Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Christmas Gift

In the early years of living with bipolar disorder I had the experience of being hospitalized twice on Christmas Day. On one of these particular days I was given a day pass to come home to spend the holiday with my parents. This was particularly difficult (and even more so for my Mom and Dad, I suspect).

This same scenario has been played out countless times over the years for many individuals. The simple act of going home for the day only to have to return to the hospital can be demoralizing. In many cases, those who are in an inpatient program don’t have the supports available to help them get a coveted day pass. For others, their condition is so severe that getting out for the day wouldn’t be advisable due to their lack of stability.

Regardless, the holiday season is difficult for many people who live with a mental health condition. The feelings of isolation and disconnection make an already hard time of year even harder.

And then there are those who live with substance use disorders. The family gatherings that often times are alcohol-focused can be tremendously hard for the person in recovery who is trying to remain abstinent. And with so many living with co-occurring disorders, it’s like the classic “double whammy” that makes this time of year one of the hardest to manage. Finding others who are supportive is crucial in getting through these days.

For me, over time as I progressed in my recovery, things got better. Once I got clean and stopped using, I experienced a newfound freedom; one that I had never previously had. This didn’t happen overnight, but as time passed things improved. Being released from the bondage of drug and alcohol use that kept me incapacitated for so many years was an incredible gift.

In my personal recovery journey, I attribute this freedom to several things. First, a sincere belief in a Power greater than myself. Second, family and friends who have been supportive in so many ways. And finally, a degree of persistence and perseverance that has created in me an indomitable spirit that has proven to help me overcome so many adverse situations in my life that would have otherwise broken my spirit.

The main thing that I have come to realize is that recovery is a process that has taken both time and hard work. Yes, I believe in miracles and I consider the life that I and so many others in recovery have is nothing short of a gift from God. And yes, trust me, I have been the beneficiary of God’s grace, in more ways than I can count. But as I say in my mantram, “RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE!”

If you find yourself in a difficult place this year, know that there is a Presence that loves you. Unfortunately, our society places so much value on the holiday season. And yes, there is the belief that it should be a happy time for everyone. But true happiness comes from within. With this understanding, you can realize that you are never truly alone.

However, if you know someone who finds themselves without anyone to spend the holiday, let them know that you care. Whether it be a visit or even a phone call, reaching out can make a difference. This is a gift that cannot be wrapped in a bow and paper. It is the gift of love. This is what the Christmas season is about. God’s love becoming manifest in a baby that would transform the world. And by following his example, we can make the world a less lonely place.

Wishing you hope, peace, joy and love in this wondrous season.

Be well! 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Giving Thanks

It’s Thanksgiving Day. This is typically when many celebrate time with family and friends, watch football and if they are fortunate, have a fulfilling meal. And while this is the case for me as well today, I am feeling especially grateful.

I was put up for adoption at the age of six months. One of the many blessings I’ve had in my life is that I was raised by a family that gave me unconditional love and support, even through my period of struggle with mental illness and addiction. I would not be here today without the care and love I received.

As an adoptee, however, I always had questions: What were my birth parents like? What did they look like? What were the circumstances of my birth?

I spent well over 50 years with these questions. For much of this time I resigned myself to believing that I would never find anything out about my biological parents.

Finally, about two years ago I decided to request information from the New York State Adoption Registry. Several months after my submission I received a document that gave very little information; simply the age of my birth parents and their ethnicity.

But about a month or so later I received more detailed non-identifying information from the adoption agency that holds my adoption records. In this document, I learned some significant things. For instance, I learned that my parents had met in college. It also gave information on their ethnicity, appearance and even their interests. It also stated that my mother had blonde hair and blue eyes! Now that flipped me out considering that I’ve got dark hair and brown eyes. Didn’t see that one coming.

As a result, I decided to search further and sent for an Ancestry DNA kit. Once it arrived, I spit into the little tube, shook it up, and sent it in for testing. About 5-6 weeks later I received an email that my results were in. The first thing I saw was that my ethnic make-up is about 2/3 Caucasian and 1/3 African.

My report also had information on “matches” – people who shared some of the same genetic background I do. I attempted to contact a couple of these individuals with no success. Dismayed, I ended up deleting the app from my phone, thinking that I would never make a connection. All of that effort for nothing.

But then came the fateful day. It was Father’s Day, 2017, one day before my birthday. That evening I received an email from a woman who claimed to be related. I was dumbstruck and astounded at the same time.

This woman, Greta, explained that she had been trying to get information on her birth father’s family and that she and her mother Jan, who was assisting her, came across my Ancestry profile and subsequent match with another family member (who ironically wanted nothing to do with finding out any information).

We agreed to communicate with each other and I was on Cloud 9. We eventually confirmed through another genealogy website that we are second cousins. Greta and her mother then took on the task of searching on my behalf to find my birth mother, who they believed may still be alive.

It was at this time that I decided to reload the Ancestry DNA app on my phone. Shortly after having done so another person appeared as a match. In this case, the person, Charlotte, was identified as a “first cousin, close family member.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. I immediately sent her a message and she responded shortly afterwards. We set up a time to talk. When we spoke, I learned that she too was adopted, and like me, her mother was white and her father was black. We determined that our fathers must be brothers. Unfortunately, she knew no more than I did about our birth fathers. But nonetheless, we were thrilled to have made a connection.

The summer went on and I continued to correspond with Greta and Jan. Eventually, on October 29 I spoke with Greta and Jan again. This time they informed me that they were pretty certain that my mother Jane (not her real name) was still alive. Unfortunately, Greta explained that it was told to her that Jane lives with a serious mental health disorder. This would account for my life experience with bipolar disorder. I can’t say I was surprised to hear this although it was still very saddening. Greta also confirmed that I have three half-siblings. I couldn’t believe my ears.

Greta said she had more information to share and would be in touch shortly thereafter. That day I had to leave for the Beaver Hollow Conference Center (referenced in my last post). That evening, after having settled in, I received several emails. One was titled, “Pictures of Jane,” another entitled “Pictures of Half Siblings,” and the final one was “Important Information.”

I quickly opened the emails with the pictures and was astounded to see a picture of my mother from 1968 holding my oldest half-sibling Tammy (name changed). Jane had the biggest smile on her face. There were also a couple of other pictures, including one of Jane when she was about ten years old.

The pictures of my siblings were great as well. There was a group photo that included Tammy, my other half-sister Carrie, and my half-brother Tom (names changed). I was absolutely awestruck by all of this information. Greta explained that Tom had agreed to correspond through Facebook.

So, there I was, at this conference center, with no phone reception. Fortunately, there was wi-fi so I could at least text and Facetime with my wife and a couple of close friends. I felt alone and separated but I felt God’s presence comforting me.

Finally, on November 1, at around 11:30 pm I decided to send a message to Tom. At that moment, I got extremely anxious. Now, I’m not prone to anxiety but I was literally shaking as I typed the message. I started by saying, “Hi Tom. It’s a bit awkward to say, but how are you?”

And that’s where it began. We messaged back and forth for the next couple of days and then agreed to speak on the following Sunday. When the day arrived, I was so excited. I called Tom and we proceeded to talk for about 1 ½ hours. We had a wide-ranging conversation, much of which was about our own lives as well as that of Tom’s knowledge of Jane. I learned that she has not been a part of Tom and is sister’s life for many years. This is due to her mental health disorder and her estrangement from the family which was something that Tom and his sisters have come to terms with.

Later that week I also spoke with Tammy and Carrie. Each one of them was very open and welcoming, as was Tom. I felt an extra sense of welcoming and acceptance which I’m extremely grateful for this considering that in so many ways it could have been different.

Carrie has made plans to visit me and my family in the end of January and I’m hoping that we will have the opportunity to all get together in the not too distant future.

This past weekend I was able to meet Charlotte in person. It was such a wonderful experience. The simple fact that I was able to look someone in the eye and see a piece of myself was something I never thought I’d be able to do. Charlotte’s beautiful countenance shone brightly and we connected immediately. Her husband Jon accompanied her and his warm demeanor made our meeting just that much better.

Please forgive me for this extra-long post. There is just so much that I need to say. When I was at Beaver Hollow with my feelings being churned in a blender I came through the experience with a newfound sense of faith in God. I can say, without hesitation, that God is at work in my life. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up folks. Looking back at my life I have come to realize that God has manifested through the people in my life. And the circumstances of the last 5 months have served to prove that to me.

So, if you believe in God or not, believe that I do.

Be well!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Higher Ground: A Path to Healing and Wholeness

This past week I had the opportunity to serve as a mental health resource for a program called Higher Ground. Based in Idaho. Higher Ground programs use innovative sports and recreation therapies to enhance the quality of life for our injured military community as well as children, teens, and adults with disabilities.

I was involved with the veterans program that was conducted at the Beaver Hollow Conference Center which is located in Java, New York, about 45 minutes Southeast of Buffalo. The center also serves a site for one of the four Biggest Loser camps, which pattern themselves after the long-running TV program of the same name. The participants all live with a variety of physical and mental concerns including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury and Multi-trauma. There was also, professional staff on hand, including Higher Ground’s Director of Operations, Rich Cardillo, Military Program Specialist Chris Dooley, Recreational Therapist Natasha Rosenbloom and Northeast Regional Coordinator Patrick Welch.

Going in to the week I knew instinctively that it would be a great experience. Personally, I was looking forward to getting away and slowing down. Frankly, I was pretty fried. The two days of the work week leading up to the event I conducted three presentations and facilitated a panel discussion for my day job at the Mental Health Association of Erie County and Compeer Buffalo. While the programs all went well, I was ready for a break. But I digress.

The five primary days of the program each revolved around a theme: Day 1 was Building Bonds, Day 2 was Healing Tools, Day 3 was Live Your Passions, Day 4 was I Am Enough and Day 5 was Taking the Next Step.

Each day was comprised of a number of activities that served to establish camaraderie and shared experiences designed to support the participants. The men in the program live with a variety of physical and mental wounds of combat. These concerns significantly impacted their daily lives in some form or fashion. Along with the six veterans there were two companions that accompanied their family member and friend.

The start of each day included an hour of ‘gentle stretching,” led by Michael, a yoga instructor and one of the center’s staff. The other activities included kayaking (done in an indoor pool due to the inclement weather), a “catapult challenge” where the group was divided into two teams and each one had to fashion a device to launch three potatoes in an attempt to get as close as possible to a buoy in the lake on the property, and a trip to the center’s fitness facility which once again included more friendly competition utilizing the gym’s equipment.

There were also several opportunities to fish at the lake which proved to be exciting considering there were a number of successful catches over the last two days. Amidst the physical activities, there were also several learning opportunities centering around nutrition, wellness and goal setting.

Wednesday was devoted to a field trip to Letchworth State Park. This particular day I was away at a state conference in Lake George, New York presenting a 3-hour workshop on the theme of wellbeing.

Each day included an hour of “processing” at the conclusion of the day’s programming which allowed the folks to participate in a discussion about the theme of the day as well as any other topics that were relevant to the program. This included exercises to build self-esteem and bolster self-confidence.

To go along with the activities there were high quality, nutritious meals. They mirrored the meal plan that the other Biggest Loser camp was utilizing with the exception that the portion sizes were larger and there were some sugary beverages.

Now to the real thing. On the first evening, there was the sense that some of the participants were not exactly keen on being there. This was much due to their life situation and the sense of being uncomfortable with the idea of being away from the comforts and security of their homes.

But on the first full day, there was a miraculous transformation that took place. Almost immediately, the men began to bond with each other. They shared their common experiences of being in combat situations as well as the challenges of acclimating to civilian life. The level of sharing and intimacy was remarkable. As the week progressed, the men (and one family member) all opened themselves up to experience things they never had done before, not to mention sharing very personal feelings about military life.

I am not a veteran. So, I do not have the perspective that these men have. But being a witness to their courage and strength is something that I got so much from. I’ve always respected our military but this week’s experience greatly increased the amount of respect I have for our men and women in uniform. I learned that a soldier’s word truly is his/her bond and that there is a special connection between those who have served.

I also learned that there is healing in recreation and play. It’s a simple concept but Higher Ground’s approach to helping veterans work through their various combat-related issues is highly effective. I observed an incredible change in demeanor, attitude and behavior in all of the participants.

So, what does this mean to the vast majority of the U.S. population that has not been in service to our country like our warriors. Basically, it demonstrates that we need to be more sensitive to the needs to those who have selflessly given their lives for our country. According to U.S. Department of Defense statistics, 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Programs like Higher Ground serve to preserve the dignity of our veterans and provide them with an opportunity to find healing in what to the outside observer may seem like “fun and games.” But it’s much more than that. And I can state that based on what I observed. I know that I was personally affected by the various activities (and I did participate in all of them).

I feel fortunate to have been “on the inside” to get a glimpse of the life that most have never seen. PTSD, TBI and trauma are all life altering in so many ways. The unique means of introducing recreational activities to assist veterans in finding a path to wholeness is unique and powerful. This is yet another example that follows my mantra of “Recovery is Possible.”