Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Becoming the Best I Can Be

In January, 1988 I got clean. It was a very exciting but scary time. The future was very murky; kind of like looking into the waters of Lake Erie after a heavy rainfall. I had no idea what the future what would hold and this uncertainty created a sense of fear of the “what ifs?”

Prior to me getting clean and during my active addiction I had a family friend named Sherrell. She was a former neighbor who became somewhat of a mentor and spiritual guide to me. She helped me greatly during those early years to maintain some sense of direction despite my poor condition.  

In around May of that same year I got clean, Sherrell said to me, “I think it’s time for you to see Mr. Moore.” I had no idea who that was so I said, “Who’s he?” She replied, “He is an astrologer.”

“Oh,” I replied. Now mind you, I had never been to an astrologer however I was open to the idea. I mentioned the referral to my mother who was very much against the idea, but I contacted Mr. Moore anyway.

When I phoned him, I mentioned that my mother tried to dissuade me from seeing him and his reply was, “Don’t you want to learn about your true potential?” He had me hooked. In early recovery, I began to consider the concept of potential and how I could develop personally to become the person I was intended to be. In the psychology world, this is the idea behind self-actualization. So, I made the appointment. I’m not going to bore you with the details of the reading session Mr. Moore provided but suffice it to say, he opened my eyes to the many possibilities of what my life could become. He never guaranteed anything but it was kind of like a weather forecast that is a prediction of what may happen in the future.

In the years since, I have held fast to the concept of potential and how one can create a life that is satisfying in every aspect by using a variety of tools; goal setting, visualization, motivational literature and speakers, recovery-based supports, music, and the arts, to name but a few.

For myself, when I was struggling mentally I would use visualization techniques to “see” myself as the person I wanted to be. I did this in order to become the kind of person who was able to go beyond my self-perceived limitation of living with a mental illness and addiction. This tool is nothing new and has been used by many over the years to achieve goals. I did this when I trained for the two marathons I completed. During my training, I would regularly visualize myself crossing the finishing line. This mental exercise was incredibly valuable and I believe it helped me in the long run (pun intended).

Today I had two separate conversations. One with a friend from my recovery program (who I will call Jeff) and the other with a young man who lives with schizophrenia (who I will call Joe). It was quite remarkable how the two separate conversations were connected. Jeff is  middle-aged, in long-term recovery, and has done a lot of “inside work.” Joe is younger and still in the infancy of recovery and is looking for ways to overcome his illness and find a sense of direction and a better quality of life.

The common denominator was more akin to a “before and after” examination of the concept of human potential. When talking to Jeff it was quite obvious that he has embraced the concept of potential and has used it to help him achieve a life that is more fulfilling. But in the same respect he admits that he still has room to grow.

During this conversation I shared my belief that potential is analogous to repeatedly cutting an inch in half incrementally – one inch to one-half inch to one-quarter inch – and so on. The idea is that it’s possible to keep cutting infinitely while never getting to “zero” which is the ultimate goal. This ties into the idea of perfection. No matter how much I grow and improve myself, there is always more room to improve.

And this is what I love about life. I had a thought come to me in meditation the other day. “We are not perfect, but we are all part of perfection.” Essentially, even though I may not be perfect, I am still a part of the perfection of God, the source of infinite potential.

I’m still trying to figure this stuff out but that is part of the joy of being on the journey we call life. No matter what one’s circumstance, the God of power and grace is present to help us through our struggles and realize our potential, no matter what it may be. And it is different for all of us, kind of like no two snowflakes are identical.

So as I am living in this moment, I can co-create with God the future I am meant to have by using the tools that I have available. And this gives me hope.

So, what do you think? Do you believe you have the potential to go beyond your current station in life? Something to ponder.

Be well!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Winter of My Discontent

As I’m writing this it is 7:01 pm on December 21, 2016. It is the Winter Solstice. And it is the longest night of the entire year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere (and the shortest for those in the Southern Hemisphere). There is so much that is analogous to this day. On the one hand, it’s the start of a new season; a new beginning. On the other, for at least for those of north of the equator, it can be the darkness before the dawn.

As for myself, all of the mania-related bipolar episodes I’ve had have been in the winter. I guess it’s just my time of year. My mood is typically pretty good overall in this season and I do not suffer from any of the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (which can result from a lack of sunlight and produce depression and fatigue, among other conditions). But that doesn’t mean that I don’t experience any negative effects.

For me, this time of year brings back lots of bad memories. Like the time I was in a psychiatric hospital during Christmastime and was given a day pass to be with my family on the holiday, only to have to return that evening to the confines of a place where I did not want to be.

But that was then and this is now. Many years have passed since that ill-fated time. I have gotten healthier. And while I recognize that I have to continue to work on my recovery (every day) I have come to realize that the darkness really can come before the dawn.

There is an old expression: The Dark Night of the Soul. Yes, I know what that is like. It is like when you feel utterly hopeless, devoid of feeling and energy. You are in a hole so deep that there appears to be no way out. Yes, I know what that is like. I have been there. The depressive crash that follows a manic episode can be crushing. Despair is present as is the fear that life will always be that way.

When I experienced my virtually annual bipolar episodes I was then plunged into a pit. How I got through it I sometimes do not know. But what I do know is that at these times I would pray to God to be relieved of the pain I was experiencing. It was brutal. Imagine yourself being unable to get out of bed simply to take a shower or even eat. These instances were not uncommon.

If you’ve read my blog before, you may know how much I love music. It was the one thing that sustained me during all those dark times. One particular song that truly spoke to me was Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street,” which was based on the life of poet Anne Sexton who completed suicide at the age of 46. The true emotion and lyrical beauty of this song served as a counterpoint to the emotions I felt.

But throughout all this time God was present. God (I only use this term as an identifier – I believe that it is impossible to put a name on something so infinite and powerful) felt my pain. God felt my hopelessness. God listened. God heard my cry for help. And God responded.

God’s response came in the form of people and situations that I sometimes cannot explain. You know, the kind of things that go beyond coincidence. Of course, it’s easy to look backwards and connect the dots. Like the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” But it’s more than that. I have had many experiences that I can look back on and see the divinity that was present. Like the time I was first hospitalized in 1981 at the Buffalo General Hospial Community Mental Health Center. There was one aid in particular named Ganim who was infinitely patient with me and helped me to work through the trauma of my first psychotic experience. I don’t know what ever happened to him but I consider people like Ganim to be “angels in the flesh”.

I have many more situations I could point to that would support my thesis. In the end, I have come to realize that the more I believe in the mercy of God’s grace and the concept of “co-creating” with God, the more I am able to realize more of what my life can truly become. It is more of an intuitive feeling than a logical thought. By tapping into the infinite source of the God within I am able to create the life I have agreed to live. What I mean by that is that I am here to learn my many life lessons to prepare me for what comes next.

So despite this time of year being so dark and gloomy I don’t have to carry this feeling in my heart. Yes, it takes work, and even at times medical treatments tor one to get through these dark days but the key is that it is possible. By surrendering to the true knowledge of what God wants for me I am able to deal with whatever comes my way.

Be well in this Holiday Season. The beauty of the Winter Solstice is that we can all celebrate it, no matter what faith tradition we follow (or not).

Be well!
Peter Gabriel
Mercy Street

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Letter to My Younger Bipolar Self

Dear Karl,

I’m so sorry to hear you are having a tough time. I know that what you are going through is very painful and that having bipolar disorder is hard to accept. I’m sure there are times when you just want to quit, but you mustn’t do that. No matter how hard things get you have to promise me you won’t give up. You never know when you’re going to turn the corner and begin to feel better.

There are a few things I’d like to share with you from my experience that may help. First, and this can be hard, stick to your treatment plan. Working with a therapist and psychiatrist can be very helpful. Unfortunately medication, while it can be a good first step, isn’t the only thing you need to do. Medication will help with some of the symptoms you are experiencing but you should consider doing other things, like stop using drugs and alcohol. These substances only serve to undermine the effects of your meds. Finding the right combination can be frustrating and it can take time to get them just right. But when you do, stick with them. Be sure to talk to your psychiatrist about any problems you’re having with them. And by all means, DO NOT stop taking your meds without consulting your psychiatrist.

Another thing to consider is the idea of reaching out for help. I know that you’ve been afraid to tell people about what you’re dealing with but you can’t let that stop you from asking for help. There are people in your life who genuinely care. Think about your activities at Buffalo State and the work you do at the school’s radio station. It it’s pretty obvious that you’re struggling from time to time, but if you’d be willing to talk to some of your friends about what’s going on I’m sure they’d understand. You don’t have to suffer in silence.

The same goes for your classes. If you’d be willing to speak to the staff at the Office for Students with Disabilities perhaps you could receive some accommodations to help you manage your course load. This department can help advocate on your behalf.

I also encourage you to visualize yourself as a whole and complete human being. I’ve learned that when I am able to “see” myself as being healthy and productive, I’m able to create this type of existence. It’s like that song “Legend” you listen to by the group Thinkman that says, “Imagine what you could be.” You see, you make your own reality. This can be accomplished by manifesting the life you want by using the infinite power of God and motivating yourself through setting goals that make you step outside your comfort zone. Anything you will achieve in your life will be the result of envisioning what it is you want and developing a plan to get it.

This ties into the idea of risk taking. I’m not talking about doing something that will be harmful to yourself (or someone else). I’m talking about taking a healthy risk. Get out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or fail. In reality, there is no such thing. If you believe it you can conceive it. If you can conceive it then it can become a reality. The thing to remember is that no matter what, you have the ability to work towards your potential and that your potential is limitless.

Also, trust the process of recovery. Recovery takes time. Just like it takes time for a wound to heal, it takes time for your mental and emotional state to do so as well. This is where persistence and perseverance come in. There will be times when you feel like giving up or you feel stuck. This is not uncommon for anyone, whether they have a mental health challenge or not. By having faith you can do amazing things.

Finally, just know that there’s hope. Hope is something that can keep you going on those really tough days. But take it from me, when you have hope you can get through anything.

So, just know that you can do this. You CAN get better. By putting the pieces into place you can discover the life you’re dreaming of. Recovery IS possible.


Your future bipolar self

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Enduring Addiction and Embracing Recovery

“What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt”
Hurt – Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails

Addiction has been in existence since the dawn of time. Once human beings found something that feels good and changes the way they experience life it was a done deal. Mind you, not everyone is prone to addiction to the traditional things like, you know, drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or gambling, but I truly believe that we all deal with some kind of attachment to something.

For some it can be exhibited in our relationship to money, material things, people, or even exercise (which is commonly believed to be healthy but it too can be taken to an extreme). Whatever it may be, if we are to grow spiritually, we must face these things square in the eye. My experience in my recovery program has made me do this. I acknowledge that despite how long I may be drug-free I still need to address addiction as the condition. The substances/behaviors are merely a symptom.

For many individuals who live with the hurt of addiction, this vicious cycle began early in life, many times due to some kind of trauma. In trauma informed care the question goes from, “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

While I never endured any physical or emotional trauma as a child I still question whether my early childhood experiences are at the root of my addiction. I was adopted at the age of six months and prior to this time I was in foster care. I know very little, if anything, about this experience. But I do wonder if I received the appropriate level of care at such a young age.

Also, I was a latchkey kid. From kindergarten through all my school years I came home to an empty house. This would be grounds for a call to Child Protective Services these days but at the time it was seemingly normal. Now I’m not placing blame on my parents but it simply gets me thinking about whether this may have contributed to my addiction issues later in my life. That would take a great deal of inner work to determine. In my recovery I’ve examined these experiences and believe that there may be some credence to this argument.

Then there’s the physiological element of addiction. As I stated, I was adopted therefore I have no true knowledge of substance use (or mental health) disorders in my family tree. Research has shown that addiction can have a hereditary link so even if there is no environmental cause there can be a genetic component.

But, as the old saying goes, “It is what it is,” and I have to deal with the problem at hand no matter where it comes from. For me, the solution is spiritual in nature. I have come to believe that addiction can be addressed through spiritual means. Now before you jump all over my case and say that addiction can’t just be “prayed away” let me share with you my belief.

If I truly believe that it is through developing a relationship with a Higher Power that I can overcome my addiction then I need to certainly do more than just pray. Recovery is hard work. It means asking for help – from people as well as God. After all, I believe that God often works through people. I have been fortunate and blessed to have many people guide me on my spiritual path. My family, friends, faith and recovery support system have been an invaluable part of what has become a life I once could only dream about. But there are also things in life that cannot be explained in human terms. “Why is this person now in my life?” or “”How did I happen to be in the right place at the right time?”

But what about you? What are your attachments? And how do you deal with them? This is the $64,000 question. If it were that easy then addiction would not even exist. And despite all of the ways that we are trying to manage addiction these days we are still in a crisis.

It is my fervent hope that we will someday find a cure for addiction but I truly don’t think it’s that simple. Until a person addresses the underlying root cause for their addiction then it’s simply like placing a band-aid on a gaping wound. The possibility for relapse will always be there. For all we know we may never find a cure, but addiction can be arrested and recovery is then possible.

It is possible to endure the pain of addiction and embrace the process of recovery. Faith, support (whether it be through formal treatment or social means), and being honest, open-minded and willing to try a new way of living can make a new way of life possible. Recovery is real.

Be well.

as performed by the late Johnny Cash