You Are Not Alone In This {part two}

For the past few years, and largely to do with personal experiences, I have been thinking more and more about the influence of loneliness on mental health, and recent research is confirming my assumptions. According to an NPR article dated May 1, 2018:

“A nationwide survey by the health insurer Cigna underscores that. It finds that loneliness is widespread in America, with nearly 50 percent of respondents reporting that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes.”

While I was not at all surprised to read this, I also find it ironic. We live in a digital age where we can literally communicate with anyone across the globe. Not to mention that this planet is more increasingly populated by humans than ever before. And many of us feel more alone than ever in history.

According to this study, “More than half of survey respondents — 54 percent — said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Fifty-six percent reported they sometimes or always felt like the people around them “are not necessarily with them.” And 2 in 5 felt like “they lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and that they “are isolated from others.”

ALONE

Two years ago, I moved to a larger city in hopes to not only experience a broader worldview, but also to increase my friend base, my community, and my tribe. I immediately joined a faith community, and began working with an incredible team where some of my closest friendships have been cultivated. In the fall of 2016, I joined a support group to process my grief and loss of my marriage, relationship and death of a dream. I currently live where I have more people within one square mile of me than I have had my entire life living in a small town and rural communities. Even here in this place there are times I feel completely alone, and yet I know I am not alone in this.

Last week my good friend and I were discussing this feeling of loneliness. She is in the best dating relationship she has ever experienced, and she feels so alone. I can identify because even in my ten year marriage, I felt severely alone and isolated. That is one of the most interesting and scary factors of this phenomenon is that we can be in the best of relationships, surrounded by other people, having the time of our lives and still experience this feeling of complete isolation.

It is possible that my personal experience with loneliness may be primarily situational as I begin my journey of facing, accepting and treating my own attention deficit disorder or the fact that I am divorced and still learning how to be content in my singleness. But I would like to suggest that the problem is much larger and has more to do with societal influences and environmental stressors. When I walk through my city, scroll through social media, turn on the news or sit in a pew, I can see I am not alone in this.

I have heard many theories and ideas about the causes. Social media may be a common denominator, but I suggest it might be more complicated than this. Some suggest it is our independent society and our lack of physical touch or hugging. Some from my faith background may argue a lack of faith as being a cause. While I have found some comfort in my faith through difficult times, I cannot deny the fact that some of my loneliest seasons were while serving faithfully in a growing church community and much of my time was spent praying, reading scripture and “fellowshipping” with others on a daily basis. There were even Sunday mornings I distinctly recall from my memory giving a message to a congregation of 500 plus and walking to my car to return to my home feeling completely defeated and alone.

In my personal journey, I am learning that it matters less about a relationship, religious affiliation, a city’s population, or how many “friends” and followers you have on social media – loneliness knows no boundaries.

I do not intend to share this heavy topic as a doom and gloom observation, but more of an acknowledgement that we have a problem and the solution resides in each of us. While there may be larger societal contributing factors which need to change, change starts with you and me. Yes, the problem is bigger than you or I, but the solution can start with us. I am on a personal mission to address this epidemic by discovering helpful solutions and by doing all that I can to make sure others around me feel less alone. It is important that each person feels cared about and no amount of care is too much. We are never too much and always enough. I hope you find as much encouragement in this as I am feeling writing these words.

You may be reading this and some of what I have shared is resonating with you and your experience. I hope you can find comfort in knowing you are not alone in this. We may find it helpful to turn off social media for a while. We might consider picking up the phone and calling family or a close friend. Perhaps hugging more might be helpful. The other day, when dropping my son off at school, I asked him if he would like a 10 or 20 second hug. I was so delighted he chose the latter. There we stood in full embrace for 20 solid seconds when interrupted by another parent who had been holding the door for us. As embarrassing as that moment, the parent remarked he would hold the door for a hug any day. Check in with your loved ones on a regular basis.

Just know, dear friend, that you are truly not alone. There is hope and we must believe there is more than this.

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You Are Not Alone In This {part one}

DEPRESSIONLast week millions mourned at the sudden loss of a prime time icon. Known for his sense of adventure and connecting his viewers to unknown places around the world. Not only did he gain followers by his boldness in trying all kinds of foods which may disqualify a fear factor competitor, but he was known by his ability to engage strangers from all cultures and become their friend. He was charismatic. He was talented. He had friends literally across the globe. And he died alone by suicide. How could such a loving and well respected human take his own life when he had the world at his fingertips?

I remember in 2014 hearing about the loss of another Hollywood icon who always presented confident and over the top hilarious.  I grew up watching Mork and Mindy and one of my favorite movies was Hook. Robin Williams remains one of my favorite comedians to this day and my heart breaks for what pain was lurking beneath the boisterous surface.

Tomorrow will be seven weeks from the morning I woke to the most painful call I have ever remember receiving. “Are you okay?” The person on the other end asked? “Are you in a good place?” “Do you have people around you today?” Chills ran through my body. I was home alone, and, no, I was not in a very good place, and I just wanted the person to say the inevitable.  I replied with something to the nature of, “Please just tell me what is going on.” ……………………………….

“She’s gone”, said the broken voice.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation very clearly as I tried keeping my voice calm and attempted being collected for the other person. Yet upon hanging up the call I nearly dropped my phone and fell to my knees in the middle of my living room floor as though the wind had been kicked out of me completely. When I finally caught my breath, I began wailing and sobbing so loudly, I am surprised I didn’t concern the neighbors. My young, talented, outgoing, tenacious friend lost her battle the morning following her senior prom. I would have attended my young friend’s graduation last week. But instead, I attended their funeral just a few weeks prior. “This is not how it is supposed to be”, I shuttered to another young friend who accompanied me to the graveside. “Not. It isn’t” she stated in a quiet and reserved voice. Hope reminds me, I am not alone in this. I cannot help but wish my dear friend was able to just hang on to this hope a little longer. Sometimes we all need a little hope to get us through the darkest of storms.

How does this happen? We are often left with more questions than answers in these moments. As a trainer in Mental Health First Aid, I am instructed to teach trainees that there are always signs and symptoms. Similar to CPR, we practice assessing for risks and how to provide support for someone in distress until professional help arrives. We attempt to educate parents, teachers, clergy, law enforcement, and the general public on discerning signs and symptoms. We provide opportunity for individuals to increase their confidence by rehearsing asking the big question. We provide information and resources available to help prevent such situations. And finally, we strongly emphasize that in some cases, in spite of all our efforts, there may be some who will still die by suicide.  It is important we not shame ourselves in the process. This is easier said than done when there is no limit to our desire to care for those who are hurting.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website, Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States is estimated there are 25 attempts for every completion.

It is time we pay attention.

Instantly woven into the news release of Anthony Bourdain’s death, on all the major networks, were the words, “If you are struggling, please reach out.” Reaching out is not as easy as it sounds for those who struggle and depression is not as easy to detect when some have developed the ability to appear strong or utilize humor to mask or deflect the pain. I can tell you this from personal experience.

Within this past year, I had a bout where I could not fall asleep and all I felt was alone, hopeless and empty. Though it was situational, I honestly have no memory of what triggered this episode. There wasn’t even a prayer or hopeful thought which I could grab onto to get me out of this funk. All I remember is my thoughts were racing between calling a friend or checking myself into a hospital. These thoughts were accompanied by not wanting to bother my friend in the middle of the night and feeling completely paralyzed by my anxiety that I could not move to even pick up the phone. (I have since learned that there are seemingly basic over the counter allergy medications which can increase these feelings and I caution anyone who takes any medication to pay attention to the potential side effects.) While my moments have been momentary and situational, I cannot imagine the pain of those who live with this on a daily basis.

Growing up in the evangelical church, I was somehow taught to believe mental illness had more to do with a spiritual problem or not having enough faith. I have since learned to view the validity of various mental illnesses as any other illness. Would we tell a cancer patient that their lack of faith is the reason for their illness? Or someone who lives with diabetes or an amputee? While I do not intend to question anyone’s beliefs about faith and healing, I do propose we approach mental illness like any other. If you are one who prays, we can still offer prayers while encouraging a loved one to get help in the same way we might encourage one to see a doctor if they are experiencing adverse physical conditions. We pray for the wisdom of doctors and for the “Lord’s will be done”, and we can do the same for those pursuing treatment thus helping to reduce the negative stigma.

I have a theory about a cause of depression and other mental health diagnosis which I will share in the second part of this post tomorrow. For now, I do not want to leave you with a heavy ending, but rather speak up for those who are struggling. Reaching out for help is an up hill battle. For those who are struggling, please know you are not alone and recovery IS possible. Cultivate hope where you can. Find the silver linings. Know your coping skills. Take deep breaths. Write. Read. Exercise. Drink more water. Do whatever you need to do to be safe. The other day I pulled a good friend aside at work and told him I would have a significant stretch of days where my son would not be with me in a few weeks. I expressed that I needed him to check in with me periodically on those days because those days are the most difficult for me. Reaching out can be really hard, but it can feel easier.

For those on the other end who might have concerns, but are not sure what to say, please do not worry about jeopardizing a relationship or not knowing the right words. If a loved one crosses your mind and you feel compelled to reach out, I can only imagine it is not an accident. There is nothing wrong with “Hi. For some reason you have been on my mind and heart and I thought I would give you a call. How are you doing?” I believe strongly in intuition and serendipitous experiences. If someone comes to your mind and you think for a half second about reconnecting, please, without any reservation, dial that number or send the text. You may never know the power of letting someone know you are thinking of them. I look forward to sharing more ideas around a contributing factor of mental illness in my blog tomorrow. But for now, good night, and may you find rest in knowing you are more than enough.

Out of the Dark: Day One

Double exposureThis week I took a big step, at least for me. But I imagine it is a big step for anyone.

I have known for a long time that I have been “gifted” with this special disposition which some call a “disorder”. Somehow, I have found ways to manage or work around it. Some behaviors may not be the healthiest of coping mechanisms and other healthy skills have been developed.

I know I am not alone in this. Some have developed skills to self manage and others seek treatment.

The irony is I work in the mental health field helping others access treatment while I continue struggling. Unfortunately, it is not something which can be treated through osmosis.

Initially, I thought it might have been adult onset, until I began seeing similar traits in my son. Sometimes it is like raising myself. I am not suggesting he has the same disorder, just a few characteristics which remind me of my struggle from an early age which I somehow managed to work through.

When my dad would take me to ice cream or Bi-mart to pick out a candy bar, I would become overwhelmed by all the options. Like, seriously anxious. There were far too many choices and I would become flustered and, at times, utterly and completely ambiguous. Must I only choose one? Ambiguity plagues most of my thought processes.

For those who know me well, making a decision is one of the most difficult of challenges. My friend, Chris, still tells stories of when we worked together and I needed to see multiple options before making a decision and I still could not make a solid choice.  I lose everything. Multitasking is nearly impossible. Maintaining focus has also been a struggle. I have started so many books I’ve never finished. I interrupt my own thoughts constantly and forget what I was originally talking about. I have so many amazing and creative ideas which I can never seem to execute, and let’s not even mention the incomplete projects.

I’ve been on dates where my date would get frustrated because of my inability to concentrate on the conversation because the atmosphere was over stimulating. During which I was just jazzed to have finally found someone who I felt comfortable going on a date with and who was mutually interested in me. Friends have expressed frustration by my struggle to maintain a two way conversation and coworkers have called me out on interrupting and blurting out random thoughts. When I do have something to say, which is more often than not, I get the death stare and people will sometimes graciously prompt me to “get to the point”.

I want to believe that I’m a quality “nice guy” and one of the kindest people you would ever meet, and yet I have these behaviors which have been difficult to manage and might make me seem like someone who is rude or disconnected.

Some of you might be thinking: “don’t be too hard on yourself”, “everyone has a lot on their minds”, “everyone loses things” or “men always have difficulty listening “, etc.  And while you these things may be true for many people on occasion, this is a daily reality which has made daily life more difficult than it needs to be. It is true that some of these are just unique characteristics of my personality, which is part of what has kept me from seeking professional help. I do not necessarily want my personality and creativity to go away, but I desperately need to find a way to manage the internal chaos. This amoeba touches every area of my personal life, relationships, goals, dreams, and my work life, and I am ready to face the darkness with light.

In her book, Rising Strong, Brene Brown references a scene from The Empire Strikes Back:

“Walking into our stories of hurt is like walking into that cave in Yoda’s swamp. It can feel dangerous and foreboding, and what we must ultimately confront is our self. The most difficult part of our stories is often what we bring to them – what we make up about who we are and how we are perceived by others. Yes. maybe we lost our job or screwed up a project, but what makes that story so painful is what we tell ourselves about our own self-worth and value.”

She continues: “Owning our stories means reckoning with our feelings and rumbling with our dark emotions – our fear, anger, aggression, shame, and blame. This isn’t easy, but the alternative – denying our stories and disengaging from emotion – means choosing to live our entire lives in the dark. When we decide to own our own stories and live out our truth, bring our light to the darkness.”

I do not intend to paint a doom and gloom picture, because, as mentioned before, I have found ways to work around these and developed some healthy coping skills in the process. Most of the time I would consider myself a happy and resilient person, and other times it gets the best of me and I become anxious and depressed.  Underneath this smile is a hurting, lonely person.

All the while I am walking with others through owning their stories, I find it more difficult to face my own. I want to believe I am a decent guy with the best of intentions. I am doing the best I can with what I have, and I know I can do better.

I am tired of misunderstood intentions. I am tired of losing literally any object I hold onto. I am tired of my inability to focus and listen. I am tired of unmet goals and incomplete projects. I am tired of being tired. My brain is tired from racing thoughts and my body is tired from all the stress.

A couple weeks ago, I listened to a lecture by Dr. Gabor Mate’. While I struggled to focus on everything he said, I remember his sharing of his personal experience of discovering his Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis. After the conference, I went to Powell’s city of books to pickup a copy of Dr. Mate’s book, Scattered. Ironically, I have not been able to focus enough energy to read more than twelve pages.

So I finally met with a psychiatrist. He completed that assessment with a smile and chuckled the words, “Yep! You definitely meet criteria for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD).” While I didn’t need a doctor to confirm my diagnosis, there was relief in learning there is something which can be done about it. He speculated adult onset, while I can look back on multiple childhood accounts where this may not be the case.

Today is my first day on a prescription stimulant. So far so good. I have been able to be remarkably more present and patient with my son, Ezra. I have managed to complete this post…almost. I’ve been able to focus for the first time since I can remember. I feel present and genuinely relaxed in this moment.

Today is day one. We’ll see how tomorrow goes. Thank you for enduring this raw and vulnerable post. Thank you to those of you who have endured patiently and loved me through these symptoms. I do not expect to be a completely different person, but hopefully a little better version of myself. If you are reading this and feel my story resonates with yours, I would welcome you to comment or reach out as we walk this journey together.

**Update: I’ve managed to read four chapters of Scattered, complete a chapter in another book I have been working through, clean and organize my place of residence and spend focused quality time with my son. I have done these things while also taking time to breathe and be present.  Also, I have yet to experience restless leg syndrome in the past 24 hours. Now off to tackle projects I have been procrastinating.