Non-Negotiable #1: Engage or Expire

I hate to break it to you. When it comes to mental illness, there are pills, but none of them are magic. Living successfully means tackling healing holistically. How this manifests in different people varies, but I think there’s five areas where we consistently need to focus the brunt of our energy: Treatment, Rest, Diet, Community and Exercise.

To that end, I’ve spent 2019 establishing, more-or-less organically, what I call my non-negotiables. The things that I’m not going to debate in my head. For example, the moment my brain says, “I want to stay up instead of going to bed at 9,” I shut that noise down. It’s a non-negotiable, end of discussion. I remember my non-negotiables using a silly naming system. The list is pretty extensive so I’m going to spread these posts out a bit, starting with the first, Engage or Expire.

Non-nogotiable #1: Engage or Expire

I will do my best to accept invitations as often as I’m able
Isolation is the enemy when you’re living with depression. Too much of it leaves you way too much time alone with your brain, and sometimes that brain is looking to kill you.

I’m a die-hard introvert. That doesn’t mean that I’m a lizard. I am human, and therefore I need community. For all the times that I’ve said I hate being around people, what I should have been saying was that I love being around people, and I hate how hard it is for me. I’ve had to learn how to navigate social situations  in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling super depleted. I need to go out, need to have a drink with friends, visit the park with other families, eat a meal at an unfamiliar table.

All that said, this only works if you’re serious about rest, and I’m serious about rest. I have days that are home days, non-negotiable. Evenings that are scheduled to be event-free, non-negotiable.  If an invite shows up on a home day, it better be a hells-yes.

I will invite someone new into my home at least once a month
One of the first things that I did when I hit rock bottom about a year and a half ago was quit hosting. I decided that anything that was a drain on my energy wasn’t worth it and would only make things worse. The problem with that was not only did having people over usually satisfy a hunger that I had to connect with others, it also provided one more sense of meaning in life. I have a gift for hosting, did a whole podcast about it with another friend who loves hosting, and I cherish the idea of giving people a place to go and get fed and feel cared for. I don’t host as often as I used to, but I make sure that it happens at least once a month, and that it includes at least one person I’ve never gotten to host before.

I will go to church every Sunday
This is another thing that fell off my radar since my diagnosis. That was the last time that I served in ministry in any official capacity. After moving to Phoenix, it was weird to show up to church on Sunday and be relatively unknown and go mostly unnoticed. I took advantage of this opportunity to wake up on Sundays and go, “Yeeeeeah, we can do our own thing,” at least 25% of the time.

But church is important to me for a number of reasons. It’s a place where I have my perspectives checked, my reality challenged. It’s a place where I get to worship next to people that I would have never crossed paths with had it not been for this shared desire to worship. Whatever little I give to get to it, it makes up for in all I receive from it.

Maybe you’re non-religious. Find a place to be that’s not work, that has other people, with shared loves, interests, and a commitment to one another.

There’s actually four more items to this list. Maybe I’ll write about them later. Expect a new non-negotiable every Thursday for the next month or so. Next week: Rest or Regret It. Make sure to subscribe to Uncharted Chapter to get these delivered directly to your inbox.

That’s it from me. When it comes to engaging with others, what are some of your non-negotiables?

The Church is Uninformed When It Comes to Mental Illness, and Why That’s Insane.

Dear pastor, reverend, elder, deacon, bishop, small group leader, children’s director, youth minister, priest, congregant, choir conductor, etc…

The church is standing on the front lines of a mental health crisis and has no idea what it’s doing.

Each Sunday our pews are packed with people suffering from a variety of mental health issues, many of whom have come to the one place where they think they may be able to find hope and understanding. We’re failing them miserably.

Pastors, you’re spending 4-10 hours per week providing psychotherapeutic counseling to the people under your care, but on average, understand less than an undergraduate psychology student when it comes to even the most basic psychological issues. 75% of the time, when someone suffering from a severe mental illness (Schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder) describes their symptoms, you will not refer them to a mental health professional.

In fact, you’re less likely to recognize signs of suicide lethality than someone enrolled in an introduction to psychology class. That’s concerning, especially when suicidal ideation is most prominent among those attending religious services.

My dear and precious church, we are the gatekeepers to mental health. A quarter of those seeking help for a mental illness will seek it from us, at a significantly higher rate than they will from a psychiatrist. They trust us that much, and what have we done to earn it?

Very, very little.

I don’t bring this to light as a victim, but as a complicit perpetrator of the same form of neglect. As someone who has tried to pray his own symptoms away and encouraged others to do the same. I shudder to think of the number of times that someone was carrying this unseen weight, and that in my own ignorance, I had added to the burden of their existence an extra helping of shame. Shame that they weren’t faithful enough to see the hope of the gospel, shame that they weren’t willing to put it all at the feet of Jesus, to lift their eyes to the heavens for the strength they needed.


The Gospel is Not Intimidated by Psychiatry, the Church Is

We wouldn’t tell someone to pray their way out of needing to eat. It’s a physical need and physical needs require physical solutions. Therein lies the biggest problem with the church’s lack of knowledge regarding common psychological issues. When we’re met with the physical reality of a broken brain, often, all we see is a spiritual problem.

Are there spiritual issues that overlap with symptoms of mental illness? There are. Sometimes sadness flows from failing to see how much God loves, cares and provides for us because we don’t practice the means of grace (prayer and scripture reading) that would assure us of such truths. Other times, sadness flows from the feedback activation of presynaptic receptors. Which is the culprit? I can’t tell, and neither can you.

Moreover, we don’t have to. The gospel is not in competition with psychiatric therapy and medication, no more so than it is with bread, and Jesus only explicitly claimed to be the latter.

When it comes to the gospel and psychiatric means of healing, they’re not in opposition, they’re not even in the same weight class. One is the overarching narrative that encompasses all narratives, the hope for all humanity that promises the total redemption of any and all broken things. The other is a means by which some human suffering may be relieved, some heads may be lifted, some burdens made lighter. Psychiatric treatment is not opposed to the gospel, it’s a part of it.


We Are Not Free to Stay Uninformed When it Comes to Mental Illness

There’s far too much at stake, and too great a responsibility resting on our shoulders, to neglect our need to grow in knowledge and understanding of psychiatric issues. God’s given us the mentally ill, delivered them to our doorstep, and what are we do to do with them?

It’s easy enough to claim that the church’s role in the world is simply to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. That our sole responsibility lies is the exposition of scripture. Even if this were true, and it’s not, mental illness presents a unique problem in that, as mentioned above, it intersects with the spiritual in a near indiscernible way.

If you owned a restaurant and someone came in clutching their stomach and crying out in pain, you wouldn’t say, “Well, this is a restaurant. Therefore the stomach pain they’re experiencing is hunger. I’ll make them a sandwich.”

It sounds ludicrous, but it’s exactly what we do in ministry. Someone comes to us and says that they’re not sleeping at night, that they’re hearing voices, that they’re restless and making impulsive decisions. We take that information, filter it through the lens of our limited knowledge and our perceived purpose, and come to the conclusion that they’re lacking faith, under demonic attack, and lacking discipline.

In doing so, we heap burden where we might have brought guidance and comfort.


We Are Not Burdened, but Blessed, by the Crisis That Knocks at Our Doors

When we enter into the mess that is the human condition, bringing healing hands and tender hearts, we not only get to outwardly show the world the love of Jesus, but get to experience inwardly the inexplicable joy that comes from being his means of ministering to the world He so loves.

Jesus, Immanuel, the God who came down to be with us. His life and ministry serve as an example to those of us who would rather sit in the comfort of where we are and what we know than enter into the pain and trouble that sits before us. There is nothing comfortable about the tension that we live in as Christians ministering to the mentally ill. It requires us to live in two worlds, the spiritual and the physical, but that’s exactly where Jesus lives.


So Where Do We Go From Here?

What I offer here is born of my limited experience navigating this world, but I hope you find it helpful.

  • Ask questions

In my experience talking about my own mental health struggles, the most discouraging responses have largely fallen into these categories:

1. Disbelief that I could have ever been anything less than stable.

2. An assumption about what I’m experiencing, and an uninformed recommendation for what I could do to get better.

3. The person’s personal opinions regarding all that’s wrong with psychiatry.

4. Silence.

But one person responded with this:

“What’s that like?”

That person was a pastor, and that question was like salt and light to me. It gave me the opportunity to feel understood, and hopefully gave him an opportunity to understand better.

  • Read and read and read

There is no shortage of information and resources when it comes to understanding mental health. A couple come to mind quickly:

Darkness is My Only Companion by Kathryn Greene-McCreight is an excellent book written by a member of clergy suffering from bipolar disorder, providing keen insight into the worlds of faith, scripture, and psychotherapy.

Psychology Today offers resources for those living with mental illness and those who just want to understand better. With daily articles written by mental health professionals, and a directory of mental health resources by area, it’s worth a bookmark.

  • See a Psychiatrist

And that directory of mental health resources may come in handy when you set out to see a psychiatrist yourself. Either as the 1 in 4 ministers who are experiencing living with a mental illness, or maybe even in an effort to build a relationship with someone that you can refer others to when the time comes.

Lastly

I’ve been praying, and even begun lightly laying the groundwork, for a ministry that would equip church leaders and laypersons to minister to the mentally ill in their midst. I would appreciate your prayers for guidance and wisdom as I think about what exactly this would look like, and would also appreciate prayers that I would be led to the right people and opportunities to help make this a reality.

If You’re Broken and You Own It, That’s a Start. Clap-clap.

A friend reached out shortly after I began writing about my struggles with mental health. I have no regrets about sharing my story openly. Friends and family responded with more encouragement than I could have ever hoped for. It gave me the chance to take something of which I was ashamed and allowed me to shine a bright light on it. That act robbed the shame of so much power.

It also left me feeling incredibly vulnerable. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many encouraging words people offer, the part of you that’s always looking to bring you down a notch can explain away every kind thing that’s said. That part will always find new ways to beat you down.

Then I started receiving private messages from old friends, and they came through with a consistent and reassuring message:

I had no idea that this is what you were experiencing, but it’s something that I’ve also experienced, and I’m so thankful that you’re writing about it. 

I will never forget those texts and direct messages. They really were what gave me the desire to continue writing.

One of these friends shared his own story, and it was incredibly moving. He was open and honest about so much that he’d experienced. In our back-and-forth’s he touched on a subject that hit home in the strongest way. Acceptable brokenness, or the type of brokenness that people know how to respond to. In the days after I’d disclosed my diagnosis to my closest friends, the same people who up to that point had insight and encouragement to proffer on near every struggle that I had ever related went almost silent. Every ounce of their non-response saying “What am I supposed to do with that?”

I grew into my pastoral own at the height of the machismo minister movement. Tough guy pastors who proclaimed a version of the gospel drench in testosterone. In that world, there was only one form of brokenness that was acceptable, the type that reinforced secretly admirable forms of sin, though almost never for for that purpose. In that world, men were more easily able to confess that they struggled with anger (I am strong), lust (I am sexual), and career-related problems (I am a provider).

I once heard a tough guy pastor share the story of the time he visited the home of a man who had reached his breaking point, and how disappointed he was at the sight of this creature curled up in the fetal position and lying on the floor. The message came through loud and clear. Don’t be like that man. Don’t be pathetic.

I was twenty-four when I heard that story, and in any incredibly dark place. Those days were overshadowed by a constant indwelling sense of hopelessness and doom, marked by lack of sleep and constant panic attacks. When I think back on that period my mind overlays remembered images with an apocalyptic filter of sepia and dark edges. It’s like my brain has to show me just how bleak things were, in the remote chance that I somehow managed to forget.

That was a time in my life when I could have, and should have, sought psychiatric treatment. The story about the man curled up in the fetal position reminded me that it would never be okay to succumb to the level of brokenness I was experiencing. An unacceptable brokenness. Therefore, I must push down what I was feeling with all my strength, put my best face forward, and fight my way out of it. Shame is remarkably powerful.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to learn that, almost without exception, the tough ones are usually just hurt ones. That those who never express anything are generally too busy carrying the weight of everything. That the ones who are only able to confess an acceptable form of brokenness, are like the Great and Powerful Oz. They’d like you to keep your eyes on the great and powerful aspects of their fallen nature, but will do whatever it takes to keep you from looking behind the curtain.

If I may encourage you, hear me when I say this; you owe it to no one, especially those who have yet succumbed to their own need for healing, to continue playing the tough guy routine at the expense of your own mental health and well-being. You are not required to walk the path of the stoic, imagining that by ignoring your deepest cuts that they will somehow magically close themselves.

In fact, in keeping with the title of this blog, I offer the following: You’re never going to embark on the best part of your life, your uncharted chapter, if you haven’t acknowledged exactly where you are in your story.  Even if where you are is so much worse than you’ve ever actually begun to let on.

We spend our lives pretending we’re just riding out a happy ever after, when we’re sitting in the darkest part of the saga. If this is the bleakest moment in your personal narrative, acknowledge it! If you’re Luke being fried by the emperor, Gandalf falling into the depths with the Balrog, George Bailey after Potter gets a hold of the deposit, then that’s where you are in your story. Period.

And these are the parts in the story where the plot takes an amazing turn. It’s only when things are seen for how broken they actually are, that the process of restoration and healing can begin. That’s where we find the strength to fight the good fight, where we allow other’s to see our struggle, and step in to help overcome the obstacles we’re facing, where we lean on power greater than ourselves. This is where we come to terms with reality and tackle it with every tool at our disposal.

This is the part of the movie where the main character is just about to lose everything, where they’re broken and bloodied and curled up in the fetal position, all hope lost. Then the friend sitting next to you, the one who’s already seen it, leans over and says, “Watch what happens. This is the best part.”

Stop Judging Your Progress in Days

I had a bad day last week.

I woke up with a familiar, though recently absent, feeling of anxiety simultaneously sitting in my stomach and resting on my shoulders. I was disappointed, not only that it was happening but that I had somehow let it.

I set out to complete my morning routine; journaling, prayer, scripture reading, mindfulness meditation, and a good cup of coffee. Each a part of a long list of non-negotiables I’ve come to hold myself to. Things that aren’t up for internal argument because I’ve found them to be too important.

This routine usually takes place in the early hours of the morning, when I’m all by myself. However, this morning, our one-year-old terrier decided she would also like to be a morning person. I gave her a bowl of food and sat down to begin journaling. Rather than taking her usual comfy spot on the couch after eating, and apparently being driven by some unseen demon, she proceeded to go door to door in our house and attempt to wake up our children. I couldn’t let this happen. My routine!

So I gave up on journaling for the time being and resolved to keep the dog occupied long enough for her to grow tired, then I would do what I could to salvage the rest of my morning. It was a total bust. She remained restless, and kept up the energy until the first sounds of a waking family came drifting down the hallway.

She was ready for playtime, and that meant the end of my time. Forget the journaling, etc… I barely managed the good cup of coffee. Then I felt mad, and then I felt embarrassed for being mad, and then I felt guilty.

Dogs happen. I should have reset my expectations, but instead, I settled into my disappointment. An attitude which manifested itself in subtle ways for the rest of the day. I was short with my family. Had trouble staying present at work. That anxious feeling that had greeted me in the morning continued to grow and grow.

The guilt over my response devolved into a sulky and low mood. Rather than chalk it up to a bad day, I did what I think we’re all prone to do. I took account of the day’s events, my reaction to those events, and cast my judgement. The progress I had made in the last year was a figment of my imagination. Nothing had changed. I was back to square one. 

And that’s the way we often view progress. We expect to see constant and relentless growth, completely devoid of pitfalls and setbacks. When the growth line drops a notch, it feels like it’s dropped all the way back to the same place where it started.

It’s because we’ve bought into the myth of linear progress, and I have to remind myself that it is indeed, a myth. An ideal state that exists in fairy-tales but not here in the real world. The idea that we’re getting better and better all the time, and that if we’re not, then we’re just as bad as when we first started.

Progress should never, ever, ever be measured in days or weeks, but measured in whatever the largest stretch of time is that’s available to you. Years are good. Lifetimes are better.

Last Wednesday I was kicking myself for being worse than I was the day before, but what would it have looked like if I had compared that Wednesday to a year ago the same day? Unmedicated, paranoid, emotionally distant, etc… Wednesday doesn’t look so bad now.

When you’re riding the ski lift of growth and healing and you feel the cable slip and the vehicle slide back, take a long look over your shoulder. If you do, you’re like to find that the base of the mountain is still reaaaally far away.

Growth isn’t linear. It’s a bumpy ride, with bad days and sub-optimal weeks. It encompasses days of depression, and periods of anxiety, in addition to a swath of other symptoms. In order to view these moments rightly we need to see them in the context of an overwhelmingly positive narrative in the pages of our uncharted chapter.

That is, if growth is your aim. You’re not going to get better if you’re not trying. If you’re just settled into the fixed mindset that any attempt at progress is going to just delay the inevitable crash back to the bottom. If that’s you today, then make the commitment that this year you’re going to take some small steps towards healing. Know that you’re going to trip from time to time and take an inevitable slid back, but you’re never, ever, going to back to zero.

 

 

 

Reflections on a Radical Act of Kindness

It’s the day after Christmas, and as is usual with December 26th, I’m a little bummed.  It helps to reflect on good memories, and the following is one of my favorites.

I used to work in downtown Tucson. Each day I would use my breaks to take a walk around the block. More often than not, these short excursions were uneventful. However, on occasion, something happened that was a teeny little bit noteworthy.

For instance, sometimes when walking past the Rialto theater I would see an artist/musician getting off of their bus. I rarely knew who the artists were (I’m more familiar with Muppets and 70’s era piano-rock icons), but I’d google the name on the marquee, confirm that who I saw was in fact the person whose name was on the marquee, and then tell everyone that I saw someone famous. One time I saw 6lack, told people in my office that I had seen “Six-lack”, and was made fun of for not knowing that the name was actually pronounced ‘black’.

Sometimes I’d see a car turn the corner headed the wrong direction on one of the downtown area’s numerous one-way streets, and listen for the sound of people honking, or onlookers yelling. Occasionally, I’d join in with the chorus.

Out of the hundreds of times that I took that walk, one thing I witnessed stands out above the rest.

Downtown Tucson had a large population of homeless, as downtowns often do, and it was that time of year when the temperature was shifting dramatically every evening. It was cold, or as cold as it gets here in the desert. One late afternoon, headed south on Church Avenue, I saw a homeless man round the corner coming from Broadway, headed my direction on the same sidewalk. He was barefoot, tall and older, shuffling his feet slowly. Soon the sun would set and the sidewalks he was walking would sting with the icy chill of temperatures approaching freezing.

A care drove past me down the one-way street and came to a stop curbside the barefoot man. The driver called to the man through his open window. “Hey there, what size shoe do you wear?” The man said something indiscernible. The driver then opened the door, took the shoes off of his own feet and handed them to the barefoot man before driving away.

I think about that act of kindness occasionally, and often this time of year. I share it pretty often. Different people respond different ways. Most people are moved by the uncommon humanity of it. Some are more cynical. i.e. the driver had probably just bought himself a new pair and was just giving his old ones away. Some acknowledge the goodness of the act, but remain rightly bothered by the fact that we live in a world where someone has to give someone their shoes.

I can’t presume to know the context of the interaction that I witnessed, wouldn’t try to, but I find it hard to imagine a scenario where there wasn’t something occurring that afternoon that was both deeply beautiful and remarkably tragic. I too, wish we didn’t live in a world where someone has to give someone else their shoes, but I’m glad that I had the opportunity to watch it happen when they did.

I treasure memories like this one. Life doesn’t afford us too many opportunities to be witness to real life parables. Events unfolding before us that strike so deeply they can’t help but ensure ongoing moments of reflection. In waiting for these stories to come to us, we’re at the mercy of the benevolence of others. The beauty here being, that it’s entirely within our power to create these stories ourselves, as often as we please and without hinderance. In doing so, we’re able to alleviate some suffering, live out the values that we espouse, and give others something to think on, even seek to reproduce.

 

 

 

The Hope Christmas Brings to Those Living with Depression

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

That’s how John describes Jesus in the world. A light radiating in darkness, and not overcome by it.

As anyone with depression can attest to, it often feels the opposite of scripture’s description of Jesus. Where Jesus is light shining in a dark world, but not overcome, depression is darkness in a dark world, where light, however bright, rarely seems to break through.

Jesus is called Immanuel. It means God with us, but even with that definition, I doubt that we can ever grasp the full extent of all that it means. In it, we see that the One who for all eternity has existed in unmatched Holiness would make His home among those who are unmatched in their ability to harm one another, to hate their brother, to seek ill-gotten gain at the expense of the most vulnerable. That He who had unending riches would choose to live in unrivaled humility. A derelict king, with no place to lay his head. That He who existed in all comfort would enter into much discomfort, and ultimately, unsurpassed pain.

Then what should keep us from believing that the same God who existed in all joy and peace for forever past, would not pursue us even to the depths of a mind that knows no joy? That can’t begin to feel at peace?

There have been times in my life when I’ve felt that should the extent of my hopelessness be brought to light, others would pull away. Or even worse, that the degree to which I felt incapable of lifting my head, would leave me totally isolated, even from God. While the former is an ever present possibility, the latter is laid waste at the foot of the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

There, in the recess of the burdened brain, as in Bethlehem, we’re met with the One who makes Himself at home with the spiritless. The hope that enters hopelessness. The light that overcomes the darkness, even where the darkness may never know that it has been overcome.

The Christmas season, for all its good, also heaves its weight on the most painful places in our lives, and sometimes in its merry-making, only succeeds in making painful things more painful. Illuminating the empty chairs at our dinner tables, the inadequacy of our pocketbooks, the foolishness of our misplaced hopes.

This Christmas, remember this. There is no place so dark that He will not enter into it. As the psalmist says, “Even in Sheol, you are there.” Know that the manger was not the last word in God coming down to us, but a first word in His never-ending pursuit of us. To the ends of the earth, and the crux of the crestfallen mind.

Pursue Your Own Healing for the Good of Others

I think back over my life, and I’m weighed down by the thousand times “It’s going to be okay” should have left my lips but never did. By all the times that my arms laid limp at my sides rather than wrapped around another human being. By all the times that I stood in the presence of someone mourning, and refused to mourn with them.

I have taken people whose backs were so laden with unimaginable burdens, and added the burden of shaming them for their weakness. Sat across from husbands and fathers who had lost hope, lost will-power, lost their will to live, and told them to get their shit together.

I have sat in judgement over those who had already judged themselves harshly, even as I sat crushed under the weight of my own self-contempt.

It’s easy to think that the most self-centered thing you can do is pursue your own healing. It’s easy to believe that by putting your time, energy, and resources towards seeing some of your own burden lifted, that you are somehow contributing to the burden of others.

You can say that people are made in the image of God, but then what image are you made in when you let yourself bleed out on the altar of self-sufficiency? You can say that others have dignity, worth and value, but prove it untrue when you deny yourself the very same attributes.

People who never give themselves the chance to heal, will always deny others the same. I think of the ones in my life who, when I asked for hope, gave me shame. I know that someone gave it to them first, because I in turn gave it to others. This cancer. This communicable disease of half-living.

You and I, we’re made in the image of God. We have dignity, worth, and tremendous value. If we hope to love people, let us spend the rest of our lives proving these things to ourselves.

The Socially Anxious Person’s Guide to Partying

We’re in the final stretch of the holiday season, and you’ve been invited to a thing.

Here’s the thing about things though. Things are often scary to go to, especially if you’re one of the 7% of Americans who are living with social anxiety.

For the socially anxious, the life-cycle of party participation goes something like this:

Invitation > Consideration > Trepidation > Participation > Self-condemnation

Further fleshed-out:

Invitation
Someone who likes your company invites you to their party

Consideration
You consider whether or not you’d like to attend. Maybe you decide to attend because you feel obligated, but more than likely, you actually want to go. You may be socially anxious, but in spite of your fear, you still crave the company of others. At least, that’s what my wife tells me I crave.

Trepidation
In the days and hours leading up to the thing that you were invited to, you ache with the anticipation that this will not be enjoyable, but painful. You ruminate on the given that you’re going to say the wrong thing, or you’re not going to say enough, or you’re going to say too much, etc…

Participation
The big day arrives. You go to the party. Everyone’s glad that you’re there. You make yourself sit through one of those games that puts the spotlight directly on you. You join a circle of people talking and make your contributions to the conversation, even when you don’t feel you have anything to offer.

Self-Condemnation
You leave the thing and before you’re even in your car, you start tearing yourself down for things you said, didn’t say, or even for feeling anxious in the first place.

If you’re lucky that’s the entirety of the cycle. Sometimes you go to a thing and someone at the thing invites you to another thing. This is known as Social Anxiety Inception (Not really, but it should be).


So what are some things you can do to lessen the burden of the plague of parties in the holiday season. There’s a few things I’ve done myself, and recommend:

1. Don’t go
Your time is precious, and your ability to function at the basic level is paramount in your pursuit of healing (See Getting to Zero). I’ve coined a phrase I tell myself that’s helped to keep me from becoming a hermit, “Isolation is the enemy”, and it’s true. Living in isolation is often the worst thing you can do when you have a mental illness. That said, there’s a big difference between choosing to not live in isolation, and attending events just because you feel that you’re obligated to. Again, your time is precious, and you may choose to use it in the way that’s best for you and your health.

A little something extra from my wife’s therapist: Ask yourself, is this a “Yes” or a “Hell, Yes”? Save your energy for the latter.

2. Tell yourself how long you’ll be attending
One thing I’ll do when I’m feeling anxious about attending something is plan to go for a pre-determined minimum of time. Maybe it’s thirty minutes, maybe an hour. After that, if I’m feeling okay, I can choose to stay longer if I want to. I often find that I do.

3. Know that it’s okay to step outside for a few
Sometimes parties are a total sensory overload. You got a few dozen voices clamoring for attention, maybe there’s a bunch of kids running around, or the music is too loud. It’s okay to step outside for a minute, or ten, or thirty, and re-center. It’s likely that the other sensory-overloaded people won’t notice you’ve stepped away, and if they do, don’t be ashamed to say you just needed a moment, or a lot of moments, of quiet.

If you feel like this could be awkward for your host, that’s okay. If you feel comfortable, talk to them before hand. “Hey, sometimes I can get a little overwhelmed at things like this. If I step outside, I want you to know it’s okay.”

4. Remind yourself that other people are thinking about themselves.
Most people don’t go to parties with the intent of judging others. (If they do, what the heck? Who hurt them????) More than likely, to varying degrees, they’re also feeling a little anxious. That’s part of the problem with social gatherings, they cause soul-crushing introspection. So try giving yourself this responsibility at the next shin-dig: Don’t be concerned about whether you’re the most interesting person in the room. Concern yourself with finding out what makes the other people in the room so interesting. You’ll find a bit of the weight lifted.


Lastly, I want to leave you with this. It’s okay to feel anxious about attending social events. In fact, it’s very, very human. Something that most of us share, but some just experience to a greater degree. You don’t have to love it. You don’t even have to go. The important thing is that you don’t waste your time beating yourself up about it, because it’s a waste of time, and like I said, your time is precious.

Getting to Zero

Shortly after being diagnosed with a mental illness, my coach/friend/mentor/obi-wan-figure, Steve, said the following:

“Most people are trying to go from a one to a ten, when they’re not even in the positive numbers. They’re at a negative seven, and they need to focus on getting to zero. We need to get you to zero.”

I knew exactly what he meant. I was a week into adjusting to psychiatric medication, on medical leave, and spending most of each day curled up in a ball on the inviting cushions of an overused la-z-boy. But here I was, talking to him about how I needed to start writing, how I wanted to find a higher paying job, how I wanted to be a better husband/father/leader, how I planned to rebuild strained relationships, and on and on.

His point was that those things, while good, could wait. Find a better job later. Focus on getting healthy now.

Nobody wants to be told that they need to get to zero first. Getting to zero isn’t sexy. There’s no montage music. No running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pumping your fists in the air.

It’s more like learning how to swim when you’re drowning.

I know what it’s like to be drowning in depression, and I have this deep-rooted fear I’m going to find out that you were drowning too and I didn’t know. I’m confident the chances I wouldn’t know are pretty high. Negative sevens are almost never negative sevens on the outside.

We spend so much time pretending to be what we’re not. As soon as we’re old enough to be socially aware there’s a tendency to present a “better” version of ourselves. We want to fit in, but the version of us that we’re submitting for approval is a farce. Like a haunted house with a fresh coat of paint and a perfectly manicured lawn, indistinguishable from the neighbors, but something’s not right when you look through the window.

It’s okay to focus on getting to zero. It’s okay to tell people you’re at a negative seven, or eight, or nine. It’s okay to direct all of your limited energy to just surviving. You have nothing to be ashamed of. No one to impress. Do what you need to do.

Get to zero.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why call it Uncharted Chapter?

There are three things I know of that a person with bipolar disorder cannot do:

  1. Get a pilot’s license (I looked into it after visiting an airfield)
  2. Get a security clearance (I learned this after I tried to get a job that required one)
  3. Be a foster parent (I found this out after my wife and I had finished the state required classes)

And there’s a few things I know that a person with bipolar disorder should not do, but I probably do most of those things.

I avoided seeking treatment for a long time, a real long time, and for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons was that I was certain that being diagnosed with a mental illness would mean the end of everything. It would confirm that I shouldn’t be leading others. It would confirm that I was incapable of being the father or husband that I had always wanted to be. It would confirm that I would never be as strong an individual as the people that I admired. It would just be the end.

Now, a year and a half later, I’m playing with my kids and being present with my wife. I’m enjoying work, even leading at a higher level. I’m actively living life alongside others. Still not able to fly, but that’s probably best.

Look, we’re all a little screwed up. I know I am. My hope is that Uncharted Chapter, while primarily a resource for those living with mental illness, would be a help to anyone who thinks their story is at an early end. It’s not. I promise. The next chapter remains uncharted.