perfect, and my eyes flit over the lines rapidly. A finger flick turns the page. It’s brilliant.

The new TV and Blu-Ray player was a frivolous purchase. I don’t watch TV. I can’t. My daughters watch it, and I do occasionally watch movies. I like serious drama and period pieces. Some comedies are good, too.

But the machine bothers me. It throws a switch in my brain that hurts. If I really want to sit and enjoy watching a show or movie, I generally have to take a very low dose of the anti-anxiety medicine prescribe for me. Isn’t that ridiculous? I have to sedate myself to enjoy TV.

Finally, and this pains me to write, a man is using me in the worst possible way. I can’t think about it. I haven’t told anyone. I haven’t told my therapist or my nurse or my doctor or my best friend. I can write no more about it. It’s too upsetting. All is moving so well in my life, yet I allow a man to abuse me. My sleep has been disturbed. It sickens me.

I Still Have Bipolar Disorder

My bipolar life is a storybook success at present. I’ve just finished a period in which I received free job training and then a three-month paid internship, for which I was highly rated. I am actively involved in community theatre where I live, and I’m well-respected for it. I acted in a play recently, and now I’m directing another one that will hit the boards in November. Plus, I will be directing Shakespeare next summer, and that takes a year-long preparation. It’s a major undertaking. On top of it all, I’m writing and reading. I have dreams of a book with my name on it.

Last weekend, I went to see a play produced by the community theatre organization I work with. The play is a true smash hit. Eight of the nine performances have been totally sold out, and they are trying to figure out how to extend the run one more weekend.

My daughter and I arrived early to get good seats in the theatre. We took our programs and sat in the front row. I put on my reading glasses and buried my head in the very informative program made for the historical drama we were about to watch.

After reading the program, I put my glasses away and looked at the stage before us. Then I felt it. The theatre was nearly full, and the house manager was looking for empty seats for people waiting at the door. There was a crush of humanity around me. I didn’t have to turn around and look. I could feel them.

My stomach churned; my chest tightened. I began to squirm in my chair, and my thoughts began to race.

I was getting very near a panic attack, and I haven’t had one in ages. I thought of the Klonopin at home in my medicine chest. It was useless to me in my situation.

So, I thought of WRAP. I tried to remember what was on my Triggers Action Plan for just these situations. Crowds can cause me to panic, and they are listed as a trigger for me. Thankfully, WRAP does not stop with the knowledge of what hurts us, but we make an action plan for each item in case they arise. In the case of panic due to a crowd, I remembered to concentrate on slow breathing and to feel my body .

I took methodical breaths, and I placed my mind on exactly where my feet were and then how the chair felt and then the temperature in the room. I soothed my racing mind by giving it clear, concise things to think on.

My panic was not rising, but it was not easing either. Luckily, the play began, and the action whisked me away with its story.

I came away from the experience enriched. I survived a near panic attack.

I can see now that I have built strategies for dealing with triggers. For example, I hate large parking lots. I have an unreasonable fear of them. As a result, I learned many years ago to visualize driving into the parking lot, going down a certain row, and taking the first available space. It works for me. As a result, I am able to enter large parking lots without the unpleasant emotions.

My last post may have sounded smug. I was reminded that while things may be going well, I still have an illness. More importantly, I learned I have strategies to help today. They may not be foolproof, but they give me hope.