May is Mental Health Month. Ironically, it was last May that I was woken (several times) by my roommate at a Florida inpatient mental health facitily to ask if I said something. It wasn’t me, but we had to keep the door open so it could have been from down the hall. It could also have been the voices in his head as he had schizophrenia. I had been praying for humilty for years and now found it.
The above graph is my best attempt to visualize my mental health over the past four years. I didn’t include the details of each change to protect the innocent, but note that though I didn’t hit zero, I did come close. If hindsight is 20/20, present sight is anything but. You simply cannot rationally determine your present mental state when your mental state is by definition irrational. Was I frustrated because someone was generally a difficult person (present) or because I had a reduced capacity to deal with interpersonal conflict (hind)? Was I an imposter waiting to be discovered (present) or a perfectionist who’s never satisfied (hind)? And why could I not foresee the situations that would end up hurting my wife?
Editor’s note: I rewrote the next three sections about four thoursand times trying to strike a balance between being honest and maintaining a healthy boundary.
Another note: The Big Book was the only book we had access to at the “hospital” and is a great read for anyone stuggling with a negative habit beyond your control. Just replace “alcochol” with your situation.
The stress of life had been building for the past six months, but like Animal from The Muppets, I was “in control” of it. Uncovering decades of lies and manipulation spoke more about the other party than me. The federal government not paying me for 35 days had nothing to do with my identity. I hadn’t talked to my mom since February, but I’m a grown man. Things were getting worse with my wife, but we had rough patches before. Work was frustrating…again, but I was moving onto something new. Plus, even though four houses had fallen through we could always live with family. I had all the logistics of life coverer and so we’d be fine. I just needed to [continue to] compartmentalize everything as I had been trained and push through. A new locale would fix everything.
However, these cognitive dissonances were compounding and through my journey to faith, misunderstood feelings had begun to leak out. Out of my unaddressed stress came disgust that grew into anger. Anger for not getting my way at work. Anger for getting pulled in so many directions. Anger for not being better at husbanding and fathering. But anger is wrong, right? It’s not, but even so, I pushed it way down inside and out came despair. I must be the root cause of all the angst in my life. Maybe my family would be better off without me? Is the shower the best place to clean up a mess? Hello fear.
May 12, 2019. Sunday. Mother’s Day. Deb came upstairs to ask why her 41 year old husband was pouting about a previous discussion on a day that is supposed to be about her, but instead found me in a fetal position crying and insisting that she hide all my weapons. I cannot imagine her own confusion and fear. She simply held me as we both recognized the criticality of the situation and I asked to be taken to the ER. I slyly walked out of the house to avoid the kids (I later learned it was not sly at all) and got in the car. I don’t remember much of the drive aside from REALLY wanting them to still go to a baseball game that afternoon, issuing a list of people to call/not call, and considering what it would be like to roll out of a passenger door at highway speeds. We got the ER and I calmly sat in a waiting room chair while Deb waited in line to check me in. Actually, I may not have been so calm as a nice lady ahead of her pointed out to the triage nurse that I should probably go first.
We didn’t know it, but the ER would be the last I’d see Deb for three days. Deb sat in the parking lot for nearly two hours wondering what to do next. Who to tell. Who not to tell. What do do with my clothes that I didn’t have. Did I really almost physically leave her? Would I one day legally leave her? We could talk on the phone and I cannot image how hard it was to hear me unpack so much. My frustration was at a fever pitch, calling her every few hours and pleading to come home. Yet, she knew better and stayed strong. I then withdrew and moved into a stage of vulnerability where I began to process the previous four decades of pain. I finally found an odd peace as I accepted my past, learned that I’m not alone, and was released.
So what have I learned the past year?
- Take time to reflect: Keeping yourself distracted allows you to avoid dealing with life. Find solitude. Press pause on other people’s voices in your own head each day. What are your values? What are your priorities? Are you living by them? Find a belief system that speaks to you. Practice digital minimalism. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Surround yourself with others – in person or virtual – to help guide you on your journey.
- Practice self-care: I think Dr. Chatterjee brings a balanced view: relax, eat, move, and sleep well. The world witll ask for 20% more than you currently give, so invest in yourself every day. You can’t be your best self if you are running on empty. Also learn to self-soothe in the moment. Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.
- Watch for self-centeredness: I was completely blind to this and it spilled into all of my relationships. Tim Keller teaches to be watchful for gossip, bragging, and defensiveness. These are signs that in that interaction, you view yourself as more important than the other person. Listen more than you speak. I was convinced that I had no friends, yet they took turns to fly in and be with us in crisis. Now we support eachother through deeper relationship. Take it a step further, how do you react when you see them in others?
To end on a happy note, this is my daughter and she loves to fish. We are both growing (her literally, me figuratively) each day.