Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Risky Business

It was 2006 and I was working at Daemen College, a small private institution located in a suburb of Buffalo, New York. It was late March. I served as the Associate Director of Graduate Admissions. I was in my office when my supervisor, Donna Shaffner, came in and sat in the chair next to me. “Is this your lucky day?” she asked. “What do you mean?” I replied. She responded, “Do you want to go to China?” I was floored. Daemen had a relationship with an agency that helped us to recruit students from China and there were periodic trips taken by staff and administrators to facilitate the process.

Now first of all I had never flown oversees. My longest trip was when I was 14 when me and my parents took a trip to Acapulco. And that was long before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In many respects, I didn’t have much of a choice. Donna had gone previously and I don’t think she was keen on the idea of going again. The thing to note is that at the time no one at the college knew about me having bipolar disorder. I was fortunately able to do my job without any problems associated with my bp.

I didn’t have much time to even think about the whole thing. It was scheduled within a few weeks. I didn’t have a passport so the school fast-tracked one with a visa to allow me to make the trip.

I experienced the typical anxiety anyone would have regarding such a long flight (13 hours from Chicago O’Hare to Beijing). I had enough sense to tell my psychiatrist who prescribed me Ambien. But being the total amateur traveler, I left it in my stowaway luggage.

I traveled with Mike Brogan, who was a Dean at the college. Mike had made several of these trips before. The flight was long – very long. I did not sleep. And then there was the turbulence. With a flight this long they are to be expected however I recall going through some so bad that the one of the flight attendants even commented on how long they were lasting.

We arrived in Beijing, weary and worn. BUT, I survived. One of the first things I did was to take an Ambien. One feature of my bp is that when I am awake too long my brain goes into overdrive – big time.

The trip lasted 9 days; just long enough to get used to the time change and then have to turn around and come back home. I saw things that were incredible – The Forbidden City, the Terra Cotta Warriors, and the vast sea of humanity that is found in many of China’s burgeoning cities.

I arrived home thankful that the trip was over. I thought I was out of the woods. And then, the following fall I was asked to go back. I remember how I felt. I was so terrified of having to do the trip again because of how much of a toll it took on my mental health.

There was an issue with getting my tickets for the flight there. I did everything I could to sabotage the trip, but to no avail. This time I knew what to expect and I was not happy.

But as before, I didn’t have much choice. So, I embarked on the second trip. When I went on these trips I took a portable cd player with a large supply of batteries and a small collection of some of my favorite albums. I recall listening to one in particular, Peter Gabriel’s “Up.” There is one song on the record that especially hit home when I was somewhere 30,000 feet in the air. It’s called “SkyBlue” and a portion of the lyrics are as follows:

“Sky blue
So tired of all this traveling
So many miles away from home
I keep moving to be stable
Free to wander, free to roam”

After arriving I met up with a new colleague from Daemen, Ann Robinson, who is the Executive Director of Global Programs. As opposed to myself, Ann was a seasoned traveler who had lived in Vietnam for five years. Ann and I became quick friends. Side note: if you ever want to get to know someone go on a transcontinental trip with them.

This trip was equally as intriguing as the first. One of the highlights was our visit to the Great Wall. But it eventually came time for us to return home and Ann and I had to separate ways.

I was in the city of Nanjing and scheduled to fly out early to Hong Kong on Dragon Air and transfer to United Airlines to get back to the U.S.  By this time, my flight anxiety was pretty much gone. Both trips I took included several flights within the country.

All was good until I arrived in Chicago. I had already been up for about 16-17 hours. I was all psyched to get on the final flight when I got some very distressing news. All of the flights had been cancelled due to tornado watches in the Northeast. I couldn’t believe it. What was I going to do?

Somehow (by the Grace of God) I met two fellow Western New Yorkers. One of them, a regional rep for Bally Fitness, was able to secure all of us rooms at a nearby hotel. When I arrived at the room I realized that all of my medication was in my stowaway luggage. “Oh my God!” I said to myself. I freaked. By this time I had been up for over 24 hours. Not good for someone with bp. I had never had such an experience, even when I was in the throes of my early struggles with the disorder.

It was late, how late I cannot remember. But I knew I had to do something. In a show of desperation I opened up the bedside table and the Gideon Bible was there. I pulled it out and opened it. My eyes went immediately to Matthew 11:28 which says, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” And with that, my mind was put at ease. I immediately relaxed. I turned on CNN and watched Larry King interview Bill Cosby.

I stayed up the rest of the night and around 5 a.m. I got up, took a shower, got dressed, and then headed out to catch the shuttle back to the airport.

The funny thing is that I was so happy to be on that plane. Whereas before my experience traveling to China the first time, I had a fear of flying, it’s now something that I take in stride.

If you’re wondering why I recounted this story, I wanted to demonstrate that by taking what I call a “healthy risk,” I was able to grow immeasurably. These experiences have proven to increase my self-esteem, not to mention my faith in God. When I look back on those days I quickly realize that when I take these kinds of risks, ones that serve to challenge me and make me dig deep into the reservoir of my soul, I cannot help but learn more about myself.

And I believe that for those of us living with mental health disorders, this is even more true. It’s important to learn one’s limitations but just as importantly we need to push beyond our comfort zone.

I’ve been able to do this in my professional career, in my relationships and even in my personal pursuits. It’s about erasing the fear that holds one back.
It all begins with faith. Faith in the God of one’s understanding and faith in oneself. This is an incredibly powerful combination. It is through this belief that one’s life can change for the better. I try to carry this with me in everything I do. In reality, there are no limits to what we are capable of.

Are you willing to take a healthy risk?

Be well!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Deliverance: A Survivor’s Story

God, you did everything you promised,
    and I’m thanking you with all my heart.
You pulled me from the brink of death,
    my feet from the cliff-edge of doom.
Now I stroll at leisure with God
    in the sunlit fields of life.
Psalm 56:13 (The Message)

Warning: This post discusses suicide

It was exactly 36 years ago today, February 13, that my journey with mental illness began. I referenced this experience in my very first blog post “How Did I Get Here?”

I was a freshman at General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan. I sat alone in my dormitory room, psychotic with delusions and auditory hallucinations of my mother calling out to me, “Don’t do this to yourself!” I had even written a suicide note that said, “Death can be a hard thing but sometimes it’s worth it.” I still have the spiral notebook with that plea for help written in it.

The Residence Hall Director entered my room and said, “….We better get him to the hospital.” And so it began.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among college students in the United States. I recently read an article in the New York Post that highlighted the epidemic of suicidesat Columbia University. It was difficult for me to read because it dredged up feelings that I had those 36 years ago. The piece told the story of seven Columbia undergrads who had either died by suicide or overdosed. I looked at the picture of one of the students, Yi-Chia “Mia” Chen, an exchange student from Waseda University in Japan. The photograph framed her face in such a way that her eyes were entrancing. It burned into my soul. It’s hard to believe that a young, beautiful woman with so much promise could no longer bear living.  

One of the major themes in the article is that most of these students were successful in their high school careers but struggled to find a place at the high performing university. That was much of my story. I went from being a semi-big fish in a small pond to a small fish in fishbowl. While GMI wasn’t a particularly large school, the competition was fierce. And the partying was equally so.

When I transitioned to college life I had a similar experience as many students do, freedom that leads to excessive alcohol and drug use. For me, in particular it was cannabis. I dabbled in other things but weed did it for me. The first time I got high was at a fraternity rush event. Once I took that first hit, I was hooked.

But quickly my use went from being fun to abusive to dependent. And yes, you can become dependent on marijuana. As a result, during my first semester my grades suffered and I was going through money so fast that I was calling home to get funds sent from my unsuspecting mother.

As the second semester began I had completely changed from the person I was six months before. I found myself experiencing profound paranoia. In an organic chemistry class where we had daily quizzes, I cheated, and consequently went to the professor to admit my transgression. “Don’t lose sleep over it,” he replied. I immediately freaked out, thinking that he knew I wasn’t sleeping well. I then walked up to my friend Richard and said, “I think I’m cracking up.” There was another student standing close by who gave the most absolute look of disgust; like I was a piece of shit. I was crushed.

Friday the 13th was approaching and I knew in my heart that something bad was going to happen. And it was on the evening of that day that I referenced earlier, that my life changed forever.

Let’s look at some statistics:

·      There are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses per year

·      One in 10 college students has made a plan for suicide

So, I’ve often asked myself, “Why did I survive?” but after many years of reflection and recovery I, without hesitation, believe that God delivered me in my time of despair. Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that God wasn’t with those seven Columbia students or the 1000 that complete suicide annually. If anything, I believe that God mourns, as we do, when one of God’s children is lost.

As for me, and other survivors, I believe that our lives have been spared to give hope to those who are caught in the grips of depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health and substance use disorders. There are many people who have come forward to share their stories; I’m not the only one. I wear my Semi-Colon tattoo with thousands of my brothers and sisters.

Life is a precious gift. And yes, it can be extraordinarily hard, if not absolutely unbearable at times. But I have to stress the fact that there’s always hope. You may not believe it, but I do. When I attempted three times in the early years of my illness, I simply wanted the pain to stop. I had to find something to live for. For me it was music. I was able to connect with songs that spoke to my soul. Songs like, “I’ve Been Waitin’ for Tomorrow All My Life” and “This is the Day” by the British group The The (fronted by the amazing Matt Johnson).

Here are my all-time favorite song lyrics written by Matt Johnson from the song, “This is the Day”:

“You could have done anything, if you wanted
And all your friends and family think that you're lucky
But the side of you they'll never see
Is when you're left alone with your memories
That hold your life together, like glue”
(Soul Mining, 1983)

If you or someone you know is struggling, please seek help. No one has to be alone. In the U.S., you can call the National Suicide Hotline at:1-800-273-TALK (8255). There is also valuable information available on the American Federationfor Suicide Prevention website.

Please, Be well.