Sunday, September 18, 2016

Song for My Father

“How I wish that I could tell you
 It’s to you that I would run
 You were the place that I could always rest my head
 When my world had come undone”
Sarah McLachlan

My Dad was a very special person. He was the kind of guy that everyone liked. No one had a single bad thing to say about him. His sense of humor and kind demeanor served him well. While he was not perfect, he set the bar high as an example of what kind of man I aspire to be.

The last few years have been a challenge. My father had a condition called supranuclear palsy. It is brain disorder that causes serious problems with walking, balance and eye movements. The disorder results from deterioration of cells in areas of your brain that control body movement and thinking. He was also blind having had glaucoma as well as a bleeding retina several years ago.

My wife, two daughters and my Dad lived together for 18 years until he had to move into assisted living. This experience was short-lived as he required a higher level of care six months later. But it was during our time together that my Dad was able to live out his “golden years” as a proud father, father-in-law and grandfather.

But specifically for me, my father’s love was demonstrated in many ways. When I became ill with Bipolar Disorder he was unwavering in his support. I cycled in and out of three inpatient psychiatric programs for eight years as well as an extended amount of time in outpatient counseling. Also, during this period I abused substances which certainly didn’t help my condition any. But despite all this, my Dad never gave up on me. He was a faithful man and I know that he prayed daily for my health and well-being.

I have a picture in my mind of my father walking through the door of the various psych units I was in with a broad smile on his face. He visited my every day. I’m sure that seeing me in such a diminished condition was not easy for him. However he never let me see that.

It was this kind of support that helped me immensely. In my professional career as a counselor as well as a member of the recovery community I’ve witnessed many cases of individuals whose family members have disowned them, just to have them fall and spiral down deeper into their illness and despair. I was fortunate not to have had this experience.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my mother. My Mom was the tough one. She kicked my ass – day-in and day-out. But my Dad was the counterpoint to my Mom’s relentless pushing for me to succeed. This combination worked. Looking back on those days I realize that my Dad had infinite patience with me. He was able to encourage me by expressing his love more from his actions than his words. It wasn’t until the last couple of years when he was in skilled nursing that we verbally shared those three special words with each other, “I love you.” I made sure to say it to him as I departed and he would respond in the like until he was unable to respond at all. But I made sure to continue saying it.

In the last three days of his life, my Aunt Helen, my cousin Carolyn, and my wife Suzy were at his bedside. My daughter Lillie was able to be there as well. He loved her and her sister Sarah deeply. We consistently expressed our love for him and despite his inability to communicate verbally I believe he heard those important words.

When I look back at my life with my Dad I realize that he wanted nothing more than for me to be healthy and happy. I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to live together for as many years as we did and that he was able to witness this. His care and compassion were without limits. He loved me dearly and would do almost anything for me. In recent years I tried the best I could to give him the same kind of care and attention as he gave to me. As an only child it was difficult at times to balance all the responsibilities I had when it came to taking care of my Dad but I didn’t do it alone. Aunt Helen, Carolyn and Suzy were there as well. But I still felt primarily the one making the major decisions.

This was, at times, very stressful so I had to practice self-care to handle everything. I managed to make time to exercise, get rest, attend my recovery meetings and use my social support system to help me to deal with the pressure of being a member of the “sandwich generation.” I also made sure to maintain my medication regimen and regularly check in with my psychiatrist and therapist.

My father passed away into the Great Beyond one week ago. And while this experience is fresh in my mind and the pain is present, I find solace in knowing that he and I were able to cultivate a beautiful relationship. There is something special about a father and son. I will always carry a big piece of him in my heart. I will try to do my best to make him proud and to carry on his legacy of kindness, humility, and generosity.

Rest in Peace Dad

Sarah McLachlan
Song for My Father

Monday, September 5, 2016

Un-Labor Day

We are celebrating Labor Day today in the U.S. This is the day that we recognize the hard work of those across our country whose collective effort helps our nation to keep advancing and remain as one of the wealthiest nations in the world. It also signifies the unofficial end of the summer season.

For many individuals living with mental health conditions, however, today is not a day to celebrate. Work for many individuals is something that is just not possible right now. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Social Security Income (SSI) both provide needed financial assistance to many people in the United States who have mental health conditions. (For more information go to: SSI and SSDI

SSDI provides monthly income to individuals who are limited in their ability to work because of a physical or mental disability. Currently almost nine million individuals receive SSDI, and as of 2013, 35.2% of recipients qualify for disability based on a mental health condition. The Social Security Administration uses its own definitions of disability and its own diagnostic criteria for determining whether or not an individual has a certain disability. SSI provides financial assistance to low income, disabled individuals. While SSDI requires a disability and minimum past work requirements, SSI requires disability and financial need, determined by your income and current assets. Over eight million individuals currently receive SSI. (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

I’ve had personal experience of being on SSDI. From about 1989 to 1992 I was receiving this government benefit. This came as a result of my Bipolar Disorder interfering with my ability to work. At this time it was easier to get Social Security benefits whereas now most people have to apply only to have their case denied and therefore having to appeal it. I’ve worked with some in my counseling career who have had repeated attempts only to be turned down time after time.

As I traversed the rocky road of early recovery, work was hit or miss. I attempted to hold a job however there were several occasions when I was just not capable of doing so. Once in May of 1983 I took a position as a laborer working on the early stages of refurbishing a department store. I lasted one week. This was followed by a summer of deep depression that culminated in a hospitalization at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

I will admit, however, that despite the trouble I was having during these years, I always wanted to work. It was just difficult to remain employed.

From 1980 to 1987 I was on a carousel of repeated hospitalizations. During this period I also was enrolled in college. First at General Motors Institute, followed by the University at Buffalo, and then State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo State. As I stated previously I worked intermittently. I finally graduated from Buffalo State with a Broadcasting Degree with the hopes of making it as a radio producer. I ended up getting a job at a local recording studio however I only lasted one year, realizing that I didn’t have “the chops” to make it in that profession.

I went on to work as a “temp” for a local employment agency. I did everything from stuffing envelopes to working in a law library as a messenger. This helped me to keep moving and to not get sedentary or comfortable with not working. It also helped me to keep a little money in my pocket.

I got into 12-Step recovery around this time and things got better. I ended up returning to school to take course work to become an alcoholism counselor. I competed the program and got my first “real” job in my chosen profession, A few years into this position I had another break which required me to take three months out of work. But fortunately due to a very understanding administration I was able to come back.

I’ve seen many people struggle with the prospect of working. I was there too. One thing I learned along the way was to take what I call “healthy risks.” What I mean by this is that I had to go outside my comfort zone to advance and meet my professional goals.

Now this wasn’t as easy early in my recovery. There were substantial periods of time when I just was not capable of working, not, as I said before that I didn’t want to. There were even times when getting out of bed was a major accomplishment.

But I kept moving. I had a lot of support from my family, which certainly didn’t hurt. I also was actively involved with psychotherapy and a psychiatrist for medication.

But as much as anything I had to be patient which can be hard to come by. One. Day. At. A. Time. That certainly took a certain degree of persistence.

As of today I have been working successfully for over 21 years (24 if you include the period when I had my last BP episode). I’ve worked as an addictions counselor at an outpatient clinic as well as in college admissions and administration, a counselor in a mental health day program, a service coordinator, and most recently in my current position as the Director of Community Advocacy at the Mental Health Association of Erie County and Compeer Buffalo.

As with anyone else, I’ve had some days when I just didn’t feel like going to work but I went anyway. There is something to be said for a good work ethic. Remarkably I’ve had a very good work history. I’ve taken very few “mental health days” and I’ve enjoyed most of the work I’ve been involved with over the years.

If anyone had told me when I was struggling that I’d be doing what I do today along with the professional work history I’ve had over the last 24 years I never would have believed them. I did have hope that I could do it though and there were many days that this was all I could hold onto.

Recovery is different for everyone. It’s true that there are those who, due to their mental health condition, are unable to work. But this is, in my opinion, the exception to the rule. Most people can work to some degree, even if it means taking on a job that may be volunteer or part-time. For those on SSI and SSDI there are limits on how much a person can make. The Ticket to Work program, sponsored by the U.S. Social Security Administration is available for those may want to use a trail work period to ease back into the workforce.

Working isn’t easy. That’s why it’s called work. But it is often overlooked in the wellness equation. Work brings with it a sense of pride and accomplishment. There may be times when, due to the economic climate, work can be hard to come by. But this should not be a deterrent. We may have to take a job that is not exactly what we’d like to do but it can be a springboard into something better.

So take that healthy risk. Don’t let anyone (even yourself) tell you what you can’t do. It’s amazing what the human mind and will are capable of if you put effort into it.

Keep the faith!