“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
With the help of this book, I not only want to write about what I did to beat depression, anxiety, and most importantly, being suicidal, but I also want to give you the tools to hopefully do the same. In order to do that, I need to explain what I did to change the way I thought about my brain, but what’s more important, I want to change the way that you think about your brain. We have covered how our brains are divided into two primary components: I named mine Jim and Slick. Jim is the spirit, the neocortex, the rational side of my brain. Slick is the flesh, the limbic system and the emotional side of my brain. It was imperative for me to make peace with these two sides of my brain, not as an impartial observer but as a very involved participant. I guess I was fortunate enough to have an inquisitive mind from an early age, and phrases like “beat yourself up” and “talk yourself into it” made no sense to me until I realized that both parts of my brain had equal votes in each decision I made. Psychologists say we have a conscious and subconscious mind, but I disagree. I believe that I have two equal parts of my brain that occupy different components of my psyche. One is emotional and one is logical. The standard paradigm of counseling and psychology is to use the rational mind to essentially manipulate or force the emotional part to do the will of the rational part. I lost that fight many times, so instead of continuing to battle each other, both parts of my brain have developed a partnership. I have to tell you; I’ve never been happier or more at peace.
In counseling school, we learn to use tools like mindfulness. We learn to tell clients to focus on the now: focus on the trees, and the smells, and the sounds around us. This tool is useful, as it is designed to calm down that emotional side that is either depressed or anxious. I decided, instead of trying to trick my emotional side into being calm, I would just talk to it, like a “rational” human being. I say, “Hey, Slick, relax, man, we got this. Check out that cloud formation, isn’t that cool?” If there’s no clouds to look at when Slick is having a bad day, I’ll ask him, “Hey, Slick, remember that time we went to the beach and watched the sun come up? Remember watching the pelicans soar just above the waves? Do you remember feeling the dampness of the morning air and the smell of the salt? Remember the sounds of the boats going out to sea? That was a great morning, wasn’t it?” Then we will sit and reminisce about all the mornings we have spent watching the sun rise at the beach. These fond memories of mornings at Port Aransas have gotten me through some very tough times.
I still used all the counseling skills I had acquired, but I used them with full disclosure; I don’t try to “fool myself” into compliance. I treat Slick with respect. I treat him as an equal, not a negative force that needs to be manipulated into submission. Hopefully, some of the tools I have used will prove helpful to you, as well.
Let me fully disclose at this point; I am a man with no children, and I am not married. I was married before. I have never served in the military. My solutions were tailored to my situation as a married man, and then a single man with no children and no military service. Having children, and/or a spouse has its own unique set of circumstances that creates its own unique set of challenges. Having served in the military also has its own unique set of circumstances that can manifest itself. My sincere hope and prayer is that some of this information will be of use to you in some shape or form.
“Make It to Midnight”
It may seem obvious that I would come out of the gate with this one; however, I have good reason. You have to make a decision—a decision to live and “make it stick.” When I finally decided to quit smoking, it was not easy. For years, I had quit and relapsed; it happened more times than I can count. Finally, one day, I decided to quit quitting. I was done. I decided I was either going to smoke or I was going to quit smoking, but I was done. What I did not know at the time is that when Jim told Slick I was done . . . it stuck.
Fifteen years later, I did the same thing. I had a talk with Slick and said we were going to live and that was it. When this happened, we were not on friendly terms, but regardless, that is what happened, and again, it worked. If I can give you any bit of advice it is this: make the decision to live. If that seems too hard, just make the decision to “make it to midnight.”
Tie a String
When I was a child (with ADHD) and my mom wanted me to remember something, she would tie a string around my finger. While I looked really silly with a string on my finger, her home remedy for forgetfulness worked. After I made the decision not to end my life, I needed a daily reminder of my decision. There were times when the days seemed exceptionally long and midnight seemed like an eternity away. I realized I needed something tangible to look at that would remind me of my pact with God that I was going to live.
For a while, I wore a watch set to military time. At any point in the day, I could look at the watch and see how many hours I had left to midnight. This actually worked really well. Other days I would set the countdown timer if I needed some extra help. Finally, I decided I needed something a little more permanent. Six hours later and $400 lighter, I had a beautiful tattoo on my left shoulder. It is a very ornate pocket watch set to midnight. At the bottom of the watch, I had the artist add the Bible verse Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I am not recommending getting a tattoo, but it worked. On the days when I was feeling like I did not want to go on, I pulled up my sleeve, looked up to heaven, and made it to midnight.
A recent study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has shown that people who lose a loved one to suicide are at increased risk for a number of mental and physical disorders. These include cancer, depression, herniated discs, and mood disorders. According to the study leader, Annette Erlangsen, PhD, “It is an exceedingly devastating experience when someone you love dearly dies suddenly by suicide. We were able to show that being exposed to such a stressful life event as the suicide of your partner holds higher risks for physical and mental disorders and is different from losing a partner from other causes of death, such as illness or sudden accident” (https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-03-spousal-suicide-affect-bereaved-spouse.html#nRlv).
I know that when I was contemplating suicide, I would think, “I’m such a burden, everyone would be better off without me.” This is empirical and peer reviewed evidence that your loved ones will not be better off without you. Please, do it for them. The first time I told someone how I felt was on a weekend when I was playing guitar at church. We were praying before rehearsal and the worship leader asked, “Does anyone have any prayer requests?” I replied, “I do. I am suicidal and have been for a few years now, and I do not know what to do.” You could have heard a pin drop. Then the pastor walked up and said, “What do you need?” That was the perfect answer. No one tried to fix it, no one offered advice, no one told me how great my life was, they just asked, “How can we help?”
Growing up, I was very careless, or carefree, depending on who was paying the medical bills. I rode my bike with no protection of any kind, and yet, I rode it like I was indestructible. I rode a skateboard the same way. I learned on numerous occasions that I am “destructible.” Every time I would fall, the same thing happened instinctually. The part of my body that was injured would be pulled toward my chest and the rest of my body would fall in around it. When I broke my wrist, I pulled my wrist to my chest and put my other hand over it to cover it. When I broke my ankle, I sat down and wrapped my hands around it to protect it. The same thing happened at church that day. I, a member of that church body, was injured, and the rest of the church gathered around me to protect me.
Ironically, when the pastor asked, “What do you need?” I had no answer. I did not “need” anything from them; I just needed someone to care. I needed to stop pretending that I was okay. I needed to drop my mask and shield and say, “I am hurting and I need someone to know, I need someone to care.”
The act of saying it out loud is life-changing. Find a person, a person who cares about you. Tell them that you may call them from time to time and say, “Talk me down, man!” Explain to them you just need to stop pretending for a few minutes. You need someone to say, “I’m sorry you’re hurting.” There were many times I would call my person and tell her, “I can’t do this anymore. I really want it all to end.” She would reply, “Do you need me to fix it or do you need me to listen?” I would reply, “No, I just needed to say it.” We had that conversation many times, and sometimes that was the totality of the conversation. There was something about saying it out loud that caused it to sink in to Slick. Once I realized that saying how I felt out loud made such a huge difference, I did it when I was alone at home, as well. I would be standing in my living room after a particularly hard day and I would say out loud “This sucks! I am tired of feeling this way,” and I would feel better.
There was something about saying it out loud that made it real. I believe it is the difference between rehearsing something in your head versus actually doing it. Occasionally, I will officiate a wedding for friends. I am always honored when they ask me to do it. When I am preparing for the wedding, I am eloquent, charming, funny, and brilliant. As soon as I stand in front of a church full of people and say, “Dearly beloved . . .” I turn into Quasimodo. I’m still brilliant and funny and charming, but Slick is in my head yelling, “get me outta here!” The same is true when I would ask a woman out on a date. In my head I was suave and irresistible; however, as soon as I would approach a lady, I was interested in and opened my mouth, something like “You have hair . . . I like hair” would come out. I was quite resistible. The point is, saying it in your head and saying it out loud are two very different things.
Meet Your Slick
Once you have decided to live your life, once you have decided that “making it to midnight” is going to happen every day, you are halfway home. The second half is giving yourself a reason to live. You need to meet your Slick and make peace with him or her. You need to embrace that part of yourself that you’ve been fighting against for so long. Before you do that, though, you need to know who is sharing your head with you.
Buckle up! This part is gonna be rough. You have to accept your “Slick” for whom he or she is. Sometimes this realization means that you have to accept some limitations. I know me, and I know Slick. I like to think of myself as a happy-go-lucky, life-of-the-party, talented, professional guy who can do anything I set my mind to. When Slick and I are in sync, I am that guy. Who I really am is a man who wants people to like me. I’m a man who crumbles under the silent treatment. I’m a man that will see a look of disappointment in someone I care about and naturally assume I somehow caused it. I’m a man who will hear a friend make a joke about something stupid I did and, while I will laugh at the joke . . . I will spend the next forty-eight hours “beating myself up” for being so stupid. I want acceptance, I want accolades, I want to be told I’m a good boy . . . I want approval.
There is a guy at work who buys a new Porsche every two years. While a Porsche is a beautiful car, it is not a practical car. He and I have similar job titles and responsibilities, so I have an idea of what his salary is. I know I cannot afford a Porsche, and judging by his constant complaining about bills, he cannot either. So why does he have it? He has a Porsche because he wants people to believe he makes more money than he does. He wants to present himself in a way that is not genuine. He is attempting to, with a car he cannot afford, dictate how people perceive him. I realized I was doing the same thing. I was trying to create a perception of being a “tough guy” and that is not who I am.
I remember one time when I was a kid I had a bad wreck on my bicycle. I fractured my collarbone and tore the soft tissue in my shoulder. I was thirteen. I wanted to cry but I did not. I “toughed it out” because I did not want my friends to see me cry. I was creating a perception about myself that was not real. Thirty-four years later, I am unable to sleep on my left side because I did not seek medical attention. Similarly, my attempts to be a tough guy in my day-to-day life caused its share of damage. Nothing caused more damage than trying to put forth a persona that was not me. When I coupled what other people expected from me with the lofty expectations I had of myself, I had created a recipe for failure.
For years, I fought against that part of me. The part of me I now call Slick. Most of my life was spent denying that part of myself that is real. I am a sensitive man. I am not a macho guy; I am not a tough guy or an alpha male. If I bump into someone at the bar, I apologize. If I see a spider in my house, I do my best to catch and release it unharmed. I feel guilty for things I have no control over. If a friend asks me for help, they get it. If I am unable to help, I apologize profusely. When I text or call someone and I don’t hear back, I assume I upset them. And you know what? It is okay. It is what makes me . . . me. What is even better is that there are a lot of people who love me for it. Once I accepted that I am not the person that I try to portray and I will never be the person others expect me to be, and started being the person I am, my life got better.
Weathering the Storm
Up to this point, we have talked a lot about how Slick and I co-exist. We have talked about us being equal partners in a lifelong relationship in my head. One thing that separates Slick and me is my knowledge of time. My thinking brain (Jim) is an electrical brain; it is powered by electricity, so as long as there is electricity, there is thinking, and as long as there is thinking, barring any unforeseen circumstance, there will be an awareness of the past, present, and future. My emotional brain (Slick), however, lives purely in the moment. The chemicals that Slick produces will fluctuate throughout the day; this is why we have highs and lows, good and bad moods. These moods are a result of the fluctuation of the chemicals in our limbic system. If we follow this line of reasoning, severe depression and anxiety, while they can last for long periods of time, will have moments of relief. Suicidal thoughts are most prevalent when dips in these chemicals are at their worst. What I found is that these “storms” will pass. If you can weather the storm until midnight, you will live to fight another day.
When I was in the midst of a storm, I needed to count on Jim. During these storms, Slick was flooding our body with chemicals designed to get Jim to do what he wanted. The problem was that when Slick was having what was essentially a panic attack, Jim had to take the wheel. There were times when Slick was in a full-blown tantrum. Up to this point, I have been a proponent of Slick and Jim co-existing equally as roommates, and I stick to that. However, there were times during my years of having roommates that one of them would get really drunk. One roommate, in particular, was an angry drunk. I would get him in the car after a night of drinking and while driving down the highway, he would put his hands over my eyes . . . just to see what would happen. He would kick the car out of gear and one night he even kicked out the windows of his own car. Despite acting like an uncontrollable child, my roommate was still my roommate; however, in his incapacitated state, I had to be the responsible one and get him home in one piece . . . and that’s what I did.
Similarly, when your “Slick” has been compromised by a panic attack or severe depression or medication withdrawal, or even drug or alcohol withdrawals, you will experience something similar in your own head. Your emotions will be wildly out of control. You will feel out of control, but remember, your “Jim” and your “Slick” are in separate compartments, and since they are in compartments, they can be compartmentalized. This is not an easy task, it’s difficult, to be honest, but with time and practice, it is possible.
For several months, I was experiencing serious withdrawals from a medication I had been prescribed—a medication that did not work and actually made my symptoms worse. The withdrawal symptoms presented themselves as severe depression with punctuated periods of clarity. These “windows,” as I called them, would appear every thirty-six to forty-eight hours and would last for an hour or two. It essentially was like living with a migraine headache all the time with brief one or two hour reprieves. It was during this time that Slick was in top form, before he and I were friends. He would tell me things like “You are going to be like this forever. You should really just end it.” Instead of ending it, I decided to track the length of the windows. I noticed over time that the windows were getting longer and longer. Instead of a two-hour window it became a three-hour window. Now, did the length of the windows really matter? Not really, because the times when I was in abject depression were still pretty horrible, however, what it did was give me a reason to live to the next window. “This window was two hours and forty-five minutes. I wonder how long the next one will be?” So instead of spending the next thirty-six to forty-eight hours in misery, I spent that time anticipating the next window.
As I tracked the length of these windows, I also tracked the length between them. Forty-eight hours turned into forty-five hours . . . then forty-one hours and eventually the depression subsided to the point where my depressive episodes may have lasted a few hours and my “windows” became the majority of my life. Now if I am depressed, it is because I have reason to be . . . you know like a normal person.
From what I found, “windows” are a function of benzodiazepine withdrawals. They may also be a function of withdrawing from other chemicals as well. So what do you do if you are dealing with these withdrawals? Find something. Find anything to distract yourself. Now you know that when I say “distract yourself,” what I mean is not to silence Slick, because he will be screaming at this point, but instead, give Slick something to focus on, other than the withdrawals. During times like this, I would go for a walk and practiced the mindfulness techniques of noticing every blade of grass, every insect. If you can find a bee or something to watch . . . do it, and do it for as long as you want. When I practiced this technique, I marveled at the majesty of nature, and I talked to Slick about everything we saw. You will feel goofy, but do it. While walking Tahoe, I have said to Slick, “Hey, Slick, check out this bee.” There was one time I was having a particularly rough day, so I went to an outdoor restaurant and ordered some pancakes, with the intention of just being outside and trying to clear my head. While I was eating the pancakes, a couple of flies started eating the syrup off the corner of my plate. I put my chin on the table and Slick and I watched them for what felt like hours. I am sure people were staring at me, but at that point, I did not care; Slick and I were in the moment and we were riding it out. Regardless of what the other patrons thought . . . it worked.
There is an old joke that asks, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is “one bite at a time.” If you struggle with suicidal ideation, forever is a very long time. Make It to Midnight is designed to make forever into “one bite at a time.” Like Mike said at Dawson Prison so many years ago, “One day is as big a bite of life as I can take.”
Know Your Limitations
To quote Dirty Harry, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” This is very good advice for people suffering from depression and anxiety as well. I do have some tips and tricks I learned when I was going through these storms. First, realize that your decision-making ability is severely compromised. When these storms hit, you will be in pain, emotional pain, and you will want this pain to stop. One of your first desires may be for some “retail therapy.” Do not do it! Do not make any big purchasing decisions while you’re in the midst of this; you will regret it. I remember when I was going through a particularly bad storm; I went on Craigslist and bought a car. I thought, “Hey I’ve been through some hell recently, I deserve a reward.” So I bought a car . . . a freaking car! Those little words “I deserve a reward” can be deadly. When the car arrived at my house, I realized what I had done . . . I had made a bad situation worse. Now I was depressed and I had a car I did not really want or need.
Second, realize you are emotionally raw . . . very raw. You need to share this with people, especially those closest to you. Trust me on this; it is far easier for your loved ones to support you at these times if they know what is going on. It is so much easier to walk in and say, “Hey, honey, my anxiety is at a ‘seven’ today, and I’m going to try not to let it affect you, but if I am a little punchy, please understand, it is not you. I’m just not feeling myself today.” Another thing that I’ve been told that has really helped my loved ones is this quote, “Sometimes, I need to go off on my own. I’m not sad. I’m not angry. I’m just recharging my batteries.” This quote has really helped Sylvia in that it alleviated her feelings that my need to get away was something that she had caused. If you tell those around you what is going on and what to expect, they are much more likely to be accommodating.
Something that is critical is that when you get over the storm, go back to your loved ones and tell them that you are feeling better, and be sure to thank them. This not only lets them know that the storm has passed, but that you are thankful for their support. Imagine if I went to Sylvia every few weeks and told her that I was going through the storm, but then, I never went back and told her when I was feeling better. The only conclusion that she could draw is that I always felt badly.
Recently I read an article in Psychology Today, which put forth the hypothesis that depression is contagious. I agree with their assertion. If you tell your loved ones that you are depressed and do not tell them when you feel better, they will not only feel badly for you, but they may feel as if they are failing you because of their inability to help you to feel better. If they only hear that you are depressed and they are unable to help you, they may become depressed themselves. The simple act of telling them that you are having a good day not only tells them that they need not worry about you, but it also gives them the sense of accomplishment that they were, in some part, able to help.
Bring Your Lunch
Earlier, I referenced one of my favorite chapters in the Bible . . . John chapter 6. In John 6, we see Jesus and His disciples sitting on a mountainside looking at a large crowd gathering around them. When Jesus saw the crowd, he asked Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus knew what he had planned, but He saw this as an opportunity to teach Philip, the disciples, and us about faith. Philip answered, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another disciple, Andrew, then spoke up and said, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Before we move forward, let’s pick this apart. Jesus asked Philip where to buy bread, not how, then Andrew answered with where to get bread but now how to get enough. This is, in many cases, how we view things, especially with anxiety and depression. We see the problem and we are unable to comprehend a where or a how to solve our problem. In this instance, Jesus is both the where and the how.
What I love most about this story is that Jesus uses a small boy to deliver the food that he uses to feed the multitudes. When Andrew says, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus then took the bread and fish from the boy, with his permission of course, and gave thanks, and distributed as much as they wanted to those who were seated. He did the same with the fish. When they had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that were left. Besides Jesus, there are three main players in this scene—Philip, Andrew, and the boy. Jesus asked Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat,?” To which Philip replied, “We don’t have enough money to buy bread.” Philip just told God that they did not have enough money. Have you ever told God that you do not have enough money? I know I have . . . and yet I always seem to have enough for my daily bread. There have been months when all I had money for was bread, but God has always provided. Next we see Andrew who does not have bread, but he sees someone who does. I have been Andrew on numerous occasions, especially in the depths of my depression. I have had moments when I was completely unable to help anyone, but I could point them to someone who could. Andrew did not have bread, but he had faith.
Finally, there is the boy. The boy woke up that morning, just like every other morning. He got some bread and some fish and headed out to hear this Jesus guy speak. He had no idea what the day had in store for him, but when Jesus asked for what he could offer, he gave all he had. This boy saved my life. I used to sit and imagine what it was like for him to just be sitting on the ground and have Jesus walk up and say, “Excuse me, can I have your lunch?” I imagine this little boy looking up innocently, without doubt, without hesitation, without any idea of what Jesus was going to do, and just said, “Here, Jesus, here’s my lunch.” I want to be that boy; I want his faith. In Matthew 18:2–4 Jesus says,
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
While I am in no hurry to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, I want my existence on Earth to mirror his. I want Jesus to take whatever I have and use it for His glory. Now, from a personal perspective, try to imagine what the rest of that kid’s life was like. He saw Jesus take his lunch and feed thousands with it. Can you imagine the pride that boy felt for the rest of his life? His life was defined by that moment; he is in the Bible! I want to feel that. I want to boast in the Lord as 1 Corinthians 1:26–31 says, because I am that lowly thing that God uses for His glory. How can I be anxious or depressed when God is using me to make the world a better place?
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
The point of this story is that we were all put on this earth for a reason. Ending one’s life negates God’s purpose for us. Sticking around will most like benefit those who will eventually need you the most. Let your affliction be your testimony. One day you will emerge from the Valley of the Shadow of Death and you will be a light to others. You will be able to serve the next generation. When Jesus was washing the disciple’s feet in John 13:7, He said “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” For me, that verse rang true for a long time. I was in the depths of my depression and I cried out to God regularly. I asked and begged Him to make it stop, yet I felt my prayers were bouncing off the ceiling. Then I remembered that verse, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” He was right; now I understand.
Hug the Cactus
In 2011, Robert Downey Jr. performed one of the greatest acts of love and compassion for a friend that I have ever seen. Years earlier, he had some problems with addiction and could not get work as an actor. Mel Gibson found out about his situation and gave him a role in a movie that was originally written for Mel. That singular act of faith and kindness restarted his career and allowed him to become the successful star he is today. According to Downey, Gibson did not ask him for repayment or anything for himself; he only asked him to pay the kindness forward and help someone else in the future. Years later, while receiving an acting award, Downey had the opportunity to choose someone to present him with the award. He chose Mel Gibson. It was at this time that Gibson was having his own struggles with addiction and had been shunned by the Hollywood community. While receiving the award, Downey said, “When I couldn’t get sober, he told me not to give up hope and encouraged me to find my faith. It didn’t have to be his or anyone else’s faith, as long as it was rooted in forgiveness. And I couldn’t get hired, so he cast me in the lead of a movie that was actually developed for him. He kept a roof over my head, food on the table, and most importantly, he said if I accepted responsibility for my wrongdoing and embraced that part of my soul that was ugly—hugging the cactus he called it—he said that if I hugged the cactus long enough, I’d become a man.”
Downey continued, “I did, and it worked. All he asked in return was that someday I help the next guy in some small way. It is reasonable to assume that at the time he didn’t imagine the next guy would be him, or that someday was tonight. So anyway, on this special occasion, and in light of the recent holidays, including Columbus Day, I would ask that you join me, unless you are completely without sin in which case you picked the wrong f——ing industry, in forgiving my friend his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate you have offered me, allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame. He’s hugged the cactus long enough.”
When I heard that, it resonated with me. I had been fighting Slick most of my life. I had been fighting against that part of me that I thought was my enemy. It turns out he and I had the same goal, we just wanted to be happy and at peace. It is amazing to realize that the lack of peace I felt was my choice . . . to fight against myself! As soon as I hugged Slick . . . my cactus, my life improved in ways I could not imagine.
You, or someone you know, might be dealing with something inside of you that you desperately want to change. It could be depression, or anxiety, or an addiction. Whatever it is, your spirit and flesh are at cross-purposes. In Mark 3:25, Jesus said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” In my journey, I had to—had to—accept myself for whom I was and where I was. I had, at a minimum, depression and anxiety; the rest was up for debate. Slick and I were battle-weary from years of fighting against each other. It took me years to acquire those two diagnoses, although I could see evidence of them in my childhood as well. It took years to get here and it was going to take time to get back to where I wanted to be. The first thing I had to do was admit and accept where I was. If I told you to take a journey of five hundred miles you would need to know two things: where you are starting and where you are ending. When you sign up for a class, or a college degree, or a trip, you get two pieces of information, the beginning and the end. If you and the college do not agree on a start date, you won’t be starting. If you and your travel agent do not agree on an airport and a time for your vacation to start, you’re not taking a vacation. Imagine if you got a job and the new boss did not tell you when you start or where to report, it would be a very short tenure. Without at least an acknowledgement of where you are mentally, you cannot effectively move forward.
Slick and I had to make amends. We had to learn how to live together, which meant that I had to “hug my cactus” and realize that there were parts of me that needed to change . . . and I am changing them. Through counseling, it was crucial to realize that I needed to dictate to Slick what I wanted him to change, and force it to happen. As you can imagine, that led to further division in my head. It wasn’t until I made him my partner in this journey that I was able to find happiness. I had to acknowledge that Slick had rights and I had to respect him, or we would both be miserable. In my life, I found that I wanted to do everything, and be everything to everyone, wanting to make everyone happy. There were times when I had to decline playing guitar at church because the stress of learning five new songs in a week was more than He was prepared to take on. I had to look at His situation and sometimes make difficult decisions of what was best for Us. I am a six-foot-tall man; I have a dog that is less than a foot tall. His legs are, at best, four inches long. If I want to go for a five-mile run, I cannot take Tahoe with me; he physically cannot make that run. I can attempt to drag him along, but that would be abusive. The same thing was true for Slick. He was exhausted and burned out from constantly working and going to school to try to get ahead. He just could not keep up.
Whether I was born with the chemical imbalance that led to my current situation, or it was thrust upon me, or if it was just my own poor decisions is irrelevant. I realized that what mattered was that I was there, sitting on my bed with a gun in my hand and had a decision to make. I thank God every day for my decision to “make it to midnight.” It is a never-ending journey, but it does get easier. Trust me on this, there comes a point where you look back at where you were and where you are now, and the road ahead doesn’t look so bad. There will come a day when you start seeing the beauty in the world around you. You will start to hear the birds again and even marvel at a bee hovering over a flower. In some ways, your “cactus” can be a gift, because once you have hugged the thorns off your cactus, your life will be better than it has ever been. When your “cactus” starts hugging you back, and your spirit lives in harmony with your flesh, you will enjoy the world around you like never before. There is nothing that feels like going from rock bottom to the top of the world. I’m not saying that you have to hit rock bottom to enjoy life, but when you do, even normal days are a joy.
Evaluate Your Life
There may be a gap or a canyon between who you want to be and who you truly are. I know in my work with addicts, once they admit the problem, they want the problem fixed now, but unfortunately, our brains do not work that way. The hard truth of addiction, depression, or anxiety is that it took years to create the situation, and it may take years to correct. One thing I had to come to terms with is that whoever was responsible for my situation, be it my parents or me, or an ex, or a random stranger, was irrelevant. Read this and read it again . . . if you blame someone else for your situation, you give away your ability to fix it. Now read it again. If you blame someone else for your situation, you give away your ability to fix it! An analogy for “fixing” this is the following: if my car gets nailed by an uninsured motorist, I am stuck with the tab. Does it suck? Absolutely. Is it fair? Nope. So I have two choices, either I just live without a car and complain about it, or I do what it takes to get my car back on the road. I do it. If someone in your past did you wrong and caused you pain, I’m sorry, I really am, but only you can fix it.
For me, the first step was to accept that Slick was totally burned out. My dog Tahoe is my best friend in the world; he’s very intelligent and very loyal. However, Tahoe has separation anxiety, and he expresses it by chewing up the blinds and door frames in the house when I leave him alone. One day, Tahoe had chewed up a door in the house because he was mad at me for leaving . . . which used to happen fairly regularly. Something happened with Tahoe prior to my adopting him that makes him afraid to be alone. I have to accept that about Tahoe and then we can start working on it. If I yell at him every time he chews up the door, he will actually become more anxious and do it more, or worse, he will begin to fear me rather than love me. It would be pointless to find the people who caused his separation anxiety, because he’s now my dog, and I have to accept him as the dog he is now. Tracking them down would do absolutely no good; in fact, if I showed up and started berating them for causing my dog’s separation anxiety, they would probably call the cops. So instead of blaming his previous owners, if there were any, I have chosen to accept and love him for whom he is now. What I have had to do is to accept this is part of him and work with him in love to show him that his home is safe. We live there together, and I will always come home. After coming home every day consistently for nine years now, his door-chewing has almost been completely eliminated.
The same holds true for Slick. Slick is emotional, not logical. Slick and I talk to each other, but it is not in a reasoning way; it is in a nurturing and reassuring way. When I found out the company I worked for had been sold, Slick freaked! Now I could have said to Slick, “We have had a job since we were fifteen and we will find one.” That is not reassuring; that is logical. I am quoting facts rather than understanding his feelings. Rather than pull out my resume and show Slick how we had never been without a job despite this being the ninth company to close out from under us, I acknowledged and validated his feelings. I said, “Slick, this sucks (validation).” Then I said, “We will get through this, we always have. I know it is harder now that we are single and older, but we planned for this. We saved for this, we are ready for this (reassurance).”
Why do I talk to slick this way? Jim, my logical brain, already knows this information, but Slick does not deal in information, he deals in emotion. He is afraid for our future, and if I (Jim) were to invalidate his feelings and then essentially yell at him for feeling that way, I am harming myself. Have you ever heard of the phrase “beating yourself up”? Well, that is exactly what you are doing, and by doing so, you’re making a bad situation worse. When my Slick heard that the company we worked for was closing, he panicked. Fortunately, I had been practicing the principles in this book, so while we got nervous for a little while, we quickly resolved it. This company closing situation is happening right now. I will be without a job in less than a month, and despite having all the diagnoses I have, I’m good with it. I am concerned about it, but to an appropriate degree. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what freedom feels like. No matter what happens, Slick and I will be fine.
One of my diagnoses is attention deficit disorder. I struggle with it constantly. What ADD, by definition, means is that your attention is elsewhere. Well, honestly, that can be caused by just about anything. For example, if you are having an anxiety attack at the store and you leave your wallet on the counter, try your best not to “beat yourself up” over it. What happened was that your Slick was in some sort of distress when you were at the store. You were expending your energy to either try to calm him down, or more likely you were expending most of your energy putting on a front so no one around you knew you were having an anxiety attack. Either way, your logical brain was focusing on something other than where your wallet was. The worst thing you can do at this point is to get angry at yourself and tell yourself you’re stupid or incompetent. Your emotional brain is already in distress; why would you want to add to that? Just tell your Slick, “Hey, these things happen, we will go back and get it. Hopefully someone took it to the lost and found.” The point is, do not wish for what isn’t; accept what is.
One example of this is when I talk with someone with depression and they all say the exact same thing: “I don’t know why I’m depressed; so many people are so much worse off than I am, and yet they are happy.” That is the absolute worst thing you can say to yourself. Why? Well, let’s break that sentence down to its essence. What you are really telling yourself is that you are weak and that you are not strong enough to handle what life has thrown at you. This is not true. As anyone with depression or anxiety knows . . . we are definitely not weak. Depression has nothing to do with how successful you are emotionally, financially, or relationally. If that was the case, there would be no rich, successful, or married people struggling with depression. Instead of telling yourself that you should feel better because you are better off than others, why not express gratitude to God for what he has given you, then accept who you are and where you are right now.
I volunteered with a dog rescue for several years in South Texas. My job at this rescue was to take dogs who had been adopted in one city to their new home in a different city. I got a call one weekend to pick up a basset hound in Waco and transport him to Austin. I got to Waco and picked him up. His name was Red; he was a big red basset hound who was as sweet as could be with a great disposition. The lady at the shelter handed me a single piece of paper with Red’s history and everything anyone knew about this sweet dog was on that one piece of paper. There was not a lot—just his breed, estimated age, and a few shot records. According to his history, the reason for his being at the shelter was “owner surrender/possible neglect.” This broke my heart. Who could do this to such a sweet dog? I pulled out of the parking lot with Red. Before I got to the highway, I heard him snoring in the back seat. I was amazed! How could this dog who had no idea who I was, and no idea where he was going, be so relaxed as to fall asleep in my car in under a minute? I was actually envious of Red at this point. What I came to realize on the drive is that Red was happy and relaxed because where he was now was better than where he had been. Next time you compare yourself to someone who is homeless or in what you consider a bad situation and decide you are envious because they appear happier than you are, remember, it could be as simple as where they are now is better than where they were.
When you tell yourself you should feel better because other people are living in a less desirable situation than you, you are, in essence, scolding your Slick. You are telling that child inside of you that he or she is broken. Something that is really interesting about mental illness is that we assume all people are created equal. We do that in no other arena of the human condition. We gauge each other by our diversity. We compare ourselves to each other and categorize ourselves based on height, weight, eye color, ethnicity, and socioeconomic standards. We compare our neocortices with IQ tests, but we do not do this with our emotions. If human IQs can vary so widely from intellectually disabled to genius, why do we not classify emotions in the same way? We try to with certain assessments in the mental health field, but those assessments are generally given after you walk into the clinic. What about the people who never visit the clinic?
Einstein is credited with saying, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I believe the same is true for our emotions. We are not all created equally. I had the opportunity to work as a trainer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). I am a very smart guy; I was a member of Mensa. I went to JPL and immediately realized I was not the smartest one in the room. I am not a rocket scientist, and there’s a good chance you are not either. I can say that I do not have the intellectual ability to be a rocket scientist. I am smart, but they are smarter. That was an assessment I made about myself. This realization did not make me feel deficient; it just is. People are very willing to accept their physical and intellectual differences. Those of us who are less than six feet, five inches tall are usually willing to accept that we will not play in the NBA. However, we do not call that a “height disorder.” Those of us who do not score in the top percentiles of standardized tests accept the fact that medical school is probably not in our future; however, we do not refer to ourselves as “intellectually deficient.” Just because we do not possess the emotional capacity to do something does not mean we have a disorder any more than it means you are mentally deficient because you are not a rocket scientist. It is how you are made; God made you the way you are for a reason.
Try to imagine the world that God created us in. He created us in a hostile world. The Bible is replete with God’s people going to battle. However, declaring war in biblical times was not the same as it is now. In biblical times, the invading army would set up camp in the country they wanted to invade. They would send in an emissary to negotiate terms of coexistence or surrender. If negotiations failed, then a war would ensue. The invading army and the defending army needed three types of people to be successful. They needed a leader, someone who represented the army. This person needed to be a gifted negotiator. Secondly, the army needed soldiers. These soldiers needed to be warriors. They needed to be aggressive, driven by competition, and skilled in battle. Finally, the army needed support. This support came in the form of compassionate people who were skilled in healing. I am not a leader, even though I am a very intelligent man. I am not a warrior, even though I am physically strong. I am compassionate. I am built to help people heal. However, before I could heal others I had to follow Luke’s advice in Luke 4:23: “Physician, heal thyself.”
One of my “attributes” is that I am not comfortable with uncertainty. I am not the guy who can just quit his job and run off to Thailand just because I want an adventure. I envy that guy, but I am not that guy. Slick needs stability. Slick needs a steady income stream. Many people see that as a weakness and something I need to change. People will tell me, “You need to become more comfortable with uncertainty.” This reminds me of an episode of the Tyra Banks show (don’t judge me). In this episode, Tyra was facing her phobia of dolphins. She forced herself to get in a pool with dolphins and was in abject panic the entire time. Was she facing her fear or just torturing her limbic system? I kept thinking, “Hey, Tyra, dolphins are fairly easy to avoid . . . how about just not going where the dolphins are.” I accepted that Slick does not like uncertainty, so I do my best to avoid it, pretty simple. I used to try to “face my fears.” I then realized my fears are designed to help me. They are placed in my life to teach me what God designed me for. Some people see their fears as hurdles to overcome; I see them as guardrails to keep me on the path God has laid out for me.
Social media is overflowing with people, mostly celebrities, who are preaching the gospel of facing your fears, jumping off, quitting your dull life and chasing your dreams. I am all for doing those things. The implication is that you are a failure if you do not leave your comfortable life and chase your dreams. Jim Carrey delivered an amazing college graduation speech where he recounted his father being laid off as an accountant. He said, “You can fail at what you hate, or you can fail at what you love.” Again, I would love to be the guy who quits his comfy IT job and runs off to follow my dreams. However, emotionally, I am not built to do that. I believe most people who suffer from mental illness are also not equipped to make that leap. If they (we) were, there would be a lot more comedians. I am not discouraging you or myself for not following my dreams; I am encouraging you to not think less of yourself if you choose a safe career. Asking me to jump to a new career during the depths of my depression would be like asking the survivors of the Titanic to swim the English Channel. It is not that we are weak; we have just been strong for too long. One of Freud’s less famous quotes is “If you can’t do it, give up!”
The flipside to this scenario is when people with depression or anxiety pursue their dreams in an effort to counteract their affliction. As I am writing this part of the book, I am on vacation in Thailand. I may not be the guy who quits his job and moves to Thailand, but I will definitely vacation here. Last night, I was walking around the streets of Bangkok, and I saw a legless man lying facedown on the sidewalk. He had a small bowl on the ground in front of him for passersby to drop change into. As I walked by (and dropped twenty baht into his bowl), I could not help but think about the daily struggle of this man. What I am going to write next may sound cold and calloused, but that is not my intention. I am merely dissecting suicidal ideation from a completely objective point of view. If I look at this man on the sidewalk, logically I could make the argument that he is a candidate for suicide. He has no legs, no job, and from all indications, no chance to change either of those circumstances . . . and yet he makes his way to his spot on the sidewalk every day surviving on the generosity of others.
Contrast that with an article I read recently, “A 47-year-old financial company executive was killed Wednesday when he jumped from a luxury apartment building on the Upper West Side, authorities said.” We have a man who is most likely a multimillionaire living in the very definition of luxury who chooses to end his life and a man with no job, no home and no hope who fights and literally crawls on the sidewalk each day to survive. Society would be tempted to call one man weak for ending his life while calling the other man brave for struggling to survive. They would most likely applaud the man on the street in Bangkok for his tenacity and perseverance in the face of such adversity. If his story reached the west, I have no doubt that several fundraising campaigns would spring to life to assist this man, to which I would happily donate. Contrast that with the executive who chose to end his life. I am sure the response to that would not be as understanding. I would expect the responses to be laden with confusion as to how a man who had reached the pinnacle of financial and vocational success could have chosen to take his own life. When people talk about a person who has ended their own life they often say “He took the easy way out” or “He just passed his problems onto someone else” or “How could he do this to his family?”
Allow me to rewrite the story briefly. Today I saw a legless man on a Bangkok street begging for change. I marveled at his tenacity and perseverance in the face of such adversity. When I returned to my hotel, I read an article that began “A 47-year-old financial company executive was pronounced dead on Wednesday when had a massive heart attack in his luxury apartment on the Upper West Side, authorities said.” See the difference? I even see the bias in the wording of the article. The use of the words “luxury apartment” biases the reader to view the man as privileged, further perpetuating the notion that people who choose suicide are weak. When a person dies from an identifiable disease such as cancer or heart disease, regardless of socioeconomic status, they are mourned. When a person of privilege or success dies of suicide, they are viewed with derision. What is even more disturbing is later in the article we read, “Oh my God, another one?” he said in disbelief. “Somebody committed suicide a few months ago . . . on the other side of the building. I can’t believe it. It’s almost exactly the same thing, but just around the side.” So two people who live in exclusive New York apartments decide to commit suicide within months of one another and crippled beggars in Bangkok struggle to survive day after day, year after year. Quite a juxtaposition.
Let me offer an alternate hypothesis. I believe, based on personal experience, that the successful person who commits suicide (as I am a successful person who almost did) is born with a predisposition for depression. That person who is born with this predisposition spends their entire life looking for ways to combat their sadness. One way they choose to combat their depression is to attempt to achieve financial and vocational success. They (we) believe that by achieving this success we will feel accomplished and no longer depressed. This makes complete sense as our limbic system is designed to reward success with the feel good chemical dopamine. The successful hunter in ancient times received dopamine after a successful hunt as an encouragement to achieve that success again just as the successful salesman will receive dopamine after closing a big sale. What happened to me, and what I believe happened to the two people who ended their lives in New York, was that they always had depression and suicidal thoughts. They attempted to assuage those proclivities through financial success. They lived their lives with the completely logical belief that when they achieved their goal their depression would subside. When they reached their goal and the depression was still present they came to the conclusion they would never be free from depression . . . so they chose to free themselves.
Instead of the article reading, “A 47-year-old financial company executive was killed Wednesday when he jumped from a luxury apartment building on the Upper West Side, authorities said.” We could rewrite the article and the paradigm to read more like, “A 47-yearold financial company executive lost his battle with depression on Wednesday when he jumped from a luxury apartment building on the Upper West Side, authorities said.”
Another assessment I had to make about myself is that I do not have the emotional capacity to be a manager or executive. I’m not going to say I have an “anxiety disorder,” I just do not possess the ability to withstand the stress that is thrust upon someone who is in charge of a business. I know that Slick would be in a constant state of panic every day. He would constantly worry about the business, the employees, whether I was a good manager or not? That is the way he is built. I have the intellectual capacity to be a CEO, but not the emotional capacity. I am not an emotionally weak person, but I am an emotionally sensitive person. I am far more suited to be an employee rather than a leader; that is where my emotional strength lies.
After I received my bachelor’s degree in economics in 1995, I became a stock broker. This meant I was in sales, and by extension, I would be living on commission. My father was in sales most of my life, so I was no stranger to the ups and downs of commission sales. My father was an excellent salesman and did very well, so there was no reason for me to think I would not excel in this field. Slick disagreed. As soon as I started selling, Slick began voicing his doubts. Finally, Slick won the battle and I pursued a career in computers. Let me be clear: I did not fail as a salesperson. I actually did very well, but the stress of not having a steady income was more than I was willing to accept. I was not emotionally built to be in sales. I could have fought against Slick and forced myself to continue, and while I may have been financially successful, I would have been emotionally miserable.
Many of us are in careers we are not emotionally built for. Just because you are good at math does not mean you enjoy it. Just because you are the top salesman does not mean that you are happy. If there is one word I wish I could remove from the English language, it is the word “should.”
“Oh, you’re good at math, you should be an accountant.”
“Oh, you like kids, you should be a teacher.” I am not going to tell you what I believe you should or should not do, but I will tell you this, when I asked Slick what he wanted to do and actually listened, I became a lot happier. Several of my friends have asked me over the years, “Hey, why aren’t you in management by now?” They ask me like it is expected. Like there is an unwritten career path for all people in my industry. Slick showed me his boundaries, and I respected them. He is not able to accept the stress that comes with sales and living on commission. He is not able to disassociate enough to be in a management position. Slick is not someone who can say, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” Some people are able to do that, but I cannot.
Sylvia is an intellectual woman. She holds a PhD in education. She is a wonderful writer, and she is extremely knowledgeable about literacy and how best to help children acquire their knowledge of it. Sylvia previously worked as a reading specialist for an elementary school and, after graduating with her PhD, it seemed logical that her next step “should” be to pursue a career in higher education. As luck would have it, she was able to secure a position as a professor at a local university. It was during this year that she found out some things about herself: first, she enjoyed the teaching aspect of this career. She thrived on her ability to help her students learn the practical application of the theory on which she lectured. Second, she completely disliked the university’s expectation to publish research and basically, “Write on demand.”
After months of reflection, Sylvia has decided to return to her former career of reading specialist, with a newfound understanding that working with children and their teachers is where she feels her heart, as well as her ability to most effect change lies. This was not an easy decision for her to make. As she has said to me in many of our discussions, “You get a PhD to teach at the college level and to make your word known to a larger audience, contributing to the educational community in ways that you are not able to at the public school level. I should want to do this. Something must be wrong with me that I don’t see myself in higher education.” Is Sylvia intelligent enough to continue on the road of university professor? Absolutely. Does she want to? Without a shadow of a doubt, she knows that she is not built for the university. At this time, she is in the process of coming to terms with the fact that she is not emotionally built for this type of career.
Military snipers have a saying, “You can run, but you will only die tired.” The same holds true for our emotional selves. I can run from the reality that Slick has limitations, but I will only die tired. Those of us who are more emotionally sensitive (I am going to stop saying anxiety disorder or depression) are blessed with the ability to know what is a good fit for us and what is not. What we have to do is listen to what our Slick says and then make a decision based on all the information. If I am good at math, but Slick hates math, we will not be happy. If I am a very social IT person, many would say I “should” go into management. I tried it, and Slick hated it. The stress was too much for him. Rather than force Slick to go into management, I accepted his input, and I am not in management. Just because someone is financially or vocationally successful, does not mean they are emotionally successful. I will take emotional success over financial and vocational success any day.
If You’re Going through Hell . . . keep going!
Our limbic system is wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. It is built to encourage us to continue behaviors that keep us alive and further the species. This is why dogs will learn tricks for treats; a dog learns that if he sits when his person says “sit,” he will get a treat . . . so he sits. What do you suppose would happen if the dog was punished for sitting then punished for standing, then punished for lying down? The dog would be confused and probably anxious and depressed. Following that logic, what do you think our limbic system, which is remarkably similar to a dog’s brain does when we are going through rough times? When we go through hell, no matter what we do, it seems to be the wrong thing. Misery is waiting around every corner. If we go to work, we are depressed, if we stay home, we are depressed, if we go to a concert, we are depressed . . . nothing we do seems to make it stop, so we do what a dog would do—nothing. You may have a desire to sleep all day because life is painful. You may have the desire to withdraw from society and stay at home as much as possible because nothing but pain awaits you. Please fight that temptation because the only thing worse than going through hell is staying there.
The problem with going through tough times is that we never know how long the tough times will last. We never know how long the “through” is going to be. However, if we adopt a “make it to midnight” attitude and just do that . . . just make it to midnight every day . . . you can declare victory every day at 12:01 am! Every day is a victory because you made it!
I know you may be thinking, “Jim, it’s harder than that.” Yeah, it is, making it through twenty-four hours in constant pain is not for the weak, but it is possible. The reason I stuck so steadfastly to the “make it to midnight” mantra is because I could inventory what I needed for that day and put my anxiety at a little bit of ease. Remember what I said before; anxiety had robbed me of my future and depression had stolen my past. Let’s focus a moment on anxiety. For me, it’s fear of the future, fear that I will not be able to pay my bills, fear that I will not be able to take care of myself in the future. This is, by no means, an irrational fear; we all get older and we will all need money and other people to survive. But if you have food and water for today, then try to focus on that. “Make it to midnight” is a total mind-set, it’s a mind-set based on your ability to just make it to midnight. I have a tattoo on my right shoulder that has this verse in it, Matthew 6:34, which says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” I live that every day.
Our Daily Bread
One of the great things about Jesus is His clarity. In Matthew 6 Jesus tells us how to pray . . . He tells us exactly how to pray.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”
Back in 1994, I was homeless for a while. I had made a series of bad decisions, and I ended up living in an empty building in Austin, Texas, with a bunch of other people. While I was not proud of the title “homeless,” I chose the moniker “residentially challenged.” I always thought that being homeless was the worst thing that could happen to a person, and for many people it is, but for me, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I was free, and above all, I was happy. I was also in my early twenties and had no children to support so that helped a lot. What surprised me the most is that I was living with people, many of whom chose to be homeless! You may be asking, “Why would anyone choose to be homeless?” They did not want to follow anyone else’s rules. They lived life one day at a time.
There was a guy named Black who lived in the building with me. I never knew his real name, but he chose to be called Black. I asked him why he chose that name and he said that depressed people feel a darkness inside and he never wanted to feel that way, so he decided to name himself Black as a reminder of how he never wanted to feel. He called me Squirrel, for some reason; I thought it was better not to know why. Black was the essence of freedom; Black had life figured out. He was a very street smart and intelligent man in his early twenties. He was not, from what I could tell, suffering from any mental illness, other than constantly stealing my socks. Black had his life figured out; he had figured that he needed $40 a day to live—he needed $20 for food and $20 for pot. Please do not misunderstand; I am not condoning the use of marijuana at all, what I am saying is that Black enjoyed food and pot and that is as far as his concern went. He did not worry about bills or a job because he had neither. He was never concerned about tomorrow, if he made his $40 by noon his day was done and he enjoyed the rest of the day. He truly lived by the mantra “give me this day my daily bread.” Again I’m talking about the food, not the pot.
Black was a philosophical guy, to say the least, but his wisdom was unquestionable. There were many people there like Black and I had the incredible opportunity to learn from them. Unfortunately, I had forgotten many of those lessons in life, but with the help of book, I am relearning them. I thought I had hit rock bottom when in reality I had been given a private audience with some of the most brilliant minds I have ever known, I was just too naïve to realize it. One night we were talking about life and happiness, and I was still astounded that these men and women who lived in this building had chosen this life. I told them that I wanted to finish my degree and get a job and have a good and successful life, and after assuring them that I meant no insult, I told them that living in an empty building was not my goal; it was just a result of some poor decisions and I wanted to get on with my life. One of the older gentlemen there asked me, “Jim, what is your idea of a successful life?” I told him that I wanted my degree, a good job, a nice house, and a wife someday . . . and a dog. Definitely a dog. He then asked me a very profound question. He asked, “If you were incarcerated and thrown in prison what would that look like?” I told him it would be miserable. I would be put in a cell and I would have people in uniforms controlling every aspect of my life. I would be told when I could eat, when I could shower, when I could go outside, if at all, I would have no control of my life, and above all, I would lose all the years that I spent in prison. He then said, “So how is that different from a job in a cubicle?” I’m still working on the answer to that one.
We are told from an early age that getting a good job, putting in our thirty to forty years, climbing the corporate ladder, getting a house, a dog, and two to three kids is the ticket to happiness. For many people that is true, but it may not be true for you. What if what you are told will bring you happiness actually makes you miserable? Jim Carrey said something profound in a college graduation speech, he said, “You can fail at what you hate, or you can fail at what you love . . . why not do what you love?” Maybe you are a person who is happy going to your job every day, and if you are, keep doing it. What I am saying is not to be afraid to look at alternatives.
The Importance of Friends
Some people say, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” I believe that is an untrue statement. I believe while God will not give you more than you can handle, life will. Life will give you more than you can handle alone. God will give you people to help you carry your burden. Ecclesiastes 4:9–10 states,
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.
I use the example of Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson for an important reason. Robert Downey Jr. needed help badly and Mel Gibson was there for him. It was just a few short years later that Mel Gibson needed help and Robert Downey Jr. was there for him. It is cyclical. When I was in the depth of my depression, I had people who were there for me, people who were professionals, and people who were friends. Now just a few short years later, I am the counselor, professionally, for my friends. I believe in the power of counseling to help people, but at its essence, counseling is a meeting of one neocortex and another neocortex. When I counsel people or when I am the client, I am speaking to the neocortex of my client or the counselor’s neocortex is speaking to me. While this is beneficial, the part of the brain that holds the limbic system is not in the conversation. If Slick is the one who is hurting, it makes sense to address that part of the brain. As a counselor, it is frowned upon to have physical contact with a client. Having my client put their head in my lap while we talk is not ethical, we are supposed to maintain a professional detachment, but sometimes a five-second hug does more than a fifty-minute counseling session.
It is crucial that you have friends you can count on, but what is also crucial is how you treat them and how they treat you. Sometimes you have to teach people how to treat you. The first step for me moving toward recovery was “hugging the cactus.” Hugging your cactus in your own head is hard, but the next step is introducing that cactus to someone. Every day, millions of people suffer in silence from depression or anxiety. It is either out of embarrassment, shame, pride, or maybe a sense that no one will care. Perhaps they do not want to be a burden or simply because they do not know how to effectively communicate how they feel. Perhaps it is because they are afraid that no one will believe them or that their feelings will be invalidated. This is the next cactus to embrace.
Choose someone you can confide in about your situation. This is going to be difficult because it requires a large amount of vulnerability and vulnerability can get you hurt. However, having someone you can be accountable to is an invaluable asset. I had a couple of friends who knew my situation and they knew how close to the edge I was. They were amazing and helped me through some very difficult times. I learned some very valuable lessons from them on how to treat a friend in that situation and how to teach them how to treat me.
The first thing that almost always happens when one person tells a friend about their problems, whether its depression or anxiety, or which shoes to buy, is that the friend will reply with something like “Well, what you need to do is . . .” or “What I would do is . . .” or my personal favorite, “What do you have to be depressed about?” When one person confides in another about a problem with depression or anxiety, they are not looking for a solution; they are looking for validation. The hardest thing to learn about depression and anxiety is that they may not have an identifiable cause, and they probably do not. That’s why they call it mental illness because you feel badly for no reason! What I had to do with my friends is to make a deal with them. I told that them when I talk to them about my situation, they were to ask one question and one question only, and that was “Do you need me to listen, or do you need me to fix it?” The answer was always “I need you to listen.”
I knew full well my depression and anxiety made no sense, and I had no reason to be depressed, but it did not change the fact that I was. I needed someone to give me permission to be depressed. I needed my friends to tell me it was okay to feel the way I felt, that I had the right to. It is counterintuitive, but if you allow yourself to be depressed or anxious and you allow yourself to feel it, it passes. Many people feel depressed or anxious then get angry at themselves for feeling that way, they will tell me they feel weak. Then they try to suppress that feeling, and in doing so, they make the feeling worse. Think about it. You start off with a depressed person who gets angry for being depressed. Now you have an angry, depressed person who is frustrated because they cannot get over the depression! Just telling another human being, “I am really depressed today” and hearing them say, “I’m sorry you are feeling that way” can do wonders; try it.
One thing about friends is that you can burn them out. Let’s face it; no one likes to hang out with someone who is down all the time. You need to treat your relationships with your friends almost like a bank account. With a bank account, you can only pull money out if you have money in the account. You are going to have bad days, even bad weeks, but there will be some positive times, even if it’s just fifteen minutes, make sure to tell your friend. I learned this lesson the hard way. It had been a few months and I was in my own pool of pity, and every time I talked with one particular friend, I was always telling her how down I was. This is normal; this is human nature. If I felt bad, I would call her and then I would feel better. So logically, Slick realized that calling her made him feel better, so he would always call her when he felt bad. Seems simple enough. Then one day, she said, “You never ask me how I’m doing.” I kinda felt like a jerk. However, I was far enough in my journey of reconciling with Slick that I didn’t beat him up for it, he and I had a talk. From then on, every time I called her I asked, “Hey, how’s your day?”
So after a short talk, Slick and I decided that we would call her when we felt bad, but we would also call when we felt good. We would call just to say “hi,” we would call if she posted something cool on Facebook, we would call or text to say we were having a good day. We started acting like normal friends, and over time, the depressed calls decreased and the “normal” calls increased. Now, a couple of years later, we just talk. I didn’t fake it till I made it. I had a specific goal, my goal was to have a normal friendship with the person who was my emotional pillar. I achieved that goal.
Something else I identified in my life were the people who were taking too much energy from me. It was very hard for me to admit that I had people in my life that were my friends but were mainly my friends because they could come to me with problems and I would make them feel better. One very important lesson I learned is that you have to teach people how to treat you. When I was the one seeking help, my friend do that to/for me, she said, “How come you never ask me how I am doing?” That was a fair question from her, and it is a fair question to ask anyone who is your friend as well. I am an IT professional by trade and a part-time counselor. As an IT professional, I have many friends and family who will ask me for technology help. I do not mind doing it for them, but I cannot accommodate all the requests and still have a life. If I fixed every computer, phone, DVD player, or car stereo that I was asked to, I would never sleep or eat; I have to say no. The same is true for emotional support, if you have people in your life who constantly use you for emotional support, consider it a compliment, but also consider telling them you need a break as well.
People whom I called “emotional vampires” were easy to identify; whenever they called, I would sigh and decide whether to answer the phone or not. Some got to the point where I would just not answer and there were a couple I had to block. Many people with anxiety and depression have it because they do too much for others and not enough for themselves. I had to give myself permission to say no. It was difficult, as I was used to doing for others, but it was an important part of my healing. You do not have to eliminate these friends from your life; you may just need a break, some “me” time.
Don’t Fake It
People will tell you, “Fake it till you make it!” They will tell you that if you just think happy thoughts you will be happy. While we can improve our state of mind through changing our thought patterns, this is not an instantaneous change, it takes time. If you see happiness as a goal, instead of pretending to be happy, it becomes far more achievable. I believe that we should identify that goal. Once the goal has been identified, we should develop a strategy to work toward a goal. If you “fake it till you make it,” you know you’re faking it! When you want to improve your quality of life either by dealing with your anxiety and depression or by kicking an addiction, you have a clearly defined goal to work toward. You have a vision in your head when you look in the mirror and like the person looking back at you. It is an amazing feeling! When someone decides to go to college, or learn a trade or acquire a skill, they are deciding to make a change to improve themselves. They have knowledge of where they are and they have a vision of where they want to be in the future. For example, if someone decides they want to be a lawyer, they know they need to get a college degree first, so they plan for that eventuality and start along that path. Then, they go to law school and finally pass the bar exam. Then voila, they are a lawyer. In starting their journey, they are not pretending to be a lawyer; they are working toward that goal. From the day you start college until you graduate, you are learning. You’re not faking that you’re going to be a doctor or lawyer or accountant; you’re training for it. The same is true on a road to recovery, there is no faking it; you have a vision of where you want to be and you are working toward that goal.
Working toward a life where you are at peace with your limbic system is a long road, and there will be times when you have setbacks; that is natural and normal. Every day is precious and none can be replaced . . . but some will suck. When I got off Ambien, I hit a new low. I hit depths of depression I did not think were possible; every fiber of my being wanted nothing but for all of it to end. I did anything I could think of to mitigate the pain, but in the end, I just had to get through it and “make it to midnight.” It was at this time that I bought a digital watch and set it to military time so I could actually see how much time I had in each day, how far away midnight was. I discovered something during this time; I discovered internet forums. I found a great site called benzobuddies.com. I don’t know if it is still in existence, but it helped me on many really tough days. After getting off Ambien, I would be horribly depressed for twenty-four to forty-eight hours, but for one or two hours a day, I would have moments of normalcy. These moments would be like the eye of a hurricane, it would be horrible depression punctuated with an hour or two of my brain being functional, then without warning it would hit again. This went on for several months, and it was unrelenting. Because of benzobuddies.com, I found other people who were experiencing this phenomenon as well; they called them “windows.” These were windows of clarity that people who were having benzodiazepine withdrawals experienced. My doctor, having never heard of benzodiazepine withdrawal, diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.
Having diagnosed me with bipolar 2, he put me on various medications; unfortunately, none of which worked, but one actually started to cause me to display symptoms of bipolar disorder. I woke up one morning and bought a car on Craigslist on a whim. I had absolutely no business doing that. I came home after buying the car and freaked out because I had just bought a car! I punched several holes in the wall out of anger; it was completely nuts. Fortunately, I could sell the car the same day and not lose any money, so no harm and no foul, except for the holes in the wall, which I had to explain later. What I learned on that day is that some days are going to suck, and that one did. Some days “make it to midnight” is a fight to not do something stupid.
During that time, it was more than some days being intolerable. At that point, hours were intolerable. “Making it to midnight” seemed like more of a bite of life than I could take, but I did it . . . and you can too. In order to make it through the day, I had to have something more than making it to midnight to motivate me, I had to have milestones. I picked a new movie, a planned trip to the beach, or anything I could think of to stick a carrot out in the future for me to grasp. Whenever I saw a movie trailer that looked particularly good, I would make a mental note of the release date and it would be something to look forward to, not something nebulous in the future, but something concrete, not too far in the future that I could stick in my head. Pick anything, just pick something that you would regret missing.
A Boy and His Dog
One thing I would do every day is walk my dogs; that was my quiet time. My dogs were so excited about walking and exploring all the smells that had accumulated from the previous walk; it was like they were experiencing the neighborhood for the first time every time. I wanted to know how they could do that so I started to emulate them. I started to pay very close attention to every yard, every rock, every tree and flower I could see. I tried to live the walk through their eyes, tried to make their excitement contagious, and it worked. It worked because I stopped thinking about yesterday, or tomorrow, or anything other than that moment, I focused completely on the now. An unforeseen by-product of this daily exercise is that Slick was starting to enjoy those moments of relief and he was craving it more and more. Those walks gave me moments to look forward to on particularly hard days at work; I would look forward to seeing the dogs’ excitement. I don’t know if Slick started thinking he was a dog or what, and honestly, I didn’t care. It worked, it got me through the day and that was all I could do, at that point.
Since Slick, my mammal brain, was what I was trying to heal, I spent time with my favorite mammals, my dogs. In our brains, we have something called “mirror neurons.” Imagine we are walking through the forest and neither of us had seen a bear before. Suddenly a bear jumps out from behind some trees and mauls me. You see this happening, realize there is nothing you can do for me, scream, and run away. You run away unharmed. However, next time you see a bear, you panic and run away. Why? No bear attacked you. Mirror neurons are why. When you see something happen to another person, you identify with that person. A more modern example would be if you had a co-worker approach your boss and berate him for some decision he had made. That co-worker would likely be fired or at least reprimanded. You learned from watching him what the ramifications of ripping into your boss would be.
If we can learn negatives from mirror neurons, why not positives? Why can I not see the joy and happiness in my dogs and make it my own? Why can I not see children playing and point my mirror neurons at them and experience their joy? You can . . . and I did. Watching my dogs get excited about a walk, watching them chase squirrels and bark at cats, and just basically do “dog stuff” helped me find my happiness.
Listen to Your Mind
For me, walking my dogs was my daily ritual that I could do to turn my neocortex off and let Slick relax. I saw happiness around me in my dogs and emulated it as best I could. I forced myself to not think about things that were not in that moment. However, you may not be a dog person or may not have access to a dog. That’s fine; the goal of the exercise is to get your mind off your problems. You’ve probably heard that phrase thousands of times in your life “get your mind off your problems,” but it’s true. Remember, you are spending 24-7 with a small mammal in your head, be it a small child or a small animal, and it needs time to rest, even if you do not. It needs time to just be. Whether it’s a jigsaw puzzle, working in the yard, working on a car, painting, or pottery, it does not matter, as long as it is something you are doing. Watching TV did not work well for me because I could stare at the screen and ruminate over my problems rather than relaxing.
Listening to your mind is a hard skill to learn, as our neocortex is accustomed to overruling our limbic system. In our modern world, I do not have the luxury of letting Slick run things day to day. I must go to work; I must take care of my responsibilities to keep food on the table. When my alarm goes off at o’stupid thirty, I “force myself” to get up. Force myself? How do I force myself? I know I have to get up and Slick always protests, but we get up. When I get to the kitchen, I look at the doughnuts on the counter, and Slick says, “Yay, doughnuts!” but I look at our waist and say no. I get in the car to drive to work and Slick says, “Punch it!” and I look at the speed limit sign and say no. I am at the office, and my boss calls a meeting that lasts two hours, a meeting that could have been handled in two emails. After thirty minutes, Slick says, “Get up and tell him this is stupid,” but I sit and continue with the meeting with a fake smile. The point is that we spend so much time “forcing ourselves,” which is just another way of vetoing Slick. As you would expect, that becomes the norm, and Slick becomes anxious or depressed because he is merely a passenger on this ride. By giving Slick his time to smell the roses and stretch his legs, I am treating him like an equal and giving him time to be himself. I will go for a drive or play a board game, do whatever it takes to give him time to heal.
Journal and Track Progress
We live in an amazing time; we have access to all the accumulated knowledge in human history at our fingertips. We can communicate with anyone on the planet instantaneously and effortlessly. One of the great benefits from this technology is the ability to utilize the collective resources of the internet to help us along our journey to happiness and health. One great resource that has come out of this technological explosion are apps that can help you track your mood. On the road to recovery, there will be good days and bad days. There will be good hours and bad hours, and these apps can track those hours and days. One of the great benefits of these apps is that you can see your progress over time. The way they work is fairly simple; several times a day you tell the app how you are feeling from a scale of one to ten. Over the course of time, you can track your good days and bad days, and most importantly, you can see the trend. A graph shows how you are doing. This helped me tremendously. While I was not able to see change in myself day to day, over the course of weeks, I could see the change in the graph. I needed to see victories; I needed progress. That progress becomes hope.
I have been playing guitar since I was thirteen years old. I was blessed to grow up next door to an amazing musician who pushed me to be better. One thing that he and other real musicians are able to do is to convey emotion through music. It is an amazing gift I wish I possessed. If you look at any of the arts, you see the same thing. If we stop and think about it for a moment, what is art? It is an artist conveying their emotion on canvas or sculpture or on a stage or a piece of music.
There is an iconic piece of music called “O Fortuna,” which I suggest you listen to with the translated lyrics, of course. It is a song that has been in countless movies. It is powerful. It has been criticized for being overused in commercials and movies because it is so powerful. It conveys such raw emotion that it is the go-to for any intense dramatic sequence. What I was not aware of, until I started researching music as a way to heal myself, is that the song was written around a thirteenth-century poem that reads a lot like Job chapter 10! The song is a lament by a man who is frustrated with life. He cries out to fate for mercy. When I read this, the song took on a whole new meaning. What did not change was that I was in awe of the music itself. What really struck me was that a man whose name has been lost to history was profoundly frustrated with life, so to deal with his frustration, he poured his emotions on paper over seven hundred years ago. Six hundred years later, in 1936, Carl Orff took the emotions of the author and set them to music. Now a hundred years after that, we hear this music and feel the same emotions of the man who wrote the original poem. We know that knowledge can travel through time, but if we hear that music, we learn that so can emotion.
This is very true in my life as well. If I hear any song from Frampton Comes Alive, I am immediately transported back to the neighborhood pool where I spent my days during summer break in the seventies. Play the song “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, and I’m back in high school. If I hear “Good night, Sweetheart” by The Overtones I am immediately transported back to closing time at Studebakers. These were great times in my life, and there are thousands of songs like that. Thousands of songs and thousands of great memories to go with them.
Music is a tool. Use it! Earlier I stated that depression had stolen my past and anxiety was taking my future. People also say that music calms the savage beast. So what if I had a tool that calmed my anxiety, my “savage beast” and brought back great memories. Well, I do. I have music. When Slick is feeling down, I know what I need to dig out to bring him out of it. Sometimes it is some good techno, sometimes it is, ironically, blues. The point is that music can, far more than words, take us back in time. If you do not believe me, and you’re between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five, try this: go to YouTube and play “Don’t You Forget about Me” by Simple Minds. If you’re from my generation, you cannot hear it without having some fond memory from that era. Well, at least, I cannot.
There was some happy time in the past, some movie, some song from a day out with friends that can take you back there. Depression can be a thief, but it can also be stopped, at least for a little while. The whole point of this book is to give you the tools to make it one day at a time, to “make it to midnight.” If it is 8:00 pm and you’re having a particularly difficult evening, look back, find a time when life was good, then find a song to take you there.
Find What Makes You Feel Good
Port Aransas, Texas, is my favorite place in the world, or as we call it, the “White Trash Riviera.” When I am particularly down, Tahoe and I will drive to Port Aransas, start a fire, pitch my tent, and watch the waves. I usually spend the night down there watching the ships go in and out of the channel, wondering about the men and women on those ships. What amazing stories they must have! Trying to imagine what led them to want to work on a ship . . . were they running from something, or to something? Were they looking for a way to see the world? Or maybe they were just people who were made to be at sea. The point is, I was focusing on their stories and not mine—by focusing on them, not me.
This allows Slick and me just to “be” for a little while. It gives me a break from the day-to-day and gives Slick some time not to worry about things. Sometimes while I’m there, we talk about whatever is going on. It is a whole lot easier to deal with our baggage when we are away from all the sources of the baggage. The only problem with Port Aransas is that it is three hours away. That is not feasible for me to escape on a regular basis. No problem. There are places closer to home.
When Slick is particularly down, he does not want to do anything. He wants to sit on the couch and watch TV, or maybe, the porch. If he is anxious, he wants to do everything at once; he wants to fix the car, and clean the house, and rearrange furniture. The problem is that sometimes, those two collide. We will be at home and part of me wants to sit and do nothing but another part wants to do everything all at once. This can be an uncomfortable place. At times like this, when Slick is agitated, the last thing he wants to do is leave the house, but that is exactly what he needs. This is the part where Jim puts Tahoe and him in the car and drives to the dog park.
Slick lives in the moment, in the here and now. The moment when we are home, he is agitated by anxiety or depression or both. As I cannot change time and I cannot change his agitation in that moment, I can change where we are. I know the dog park makes all of us happy. Think of a time when you had a friend that was down, for whatever reason. Most likely if you went to them and said, “Hey, let’s go do something.” They would reply, “Nah, I’m not in the mood.” However, if you prodded them to go, they most likely had a good time. They had to “get out of their head” for a little while. What really was happening is that their “Slick” was sitting there ruminating over what he was upset about, and that when you changed the surroundings to something that he liked, things got better.
This is what I do with myself. I know what Slick likes to do. There are times when he is unhappy, when he is in a loop of depression or anxiety. The more he sits, the less he wants to move; the more anxious he is, the more anxious he becomes. My solution that works really well is to help him break that cycle.
Have an Escape Plan
What exactly does suicide accomplish? It gets you out of the situation that is causing you pain. I recently heard of a very successful doctor who took his own life. While he was a successful doctor and made a very good living, he spent money beyond his means. One day he looked at his life and realized that even if he worked until he turned ninety, he would never be able to pay off his debt. It was then that he decided to take his own life. It is easy to Monday morning quarterback a decision such as this, but it is also easy to see why he made this decision. He had built his life and his practice with the hopes of retiring and living off the fruit of his labor, and when he realized that his dream would not be a reality, he decided there was no reason to continue living.
Many people hit that point in their lives when the pain of living exceeds the fear of dying, and they choose death. I would like to propose a third alternative: escape. When I hit my low point, I saw two alternatives: keep going like I was going, which was from all indications going to be exceedingly painful for a long time, or grab my gun and end it. There is another alternative, and that is to take a sabbatical from the life that is causing you this pain. I recently read an article about a man who wanted to take his own life, but instead of using a gun, he chose drugs. He took a trip to Mexico with the intention of buying a large amount of drugs, having an intentional overdose, and peacefully dying. What happened, instead, was that when he went to acquire the drugs in Mexico, his cab driver took him to a party instead. He stayed in Mexico and had a great time. He left the life that had driven him to that point and did not look back. He was free! After a week . . . one week . . . he decided life was worth living; he packed his bags and went home. Imagine if that doctor had done the same thing.
My escape plan was simple; I was going to disappear somewhere in Asia, probably Thailand. Why Thailand? Why not? The point is that I gave myself a third option; instead of ending my life, I gave myself the option to change it. I could realize all the benefits of suicide and still be alive! I had this setup with my friends, as well. I told them that there may come a day when I had to disappear and if that day came they knew what to do. I had two dogs at the time and that is all I cared about, my friends said they would happily take my dogs for me.
This may seem like a pointless solution because I never put my plan into action, but this was huge for me. Depression and anxiety can get bad enough that they control every aspect of your life. From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, assuming you sleep, depression and anxiety color every decision you make. It goes back to “hugging the cactus.” When Slick was trying to get me to end our life, I gave him an alternative, and that was for us to just leave it all behind and run away. Again, we never did, but just knowing that option was available to us kept the suicide option off the table. Think about that, once there was an option other than suicide I was no longer suicidal. The option to just vanish became my new go-to because the result was the same; the problems would be behind me. The great thing was, just knowing that option was available to me and now having hope kept me going. There were a few times I almost put the plan in action, but I never did . . . just knowing I could was enough.
People with suicidal ideation usually have a plan; that plan is detailed, it is almost a fantasy to many of them—well, many of us. We play it in our heads, how it would just make the pain go away. What reading the story about the man who went to Mexico taught me was that I could have a plan, I could fantasize about the plan, I could even put the plan into action, and I would still be alive to enjoy it!
Several years ago, I was in Colorado working on a huge IT project. I remember one morning that I was in a particularly foul mood for some reason or another. I was walking out of the hotel and down the street to the office I was working in when I saw a lady who looked very well put together. She had obviously taken a lot of time and effort to look as good as she did. Before I had time to think about it, I told her, “You look really nice.” When I said this her face lit up and she gave me a very genuine “thank you for noticing, that made my day.” And with that, we walked our separate ways. What I noticed about fifteen seconds later is that my foul mood had gone away. My brain had shifted from being in a foul mood, thinking about work to how I had just made someone’s day. Someone I never knew and would never see again was going to have a good day because I had spoken four words.
I could not begin to tell you the mechanism behind how that works. I do know that when I do something nice for someone I feel good afterward. So let’s be honest for a moment . . . does it matter what the mechanism is, if it works? Look at the world we were created in, communities were everything. People lived in communities and constantly had people around them. I remember growing up in the seventies. The routine was simple: go to school, come home, drop the backpack, and go outside and play. The adults in the neighborhood had a similar routine. They would come home from work, set down the briefcase, and go outside and sit together and talk while we played. People connected on a personal level. We, as a species, have never been more connected and lonelier at the same time. Just a small act of reaching out to a stranger and saying something complimentary can make their day and yours. “Making it to midnight” is much easier with a smile on your face.
When I was in college (the first time), I was an economics major. I had no great love for economics. To be honest, I couldn’t have cared less about it, but I wanted a degree, and it was the degree that got me out of college the fastest. That should give you insight into the kind of man I was at twenty-three. One of the great lessons I have learned in life is that every experience, even the bad ones, can be a learning experience. One thing I took with me from that degree is the phrase “Ceteris paribus.” “Ceteris paribus” is the Greek phrase for “all things remaining constant.” If you look at any problem in life and want to isolate the source of the problem, the first thing you have to do is eliminate all things that are not the source of the problem. People tend to change things when something is bothering them. For me, I would buy guitars or cars or something like that. I think it was because there were things in my life that I was unable to change, so I decided to change the things I could.
A Tale of Two Parties
The other night, I had a party with some of my friends. We’ve been friends for over twenty years. They know I have sleep issues and they kept me up until 3:30 am! I was stunned that guys my age were able to stay up so late. To add insult to injury, I bought some really good chips and salsa from a local restaurant and they ate it like it was cheap store bought stuff. When that was gone, they went into the pantry and got the store-bought stuff! None of them said thank you for it. Sure, one friend brought some frozen taquitos from Costco and some cheese and meat, but the rest of them just showed up, ate my food, drank most of my beer, and kept me up late. I have a big movie screen out in my back yard and one of them had requested a movie called Blood of Heroes. We watched this movie countless times when we were roommates. So I obliged and put on the movie and then half the time they were inside and not out watching it with me!
I woke up the next morning to what looked like the remains of a trailer park after a tornado. There were beer bottles and half-eaten taquitos everywhere! I went outside and it looked like the tornado had made a second appearance outside, there was crap everywhere. I can only imagine how much went over the fence. Now I’m just waiting for a note from the homeowners’ association about the noise and trash. Would it have been so hard to clean up a little before they left? These people are supposed to be my friends, after all.
The other night, I had a party with some of my friends. These guys were my roommates back in college, and they are my family. I am beyond blessed to have all of them in my life. The funniest thing about this group is that we are all so different, yet we would go to the ends of the earth for one another. We have the type of friendship that can only exist after many years and many miles. These are the guys you call at 3:00 am after a bad breakup and they come over with beer and a sympathetic ear. And speaking of 3:00 am, that’s the time the party wrapped up! It was great to catch up with everyone, as getting us all together at the same time is damn near impossible. The reason for the party was one of the crew who lives in Japan had come for a visit, so we all needed to get together. Since he had been in Japan for so long, I bought some true South Texas chips and Salsa. One of our other friends had grabbed some taquitos from Costco because we needed some cheap college food to take us back to the good ’ole days.
There’s a movie called Blood of Heroes that we watched countless times when we all lived together. One of my friends suggested we play it on my big movie screen in the backyard. As we sat and watched the movie, it was like we were back in 1995 again. Fortunately, we watched it so many times we all know the dialogue so none of us really paid attention to the movie, but it was a great idea to have it on. As I looked around my backyard, and then into the house, seeing all the joy and history that I was a part of, I realized how incredibly lucky I am to have these guys as my family.
I don’t know how much beer was consumed, but if I had to guess, it was all of it! As I walked around the house picking up the beer bottles and half-eaten taquitos, I got to relive all the jokes and laughter all over again. I looked around my house and realized how blessed I am to have a place where everyone feels at home. Tahoe was not as happy as I was as we kept him up late, but he got over it. It took me a good hour and a half to clean up after the party, but what a blessing to be able to do that for my friends. We are adults now, we have adult problems and adult responsibilities, but for one night we were just “the guys” again.
I could have chosen to view the party through either lens, and to be honest, I have viewed these kinds of events through both. Now I choose to view my life through the lens of how blessed I am. Sometimes perception is reality.
The Mental Illness Paradox
If I had a dollar for every time someone told me “just think happy thoughts” or “you have to choose to be happy,” I would not be writing this book because I would have been crushed under the weight of the dollars. Here is the paradox of mental illness; you spend all your energy pretending everything is okay. You go to work and put on the happy face, you force yourself to go out and be with people because that is what you are supposed to do; that’s what society expects from you, so you do it. Every so often, though, there comes a day when the mask becomes too heavy and the façade cracks and comes crashing down; the day when you wake up and say, “I can’t play the game today.” The day when you want to tell the world how badly you feel, so you do. You find a friend or a family member, and you tell them how badly you feel. You completely unload the burden you’ve been hiding behind your smile for months or even years. Then they give you “the look.” The look of confusion mixed with disbelief and dismissal. The look of “oh, it’s not that big of a deal, you’re fine, everyone goes through this.” Sometimes you even get an eye roll and a look that says “Oh, come on, you’re just being dramatic.”
Shortly after you receive “the look,” you will hear something like “you just need to choose to be happy,” or “everyone goes through this.” People will say it’s not real, but it is; because depression is something that is not physically observed, people will doubt its existence, insisting that it is all in your head (because technically it is), which implies that there is something wrong with you. People tend to believe this when they compare you to themselves and if you are not like them, then the only conclusion you can draw is that you are defective. When we hear statements like “everyone goes through that,” it reinforces the feeling that we already feel, which is, “there is something wrong with me.”
When I experience a situation like this, I cannot help but feel ashamed. If it is true that everyone goes through this, then my complaining means that I am weak. Herein lies the paradox. Everyone has ups and downs, we all have emotions. Not everyone has depression. Not everyone has an anxiety disorder. Not everyone has PTSD. Those of us who do spend so much time and energy cultivating a persona that is happy and healthy are so adept at putting on the façade, that people believe us. We smile through our day and we use all of our energy to keep the lie going. We can hardly blame those we reach out to, as we have led them to believe everything is okay.
When the day comes that pretending is too much, we reach out for help, and that person looks at us with confusion and possible disappointment. I have had people I confided in say things like “Hey, I like being your friend, but I did not sign on for this, you need to go talk to someone,” to which I reply, “I thought I was.” When this happened to me on more than one occasion, I said to myself, “Lesson learned, I will not reach out to anyone” . . . then I met Travis Walton.
On November 5, 1975, Travis Walton and his logging crew were driving down a mountain road in Arizona. As they made their way down the winding road after a long day of logging, the driver of the truck abruptly stopped driving and pointed to something hovering over a group of trees just off the road. The object was a flying saucer. Against the protests of the other five men, Travis Walton got out of the truck to investigate. As he approached the object, a beam of light came out of the craft and knocked him to the ground. His friends, fearing he had been killed, drove away to get the police.
When they returned with the police, Travis and the UFO were gone. There was no trace of either of them. For the next five days, there was a massive search conducted by the sheriff’s department. During the search, the sheriff began to suspect that the logging crew had killed Walton and disposed of the body. Five days later, just after midnight on the sixth day, Walton’s brother-in-law received a phone call from Travis. He was badly dehydrated and injured. He was in a phone booth at a gas station on a mountain road. The incident was made into a movie called Fire in the Sky. Definitely worth watching.
Forty years after this incident happened, I met Travis Walton. Sylvia, Tahoe, and I had gone to the Roswell UFO Festival, and he was standing in front of a booth where they were selling the DVD of the movie. I walked up and introduced myself and spoke with him for a few minutes. He struck me as a man who is genuine and honorable. In forty years, his story has remained unchanged, despite countless skeptics trying to debunk and dispute his account of the events. His confidence in his testimony inspired me. Then he said something that changed my whole perspective on mental illness. He said, “To the experienced, no proof is necessary, to the skeptic, no proof is enough.” This rang so true for me; someone who has experienced anxiety or depression does not need proof, and those who have not, will never understand.
Travis Walton was an inspiration to me, he boldly proclaimed that he had been abducted by aliens and was held captive aboard their ship for five days. In the face of ridicule and skepticism, Travis Walton gives all the details of his encounter and, honestly, could not have cared less who believed him or not. I decided to adopt this philosophy when I would talk to people about my anxiety and depression. I am no longer apologetic for it, I am not ashamed of it, it is just part of who I am. Depression and anxiety are not a sign of weakness, if anything, it is a sign of someone who has been too strong for too long. Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of or to apologize for; it is part of who we are.
Now, when I tell someone about how Slick and I are not getting along, I approach the situation differently. The first thing I say is, “I do not need you to fix this, I just need you to listen.” Most people, after hearing their friend has a problem, react by trying to offer a solution. This is great if you are talking about finding a mechanic or being frustrated with the season finale of a TV show, but mental illness is different. Every time I had a friend say, “Well, what you need to do is . . .” I would stop them and say, “I just need you to listen.” My closest friends understand. They have the attitude of “I do not understand what you are going through, but whatever you need, I am here.”
We all arrived at this place in our lives by different routes. Some of it is nature and some nurture. Now what I tell my friends is that I just need to vent. I need them to care. I need a safe place to land. Your friends and family genuinely want to help you, but they do not know how. So tell them. Tell them you appreciate their trying to help, but you need validation not advice. The best thing I can hear when I am having one of those days is “Wow, Jim, that sucks.”
In astrophysics, there is a phenomenon call an event horizon. When a star runs out of fuel to burn, all the mass of that star collapses in on itself and a black hole is formed. When this happens, the gravity from it pulls in any object that gets caught in its gravitational pull and that object becomes part of the black hole. The gravity generated from a black hole is so intense that nothing can escape from it. As an object gets pulled into the black hole, its velocity increases until it approaches the speed of light. The event horizon is the region of space surrounding the black hole from with nothing, not even light, can escape. Think of it kind of like a whirlpool. If you are swimming in the ocean and a whirlpool forms, you may be able to swim away from it if you are at a safe distance. However, there is a point at which the strength of the whirlpool will exceed your ability to swim and you will be sucked in.
Something similar happens when I drive by an electronics store. When I am feeling down and want some “retail therapy” to make me feel better, I must be mindful of my surroundings. There is a point around that store that if I get too close my car will magically drive itself into the parking lot, and I will leave with some electronics trinket that I do not need. The same thing works with addicts and people with depression. When we feel badly, regardless of whether it is from an addiction or from depression, we want that bad feeling to stop. Unfortunately, the thing that makes us feel better is damaging to us in the long run.
There is an electronics store that I drive by when I go home from work. It is a geek’s paradise. On days when I have struggled, Slick will tell me when we get in the car, “Hey, let’s swing by the toy store and see what new stuff they have.” I know as soon as I think this, I need to take an alternate route home. I know that if I drive home on my normal route, I will see the store and Slick will compel me to turn in. This is what I counsel my clients who struggle with alcohol to do. When they have a bad day, and feel they need a drink, find a route home that does not take them by their regular bar.
I messaged a friend of mine once on Facebook and she replied, “Sorry, Jim, I’ve burned all my people calories today, I’ll message you tomorrow.” I suppose I should have been insulted, but it was pretty funny so I let it slide. She did message me the next day. What she said got me thinking though . . . people calories. One of the mistakes I made when I was going through depression was trying to pretend I was fine. Part of that act meant being available as a counselor to friends of mine in need.
Imagine one day you woke up and looked in the mirror and said to yourself, “Wow, I need to lose a few.” Okay, I don’t have to imagine it. Upon this revelation that you need to lose weight you decide to go to a diet retreat. At the retreat, your diet is strictly monitored, your food is measured and you receive five hundred calories at breakfast, five hundred at lunch, and five hundred at dinner. The following morning at breakfast, you get two eggs and two pieces of toast. A man next to you asks for a piece of toast because he is really struggling. You see he is in distress so you give him a piece of your toast. At lunch, you sit next to him again. He asks how you are doing and you reply, “I’m okay, I’m a little hungrier than I expected to be.” Realizing that he had eaten your second piece of toast that morning, he offers you part of his lunch. You thank him and happily take the extra food.
That night at dinner, they serve beef and asparagus. You really like asparagus so you ask a lady next to you if you can have her asparagus. She replies “Of course, I’m not terribly hungry tonight anyway. I’m in a good place, I’m happy to help you out.” You are happy you got the extra asparagus and she feels good for helping you. Life is good.
You are unaware of it but next to you another lady saw the transaction. She leans over and asks you for a piece of your steak, she reminds you that you have more than you need, and she is really hungry. You cut her off a small portion and continue dinner. The following morning, she sits next to you again. As you are eating your breakfast, she complains about how small the portions are. She apologetically asks you for a piece of toast. You think to yourself, “Well, I’m not that hungry” and give it to her. Lunch comes around and so does she. She says, “I’m so sorry to bother you again, I guess I have a fast metabolism, can I have some of your lunch? I’ll pay you back at dinner, I promise.” You begrudgingly give her some of your sandwich and continue eating and talking with the other guests.
Dinner comes and you sit at the table, and your new friend sits across from you. You ask her politely for some of her asparagus. She replies, “They did not give me very much and this has to last me until morning, I’m sorry I cannot spare any.” She eats her dinner and enjoys the conversation with the other guests. You, however, are a little perturbed; however you do not want to confront her because, come on, it’s not that big of a deal, right? It’s just asparagus. Plus, you do not want to cause a scene. You decide to be the (metaphorically) bigger person and let it go.
Breakfast comes and like clockwork so does she. She tells you that her dinner did not fill her up and she is terribly hungry. She asks again for a piece of your toast. Now ask yourself . . . do you give it to her? Do you forget how she slighted you last night? Do you tell her no, because you had always been there for her, but when you needed her, she would not repay the favor? Just like she took your nutritional calories, she also took your people calories . . . without hesitation and without remorse.
The average human burns roughly two thousand calories per day. Extroverts are people who replenish their people calories by being around other people while introverts are refueled by being alone. I think I am a little of both. There are people in my circle of friends and acquaintances who replenish my people calories. They are people that I am always happy to see. People who I feel better after I see them than I did before. Conversation is easy, their caring and interest in my wellbeing is genuine, as mine is for them. They are friends; they are people I can call if I need help and they can call me. We have a symbiotic relationship.
However, there are people (or were) who I would only hear from when they needed something. What I realized is that these people, like the lady in the story, needed more people calories than I did, so they would take mine. This was fine when I was healthy and had calories to spare, but when my life took a negative turn, I no longer had the energy (calories are fuel) to help them. They always seemed to have a crisis. They needed to move suddenly, or borrow money, or they had yet another romantic interest lie to them. They always had drama and they wanted me to fix it or at least be a sympathetic ear. This is something I am happy to do when I am able, but for several years, I was not able . . . yet I continued to do it. I continued to help, I continued to listen.
Then one day, something clicked. I have a block feature on my phone. Without warning or explanation, I blocked two of them . . . and it felt good. It felt like I had told the lady at the retreat “No, you cannot have my toast, go talk to the people running the camp. Go fix your own problem.” After a week, I unblocked them. A couple of hours later one of them texted me and said “Hey, are you okay?” I replied, “I’m great, I just ran out of people calories.” She immediately replied, “Oh, good, I need your help.” Blocked.
After some time had passed, I unblocked her and explained that I am happy to be her friend. I am happy to go get a drink or chat, but I cannot be her savior. I cannot be the person she calls when she needs help because I am not in a position to give her any help. I have problems of my own, and while I can handle what has been handed me, I cannot handle any more than that. She was mad for a little while, but she got over it. Now when she calls, she asks, “Hey, how are you doing?” And I believe she really is interested in how I am. The lesson I learned is that you have to teach people how to treat you. If every time they call they take your people calories, maybe you need to reevaluate that relationship. I was fortunate, I blocked five people over the next few weeks, and all of them are still my friends, we just re-negotiated the terms of our relationship.
When I had this epiphany, I went back to the friend I originally messaged and asked her if I was draining her people calories. She replied, “Yea, sometimes.” I corrected that as well.
David Had the Stones
Numbers chapter 16 tells the story of a rebellion against Moses. A man named Korah decided he was not happy with the way Moses was running things so he wanted to be in charge. He and his followers were angry with Moses for leading them out of Egypt, the land flowing with milk and honey (where they were slaves) and into the wilderness. In verse 4, Moses tells Korah, “In the morning the Lord will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him.” The next morning came, “And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community.” This story is a great example of what God can do if he chooses. Korah and his followers chose to defy God and his chosen emissary Moses at their own peril.
I always recall this story whenever I hear someone invoke the story of David and Goliath. When people talk about David and Goliath, they do so in the context that the “little guy,” David fought a giant, Goliath. The name Goliath has become synonymous with the idea of something that is almost insurmountable. Whenever a small company is going up against a larger company it is referred to as a “David and Goliath” story. The same thing occurs when someone decides to fight city hall, it’s David vs. Goliath. I’ve read the story . . . David won. To be honest, it always makes me chuckle. The story of David and Goliath was not about a small shepherd fighting against a giant warrior . . . the story of David and Goliath was a story about a man, Goliath, picking a fight with God. Of course, Goliath was going to lose. It was not a matter of if God was going to defeat Goliath, it was a matter of how. Rather than swallow up Goliath and the Philistines in the earth like He did with Korah, God chose to send David.
If you read the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, you will notice two things. First, David’s own people and even his own brother do not believe he is capable of defeating Goliath. They almost see the idea as comical. According to verse 28, “When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, ‘Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness?’ I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.” Eliab sees David as just a shepherd boy and believes he has nothing to offer to the army. However, David had been preparing for this battle his whole life; he just did not know it until that day. Like the boy in John 6:9 who gave Jesus the fish and bread, God had been preparing David for this moment. Eliab also accuses David of being conceited and wicked; however, what David says in response shows he is neither conceited or wicked, he is confident in the Lord.
The second thing you notice is that David agrees that he is not capable of defeating Goliath . . . but God is. When the conversation between David and the soldiers was reported to Saul, he sent for David. David convinced him that he could defeat Goliath. David said, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” David said “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and bear . . .” He gives full credit to God and has full confidence that God will deliver him again.
Both depression and anxiety are represented in this story. Eliab represents our depression. He is that voice that has known us our entire lives; he knows our weaknesses and insecurities. When we decide we are going to march on the battlefield and take on our Goliath, Eliab is there to tell us all the reasons we cannot defeat him. Goliath represents our anxiety. Goliath stands in our path toward our promised land. He is a giant that taunts us and insults us and above all tries to intimidate us into not challenging him. People with anxiety and depression are like David. Standing alone in a desert, listening to taunts from the past and future, hearing a chorus of reasons we cannot go on. Eliab and Goliath are that voice in our heads that will not be silenced. It is the voice that says, “You are not strong enough to get that job.”
“You are not as successful as your friends, you’re a failure.” “She is too pretty for you.” “He is out of your league.” They say that and any of a thousand other things to keep us from coming onto the battlefield and facing our Goliath.
When King Saul finally relents and accepts David as his champion, he tries to fit David with his armor. “After trying it on, David said, “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag, and with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.” Rather than put on the armor of the King, David put on the full armor of God as described in Ephesians 6. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
The only difference between David and the rest of the army of Israel is that David had the stones to step on the battlefield, he stepped out there with the confidence that God was with him. David only had to defeat Goliath once; we have to defeat him every day. Like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill every day, we have a constant battle. However, unlike Sisyphus, who was being punished by the gods, our God is there to roll the stone with us. I can tell you from personal experience, every day you roll that stone up the hill, the stone gets a little smaller. Then one day you realize that it is so small that you can put it in your pouch and go slay Goliath with it.
Vaya con Dios . . . Go with God.