Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
I have to make sense out of things, it’s just part of my nature. Meaning, I think there is a reason for most things. It is difficult, in this current crisis of COVID 19, to find any meaning. Still, I had to look within at my current state and past experiences to find purpose in suffering. Bear with me.
I have been extremely calm during this crisis. Maybe unusually so, but I don’t see another way. I have always prided myself on being calm in a crisis, and I’ve been in a few. When others are losing control, I have found that I come down further because it’s calmer heads that will prevail. Please, continue to stay with me on this.
I have been transparent about a lifetime of having depression, and the past several years, anxiety. Depression has taken me to some dark tunnels in my mind. The kind of darkness that I was unsure if I would ever crawl back out of and see light again. To make sense out of my depression, I often had to find how it’s helped me in life. I will say that it has made me more empathetic toward others. I am an empath, my therapist, and more importantly my wife, have confirmed that. Being an empath can also be difficult because it makes me feel the world, both good and bad. Depression has also shown me how resilient I am. When the hopelessness is so overwhelming that I feel I am dangling from a cliff with a rocky bottom, hanging on with two fingers, something within me pulls me back up on steady ground. I keep surviving over and over and that has inevitably made me stronger and able to withstand pain.
Anxiety has also taught me a lot, more than I wish sometimes, because the suffering is real. I learned through panic attacks and generalized anxiety that I can still succeed. I can function in the midst of terror and fear. I have had panic attacks while working with students. I have been in classrooms and cafeterias where my vision is blurred, heart pounding out of my chest, face numb, and the adrenaline is filtering between my ears disorienting me to the world, and I function. Panic has visited me while driving my truck and I still make it to my destination. It has visited me while swimming or paddling in the middle of a lake, and I’ve survived and made it back to shore. Anxiety has taught me to appreciate the times when I am calm. I am more in the moment, and mindful of when I am at peace and happy. I recognize happiness and live deeply because I know that anxiety will eventually return, and I will suffer once again. We cannot have happiness without suffering. It is simply a part of life. Fighting your suffering instead of welcoming it is futile. It will only increase your pain, so accept it, breathe through it, and move on. Resilience!
I have had losses in my life. My dad, an abusive man with his own demons, took his life through a medical suicide. My best friend took his own life. My sister died suddenly one day and changed my family forever. Another friend, a like soul in many ways, took his life by police. My father-in-law died way too soon. He was more of a father to me than my own, and to watch my wife suffer after his loss was the greatest pain. My dog, Payton, died after he got bone cancer. His loss hit me harder than any human loss I have known. This is no disrespect to anyone of the people in my life that have died, and because they knew me they would understand. Losing that dog ripped my heart out and shortly after, my world turned to constant panic. What have I learned through all of this loss? To love life! I live for the moment and want to experience the world. Experiencing death makes me want to be a survivor and have a meaningful life. Yes, loss is difficult but so is giving up.
During this current time, when I see many people suffering, I can’t help but to be calm. I am this way because I am hearing and seeing people become anxious about things that are out of their control, and I refuse to lose control. People are asking a lot of “what if” questions, and that is never helpful because life will then become a guessing game. I see some frantically hoarding food and items to clean their backsides, and they are thinking selfishly about their wants. I say “wants” because it is not all “needs” that they are after. If we started to think about others and have empathy, we would all get our needs taken care of ahead of everyone’s wants. When people get into this state of panic they stop thinking rationally, and they stop thinking of others. I have said that we should all pay attention during this time because people are revealing their true selves. Their character is showing, and you should pay attention because you will know them and their ideals after this crisis is over. Keep in mind that this is the anomaly.
On the other side is hope. There will come a time when this crisis is over and it will be because people have pulled together. A global crisis will give rise to the good in people and we will come together more than ever and stand strong side-by-side. We will find that the world is more connected than ever and together we will get through this. I just hope our memory is not short term and that we do not return to old ways of destroying our environment and one another. I have hope.
Yes, I am scared and worried about my family, friends, pets, coworkers, students, and the world in general. However, I will not let my worry cripple me or lead to acting on things that I cannot control. What I can control is my response, which is how I have survived this far with any suffering that I have endured. My response is to listen to the experts (social distancing, staying at home when I can, etc.), take care of my mind and body, and be there when others need me.
I hope that this piece of writing finds you well and safe. I hope that you will accept and embrace your suffering because it is a part of living, and realize that happiness will return. Build resilience and cope with your fear. I have hope for all of us!
This is from my book, Everything That Makes Us Feel, that will be published soon after I get through my second round of edits. I thought it was appropriate.
Sometimes our paths were altered to give us a new one to follow. Destiny wasn’t for the blind or weary. You had to look for it.
I remember the smiles at ballparks and warm hotdogs and fizzy soda; and men in white, pinstriped uniforms leaning over dusty bases hitting their hands against leather gloves. I remember the smell of chicken and dumplings lingering in the air after playing basketball in my gravel driveway and shooting what seemed like a thousand baskets with a worn out ball. I remember the warmth of my mother’s hugs as she looked down at me to assure me that everything would be okay.
I remember meeting her, just a girl at the time, and falling head over heels. Her laughter brought me comfort, her kindness reassurance, and her beauty took me to my knees. I remember taking bike rides trying to balance her on my seat while I stood and pedaled, holding the handlebars steady so we didn’t fall. I remember telling her, “I love you” and committing further to a future that was unknown. I remember moving into a tiny apartment with two cats and a dog, not knowing what we were doing, but laughing a hell of a lot. I remember getting married and feeling like I was the luckiest man on Earth. I remember always feeling fortunate when I am next to her.
I remember becoming a teacher and meeting my students. It was the start of something special and a life I wouldn’t regret. I remember figuring out pretty quick that my relationship with my students was the most important part of being an educator. I remember thinking the critics that think otherwise have always struggled with their own practice and need to refocus. I remember being confident in that thought.
I remember taking walks in the woods, and playing with a crazy German Shorthaired Pointer named Payton. I remember simple talks over bottles of red wine, and enjoying meaningful conversation more than anything. I remember friends that stayed with me, and some that left, and I still love them all. I remember watching my mom grow older and wanting to hang on to each moment and conversation with her. I still remember doing that.
I remember my anxiety creating a storm in my mind and taking away all rational thought. I remember it toyed with my reality and existence and captured my breath. I remember thinking that I was weak and not worthy of anything good. I remember my depression joining in the torment just for fun and to test my grit. I remember finding courage and developing more resilience than ever, and taking back my life. I remember the confidence that gave me, knowing that I could overcome even the worst thoughts that entered my mind. I remember that freedom.
I remember taking time to reflect on what is truly important in a time of turmoil. I remember thinking that it’s the simple things in life that hold us all together. I will always remember.
There’s a feeling I get when the depression gets deeper into my thoughts. I stop seeing light and there is only darkness, maybe a gray fog at most. It seems to surround my mind and imprison me. Only, these bars aren’t steel but a continuous dialogue that ravages me and breaks me down to nothing. That’s what I think of myself. Nothing!
If you have depression, you may know of this dialogue. It’s a dangerous, uncompromising voice that lies heavy on your chest and wants to suffocate you. It wants you to submit and become weakened by all the horrible things that it will tell you about yourself. It starts by telling you that you are worthless, and then it becomes cruel and tells you that you are a burden that is no longer useful to this world. If it’s convincing enough, you consider how you would produce your own death. You may think that your death would go unnoticed because who would care? You struggle to tell the voice, “Go to hell!” However, when you do that, depression hangs on tighter and becomes more cruel. Fighting is futile.
You may remember a glimpse of when you felt good. When you felt like you were surrounded by light. You may recall how your mother told you that she loves you or your wife caressed your hand and whispered to you that you were all that mattered. Will it be enough?
Many times, depression will not allow you to think of the times when you felt loved. It wants to take away all that is good in your life, or at least the memory of it. It’s a little bastard that rides on your shoulder and wants to ruin you.
Remember this, it’s not easy, but remember that you have people that care. They are there, standing in front of you. You just can’t see them through the muck that is your mind, but they are there and they want you to hang on. The depression will lift. You will find your smile again, and when you do, remember it for the next time that the darkness visits you.
I grew up in a house, at least from my childhood lens, that was one mixed with love and fear. I never knew which father would show up. Would it be the happy go lucky, joking around man that everyone loved, or the monster that would drag my sister across the floor, give my mom black eyes, and slap the snow shovel across my back? I don’t mention this out of anger or resentment. My forgiveness is intact because I had to heal and move on. I simply state it as fact because these events shaped us. I also grew up in a home where my mother loved me and my siblings with all of her heart, unconditionally, and with a protectiveness from a man that could go from kissing her one moment to throwing her across the room the next.
I write about my mother for many reasons. She is eighty and has spent a good part of the last three years in and out of hospitals. She says in her southern accent, “I’m like an old car, hon, my body is breaking down and parts need to be replaced.” I also write about her in regards to mental health because she struggles with her own demons. Most of her anxiety and depression comes from a mother who she doesn’t feel truly loved her, losing a father too early in life, being in an abusive relationship that started when she was seventeen (My dad was the first and last man she was with), and losing a child.
My mom was born in Alabama in 1939. She met my dad through an arranged date from their parents. She was pregnant shortly after, dropped out of school, and started having babies. Her story, at this point, is hers to tell so I won’t continue. However, I will say that my dad was a very handsome, charming man and I can see why she was attracted to him. Many women were when he was young. My mom will say she never regretted meeting my dad because he provided her with five children. See, my mom never got the chance to finish high school, let alone go to college, but I can say with my whole being that she was meant to be a mother. As you all know, that is the most important and difficult of all professions.
As a boy, my mom was like the air. She was the key to my survival. I don’t say this because she provided me with my basic needs. Sure, that is true but it’s so much more. My mom taught me to love by loving me. She nurtured my sensitivity as a child and somehow taught me to harness it in order to help others. She helped me grow into a man and be resilient. My mom has grit and toughness that passed over to her children. We are all survivors and we had to be. There was really no other way to raise us because she knew the kind of dirt life could throw at you. Giving up was never an option.
Growing up, especially in middle school, I could be a terror. I was suspended several times for fighting, arrested once for breaking into a local school while it was in session to fight a bunch of kids, and I skipped classes all the time. I was truant, stole from stores, drank, and chased girls, all by age twelve. Through my educator lens, I look back and realize I was an angry kid rebelling against my dad, but my mom stuck in there with me. She would patiently wait for me to get home, waiting on the front steps, hands on hips, and if I was one minute late I would get her “angry mom” look which would sink my head into my shoulders knowing that I disappointed her, but she never failed to say, “Goodnight, I love you, hon.” That love kept me going as a kid, knowing it was always there. My mom also had a different sense of justice than most. If I did get into a fight, she would find out if the other kid started it, and if he did, she would ask, “Well, did you finish it?” One time, I came around the corner at school and saw a student picking on a boy with down syndrome. I lost it and began bouncing the kids head off the locker. My sister, Charlotte, had a disability, so perhaps I was extra sensitive, but I think most people would have had the same reaction. After that incident, the principal was considering suspending me but my mom was at the school and told that suited man, “I raised all of my kids to stick up for those that can’t defend themselves.” I took a break in the office that day instead of being suspended and when I got home my mom said, “If he does it again, you have my permission to sweep the floor with him.” That may sound like my mom was encouraging me to fight. Not at all, it was what she thought was right. We defend the defenseless.
One more story. My mom was leaving to visit her family in Alabama. I was eight years old and hardly had ever been away from her in my short life. I couldn’t take the thought of her being away for a week and being with my dad, so I took desperate measures. I snuck into her suitcase and took a pair of her socks and stuck them in my pocket. I kept those socks in my pocket that entire week. I’m sure if the kids at school or my teacher would have known, they would have thought I was crazy. I just needed to be close to her in some way, and in my eight-year old brain taking her socks made sense. That’s the love that a boy has for his mother. I could feel her pain when I was little and I can feel it now as a middle-aged man. Perhaps my wife is right, I am an empath. It can be a blessing and a curse to feel other people’s pain.
My mom has been through a lot lately. When I was looking at her in the hospital bed reality hit me that she will obviously not be around someday. My mom and I have often talked about death, so it’s not a subject we shy away from. She looked over at me from her bed and said, “They haven’t gotten rid of me yet.” That resilience keeps her going. That’s how she survived an abusive husband and that’s how she survived losing a child.
When I see my mom, I don’t see an old lady who is breaking down. I see a woman who was beautiful and young and lived that part of her life to the best of her ability. I see an artist who expresses herself in paintings and poetry. I see someone who had dreams and still has them. Mostly, I see a mother, who has loved all of her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren with all her might. We, and anyone that surrounds us, should thank her for that because without her strength, I’m not sure the rest of us would have survived or even be here. She has sacrificed her entire life for us.
I am running down the trail, tall trees on either side of me. Six miles into a ten mile loop, my legs strong and steady. The spring dirt reminds me that life is coming back to the forest, blades of grass are starting to emerge, along with the wild flowers that line the trail. My stride is flowing and my breath controlled and then suddenly I am halted by pain in my chest. I stop my forward momentum and touch my heart to feel the rapid pounding. I cannot breathe, or at least have the sensation of not catching my breath. It’s the smothering, drowning feeling that a panic attack decides to bring as part of it’s arsenal.
I’m in the middle of the forest, a place that seems like time, or at least modern society, has forgotten. Perhaps, I should be thankful for this, as the trail is mine, but it saddens me too. I raise my arms above my head, take slow deep breaths, try to calm myself and get the anxiety under control. My knees buckle and I collapse. The cool floor of the woods feels comforting on my tired knees. I grip the Earth, begging for this feeling to leave my mind and body, but to fight it is only to fight myself. Going to combat with your own mind is always a losing battle.
I continue my breath work and after a few minutes, I once again experience calm and realize that it is truly a panic attack and not my heart. I begin a slow walk down the trail. As I look up it seems like the trees are all hovering over me, clearing a gentle path for me to follow. Ever since I was a kid, I have felt like the trees took care of me. Maybe that’s why I climbed them so often, hiding among their branches. My stride increases once again and I was back to running. With each step I felt better and then I started to laugh. Yes, I laughed at the absurdity of doing something so healthy, being in the midst of a great run, and having a panic attack.
My laughter vanishes after the next steep hill. Then, I realized what my running was all about. I realized what all of my exercise and writing and reading was about. I was leaving behind ghost. I was carrying their bones with me on my back and shoulders, only to leave a fragment of them behind with each step. I left behind my Dad’s abuse and cynicism. I left behind the sexual abuse I experienced as a child. I ran for those that didn’t make it in this world as long as me: David, Charlotte, Richard, Dave, Payton. I still grieved, but I was suddenly elated to be a survivor. As my arms pumped, I left the arrogance of the people I worked with behind and how they hurt me and others through their lack of values, and maybe a bit of my ego was left there too. I ran off the constant reminder of a benign tumor that is in my brain, and accepted it once again for what it is, a piece of me that I simply need to care for. I left it out on the trail that day, three-years ago, and never again had a panic attack while running.
We can leave behind our ghost, the ones that haunt us and drag us down. Certainly, they may emerge every so often and remind us of the pain that they caused, but remember the trail can help shed some of that weight. That’s the magic that nature provides us.
The Pain is Not the Worst Part
“We fear violence less than our own feelings. Personal, private, solitary pain is more terrifying than what anyone else can inflict.”
Here’s a secret of depression that no one likes to talk about. We know depression makes your mind become a dark cave that seems like it goes on forever with no way out. The pain that depression delivers to your brain and soul is worse than any physical pain that I have ever received. However, the pain is not the worst part, it’s when you stop feeling. When you sit in the darkness of your mind and have no feeling for anything, no desire, no expectation of yourself or anyone else. I can sit for long moments at a time and just stare. One would think that I have dementia or that I am daydreaming or in deep thought, which I am at times, but sometimes, when the darkness drifts over me, I feel and think of nothing. I just am. That’s the scariest place to be because that is when it feels like you might give up. Numbness!
Of course, you are still feeling something because even numbness is a feeling, so accept it, acknowledge the insensibility and realize it is impermanent. You will bring emotion back to your mind once again, but be prepared. After the lack of feeling returns, it can bring a plethora of emotions that can be overwhelming. Don’t try to fight this either. Breathe deeply, think about what you are grateful for, get some exercise, and be gentle with yourself.
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
For many depressives, the thought of suicide becomes a fantasy. It is something that crashes through your brain and leaves you with a high because it would be the ultimate way out of the pain. For people that do not have depression or anxiety, you will be appalled by that statement and perhaps think I am advocating murdering yourself. This is about doing the opposite. It’s about surviving and living a full life and finding hope. However, for people with depression and anxiety, the thought of doing away with one’s self is very real, and gives some respite to the thought of living in such darkness and pain.
Suicide will stop the pain in this life, but the pain that you leave behind for others to swallow is a bitter seed that stays stuck in the survivor’s throat and grows with time. That seed becomes rotten over the years and never leaves. It chokes you in the dark hours of the morning when everything around you is quiet except for your mind. I am a survivor. When I was seventeen, my grandfather shot himself. I didn’t know him that well but it never the less had an impact on my thoughts. It scared me. This man who I did not know, my father’s father, a millionaire, always seemed invincible to me. My dad’s death was a suicide. When you decide to take yourself off dialysis and die within a week, you are committing suicide. My best friend shot himself in the head, and another close friend committed suicide by cop.
Suicide is a subject that we avoid, but I have been worried about the welfare of a few during this holiday season. It’s something that keeps me up at night, so I say we better talk about it. Ask people how they are. If they do not respond just know that they might not have the words to articulate what’s happening to them. The depressed and anxious mind wants to halt your words. Simply listen deeply, without judgment, to the person who is suffering in your life. Your caring may give them the hope they need.
I wanted to discuss self-doubt because it’s something that plagues many depressives. As humans, we have all probably experienced self-doubt at one point or another. It’s something that can creep in your head in a single breath and weigh you down all day.
Self-doubt often comes from comparing yourself to others. We gauge our own success or failure by the norms in society or the workplace. For instance, if the norm of your work environment is screaming with negativity and you are the one that strives to stay positive, you may experience a great deal of doubt in yourself because you are not the norm. You are the outlier. Another example that a friend recently told me about would be comparing your life to the seemingly wonderful lives of those on social media. When you are struggling, you may see “friends” laughing with others, traveling, eating fine food, etc. This may be their truth for a portion of their lives, but I highly doubt they are constantly without worry, fear, sorrow, or any other emotion. My advice would be to stop comparing yourself and live against the norm. If you have the naysayers at work that are perpetually unhappy, stay guarded. Protect yourself at all cost and focus on what you truly value. The same goes for any other venue in your life. Be aware if you are falling into the trap of doubting yourself because it will just swallow you into a deeper hole.
Self-doubt also scratches at our mind when we fear failure. I believe that failing is our greatest teacher. I recently had a conversation with a parent who admitted that they feel they didn’t do their daughter any favors by never allowing them to fail. They always “bailed” them out. This caused her daughter to experience a great deal of anxiety as an adult because failure is a part of life. Her daughter has not developed the tools to be resilient and bounce back from setbacks, which in turn leads to self-doubt. Let your kids and yourself experience failure. Do so without blaming others and making excuses for the failure. Instead, reflect deeply and learn from it. This is how we grow and develop character.
Many people that develop self-doubt feel like an imposter. Their accomplishments can be pushed aside and they do not recognize their own abilities. You may feel like your achievements were a mistake. Keep in mind that the negative people, like the ones I mentioned earlier, can often make you feel this way because there are many that do not like others to succeed. They can become passive aggressive and try to bring you down. Again, protect yourself and align with like minded souls that bring each other up, not tear each other down. This is important!
Some things I have learned over the years to conquer self-doubt, besides protecting your positivity from the cancerous people that are inevitably around us, is to exercise, eat well, meditate, write, and simply be yourself. Love yourself for who you are and realize that you are good enough. You are living in the here and now and can thrive if you mindfully stay in the moment. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself. Your failures are your future successes. Just be a student before you are a teacher.
I have been writing about some of my experiences with depression and anxiety the last several posts. During that time, I received several messages from people telling me that by opening up I have helped them, which was my main intention with sharing such personal feelings and emotions. With many of these messages, I am being told how brave I am for sharing. I am not brave, I am simply on a journey to bring awareness to mental illness and break down the stigmas that go with this disease. It’s a journey, if you will, of self-discovery and truth. This is my truth, and I am not embarrassed to tell it, so there really is no bravery involved. I have always said, “Take me for who I am, or don’t take me at all.” It’s as simple as that.
With saying that, I am happy that people are connecting with my thoughts, and I would now like to share a post on what I have done to cope and build resilience. I am not a counselor, but I can share a lifetime of experience discovering what works to help with my depression and anxiety. Please keep in mind that this is my journey and you will have your own, but sharing ideas about how to deal with the darkness in a healthy way is crucial. Building resilience, being able to bounce back from adversity, is a must!
Some of my writings may appear like I am constantly depressed or being drowned in fear by anxiety. That is not true. I am ultimately a happy person that is grateful for the life I have, even the mental illness that comes with it. There have been moments in my life where I do feel like I am lost in the darkness of my mind or in the whirlwind of fear that anxiety brings, but overall, I live a happy life. The reason for this is that I have found ways to cope and recover, always trying to move forward and learn from my depression and anxiety. It has taught me a lot about myself.
I’ll attempt to break down what has helped me in hopes it helps you, too.
Exercise: I am a firm believer that our physical self directly impacts our mental self. There is plenty of research that states how exercise can have the equivalent, positive effect of antidepressants. I have been exercising since I was a little kid. I remember when I was seven, my parents bought me a weight set. I placed the weights on the tiny barbell, lifted it over my head, and fell straight back on the kitchen floor. However, I was hooked on becoming more fit from that day on. The types of exercise that I enjoy are: Mountain biking, trail running, hiking, strength exercises (mostly bodyweight), functional movement, boxing, jump roping, and yoga.
Starting a new exercise routine can be difficult for many. To me, it is a lifestyle. I truly enjoy exercising, pushing my body to perform, and the feeling it brings when those endorphins come dancing. My advice to those that are new to exercise or getting back into it is take it slow. You do not have to workout every day for an hour to reap the benefits. Even twenty minutes, three times per week will bring plenty of rewards. However, once you find a form of exercise that works for you, and it becomes routine, along with the mental and physical benefits, I bet you will make it an integral part of your life too. Try walking in the woods. The Japanese call it Forest Bathing. Being among the trees and in nature will help you become calm, rejuvenate, and restore your mind and body. I often go hiking and do a bunch of calisthenics and isometrics along the trail. By the time I am finished, I’ve had the experience of walking among the trees while breathing deeply and doing bodyweight exercises. Inevitably, I feel better at the trail’s end.
There is one form of exercise that I will spend a little more time on because the benefits are almost magical, and that is yoga. I started to go to yoga with my wife years ago and then I stopped for awhile for various reasons. Recently, I started my yoga journey again. My goal is to incorporate yoga into my other workout routines. When I step onto my mat and start focusing on my breathing and movement, I relieve my mind from dark thoughts and fears or the annoying issues of my work day. Yoga is a respite from daily life, but more importantly, it’s now part of my life. I love how yoga often starts with setting your intention or dedication. When I do this, I realize what I am grateful for and hold that intention throughout class. I often dedicate my practice to those I love and often to those that I know are struggling. When I am done with class, I am soaked in sweat, tired from holding my bodyweight up for an hour or more, and euphoric. Yoga is a gift to my mind and body. I highly recommend anyone suffering from mental illness to try it. However, give your yoga practice time because it is a journey, and the journey is the destination.
Nutrition: What we put into our bodies is directly related to how we feel. I eat mostly plant based meals for my nutrition. What does this mean? No, I am not vegan. I simply make sure that most of the food I eat is vegetables and fruit, followed by some lean protein. For instance, I fill a large bowl with plenty of leafy greens, berries, avocado, carrots, and a lean protein (chicken, pasture raised eggs, grass fed meat). I also have smoothies for breakfast that are filled with greens like kale and spinach, along with celery and cucumber, and then plenty of berries, fermented beets, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. I snack on nuts, dark chocolate, and fruit. I certainly have my vices like coffee and I enjoy red wine and craft beer. I love going out to eat, but I try to choose 90% of my meals in a plant based, healthy way. Again, what we put in our bodies is directly connected to our minds. Change your eating for a month and see the difference in how you feel.
Therapy: When I was thirty-one, I fell into one of the darkest depressions of my life. I had suicidal ideation, and if there is such a thing as hitting rock bottom, I was crashing into jagged boulders. This was the first time I decided to try therapy. I found a gentleman on the west side of Madison, met him once, and then decided therapy wasn’t for me. At the time, I had plenty of my own stigmas about therapy. I figured I was being weak if I sought help. I was a strong man after all and I could handle all of my problems myself. Well, this strong man ended up crashing harder, so I sought the same therapist out six-months later. I have been with him ever since. He has truly saved my life. He started to teach me about my schemas that he was recognizing, and now I am an expert on recognizing them myself. He also taught me about cognitive therapy, which gave me a deeper understanding of my thoughts and why I was having them. Recently, we have been working on acceptance and commitment therapy. Therapy was a gift that I gave to myself because it has made me more aware of who I am. I am now able to process the thoughts that bring darkness or fear to my mind and work through them in a rational way. I am thankful that I found therapy and thankful for my therapist. My wife has never met him, but she often states that if she ever meets him she will give him a big hug because she knows how much he has helped her husband. My suggestion to you is give therapy a try. Find a therapist and go several times, and then make sure he or she is a good fit for you and your needs. If he or she isn’t, keep searching. A good one is out there, waiting to guide you to your own deeper awareness of yourself. The hell with the stigmas of being weak if you seek help. My therapist is one of the reasons why I am stronger today.
Acupuncture: I started to go to acupuncture during the height of my anxiety. I was desperate to try anything and I read where a good acupuncturist may be able to help. I found a woman from Beijing, China who had an office close to my work at the time. She took a very different approach to helping me heal than my doctors did. I could certainly tell the needles were opening meridians and whatever else they did. I’m actually not entirely sure what she did to me but, like I said, I was desperate for relief. In truth, acupuncture did a lot to help with my depression and anxiety. It was also where I was introduced to tumeric, which I now take daily. I am a firm believer in taking a whole body approach to coping with mental illness. Give it a try! The needles don’t hurt.
Gratitude: During my horrible bout of anxiety a few years ago, the type of anxiety that made me feel like I was actually going to go crazy and end up in an institution, never to feel “normal” again, I started to keep a gratitude journal. I would wake up most days, read the writings of Thich Nhat Hahn (more on him in a moment), and write in a journal about what I was grateful for. I would hold my gratitude close all day long, remembering what truly mattered in my life. Being grateful can bring up all sorts of positive emotions, and wouldn’t that serve us all well?
Mindfulness: Again, during my months of intense anxiety I was desperate for relief. I happened to come upon a man named Thich Nhat Hahn. After I started reading his words and thoughts, I devoured and swallowed his ideas on mindfulness. It just made sense. Through his readings, I started to practice being in the moment because thinking of the past can bring depression and the future anxiety. The present is where we are currently living and the only thing we can control. Along with being in the moment, Thay (as the Buddist call him), taught me that we cannot have happiness without suffering, and if we deny our suffering we are denying ourselves, which will make it worse. Acceptance is key! We need to accept our suffering, be in the present with it, “say hello to it,” and then let it go. He also taught me how to breathe. Yes, I was breathing in and out daily, but I was not being mindful of my breath. I learned to breathe long and slow in and out of my nose, possibly saying, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” I have now learned to breathe long, slow, and deep while walking, running, practicing yoga, reading, working, and basically all day long. A simple thing like breathing correctly, has helped me be in the moment, relieve my anxiety and stress, and become more aware. If I am in a conversation with someone, I practice my breathing because it brings me into the moment and I am truly listening to them, and how often do we listen to one another with intent? One of the greatest gifts that I received from Thay’s readings and practicing mindfulness is the idea of impermanence. Nothing is permanent. Our lives, relationships, loved ones, health, age, the list goes on. This also includes our depression and anxiety. It may seem simple, but how many of you fear things that are truly not in your control because they are not permanent? Accepting this was key to coping with my anxiety and starting to live in the moment, which has enhanced the quality of my life. Mindfulness is a powerful coping mechanism and it will help you build resilience. I suggest reading, “No Mud, No Lotus,” by Thich Nhat Hahn. However, there are plenty of readings on mindfulness. I was lucky to find the master and be open enough to accept and learn from him. It’s amazing how someone that I have never met has become one of my greatest teachers.
Writing: I am a writer. It took me a long time to say this because I thought I had to be published to be considered a writer. This simply is not true. Even though I am now published and my book is launching in March, I have actually been a writer since my twenties. Writing short stories and poems and essays has always been a way to express my thoughts and ideas. As an educator, I have encouraged our young people to write and have tried to convince them that they have a voice and should get their thoughts out. Writing and expression are powerful! However, now that I have a book coming out, I do feel vulnerable. I am sure there will be critics but it is my story and my characters that I brought to life, so the vulnerability is worth it. Put pencil to paper or place your fingers on the keyboard and get those thoughts out of your mind. They want to come to life. Carpe Diem!
Work: I have tried to place myself into a job where there is less stress. Every job will have a level of stress, but I have been in some positions that the intensity was unbearable for the long-term. As an educator, I always need to emphasise that my stress is not often student related. My kids actually help my mental health because of the joy they bring and I feel like I am doing something worthwhile with my life by helping others. However, in education, you can run into many toxic situations and people, and that obviously can happen in any career field. Stay away from them as much as you can! The negativity of others will drain you and cause your schemas to go wild.
Simplify: I strive to keep my life as simple as possible. Material things have never mattered to me. Having too much shit, I believe, can add to your stress and hinder your mental health. After all, it’s just possessions that are impermanent. Declutter your life and it may just declutter your mind.
Travel: Experiencing new places can show you the beauty of life. Not all that wander are lost.
Love: Love as much as you can. Being in love can be exhilarating! When you find someone that loves you for who you are, it’s a blessing and will automatically make you grateful. I hear and see people in our society today, and I worry because I think that many have forgotten what love is about. It’s not about controlling another person, having a financial partner so you can buy a bigger house, or staying with someone because it’s better than being alone. When you find a true love, you will be excited to wake up in the morning to see them. You will want to experience life together and not just muddle through your days wishing for retirement. You will have your own language and know every contour of each others shape. You will know it’s a privilege to grow old together and appreciate the wrinkles as much as you appreciated their youth. You will want to be in their presence because you know that with them you are a better self. With love, brings greater awareness, mindfulness, and enhances your mental health.
Pets: Dogs and cats can be incredibly calming. If that’s your thing, get a furry companion. Dogs live in the moment, and if you pay close enough attention, can teach you about mindfulness and living.
Emotional Intelligence: Emotional Intelligence is how well a person can read and monitor their own emotions as well as the emotions of others. There are proven benefits to increasing one’s emotional intelligence, including improved mental health, better job performance, and better relationships. Emotional intelligence can be closely linked with empathy and allows us to better express ourselves and be mindful of others. I am a feeler. I have also been told that I am an empath. Because of this, my therapist has warned me to be careful when interacting with others, politics at work, and secondary trauma and compassion fatigue. Still, the number one trait of a good leader, spouse, friend, and educator is emotional intelligence. As I mentioned, it can do wonders for your mental health because you bring awareness to your emotions. For some, emotional intelligence comes easy. They are the ones with a great deal of empathy. However, there are others that will struggle to develop their emotional intelligence and become more aware of their feelings and others. These are the people I would be careful around because they will never understand you. I recently had a conversation with someone who said, “I was surprised how much of a feeler you are.” It seemed, at the moment, that they thought being a feeler and having emotional intelligence is a weakness. If anything, it’s helped me connect with others on a deeper level and understand myself more. As important as emotional intelligence can be, approach with caution because you will feel the world, everything that is good and bad, and it can drain you.
Sleep: I am still working on good sleep hygiene and insomnia affects me as it does many with depression and anxiety. Getting adequate sleep is crucial for coping and having the mental capacity to work on everything else on this list.
I have managed to build resilience and keep moving forward through all the muck in my life by practicing the coping skills that I have shared. There is a hard truth with depression and anxiety, and life in general, and it is that no one is going to come save you. You can have all the support and love in the world, but you have to be the one that picks yourself up and keep going. You are the one that has to put the work in to help yourself and seek help. I have always said that my depression and anxiety has allowed me to build incredible resilience, become more emotionally intelligent, and stronger. In many ways, I am thankful for the darkness because it’s taught me how to get to the light and be grateful of the times when I am happiest.
I will end with this, build your toolbox, your coping skills while you are feeling good because it can be extremely difficult and emotionally taxing when you are in the midst of depression and anxiety. If you practice your coping skills on most days, it becomes muscle memory and you will more likely be able to reach for the things that help you when your mind is telling you to fuck off. Instead, you will survive, and even thrive, knowing that you managed to pull yourself through an extremely difficult situation. Building your coping strategies gives you confidence to endure. Peace!
“My uncle’s dying wish – he wanted me on his lap. He was in the electric chair.”
My dad called me on the phone. It was the first time I’d spoken to him in six months. “I need to ask you something,” he said. His voice always made my heart rate go up.
“What’s that?” I asked. I did not want to talk to him.
He got to the point, which was his way, never any meaningful conversation. “I’m thinking about taking myself off of dialysis. I’ll be dead in a week. What do you think I should do?”
My dad has always had health problems, at least most of the time I knew him. When I was in tenth grade, he had bypass surgery. When I got home from boot camp at nineteen, he was getting his kidneys out. He had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, alcoholism, and anger problems. I figured his question to me meant he had given up.
What does a son say to his father when asked should he kill himself? Do you give an answer? Hang up? Do you take control back from the control he always took?
“If that’s what you want,” I said. “If you aren’t happy, then do it.”
There was not much else to be said. We hung up from each other, and I went into the bathroom of the two flat that we were renting and cried. My wife came next to me and simply rubbed my back trying to take the pain away. I told her about my dad wanting to die and how I basically told him to do it. She listened as she always had.
The phone call from my dad came to me in November, shortly after his 61st birthday, and on December 10th he was dead. I took off work the week that he was dying. It was a strange week. My family all came to the hospital and waited. My mom, who had left him three years earlier, was there too. I have a feeling we were all looking for something from him. Maybe we were waiting for repentance. Not my dad. You have to know that you sinned before you can repent.
We waited and watched as my dad began to die slowly. We sat around and all spoke to one another like this was just another hospital visit, possibly ignoring the fact that this man, who has haunted many of our dreams, was in the process of dying. I was waiting for him to say, “I’m just kidding,” and get up and walk out of the hospital. It wouldn’t have surprised me. I cannot begin to tell how many times my Dad faked heart attacks when I was a kid, so faking his death would not have been out of the question.
I wanted all week to speak to him in private. I wanted to ask him a list of questions because, you see, my dad is a cliché for me. He is a major reason for my depression. He’s a cliché because he was an alcoholic, abusive father, who has been in so many movies and stories, but this is my story and his abuse was real. I finally got my chance to be alone with him. It was the first time that I saw him in seven months. The reason we stopped talking was because I went to his apartment and threatened him. I did it to protect my mom. He was following her and stalking her. He never could accept that she left him. I think he just missed having someone to cook and clean for him, and he got pleasure from messing with her mind. See, my dad is also a part of my mom’s darkness, too.
Yes, I threatened my own father. I drove to his apartment, went in, sat down in front of him, looked him in his blue eyes and said, “You need to leave mom alone. Stop following her.”
“I’m not following her,” he lied.
“Stop doing it,” I said calmly, so calm that I think I scared him.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” he tried to be the father that he used to be. The one that could intimidate his youngest child, but this was not his little boy he sat across anymore.
“If you don’t leave her alone, I will kill you,” I said and got up and left. That was the last conversation I had with him until he called to ask me if he should kill himself.
So, my dad lay in the hospital bed eating a chicken dinner, and I knew I had my moment to ask him my questions. There was a short window of time left because soon his body would start to poison itself and he would not be coherent anymore.
“How come you never loved me?” I shot my question at him like an arrow to the heart.
“I love you,” he said.
“Why did you hurt me?”
“I hardly ever touched you.”
“You hurt me in many ways,” I said.
Then, something happened that I had only seen once or twice, he cried. However, he did not cry for me or because of my questions.
“I always loved your momma.”
My opportunity was gone. I would never find out why he did not like me, or why he treated me differently than my brother. I could not ask him why he would take my brother places and leave me standing in the driveway watching the car back out as they left. I never got to ask why he would hit me, either in the back of the head, stomach, or balls, when I walked too close to his chair. I never got to ask why he taught me how to fight, but never taught me anything else. He never got the chance to tell me why he didn’t want to be my father.
He drifted throughout the week until he was no longer awake. They put him on comfort care and then one night I was called while at a friend’s house and told that he was dead. The man that had such a controlling influence on my childhood was gone. Inside, I was conflicted whether I should feel sadness or breathe a sigh of relief. I’m still conflicted at times.
We buried him in a grave that is only visited by a few. This man, my father, still haunts me and I struggled for a long while to forgive him. I’m not angry at him for the father he was, I’m more angry for the father he was not. He was one of the smartest men that I’ve known, very handsome as well, but his emotional intelligence lacked and this was his tragedy. His ghost roams around me sometimes, usually at night when I cannot sleep, and I get mad at myself that I am still allowing him to have any control over my thoughts. I have tried to become the opposite of all he stood for, but I see his eyes everytime I look in the mirror. This is why in those moments of hopelessness; I want to destroy every mirror and everything that can show my reflection.