Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Patience (and Perseverance) of Job

  "O that I might have my request,
and that God would grant my desire;
that it would please God to crush me,
that he would let loose his hand and cut me off!
This would be my consolation;
I would even exult in pain unsparing;
for I have not denied the words of the Holy One.

Job Chapter 6 v 8-10

When I think back on the days of the past when I was in the throes of active addiction and suffering terribly from bipolar disorder I often felt tortured by the madness I endured. The mania I had was often short-lived and was accompanied by delusional thinking that resulted in grandiose messianic beliefs. The crash that followed was in many ways just as debilitating. Depression and hopelessness led to thoughts of suicide. There were occasions where I could not bear living this way, only wishing for a way out. Death seemed like the best option.

But despite all of the pain endured I never turned my back on my Higher Power. And God never turned God’s back on me. I’ve heard many stories of people who have either blamed God due to their unfortunate circumstances of being cursed with such afflictions and have thus denied God’s existence.

In the biblical Book of Job, the story is about someone who endures trial after trial, and was tested by God who allowed Satan to attack him. Through Job’s trials, all is lost including his health, his wife even tells him to curse God and commit suicide, but he remains strong and faithful, “Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.” (1:22).
I chose (and sill choose) to believe otherwise. In my darkest times I recall praying to have my suffering relieved. Now, this could have something to do with my religious upbringing. But I now believe that I needed prayer to alleviate my mental and emotional pain. Prayer was the starting point for me.

I recall the two times I was hospitalized at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. The conditions were very difficult to endure. The other patients suffered from a wide variety of severe mental disorders. I was uncertain what the future would hold for me. Would I remain in this institution for years like some of the others?

There was one particular young man who I recall was dealing with persistent psychosis. He would walk around the day room spelling his name. That’s it. I asked one of the aides what had happened to him and the aide responded that the patient had “taken too much acid.” This alarmed me, considering that I had dabbled in psychedelics myself in the past.

So when I was there I would pray. Hard. Some would call them “foxhole prayers,” but it was more than that. I sincerely wanted to be relieved from my condition.

I was eventually discharged and was, by the grace of God, able to return to school. But this was not the end of the line for my BP symptoms. I continued to abuse substances and had more hospitalizations at the Erie County Medical Center. It was a very confusing time for me. I struggled with my illness but I did not lose faith. And I did not blame God.

One of the primary characteristics of my journey to mental wellness has been patience and persistence. Mind you, like I said, I had times of doubt however I never gave up. I attribute this to a combination of belief in God, a viable support system, hard work, and being willing to step out of my comfort zone. Slowly but surely I began to see results.

When I eventually stopped using substances in 1988 my symptoms subsided considerably. I still had to endure two more hospitalizations (in 1989 and 1995) but I was able to achieve the life I had always prayed for. Since that last episode I have not had to endure any further significant mental health episodes.

In the end, I believe that our lives, whether they be intertwined with mental illness, addiction, or not, can be enhanced by our relationship with the God of our understanding. It is through this relationship that we are able to endure the pain and struggle life brings. This is what perseverance is all about.

Keep the faith!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

God in the Flesh

I’ve had many experiences in my life when things that happened, not by my own doing, resulted in fortuitous consequences. Some would call these instance fate; others destiny; and yet others coincidence. But to me these were examples of God working in my life.

One of the most obvious examples (at least to me) was how I met my wife Suzy. Back in my college days in the mid-80’s I had a couple of close friends, Dan and Mark, with whom I used to hang out with all the time. Much of our relationship revolved around music, whether it be listening to the latest album from Level 42 (Running in the Family) or Peter Gabriel (So) or going to shows at the University at Buffalo Springfest and other venues.

Mark moved to California in the late ‘80’s and met his wife. In 1992, Mark’s sister was hosting a party for Mark, his wife, and their infant son. Dan invited me and I didn’t hesitate to accept. Dan also invited Suzy. She and Mark were lifelong friends having met when they lived in the same neighborhood when they were little kids.

Mark’s sister lived in a small town about 20 miles or so East of Buffalo. This was before GPS so I’m amazed I even found her home. It was the day before Memorial Day and I just planned on going to say a quick hello and then leave.

When I arrived, I walked into the house and was greeted by Mark’s mother Mary Ellen. She immediately introduced me to Suzy. The ironic thing is that, for whatever reason, Dan wasn’t there. If he had been I probably never would have spent any time talking to Suzy. To add to this, Suzy drove the entire way from North Buffalo on a donut spare.

We began to make small talk and she asked what I did for a living. I was actually having a job interview for a counseling position at the Buffalo General Hospital Alcoholism Clinic in two days so I said “I’m and alcoholism counselor.”

“That’s interesting she replied, my father is a psychiatrist.” I then told her that I had the interview scheduled and she informed me that she was the Human Resources/Operations Manager for a local retail department store. I proceeded to ask for some interview tips. And with that the relationship began. I can’t recall exactly how long we spoke but suffice it to say it was a considerable amount of time. And the rest, as they say, is history. 24-plus years later we still love talking to each other.

And that, in my eyes, is how it works. God is manifested in so many ways in our lives through our relationships with others. Have you ever had something happen that involves someone else and your life takes a new direction? I believe that the people in our lives are here (or were) for a reason. Of course, it’s easier to look backwards and connect the dots. But it is also possible to open up our minds to the possibility that right now the people in our lives are here to walk with us on life’s journey and it’s not meant to be walked alone.

The components in the wellness equation can often overlap. I believe this to be the case for that of the social and spiritual areas, whether it be more formally, like one’s worship community, or simply through the relationships we have with others in a broader spiritual context, God is present in all these relationships. The key is being aware of how God is working in these connections.

The concept of social capital reinforces this importance. The broader and more healthy our relationships the better our quality of life. It is through these associations that we are able to live life more fully. And in the same respect, these associations can help manifest God’s presence in our lives.

Think about your life and the people who have been present. There is something to be learned in each one of these relationships. These lessons can be bitter, sweet, or a combination of both. But in the end we can take something away from them to help us grow to become the person that God wants us to be.

As I’ve said, I’ve had many experiences that contribute to my beliefs and I cannot deny God’s presence in these moments. They have, and continue, to help me grow and feel the movement of the Spirit. And for this I am eternally grateful.

“Fortune smiled upon me in my hour of need
I was naked and you came with clothes for me
After years of broken homes, broken hearts and broken dreams
Someone's smiled upon me in my hour of need”

In My Hour of Need - YouTube
The Christians (1990)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

How Did I Get Here?

I often ask myself this question. My journey of recovery began on January 17, 1988 when I attended my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Up until this time my life was a series of out of control circumstances precipitated by a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and a co-occurring addiction disorder.

My life with addiction began in high school in Amherst, New York ( a suburb of Buffalo) when I would drink (episodically) to excess. This led to illicit drug use once I got into college in 1981. My experience with Bipolar Disorder began in my freshman year at General Motors Institute (GMI) in Flint, Michigan. I had a major psychotic episode that resulted with me becoming catatonic and unresponsive. My parents came to Flint, gathered me up, and brought me back home.

The next several years that followed were a series of mind and mood numbing experiences. Alcohol and drug use was accompanied by the features of mania, depression, and subsequent hospitalizations.

Throughout this period I somehow managed to continue my education, albeit periodically interrupted by almost annual visits to some of Buffalo’s finest mental health institutions including (the demolished Buffalo General Hospital Community Mental Health Center, also known as 80 Goodrich), the Erie County Medical Center, and the infamous Buffalo Psychiatric Center. I endured countless medication treatments and even ECT.
 Yes, these were challenging times. But alas, by the grace of God I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcasting in 1987.

I had also been in outpatient treatment, first with private psychiatrists and then linked with Horizon Health Services, the area’s largest mental health and addiction service provider. I had managed to land a job at Select Sound Recording Studios as an engineering technician, and was introduced to the world of music production.

While at Select Sound I was being seen by a therapist at Horizon named Dick Heffron. Dick was a post-Vietnam era vet who happened to be in recovery from alcoholism. He had a profound way of connecting with me. He could also see through me and where I was headed. At a life-changing session on January 13, 1988 he gave me an ultimatum: either to rehab, go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, or end up back in the hospital. Well needless to say, I took the path of least resistance and went to the meeting.

It was on Friday, January 15 (MLK’s birthday – “Free at last!). I went under the influence of half the joint I had smoked and I was nervous. But I recall a woman standing up and getting her 30-day clean key tag. And I said to myself, “If she can do it, so can I!” And thus began my recovery journey.

In the time since I returned to school and became a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor. I worked for six years in the field and during that time I earned my Master’s in Student Personnel Administration from SUNY Buffalo. I then entered the world of higher education and spent 12 years primarily in the area of college admissions.

But during the end of this period I began to have the desire to share my recovery story. I ended up connecting with several individuals from the local mental health community. I even wrote a piece for the Buffalo News that focused on the stigma associated with mental illness and served as a public “coming out” about my Bipolar condition. In retrospect I was quite na├»ve about the whole thing. If I were to do it all over again I may have been more cautious. But I guess it’s too late for that.

This work catapulted me into the world of mental health. I began to facilitate a group at Horizon Health Services and was eventually hired full-time to work in a day program for individuals with serious mental illness. This opportunity taught me so much about mental illness but more than anything I gained a profound sense of empathy for those living with mental disorders.

I was given the opportunity to serve on the Board of Directors for the Mental Health Association of Erie County and was eventually hired as the Director of Community Advocacy for the Erie MHA and Compeer of Greater Buffalo.

In the over 2 ½ years since I’ve been in my current position I have had an incredibly satisfying experience working in the community. I get a chance to teach others about mental health as well as serve as a voice for those who so often go unheard.

I’ve been a blogger for the last six years, first for Healthyplace.com and then, most recently, for BP magazine. I enjoy writing and sharing my experience strength and hope. Hence the name of this blog.

So join me, won’t you, as I explore recovery, wellness, and everything in-between.