The Dangerous Type

Four years ago this week, (the third week of February) I was discharged from Spring Harbor, a psychiatric hospital in Westbrook, Maine.

It was my most recent hospitalization. I have been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for more than 40 years, sometimes on a voluntary basis; other times as an involuntary patient. I have been hospitalized in Arizona, Tennessee, Oregon and Maine. So, I consider myself a little bit of an expert on this subject.

Trust me on this: being a patient on a psychiatric ward sucks. In all fairness, being a patient in any kind of hospital for any reason is no picnic for anyone. Hospitals are typically places we go to when we are ill or injured. Other than child birth, most people do their very best to avoid hospitals.

It is the same for psychiatric patients. I have heard people say or joke that they could use a “vacation” on a psych unit or that “mental people use hospitals to avoid their responsibilities.” These are actual quotations.

I have been on vacations. I have been a patient on a psychiatric unit. Believe me. There is nothing similar between these two things. Nothing.

For more than four decades now I have been taking a wide variety of psychiatric medications. Today, I take five different medications to treat everything from life-sucking depression to anxiety and yes, the consequences of a schizo-affective disorder.

Imagine your spouse telling you that they had to stay in the basement in order to get away from the government? Or imagine what it would be like if your sibling called you, crying and confused because they had gotten lost on the way home from work?

Imagine not being able to remember anything that happened last week or being unable to read more than two pages a day? This is my life off medications. And yup, this is also my life on medications. The meds just make the consequences less frequent and less severe.

Why do I say all this? Am I just looking for sympathy? Shouldn’t I keep this stuff private?

Take me to the river

I have been publicly open about my mental illness for several years now. That, and my pitiful attempts at trying to be a father, are the two things I want to be remembered for. They are the two things in my life, other than Laura, that matter most to me. They are my only real contributions to society, to the world around me.

It doesn’t get any better than this

Of course, like most people, I am generally selective about what I share on social media. I try to portray myself as witty, as some kind of half-assed satirist, a fun-loving guy, someone you would want to be friends with; a hard-working and responsible member of society; a successful husband and father.

Maybe I am those things. Maybe not.

But it seems that publicly sharing my personal struggles with mental illness gives others permission to reach out to me in search of a friendly ear, advice about a family member or their own struggle with some kind of psychiatric illness.

That is so gratifying to me. Beyond words.

I want to break down and destroy the myths and stereotypes that accompany mental illness. Imagine a friend telling you that they have been diagnosed with brain cancer. What would you say? What would you do?

I’m almost positive you would not say something like “stop feeling sorry for yourself,” or “it’s all in your head,” which, ironically is sort of true about brain cancer. Why is mental illness different? Why is it still okay for Hollywood to refer to psychiatrists as “shrinks?”

Those battling cancer are described as brave and courageous. We wear ribbons to show our support. We are quick to offer our empathy, our support, our understanding.

Tell someone that you are hearing voices and the reaction is a lot different. Trust me. Way different.

Honestly, what do you think of when you think about someone with a psychiatric illness? Do you think about someone like the character “Multiple Miggs” in the movie Silence of the Lambs; or do you think of them as your neighbor, co-worker or someone walking their dog past your home?

At the start of this piece, I stated that I have been in and out of psychiatric units for more than four decades. That is true. What is also true is that during the same time period, I have purchased a home, paid taxes, worked hard and was promoted in the private sector, raised two kids, held together a marriage for more than 19 years (and counting). Today I still mow my lawn, pay my bills and spend time with friends and family.

The scary thing? I’m a lot like you and other people you know and trust. The idea of being diagnosed with cancer is terrifying and for good reason. I have lost close friends to that horrible disease. Unfortunately, I have also lost some very good and close friends to mental illness.

So that’s why I’m open about my struggles. That’s why I try to remember to take my meds, even though they sometimes adversely impact my libido, my energy, my sleep and appetite.

Later this week, I am scheduled to have another ECT treatment (Electro-Convulsive Therapy). ECT treatments terrify me. I am afraid that I will not wake up from the anesthesia. Basically, ECT involves having enough electricity beamed into your brain to induce a seizure. So why do I go through with it?

Because, for me and many, many others, it works. It allows me to live. Once a month, I participate in an ECT support ZOOM meeting with other patients. It is so gratifying to see the progress that many of these people have made. To see them smile, laugh and be able to hold a conversation. To hear them say they were reluctant to get ECT until they heard me and others share our own experiences.

That’s what matters. That’s what is important to me.

If you ever want to reach out; if you ever need a friendly ear, please do not hesitate to contact me. If you don’t know me or have my contact info, you can ALWAYS reach out 24/7 365 days a year toll free at 1.888.568.1112 if you are concerned about yourself or somebody else.

Thank you,

Time out

mourningWe are all, it seems, struggling to come to terms with what happened yesterday in Newtown, Connecticut.

As the awful news began to unfold, I urged friends and family members to pause and refrain from using this tragedy to further support political/policy agendas. I was unable, –am still unable — to comprehend what happened. It seems impossible to shoulder the weight of this horrific tragedy.

“Today is not the day to have these conversations,” I wrote on my Facebook page yesterday. “Today is a day to grieve and to support one another.”

Those words strike me as empty, hollow. . .meaningless. Over the last 24 hours, our nation has experienced a range of emotions: rage, grief, shock, fear and despair.

So, how do we move forward? How do we reconcile those feelings, the raw emotions that carry us into another day?

Understandably, many of us are searching for answers, for meaning. We have different opinions, and I submit that those opinions are all vital, all necessary for the larger conversation that we can no longer ignore.

The response to my Facebook post was generally respectful. Some people, however, chided me..saying yesterday, the day before, last year was the time for that conversation. I agree with those well-intentioned Facebook friends of mine. I only wonder if they will now join me in that conversation.

Four days after the Tuscon shootings, I penned an op-ed that was published in the Portland Press Herald. I got lots of supportive feedback and some nice comments for my willingness to speak publicly about my own mental health issues and how those issues affect each and every one of us, but we all moved on to more important things . . . like arguing about Rick Santorum, Wal-Mart and Honey Boo-boo.

On July 23, I wrote another blog post about the peril of ignoring mental health issues and focusing on gun control in response to the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado. But we quickly moved on . . .

As I struggle to find light in this time of darkness, there is only one small measure of comfort: for the first time, I am seeing and hearing numerous people address mental health as one of the core issues for that conversation. More people, it seems, are ready to have “that” conversation.

But it is not the only issue we must be willing to confront. I consider myself an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment, but today I am left with questions for which there seem to be no easy or convenient answers. I loathe knee-jerk reactions, but I am willing to reconsider all of my opinions so that I can join that larger conversation in a meaningful and productive way.

Ironically. as we all began dealing with the tragic fallout from yesterday’s rampage, another new story from half way across the globe was unfolding.

Questions about China’s inadequate mental health system are increasing in the wake of multiple incidents of school children being attacked and killed by knife-wielding, mentally ill people. Over the last few years, numerous school children have been killed and scores more injured by knife-wielding mad men.

That is not an argument against gun control. That is an argument that shows gun control is not the entire solution.

News commentator Bob Costas didn’t hesitate to offer his opinion about gun control less than 24 hours after an NFL player shot and killed his girlfriend before shooting himself in front of his coach. Just one week later, another NFL player was killed because he was riding in a car with a drunken teammate. It’s no surprise that there was no call for tighter alcohol controls.

Railing for gun control may help us feel a bit safer; but if we don’t have that conversation across a larger context then we can expect more of the same . . . senseless violence that shocks and angers, but then slowly fades away into distant memory.

On a final point. How do we ensure better background checks to prevent mentally ill people from purchasing or obtaining firearms?

Should someone like me, someone who struggles with depression and has been hospitalized sacrifice our privacy and have our health care records disclosed? Should family members of mentally ill people lose or sacrifice some of their rights under the Constitution?

I do not know the answers to those questions. But I do know, there is no way to guarantee safety. We live in a dangerous world, and if we are willing to sacrifice liberty for security (and considering the Patriot Act, Department of Homeland Security, and long shoeless TSA lines, we are) we may end up with something we never bargained for.

Uncle Bert

Originally posted on Dec. 22, 2005 on All Along The Watchtower.

Last week, I thought today would be little more than a day of drinking and celebrating with my co-workers and those I developed relationships with during the last seven years as the Courier’s editor.

But God had different plans.

So, instead I will be going to a funeral.

Uncle Bert is an “in-law” relative. And since Laura and I have been together just a little more than four years, it’s not like I can say we were particularly close. And even Laura, I think, is grieving the uncle she knew from her childhood more than the Uncle Bert who decided to end his sorrow and grief a bit sooner than the rest of us expected.

But his suicide, like all suicides, has left me troubled.

Roughly a year ago today, Uncle Bert smoked a cigarette with me outside my new home. He was always very nice to me. Sure, all of Laura’s relatives were nice to me (some more than others), but Uncle Bert seemed comfortable talking with me; and he wasn’t what you would call a big talker.

He had a thick Downeast accent, gray hair, a wiry frame and a warm smile. We talked about my driveway, which really needs to be repaved. He spent several years as the owner of a paving company, and told me that my driveway was actually in pretty decent shape.

“You have a nice home, Randy,” he told me. “You’re doing a good job with those boys.”

There’s no way to explain how much that comment meant to me. He reminded me of my own late Uncle Leonard, a man who raised me during my teenage years when my mother was overwhelmed and my father was focused on indulging his every biological whim.

I always felt for Uncle Bert; he struck me as lonely, and there was no denying the fact that he never quite accepted the loss of his wife, the woman Laura knew as Aunt Cathy.

Laura and I were both raised as Catholics. And yesterday (or maybe the day before), she asked me if I thought Uncle Bert would go to heaven.

Yes, I told my wife as she brushed away a tear. “The God I believe in would not turn Uncle Bert away. Uncle Bert was a kind, decent and honest man. If he doesn’t go to heaven, then it’s no place I want to be.”

The Church tenets were designed to keep people alive. Although its doctrines are fear-based, the intent, I think, was more practical and based in necessity.

God, I believe, is sad that Uncle Bert is no longer with us. But I believe in a loving and forgiving God, a God who understands and accepts our human follies. Would you turn away your child if he or she made a mistake?

Laura and her cousins have much closer realtionships than I ever had with any of my cousins. They get together frequently every year. So I know Peggy and Liz (two of Bert’s four children) as well as any of my in-laws.

Peggy and Liz are amazing women with families of their own. Their father’s better traits are certainly apparent in the way they raise their own children.

I just hope Uncle Bert knows what a special gift he gave me by openly expressing a vote of confidence in my struggles to be a stepfather.

As someone who spent the better part of a decade struggling with severe depression and at least two serious suicide attempts, I was shaken to learn that Uncle Bert went through with his shuffling of life’s mortal coil.

I just hope God knows what He is doing, and I hope we all learn from the lessons that are so readily available in every day living.

Uncle Bert is gone and will not be here for this Christmas or any other, but I choose to remember that sly grin and gentle demeanor. And I know that all the streets in heaven will be well-paved, at least in the smoking section.