Monday, January 30, 2017

Who Am I?

One of the most significant (in my mind) benefits of my involvement in recovery is the process of self-discovery that accompanies years of introspection and self-analysis. The key is all about getting to know oneself by taking an honest and critical look at one’s life. This can be a very difficult experience; not one for the faint of heart.

When I was in the throes of addiction and co-occurring Bipolar Disorder I was truly lost with no sense of who I was or where I was going. It was a very confusing and scary time. This feeling created a sense of uncertainty for me. I couldn’t see beyond the haze caused by substances and mental illness.

It’s hard enough to discover oneself but when you add the effects of mental illness and addiction into the mix it magnifies things exponentially. As for myself, my mind was scrambled. I just wanted a way out.

When I entered my addiction recovery program, things did turn around. The first thing I had to do was to admit that I had a problem with drugs. For so long I denied this issue despite experiencing significant problems that led to maladjusted behaviors. I just couldn’t make the connection between my chemical use and my Bipolar.

This admission opened the door to a better understanding of how using substances directly related to my mental health issues. They went hand-in-hand. But interestingly, once I stopped using the haze began to clear.

I began to practice the tools that were necessary to stabilize my life, and in the process, began to learn more about myself. One of the primary advantages of this was the fact that, through communication with my therapist and my friends in recovery, I was able to metaphorically look into the mirror and see myself for who I was. At first, I wasn’t too happy with what I saw but as time went on my self-image began to soften.

One other thing that helped me was the many confidence building experiences I’ve had. Each challenge I had was something that increased my self-confidence and kept me moving forward. I began to learn that by taking “healthy risks” I could strengthen my resolve and do things that at one time would have been impossible. Mind you, this did not happen overnight. It took years to get where I’m at today. But….the cool thing is that by setting goals I’ve been able to gain a sound assessment of my strengths and weaknesses.

One such example was when I accepted my first “real job” related to the work I do today. I was a “wet behind the ears” counselor, who frankly was not, in retrospect, necessarily ready to take on this demanding job. However, I was able to successfully take on this position and accept the responsibilities necessary to complete the duties I was charged with. By doing so, I learned so much about how I could handle the stressors associated with work; everything from communication to developing a healthy rapport with the clients with whom I served.

Twenty-five years later I can say that I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned that I am quite empathic. I am persistent. I am goal driven. I am a decent husband and parent. I am faithful to God. I try to have integrity. And I work hard. Not necessarily in that order.

I’ve learned all these things, as I said before, not completely on my own. The important thing is that by working a program of recovery and being willing to accept constructive criticism, I can become the person that God wants me to be. And this is, to me, the most critical piece of the puzzle to me. I’m still learning who I am and I find that to be an extremely exciting prospect. As long as I keep learning then it’s all good.

Be well!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Walking in My Shoes: The Healing Power of Empathy

One of the biggest obstacles that those of us who live with mental health or addiction disorders experience is stigma. Stigma is defined as, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Synonyms for stigma include: shame, disgrace, dishonor, and humiliation.

This denigrating label has been present virtually since the dawn of mankind. For millennia, those who have suffered from mental illness and/or addiction have been improperly treated and often regarded as second class citizens.

For many who have never experienced the crushing experience of withdrawal or the paralyzing fear of paranoia, it’s hard to understand, not to mention imagine, what it must be like to live with such horrific conditions. Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder; these are all conditions that are very subjective in nature. And since they are often behavioral in nature, they can be more difficult to treat.

The word stigma comes from the term “stigmata,” which refers to the marks on Jesus’ hands and feet that were a result of his crucifixion. Which leads me to the concept that Jesus, as a human being, was “marked” as a result of his suffering on the cross.

Now back to stigma. One of the best weapons to defeat stigma is empathy; the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It has often been described as the ability to “walk in the other person’s shoe’s” and try to gain a perspective from the other person’s lived experience.

That’s the thing about our world today. There isn’t enough empathy. And I don’t just mean for those living with mental health and addiction disorders. So many of us get so self-centered that we are unable to truly gain any sense of compassion for our fellow brothers and sisters. Compassion is derived from the Latin term “compati” (suffer with). This term is found in essentially every major religion. This universality simply demonstrates the importance of this vital quality of humankind.

There is a certain level of judgment that accompanies stigma which, in turn, gets in the way of compassion. I think David Gahan of Depeche Mode put it best:

“Morality would frown upon
Decency look down upon
The scapegoat fate's made of me
But I promise now, my judge and jurors
My intentions couldn't have been purer
My case is easy to see
I'm not looking for a clearer conscience
Peace of mind after what I've been through”
And before we talk of any repentance
Try walking in my shoes”
Walking in My Shoes
Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993)

Jesus was the embodiment of both compassion and empathy. His ability to relate to the suffering of others was so profound that he became a true servant of the people:

35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Matthew 9: 35-38.

So how would Jesus respond to the needs of those who are afflicted today? Would he turn a blind eye or ridicule them? The answer is a resounding, “NO!” He would provide the healing that is needed to restore the health of those that needed it.

But, my friends, I believe that there is still hope. There are countless people: professionals, clergy, peers, caregivers and others; all of whom are making a difference. You see, they have empathy. They get it. You don’t have to have a lived experience with a mental health or addiction disorder to gain a true sense of how it feels to suffer.

There’s a great line from the film, “Heart of a Dog,” directed and produced by Laurie Anderson, one of today’s most creative multi-media artists. She is describing the death of her dog Lolabelle and her Buddhist teacher’s response to her despair. He simply said, “You have to learn how to feel sad without being sad.” And that is what true empathy is about. Empathy is a feeling that surpasses the simple belief that people with a lived experience are doomed to suffer and that there is no hope for recovery.

As both an addiction and mental health professional, and someone living with a co-occurring disorder of bipolar disorder and addiction, I have been on both the giving and receiving end of empathy. I know what it’s like to be truly listened to by someone who cares, and in the same respect, I know what it’s like to be present in the moment with someone who is suffering. I know how much it means to have someone express how much they care by being willing to take the time to be with me in my hour of need. And I know how good it feels to be there for someone who may just in need of someone who truly cares about them.

Life is hard. And for those with a lived experience, it can be harder. By demonstrating empathy and compassion perhaps it’s possible that we can all traverse the landscape of life that much easier. We need each other. Now more than ever. Open your heart. Let love both enter and come out. It can be a life changer.

Be well.
Walking in My Shoes (Live)
Depeche Mode

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Free at Last! (Thank God I’m Free at Last!)

So, I was all prepared to write this week’s post on a particular topic (you’ll have to check in to read it next week) but I was struck with an inspirational thought while on a trip along the I-90 corridor between Buffalo and Albany. I’m in town for the Mental Health Association in New York State (MHANYS) Board Meeting where I’m a member.

I love these four-hour road trips. The time alone allows me to ponder and I get into almost a meditative state as I drive along listening to albums on my iPod. On this ride, I put on Prince’s seminal 1999 album. Man, what a great lp that is. As each song began I thought to myself, “Man, I love this song!” Anyway, when the song, “Free” came on I took pause. The following lyrics lifted my soul:

"Be glad that U r free
Free 2 change your mind
Free 2 go most anywhere, anytime
Be glad that U r free
There's many a man who's not
Be glad 4 what U had baby, what you've got
Be glad 4 what you've got"

Which brings me to January 15. As most of you are aware, this is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. King’s words, “Free at last!” have always resonated with me in terms of my recovery from addiction. It also happens to be the first day I attended a recovery group. This was in 1988. Now, in full disclosure, I was high at that first meeting. But in the same respect, I heard the message of recovery; the message of hope. Hence, the name of this blog, “The Hope Shot.” I went home that night and got on my knees and prayed to be relieved of my affliction.

The following day I visited a friend and had a crappy mixed drink (I think it was Kool-Aid and vodka, but whatever). I hadn’t heard the part that alcohol too is a drug at my first meeting. But this didn’t stop me from going to a meeting that night at the Salvation Army. There couldn’t have been more than six of us there, but I heard the clear message about addiction, at least in this program, and included abstinence from substances like alcohol as well as drugs.

So, the following day, Sunday, January 17, I went to a meeting at BryLin Hospital, a local inpatient mental health and (at the time) substance abuse facility. It was there that I continued my lifelong journey of self-discovery.

I owe my life to this program. While many people have physically died from the disease of addiction, I am convinced that if I had not made the changes that I did at that pivotal time in my life I would have died mentally, emotionally, and most of all spiritually. Addiction = Death. Recovery = Life.

And while my life has improved many times over I, as I always say, have more work to do. This is why it’s so important that I continue to go deeper and deeper into my consciousness to uncover those things that have kept me entrapped. You see, despite my nearly 29 years of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, I am still prone to addictive behaviors. Addiction is characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. And while, as I just said, I’m much better off than I was when I began my journey in recovery, there is still work to be done. It is so easy to fall into complacency and put my guard down. There was something I used to hear in meetings when I first came around: My addiction is right outside that door doing push-ups. It’s waiting for me to drop my right hand and BOOM, POW!! I’m out for the count.

So, where does this leave me? Well, every day I have a choice. It’s like I’m at a series of perpetual forks in the road. And each choice can lead my closer too or further away from my addiction. Some days are better than others. What I do know, however, is that by being rigorously honest with myself I cannot deny that no matter how long I may have been clean I cannot stop working on my recovery, Over the years I have heard countless examples of people who have stopped doing those very things that kept them stable and they end up relapsing.

One important consideration is that while a relapse may make a person feel like an abject failure, this kind of episode can be the jarring experience that creates an opportunity for a more rigorous application of their program and abstinence can be achieved.

This is just my perspective. Some do not prescribe to the abstinence-based model. But for me, this is what has worked. And you know what? It’s not about the drugs. My addiction is rooted deep in my soul hence, I believe, that it is as much a spiritual condition as a physical one. If it was so easy to just stop using, then recovery would be much more simple. But recovery necessitates going to the dark place inside ourselves and pulling off the curtains. For some, like myself and many others that follow a similar path of recovery, this means talking to a trusted person to gain a healthy perspective of what exactly is going on.

Ironically, while Prince penned such a profound song, he too succumbed to this terrible disease. 

But today I am free. Free to make my own choices. I am able to co-create with the God of my understanding a life that allows for a sense of hard-won serenity. Yes, recovery is work. But it is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever encountered. The rewards are immeasurable. The ability to develop one’s relationship with oneself, others and God is something that cannot be taken for granted.

So, remember, recovery is possible. And NEVER GIVE UP!

Be well!
RIP Prince