I didn't know what to say or write. I've been wrestling with questions relating to my passions.
What am I passionate about?
What's happened to my passions?
Have they faded away? Dried up?
Has someone or something extinguished my passions?
My passions seem to have disappeared. At the very least they aren't the driving force they were a few years ago. I know my many years of dealing with unstable mental health have a lot to do with that.
Who, what why, how? Can I do something to reignite my passions?
I was passionate about many things: Music, Mental Health, My Faith, My Marriage, My Kids, Sports, Reading, Learning. I was driven by them all.
Four years ago I burnt out at work. Some of my passions were overwhelmed by depression and anxiety. But where are they now?
On October 13, 2011 I blogged about my passion for music. (see: Where Did The Music Go?). Two weeks ago Heidi asked me if the passion might return if I started listening to my music again. I didn't respond, nor have I dug out my library of CDs and MP3s. (I've even got some vinyl in the storage room.) I've thought about it... a lot! But something holds me back. I think it's fear; fear of losing control again, fear of opening the door to the return of chaos.
I still feel nudged to fill the silence with music again. About a month ago Heidi and I began watching the TV show The Singoff. What an awesome show with incredible musicians. I especially enjoy the groups that push the creative edge in their interpretations of popular songs and artists. Last week I shared this TV show with my daughter and a good friend. We watched a number of clips on You Tube. My daughter introduced me to another group that does music differently. I marveled at their gifts and musical style.
Astonishingly, I was able to sleep afterwards. The music did not keep spinning and growing, pushing my mind into racing faster and faster. Is it safe for me to open the music box further or will it be a Pandora's box?
The flames of my faith have died down to a few small tongues of flame and glowing embers. I want to and need to refuel the fire, but I wonder do I have enough energy to maintain and grow the fire? I need a lot of help here, Lord!
I love our kids. I'm proud of them and the way they are striking out on their own adult paths. I still worry about them and pray God's protection and blessing on them. I'd like to have more regular contact with them, but I don't want to be an irritant to them. I like getting together with them, but I'm also glad they have their own homes to go to. How do I balance this?
I used to be nuts about sports. I enjoyed participating in unstructured games of football, baseball, ball hockey, volleyball, basketball, and on rare occasions tin can cricket. I really liked golfing even though I'm horrible at it. I cycled a lot. If there was any kind of sports on TV, I watched it. Now the only thing I do is ride my bicycle, and I have to be careful that I don't push it too hard because my knees complain and then give out on me. I still watch sports on TV but it's usually just CFL and bits and pieces of NFL games. The occasional soccer game and Australian rules football are also interesting in small doses. The rest usually just puts me to sleep. I need to do more regular walking and cycling to improve my fitness level, but my lack of discipline is a serious issue here.
I have a great marriage - at least I think so. I couldn't ask for a better wife and I make sure I tell Heidi that regularly. I wonder and hope that I'm doing enough to keep Heidi as happy and content as I am. I certainly want to do that. I want to show her my love. Sometimes the depression drains me of so much energy that it becomes very difficult to do my share in our relationship and home. I don't like that.
I love to read. For too many years I was unable to focus and concentrate so my reading dropped off. Now I read a lot again. I can even read as I'm riding my stationary bike. I just have to make sure my perspiration doesn't drop on the page. (TMI?)
Mental Health? God gave me a passion for making a difference in people's lives. He put me in job where I could do just that. I was an advocate, educator, resource developer and public speaker. I challenged systems, services, and individuals to do things differently and better. I corrected a Senator that was heading up the Mental Health Commission of Canada at a stakeholders forum even though one person told me that was a no-no; I corrected the Minister of Health at a fund raising banquet. I even challenged the man who signed my paycheque when I felt it was necessary. My job took me coast to coast, into the U.S. and to every health region here in Manitoba except Churchill. I gave lectures at the University of Manitoba, The University of Brandon, and the University of Winnipeg. I presented a seminar/workshop at the Winnipeg Police Cadet training program for several years. God opened those doors for me even though I only have a High School education.
Then the job changed. The program I was responsible for was moved to a different organization. I was restricted in what I did, I was told I could not participate in challenging some organizations that weren't fulfilling their provincially funded mandate because it would cause political problems for my employer. I was told that my highest priority was to help build the organization. That's not what I signed on for. That was not what God had sent me to do. I pushed on for another 3 years, then I burnt out. I was done, my energy and passion tank was bone dry.
I no longer feel called to tackle mental health system and service issues like I once did. I don't have the energy to provide support and assistance to struggling people as a full time job. I can and still do it on occasion, but I am disinclined to maintain that support if the other person is not willing to do their share and take responsibilty for their own healing. I don't have the energy.
I thought my passion for mental health had withered away.
I may have been mistaken.
Last Tuesday I got a phone call from our pastor. He's doing another series of God In The Movies and the next one was A Beautiful Mind. He wanted to focus on mental illness and the church's role and responsibility to people struggling with these disorders. Would I share a bit of my story? I could have 10 minutes, maximum 15, then I was going to get cut off. I told the pastor I'd get back to him. Heidi and I discussed it and then I phoned back and said I'd do it.
I spent the rest of the day thinking about what to say in such a short time frame. Heidi would periodically try to help me out with suggestions, but my responses may have been a little gruff. Although her intentions were good, she was interfering with my process of organizing my thoughts. She went to bed at 10:30 p.m., and then I was able to start writing. I finished my first draft at about 2:30 a.m. and fired it off to the pastor in an email. Then I went to bed but I couldn't sleep. My mind wouldn't slow down, I reviewed what I had written as I lay there in the dark. I realized I had missed a few important pieces. I got up and booted my computer up again. I needed to add these pieces before I forgot them again. But making additions required deletions of what I had already written so that I would stay within the time frame. I finished my 2nd draft and fired off another email. As I clicked 'send' I heard the alarm go off signalling that it was time for me to get up, shower and head off to my Wednesday morning coffee and Bible study. It was 4:45 a.m. I was quite wound up. Heidi suggested I take an extra pill so that the other guys would have a chance to speak. I declined.
I told the guys I hadn't slept at all and struggled to keep from yawning and falling asleep. Then I heard one of the guys say something mental health related that was incorrect. I woke up and spoke up. I started teaching, way more than was necessary. The guys started laughing because I was so animated. Ok, maybe there is a remnant of passion here.
I stayed awake the rest of the day, occasionally going back to what I had written, tinkering with a word here and there. All day long I questioned whether or not I was saying the right things. Heidi went to the church that evening to take care of a volunteer task she had committed herself to. She came home and told me that she had bumped into our pastor there and they had a brief chat. He was apparently pleased with what I had prepared. Ok - it was a relief to hear that.
The rest of the week I felt a steady increase in my level of anxiety. Thursday afternoon I had an appointment with my psychiatrist. After listening to my description of what was going on and my up and down cycles of depression and anxiety, he raised the possibility that I might be dealing with a form of bipolar disorder instead of cycles of depression and anxiety. This was not the first time I had heard that. I had considered that very same diagnosis in the mid 1990s and mentioned it to the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time. The idea was dismissed, after all, he was the psychiatrist, not me.
So here it was again. Maybe I'm dealing with bipolar disorder. I started on a new medication. We'll see if that makes a difference once the dosage gets high enough.
But what do I do with my story that I had prepared for Sunday morning? Do I rewrite it to include this new development? Does it really make a difference to the message I'm trying to convey? I could use up more than 15 minutes just taking about this new development.
I decided to leave my story as I had written it except for one small change. I corrected one piece of information based on what I had learned in this latest appointment.
I knew what I had written was good. I knew I was a good public speaker, I had spoken on at least 500 occasions in the years on my last job. Heidi kept affirming me and boosting me. Nevertheless, the anxiety kept rising. Heidi asked me what I was worried about. I couldn't answer her question because there was no logical explanation. That's the nature of an anxiety disorder.
Saturday evening we went to visit some dear friends. There were 10 of us at this little gathering. We had a wonderful evening and it was a great distraction for me. I had shared that I was speaking in church the following morning, but it remained as a side note throughout our visit. Near the end of the evening a couple of chapters of a soon to be published book were read. Among other things I heard words that I had written months ago. The words conveyed a little passion for mental health stuff. The evening was closed with prayer including prayer for myself and what I had to say.
I slept right through the night - an unusual occurence for me. That's a lie. I got up once for a bathroom break but then I went right back to sleep. It was a better sleep than I had experienced in a long time.
Sunday morning. I considered not having coffee but decided that since I was already shaking, caffeine couldn't make it worse. Heidi wanted me to eat something. I declined. Adding food to a very nervous stomach never strikes me as a wise thing to do. We prayed. Prayer is always good.
We took my mother along. She had never heard me speak and she had never heard me share my story. It was time. One of my brothers and sisters-in-law as well as one of their daughters was also there. They too had never heard me speak.
It was an incredible morning. The pastor delivered a message on the church and mental illness that should be heard in every church. I got through my story and sensed the audience's responsiveness. I was glad when it was over.
People came up to me and thanked me, affirmed me. Two people asked me if I would email them a copy of what I had just shared. A special friend was there and he gave me a big hug. This friend also happens to be my psychiatrist. His wife was with him and she also affirmed the message.
My family affirmed me. My mother said I was a very good speaker.
Sitting in my chair at home I still felt on edge. I was used to debriefing after speaking in public. Heidi was there, willing to talk, but she couldn't provide what I needed. She's too nice, too affirming, too positively biased.
I had so many questions. Yes, the personal affirmations were very nice. They are wonderful strokes to my ego and provide a warm, fuzzy glow. I'll never turn them down. But they don't address my purpose.
Did my words have an impact? Did they encourage the people that needed encouragement? Did they educate people that needed to be educated? Did they challenge the people that needed to be challenged? Did they offend anyone? Did they need to be offended? Did I make the people that don't 'give-a-damn' squirm a bit?
How many people remembered what was said once they got to their cars and started driving home?
I usually like to have some quiet 'down time' following a time where I shared like I did. It lets the adrenaline dissipate, my mind slows back down, and I rest from the tremendous output of energy that speaking like this is for me.I couldn't do it yesterday. Our sons came over in the afternoon to celebrate my son's birthday. We watched a little football, drank a couple beers, ate too much Chinese food, shot some pool, watched a little hockey while eating birthday cake and then the boys went home.
I was spinning, unsettled. Heidi and I watched a little TV, I read a couple wonderfully affirming emails, and then we went to bed. Heidi rubbed my feet to get me out of my head. I slept.
This morning I read more emails. More affirmations.
One wonderful, caring friend suggested I blog this experience. Thank-you. This has helped.
For those who are curious or interested, here's what I said yesterday. (with minor editing).
Heidi & I have both personally experienced mental illness on 3 levels; as someone who lives with a mental illness; as a family member of someone with a mental illness; and as someone that has worked in the mental health system.
Over the decades of my life I have gone through mind numbing depression, terrifying anxiety and heart-stopping panic, but also euphoria, and dreams and ideas that raced along keeping me awake for days on end. On one occasion I experienced some disturbing visual hallucinations. For many years I had no idea how to make sense of what I was going through and the confusion, anger, embarrassment, guilt, shame, and humiliation connected with the consequences of the chaos was spirit-crushing; it only served to further undermine my already fragile mental and emotional health.
I love to laugh, to be challenged, dream, and pursue opportunities to learn, grow, and try new things. However, I have no control over when or where the waves of depression and panic assault me and roll over me. Despite knowing that life is good, depression drains me of energy; all sense of joy vanishes and is replaced by the darkness of gloom and misery. In the grips of depression I am easily frustrated, always on the edge of anger, my thoughts race all over the place, I can’t focus or concentrate, I lose interest in everything, I isolate myself, and sleep days away without feeling rested. My passion for life is displaced by a debilitating apathy, hopelessness, helplessness and despair. The last line of Psalm 88 describes it so well: Darkness was my only companion. (Book of Common Prayer. 1979)
The havoc cost me many opportunities, tens of thousands of dollars, friendships, and was a significant factor in the breakdown of my first marriage. My goal of becoming a classical violinist gradually disintegrated in this repetition of high and low cycles. I lost my independence and spent 3 years on welfare, living in a group home.
Suicide! I spent years living with a tape running on continuous loop in the back of my mind. These never-ending thoughts reminded me of how miserable I was, what a complete failure I was as a man and human being, what a disappointment I was to everyone that cared about me. Even when things were going well, they did not cease. The darkness constantly stressed that the good times were not going to last, that everything was going to fall apart, just like it always did. I should just give up and kill myself. It took a lot of energy and determination to choose to stay alive just one more day.
I’ve been on anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, anti-anxiety, and anti-side effect medications; sometimes all of the above at the same time. Some are dangerously addictive. The first medication I got permanently damaged my kidneys. Some meds caused severe weight gain. Others have caused a severe allergy to sunlight and heat. I have gaps in my memory due to medication side effects. I developed Parkinsons like symptoms which ceased when my meds were changed. An anti-psychotic medication left me unable to think clearly, blurred my memory, and damaged my eyesight. I completely understand why some people refuse to take their meds.
Things did get better - slowly. In April 1991, 3 months before my 37th birthday, I was finally diagnosed with depression. Although the diagnosis has changed, getting a diagnosis was a relief. Now I knew that there was a reason for all the devastation. It wasn’t because of a character flaw or personal weakness. It wasn’t the guilt of sin or a lack of faith. I wasn’t crazy.
So what helped?
· The diagnosis was a good beginning. It gave the doctor a place to start with treatment and gave me the opportunity to educate myself about my illness and what I needed to do to get better.
· Medications. It took a little over 4 years, but eventually the doc found the right combination and dosage of meds that made a difference.
· Counseling helped me sort out issues and come up with solutions.
· I have a psychiatrist whom I trust and who trusts me and we work well together. He's also my friend.
· Friends reached out to me, supported me, listened to me, believed in me and encouraged me.
· Family – even though they didn’t all understand my struggles, I was never rejected or ostracized like too many people are. Doors were always open.
· My church community accepted me and included me as a valued member of the body.
· My skills, abilities and experiences were recognized and I was provided opportunities to develop a new career.
· Meaningful employment. I was able to harness my passion and work in a career that made a difference in other people’s lives.
· My faith. Even in the darkest days there was no doubt in my mind that God had a plan and purpose for me – that he was going to use me and my experiences in a powerful and meaningful way.
· Best of all - Heidi. God has blessed me with an amazing, beautiful, loving, giving, supporting, understanding, patient, encouraging, faithful wife.
I could go on for a long time, but Gerry will throw me off this stage if I don’t end soon.
Let me finish with this.
If you have a mental illness your life is not over. Mental illness can be overcome! I personally know people with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and other mental disorders that have Master’s Degrees and PhDs. They are doctors, social workers, lawyers, teachers, business owners, artists, and so on.
If you’re struggling, get help. Don’t let fear and shame trap you in misery.
Educate yourself about your illness, medications, and what you can do to help your healing.
Work with your doctor. Good, open, honest communication is essential to the healing process.
If you are prescribed meds, take them. If you don’t like them, negotiate with your doc for something different.
Familiarize yourself with the resources available in our community and use them!
Connect with other people experiencing the same thing as you. You won’t feel so alone.
As far as possible, take responsibility for your own life and behaviour. Remember, having a mental illness is not a licence for deliberate poor choices and behaviour.
Talk to God! Even if you can’t focus enough to read your Bible, keep talking to Him. You can cry to him, yell at him; express whatever is on your heart. He can handle it. He understands.
Now - if you are trying to help someone like me that’s struggling -
Be patient! Mental illness is tough and healing is a slow process.
Educate yourself about my illness and how you can help. Don’t hound me with questions. It’s possible that I can’t explain what is going on or what I’m feeling because I’m still trying to make sense of it. Don’t ask me to do your homework for you! I don’t have the energy.
There are a number of mental health self-help groups and a provincial mental health resource library at #4 Fort St. These are freely accessible to all Manitobans. Use them.
Do not judge me! Do not condemn me! Do not make assumptions about me! Unless you’ve experienced it yourself, you cannot know what this is like.
Do not treat me like a child. I may be ill, but I’m still an adult. Don’t take away my dignity.
Don’t try to fix me. Don’t give advice. Don’t direct me or try to manage me. Just be there and listen.
Don’t avoid me because you don’t know what to say to me. It’s ok to tell me that you care but you don’t know what to say.
When you greet me don’t ask me how I’m doing unless you really care and are prepared to take the time to listen to me. If you don’t want to hear my tale of woe, DON'T ASK. A simple greeting of “it’s good to see you” works quite well and you can quickly go on your way.
Get comfortable with silence. It’s peaceful and comforting to just sit quietly.
Remember that mental illness is exhausting. If I spend the whole day on the couch in my pajamas you need to know that it probably took every bit of energy I had just to get out of bed. If you’re visiting – keep it short. It’s ok to leave after 10 or 15 minutes. Or sooner.
Don’t give up on me. Don’t coerce or pressure me into doing things. Invite me to participate. If I decline, accept it and try again another time.
Don’t quote Romans 8:28 to me, especially in the midst of my spirit crushing emotional and mental pain. It’s not helpful and will likely only tick me off. (I was going to use a more colorful word, but I restrained myself.)
Pray. If I ask for prayer don’t say yes unless you’re going to follow through. If I don’t ask for prayer, please pray. Just don’t tell me you’re praying for me. Telling me what you’re doing for me only adds to my burden of guilt and shame. Remember, this is not about you.
Send flowers, cards, gifts; come visit. Did you know that it is extremely rare for a psychiatric patient to receive flowers, cards or visitors, especially while they’re in hospital? Why is that?
Take care of yourself. Talk to someone. You need support and encouragement too. Just do it away from me. If you make me aware of your own pain caused by my struggles, you just pile it on top of the overwhelming burden I am already carrying.
Read the Psalms. So many of them express the pain and anger that people with mental illness go through. They also express the hope, comfort, and confidence we can only find in God.
I could go on and on. If you want to talk to Heidi or me, call Gerry – he’ll connect us. I rarely turn down an opportunity to chat over a good cup of coffee.
After this experience I fully believe I am no longer called to do what I used to do in mental health. That task is done. I still have things to say, and God will direct me to where and when I'm to say them.