Complimentary Detour from Normal Audiobook!

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If you would like a complimentary copy of the new Detour from Normal audiobook narrated by the talented Michael Rubino, contact me via the Contact page of this website and I will send you a redemption code for Audible.com and instructions on how to download it with no strings attached! Only 25 copies available, so act fast before they are all gone!

“Scary, life-changing and inspiring!”

“Powerful and gripping.”

“A story you will want to share with the people you know and love.”

 

 

Conquering the Mountain: Humphreys Peak

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Nestled among the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Arizona, Humphreys Peak would be of no consequence to me if I did not regularly pass it enroute to visiting out-of-state relatives. Standing at 12,633 feet, Arizona’s tallest peak is visible for nearly one hundred miles from any direction.

From the time that I first travelled west in 1977 on a tiny motorcycle, I have been fascinated by mountains and made it a point to climb the most prominent of them wherever I lived: Utah, Idaho, California, Colorado and Arizona. Now, at age 61, Humphreys Peak was calling to me. Overweight, out of shape and well beyond my prime, climbing it seemed an impossible dream. Nevertheless, numerous hikes up lesser peaks during the previous months spurred me on, even though the tallest of them paled by comparison.

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that our limits are self-imposed. We are capable of achieving much more if only we would apply one thing: grit. Grit has been my favorite term this year as I have tested my limits more than ever. Besides the many interesting and challenging hikes, I traveled 1300 miles through India, a country I never dreamed I would visit and explored Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona for nine days on a solo motorcycle ride. Now, it was time to apply grit once more and conquer Humphreys.

Not only is it unwise to undertake such a challenge alone, it’s more fulfilling to share it with a friend. Therefore, I asked Kaihao to join me. Kaihao and I met in 2016 under unexpected circumstances. Having heard that I was a writer, he stopped by my desk at work one day to ask me for an autographed copy of one of my books.  At the time, he was a newly hired engineer whom I had never met. Subsequently, I invited him to join me on the most grueling hike I had ever attempted. Despite formidable challenges, nothing seemed to rattle Kaihao. I deeply respected his indomitable spirit and surprisingly, our shared misery of that day forged a strong bond. Kaihao accepted without hesitation and we made plans to scale Humphreys on July 30, 2017.

Although I love to hike, it’s difficult to do so in Phoenix from May through September due to the blistering heat. In fact, my last hike of consequence was three months earlier up 2500 foot Maricopa Peak in South Mountain Municipal Park. The trail to Humphreys begins at 9200 feet and then climbs 4.75 miles and 3421 vertical feet. I hoped that the heat would provide a training edge and began walking outdoors in 106 degree temperatures, increasing my distance to four miles a day. As July 30 approached, I added mile-long hills to my route.

I knew from hard lessons learned while climbing 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado thirty years earlier that my worst enemy would be altitude sickness. I had never before climbed above 11,000 feet without succumbing to it. If I managed to scale Humphreys and not get sick, it would be the first time. In recent years, I’ve learned two keys to prevent altitude sickness naturally: super-hydration and managing your heart rate. Those would be my only ammunition against altitude sickness and keys to completing the hike.

As our departure approached, the weather turned ominous. Humphreys has its own peculiar climate and fierce storms can envelop the mountain without warning. After a young man was recently struck by lightning and killed on the peak, it was determined that lightning struck the same location over one hundred times in a single hour. Fearing the worst, Kaihao urged me to reschedule and I reluctantly capitulated.

Postponing crushed me, but Kaihao’s positive attitude kept my hope intact: “It’s okay, we will do it another time when the weather is better.” I studied Flagstaff weather history and noted that the rainy season, which was then at its peak, would subside by mid-September. I rescheduled for October 1.

By the end of September, the relentless Phoenix heat had driven me indoors. My training had dropped to weight lifting and a half-hour on the treadmill or elliptical machine three days a week. Two weeks before the climb, I braved the plus 100 degree temperatures once more, armed with a backpack loaded with seventeen pounds of steel weights—double my expected pack weight. Nevertheless, walking three miles a day, five days a week with a heavy pack and brutal heat paled in comparison to what lay ahead.

At 3 p.m. on September 30th, Kaihao and I left for Flagstaff where we had reserved a hotel room. Upon arrival, we ate dinner and then went to bed early so that we would be well-rested when we reached the trail head at 7AM the following morning. Although both nervous, we felt confident that our undauntable spirits would carry us through.

When we arrived at the trail head, I was surprised by the number of vehicles already there. Many hikers had opted to witness the sunrise from the peak. As we began our hike, we ran into a few of them returning, having started their climb at 3 a.m. I couldn’t imagine hiking for hours in the dark across such rugged terrain, but I am sure that the view was worth it.

For the next two hours, we forged our way through stately pines and aspen groves whose leaves had recently turned golden. Tree roots that laced the steeply sloping switchbacks eventually gave way to boulders and the trees grew more sparse and disfigured as we neared tree-line.

By 11,000 feet, the altitude burned my lungs relentlessly and the least exertion left me breathless. With the trees all but gone, a howling wind with gusts of up to eighty miles per hour struck us full force and numbed our exposed flesh. We hurriedly donned winter jackets, gloves and balaclava ski masks that covered everything but our eyes. From then on, the trail climbed steadily upward through a barren and rock-strewn landscape.

As the route steepened, the altitude began taking its toll. Desperate to prevent dreaded altitude sickness, I stopped every hundred feet, leaning heavily on my trekking poles and taking deep, labored breaths until my heart slowed. As we neared the peak, that distance shrank to thirty feet and I began to wonder if my body would survive the continual abuse.

By the time the peak loomed a quarter-mile away, I had nearly fainted several times from overexerting myself. It was difficult to gauge how hard to press on in such an unfamiliar environment. I had slipped while climbing and been saved from falling backward onto jagged rocks by Kaihao’s quick response. The sole of my left boot—torn almost entirely off—was held on by a grocery sack twisted into a makeshift rope and tied around the toe of the boot. Perhaps it was time to call it: find shelter from the merciless wind behind an outcropping and let Kaihao continue alone.

A year earlier, Kaihao and I had set out on hike that took us straight up a mountainside through a boulder-strewn wash, some as big as a house. After hours of scaling giant boulders and fighting intense heat, we ran out of water and were forced to abandon our final objective. Remembering that failure, a voice eclipsed the doubt seducing my mind and screamed “you can do it!”

Goose bumps raced down my neck and arms and a burst of adrenaline vaporized my uncertainty. The goal: a weathered wooden sign with the words HUMPREYS PEAK 12,633 FT. engraved upon it suddenly seemed much closer. I scrambled across the remaining rock-strewn slope without pausing for breath and collapsed at the verge of unconsciousness behind a hand-built stone wind break next to the sign. Moments later, Kaihao joined me and we gleefully high-fived each other.

As I savored a store-bought sandwich and chugged a bottle of Gatorade, I gazed in awe at the cloudless blue sky and incomparable view, grateful to have once again stepped outside of my comfort zone to explore the limitless capacity that we all share.

The Three-letter Word That I Will Never Forget

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Years ago, after an unexpected surgery, I became manic. At the peak of mania I experienced life like a child living it for the first time.  Back then, I frequently felt goosebumps, chills and wonder despite the fact that I was confined in a high-security psych ward.

Eventually, court-ordered medication “cured” me by thrusting me into an emotionally flat state I referred to as “the verge of tears.” Under the drug’s influence, my world lost its former vibrancy. Adrift and dispirited, I longed to feel goosebumps, chills and wonder once more.

Desperate to escape my passionless prison, I sought passage back to those manic pleasures. I read books, watched videos and browsed the internet to find a pathway. Was it the touch of God? A spiritual awakening? What contemplative sages had sought for millennia? Months passed without an answer and I eventually accepted my numb life—until my heart began to fail.

Without warning, I found myself in an ambulance with sirens wailing and lights flashing rushing toward an emergency room. Upon arrival, the medical staff whisked me away as if I were at death’s door. Tests revealed that my heart rate was a mere thirty beats per minute—when it beat at all. In no time, a doctor delivered the diagnosis: the atrium of my heart had ceased functioning.

With defibrillator pads affixed to my chest and side and a plethora of electrodes tethered to the lifesaving equipment surrounding me, I gravely awaited the root cause. When the answer came, I was not surprised: the medication I had grown to hate was killing me. A cardiologist abruptly discontinued it and admitted me to a telemetry ward where nurses monitored me for three days while my body detoxified.

Once freed of the medication, my mind soared once more and I relived the feelings I had so obsessively sought. I told no one for fear of being committed again or forced to endure yet another poison. When I finally stabilized, I described my temporary ecstasy to my wife as “a state of grace.”

No longer numbed by drugs, I subsequently felt the feelings regularly. As I basked in their glory, I wondered: could meditation take me increasingly heavenward? Or would I, like countless addicts, wind up chasing an unsustainable high? Reluctantly, I eschewed temptation.

Over time, I noticed what triggered them: seeing a beautiful photograph; reading a moving story; watching an inspiring movie; riding a motorcycle through snow-capped mountains; standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon; witnessing the splendor of the Taj Mahal.

Recently, I read an article in which people described similar feelings: being unaware of day-to-day worries; a deepening of the senses; a feeling of oneness with life; goosebumps; chills; tears of joy… The word that they universally used to describe their experiences jumped from the page and I knew that my search was over. I could not believe that three simple letters could embody what I felt: awe.

Are Indian Drivers Crazy?

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Recently, my family and I had the opportunity to experience many modes of transportation on the crowded streets of northern India. Our two-week journey took us through six cities and five states. As our travels began in Delhi, one question immediately came to mind: are Indian drivers crazy?

Nothing can prepare you for the sensory overload of driving in India. In addition to drivers’ wanton disregard for such universally accepted standards as stop lights, lane lines, and direction of travel, you never know what you will encounter. Sleeping cattle, trees in the middle of traffic lanes, herds of water buffalo or sheep, human, horse, or oxen powered carts, monkeys, elephants, goats, dogs, pedestrians, and inanimate objects are commonplace. Adding to the mayhem, a cacophony of horns blares non-stop.

“You need three things to drive in India,” a driver, Hari, informed us, “a good horn, good brakes, and good luck!” Another driver, Vickie, cheerfully shouted “India, India,” each time he narrowly avoided disaster, sometimes adding “I love my India,” after an especially close call.

I longed for the calm, order, and safety of roads back home in Arizona where pedestrians cross the street only at stop lights that display a white hand when it is safe to do so and large, orange numbers count down how much time is left to cross; where Animal Control picks up strays, and fences hundreds of miles long prevent wildlife from entering freeways on which one can easily exceed eighty miles per hour (130 kmh); where car horns are seldom heard.

Nevertheless, after observing Indian drivers for days, a different picture began to emerge.  When one driver, Ashok, wished to overtake lumbering trucks that sported “HONK PLEASE,” or “USE DIPPER AT NIGHT” on their tail ends, I noticed that he would honk or flash his high-beams. If the road ahead was clear, the truck driver either flashed his right turn signal or waved a hand out of his window indicating that it was safe to pass.

More and more I noticed that honking, waving, and high-beam flashing were not signs of anger, but communication. They were a courtesy extended not only to other drivers but to animals and pedestrians as well.

As I adjusted to Indian driving, I grew to deeply appreciate the communication, compassion, and skill of drivers. Never once did I witness anyone angry or uncooperative. Vehicles missing each other by mere inches highlighted not carelessness, but a keen awareness of the vehicle’s dimensions and how it fit into the limited road space available. More importantly, in almost two weeks of congested driving, I never once saw an accident or a dead or injured animal.

I learned that when people respect life and each other, when they share space instead of trying to own it, and when they are engaged and focused instead of distracted, there is little need for rules.

Then, I considered the differing reality of my homeland. A plethora of enforced rules has made drivers complacent, bored. They plod along like cattle, distracted by technology and entertainment when they should be dedicated to driving responsibly. If an animal or person steps into the road anywhere but at a stop light, they will almost certainly be gravely injured or killed. Instead of being used to communicate, horns seem reserved for expressing outrage.

In the U.S., I’ve witnessed as many as six accidents an hour while driving on a perfectly sunny day on a straight, eight-lane freeway with moderate traffic. We’ve become lazy, irresponsible, uncaring, and selfish drivers. If we offend someone (by taking a bit of their space), instead of honking at us, they may harass us for miles or threaten our lives with a handgun.

Rules can never replace common sense. Increased regulation robs us of skill. A lack of compassion and commitment kills countless thousands of people and animals every year.  We could all learn something from Indian drivers who somehow make unimaginable situations work seamlessly.

I am thankful that we made the decision to skip the tour bus in favor of cars and rickshaws and experience Indian driving intimately. The drivers who shuttled us everywhere showed infinite patience for my ceaseless questions about India and Indian driving while they skillfully avoided disaster from moment to moment.

Despite my shock over situations we routinely encountered, I felt safer in a tiny rickshaw crammed with six passengers and having no safety equipment whatsoever than I ever felt surrounded by airbags and restrained by a seatbelt in the U.S.

Kudos to Indian drivers who, as it turns out, are not crazy after all. In my opinion, they rank among the best drivers in the world.

 

Image courtesy of Hugo Cardosa, Flikr Commons

Finding the Good in the Bad

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Years ago, I traveled to Oudenaarde, Belgium, to work at a customer site for several months. The opportunity sounded exotic, but the reality was much different than I expected. Most customers made an effort to speak English and befriend me wherever I traveled, but people at that company treated me like a second-class citizen and rarely even acknowledged me. Continue Reading →

Take a Giant Leap

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Are you fed up with feeling anxious, depressed, worried, or tired? Are you ready to take a giant leap and leave those feelings behind? Would it thrill you to instead be filled with energy and enthusiasm?

Scientific studies have found that one of the most affordable and effective ways of improving mental health is exercise. Regular exercise can profoundly reduce depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, and more. In addition, it can sharpen memory, increase self-esteem, improve sleep, boost energy and leave you more mentally resilient. And here’s the best part: you don’t need to train like a marathoner or triathlete, hire a fitness guru, or obtain a gym membership, all you have to do is walk.

I once swam and lifted weights regularly and occasionally still do, but lately, I’ve been walking more and more. I started on a treadmill, which was initially quite boring. I’ve seen people walking or even running on treadmills for an hour or more, but twenty minutes was the most that I could stand.

There were advantages to treadmills, however. I could force myself to walk faster and at steeper inclines. By pushing myself increasingly harder, treadmill workouts improved my energy and stamina, reduced anxiety, and made me feel more balanced. In addition; my resting heart rate slowed; my blood pressure dropped; my cholesterol levels improved; and ultrasonic scans showed no plaque buildup in my arteries or thickening of my heart wall—both of which were detected a year earlier. The technician administering the tests even enquired as to what I did to keep my heart and arteries so healthy at age sixty.

Nowadays, I’ve ditched the treadmill for the most part, finding Mother Nature preferable to the gym. I can walk anytime: before work, at lunch-time, or even late at night and take different routes to keep it interesting. I’ve increased my mileage and generally walk more than three miles. I’ve begun hiking more often and found that steep trails that once left me breathless are now easy. The best part is: I look forward to walking and even skip other activities to do it.

I’ve found another benefit of walking: it gives me time to reflect. As I walk I often think of positive aspects of my life: relationships, pets, hobbies, vacations, etc. When was the last time that you intentionally reflected on what’s right in your life?

On a recent three-mile walk, I reminisced about my three dogs for the first mile. By the end of that mile, my face hurt from smiling. I thought about my daughters during the second mile and was fighting back tears of joy by the end. I relived many wonderful moments that my wife and I have shared over the years for the last mile. Those three miles flew by and for the remainder of the day I felt at peace. I could not believe the impact of combining exercise with positive thinking.

I was once mentally ill and was told that I would be medicated for life. I fought that life sentence with diet, exercise, vitamins, supplements, and positive thinking. Subsequently, I have been free of both medication and mental illness for five years. I truly believe that if we take proper care of our bodies and minds, we can live a quality life free of medication and mental suffering.

It can be frightening to take the bull by the horns and begin exercising. Barriers such as injury or illness; lack of endurance; fear of failure; body image issues, or even the weather can stand in your way. However, all it takes is something that you do every day anyway: put one foot in front of the other.

Exercise has improved my life more than anything else, but I am not running marathons or competing in triathlons, I’m simply walking. It’s something that anyone can do—even you. When you do, be sure to reflect on positive memories, so that wherever you walk, it will be the best walk of your life.

I’d love to hear how exercise has improved your mental health. Please leave a comment or contact me through this website’s contact page.

A Glimpse of Danika: an Unexpected Day with a Homeless Woman

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On the morning of December, 4, 2016, my wife, Beth, and I went on a bicycle ride through our neighborhood. As we crossed a nearby park on a paved bicycle trail, we passed a woman standing next to a picnic table under a Ramada. On the table were a suitcase, sleeping bag and two canvas bags. Moments later, Beth braked and then turned to me.

“Do you think we should offer to help her?”

Trusting Beth’s judgement more than my own I replied “I was thinking the same thing, but I’ll leave it up to you.”

Beth turned her bike around and I followed her back to the picnic table where we both stopped.

“Excuse me, but do you need help?”

“I’m all right, thank you, but I could use some food. I won’t take money unless you have work that I can help with, and I would only use that money for bus fare or an emergency.” As we spoke to her, we learned that she called herself Danika. She was very articulate and polite.

Beth offered to bring food and Danika dictated a specific list of needs: flour tortillas; unleavened bread; grapes; and Passover wine. “I will understand if you don’t bring me the wine,” she commented. “I would only use it for Passover.” After finishing our bike ride, Beth drove to the grocery store. While she was gone, I sent her a text: “Maybe she would like to help put up Christmas lights?”

Shortly thereafter, Beth returned to the park with the groceries. As she spoke more with Danika, she discovered that she was headed to the library next, a 1.5 mile walk from the park. She would stash her belongings behind bushes for safekeeping so that she would not have to bring them along. She used a computer at the library to check her email, search Craig’s list for work, or catch up on current events. She also used that time to charge her Government Issue cell-phone. With no service contract, it was useless as a phone, but it worked adequately as a flashlight and allowed her to listen to music.

We decided to meet Danika at the library and offer more help. When we arrived, she was sitting out front talking animatedly with a sharply dressed woman. It was clear that the two women had made a connection and when we approached her, she matter-of-factly said:

“Do you mind coming back in a while so that I can finish my conversation with Audrey?” Danika can be rather blunt.

“Okay,” Beth replied, “we’ll just go into the library for a while.”

When we returned, she had just finished her conversation.

“How would you like to help me install Christmas lights on my home?” I asked.

“While you’re there, I can wash your clothes and you can shower if you’d like,” Beth chimed in.

“Can I wash my sleeping bag, too? It got wet from the rain a few days ago and it’s still damp. I’m worried that it will get moldy.”

“Of course.”

“That would be wonderful.”

“Our van is right over there,” I said, pointing. “Let me help you with your bags.”

“Thank you.”

The three of us carried her meager belongings to the van and then drove home. Once there, Beth began washing the sleeping bag while Danika unpacked her clothes. Meanwhile, I retrieved the Christmas lights from storage and untangled them while I waited for Danika. She joined me a few minutes later.

 “I’ve never done this before, so I apologize if it doesn’t turn out well.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be happy with whatever I get. I’m just glad to have some company.”

As we worked together, I learned a little more about her life. She was from Los Angeles, and was abandoned by her birth parents at an early age. She had a brother and sister, whom she didn’t know. Although she was adopted, her birth parents were an occasional part of her life, which appeared to cause more harm than good by reinforcing memories of abandonment. Despite having an adoptive family, she carefully avoided discussing them.

She managed to graduate from high school and take a few community college classes, but frequently ruminated about her abandonment, eventually turning to the bible for comfort. She read scripture voraciously and that became a focal point of her life. Her new obsession with scripture made people around her uncomfortable and she became increasingly alienated. In January, 2016, she chose a life of homelessness, placing her fate in God’s hands.

The conversation flowed naturally and instead of feeling like I was helping a homeless person, I felt like I was merely spending time with a friend. After stringing lights, the last of the clothes were still not dry, so we offered to either make dinner at home, or take Danika to a restaurant of her choice. In her typical blunt fashion, she suggested The Cheesecake Factory, a fairly upscale restaurant famous for their cheesecake.

Having not showered in three weeks, Danika then retired to the bathroom. It took so long that I wondered if something had gone awry. After all, we knew almost nothing about her.

“Do you think she’s okay?”

Beth shrugged “I hope so.”

After showering, Danika decided to dress for the occasion. Because she and Beth were of the same build, Beth selected some of her clothes for Danika to borrow while her clothes continued to dry. A top priority for Danika was that they be warm, so she ended up with black leggings, a grey, long sleeved t-shirt, and a cream cardigan sweater. Beth even let her borrow a colorful necklace and silver earrings.

Apparently, Danika had a small stash of make-up in her suitcase, and this was the perfect time to use it. She had not been to a restaurant in a long while. Once again, she disappeared into the bathroom for a considerable time to apply makeup.

Eventually, she descended the stairs and then paused at the bottom to pull on her calf-high, black, faux-leather boots that she had recently purchased at a local supermarket with money that she had saved. Afterward, she stood and announced “I’m ready.”

I was stunned by her miraculous transformation, but said nothing until after we had ordered our meal at the restaurant, at which time I could hold it in no longer. “Danika, you are the most beautiful homeless person I have ever seen.” She smiled broadly and thanked me.

During dinner, it became evident that Danika was a very bright and resourceful woman. She knew of several shelters, assistance programs and other options available to her, and had taken advantage of them whenever she was overly hungry, sick, or beaten by the hard life that she’d chosen. It also became obvious, from the tears that occasionally streamed down her cheeks, that she was tormented by demons that might be better faced head-on instead of smothering them with scripture.

Ultimately, Danika ordered more than she could eat: bread; an appetizer of hot wings (which I shared); and a main course: herb crusted filet of salmon, asparagus and beets substituted for potatoes. After months of light meals on the fly, it was impossible to eat it all in one sitting. We requested take-out boxes for the remainder so that she could eat it later.

After returning home, an awkward silence filled our home as Danika prepared for homelessness once more. She returned the jewelry to Beth and washed her makeup off so that it would not soil the layers of clothing necessary to protect her from the night-time cold. She carefully folded and packed her clean clothes into her suitcase but did not pick out any clothes to change into.

Beth informed me later that she struggled with the situation as the shirt and sweater were among her favorites. Ultimately, she decided that keeping Danika warm through the chilly Phoenix December nights was worth the sacrifice. Soon, Danika was ready to return to the park where we had found her. “You don’t have to take me back, I’ll walk,” she insisted, to which I replied “Nonsense. I’d be happy to drive you.”

In truth, this situation broke our hearts. How could we return this wonderful, kind person to homelessness? We could easily take her in. Our children had moved out. We had plenty of space and resources. Nevertheless, Danika was on a mission. She had placed herself at the mercy of God and was bound and determined to follow His guidance. This was an important journey of self-discovery for her, perhaps the most important thing she would ever do. Unbelievably, we both felt that it would be inappropriate to offer her more than we already had. Besides, she could have mental health or other issues that we were untrained to deal with.

Beth gave Danika our email address, said goodbye and then hugged her. Although I was driving her to the park, she hugged me as well and then thanked us both. Afterward, I loaded her belongings into the van and drove back to the park where we had met her less than twelve hours earlier.

As I helped to carry her meager possessions into the park, Danika stopped next to a colorful children’s jungle gym with a small roof sheltering a raised six by six foot platform. “I’ll sleep here,” she said, “The sprinklers won’t soak me in the morning.”

I set her suitcase and two canvas bags full of food on the second of three stairs and then watched in disbelief as she unrolled her sleeping bag across the vinyl-coated steel mesh. As she prepared for the chilly night ahead, I felt that it was time to leave.

“Danika?”

“Yes?”

“Please remember that you are not alone. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to contact us by email. If you need a safe place to leave your things, you’re welcome to store them behind the large pillar by our front door.”

“Okay.”

“Well, good night, and God bless you.”

“God bless you, too.”

With that, I turned and walked away. I held back tears on the drive home, feeling as if I had just said farewell to a daughter. When I arrived back home, Beth’s eyes were tearing up as well. I embraced her and we hugged each other tightly, both of us wondering if we’d done the right thing.

The next day, I contacted a friend who cares for battered women. She provided a list of organizations to contact. One in particular stood out: the Salvation Army’s Project Hope, a mobile outreach program that provides housing, food, bus tickets, resume writing, interview clothing, work clothing, furniture, bedding, proper identification, and referrals to other community agencies.

I printed out their information and delivered it to Danika later that day. The following day, I contacted the Salvation Army and informed them of Danika’s location and situation. Now, it will be up to Danika to remain homeless or find purpose in her life.

***

Update: On December 7, Danika vanished. I hope that a Project Hope driver convinced her to accept their help and then delivered her to a safer and better life, however, I may never know for sure. Either way, I hope that our few hours of kindness made a difference that she will not forget and that someday, she will be able to help someone in a similar predicament.

***

Image courtesy of Paul Goyette, Flikr.com

Danika’s name was changed to protect privacy.

A New Thought Process: Changing Mental Health Stigma From Within

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Good mental health is one of the most valuable aspects of the human experience. Sufferers of mental health disorders often face issues that leave them feeling isolated, alone and afraid. In this post, we will examine some of the biggest misconceptions about mental illness.

It’s someone else’s problem

This attitude prevails among people who have never suffered from mental illness. It only happens to someone who is genetically predisposed—it will never happen to me. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Mental illness can result from disease; drugs, alcohol, or even adverse reactions to commonly prescribed medications. To put it bluntly, anyone can become mentally ill at any time, even with no personal or family history of mental illness.

I’m all alone

Did you know that nearly a quarter of U.S. citizens will experience a mental health crisis in any given year? Sufferers of mental illness frequently feel that they are alone, that no one can understand what they are going through. They feel isolated, embarrassed, or ashamed. To them, I say this—you are not alone: comfort and support are all around you in the form of family, friends, medical and mental health personnel, and support groups. There are also many help lines that you can call. Realize that you are not the first person in the world to suffer from mental illness. Plenty have gone before you, paving the way for your help or recovery.

Mental illness? You’re fired!

A general misconception is that people who suffer from mental health issues cannot work or hold a job, or that if an employer finds out, they’ll be fired. In reality, many mental illnesses can be treated so effectively that employers or co-works may not even be aware that there is anything wrong with a person. In many cases the treated sufferer is a better performer than their co-workers.

In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act both prohibit discrimination against people with mental disabilities in the workplace. In fact, employers who are made aware of the illness are required to make accommodations, including: modifying job requirements; providing necessary paid leave for treatment or hospitalization; and allowing flexible hours in order to attend medical, psychological or psychiatric appointments.

I lost seventy two days of work because of my own mental illness. After returning, my employer made accommodation in my workload, allowing me the time I needed to fully recover. For the next six months, I had blood drawn every two weeks to test my medication levels and I saw a psychiatrist every month. No one ever questioned the hours I missed from my job.

When you consider that stress, anxiety and depression are all commonplace in today’s work environment, it’s highly likely that you are already working with someone who suffers from mental illness.

No one will be my friend

People often refuse to admit that they are mentally ill believing that others will treat them differently. It can be terrifying to share that there is something wrong with you. However, you must remember that in most cases, telling people about your mental illness is the only way to open the door to a healthy discussion about it. Once your illness is in the open, you will no longer feel isolated. Frank discourse can strengthen friendships and relationships by putting a name on the elephant in the room. More than likely, those people already knew that something was amiss with you, but were themselves too afraid to ask.

I will never recover

If you broke your arm, it would heal. You would witness the cast and the healing process on a daily basis. Once the cast is removed, a doctor will monitor the arm for a time to ensure proper healing. Before long, you’ll be swinging a tennis racket or golf clubs again. It’s the same with mental illness.

The vast majority of mental illnesses are either treatable or curable. Even the most extreme sufferers, who at one time were committed to high security psychiatric units where they were considered a danger to themselves and others, and persistently and acutely disabled, can go on to live normal lives. I know because I am one of them.

Psychological, pharmaceutical and natural treatments are improving all the time. There has never been a better time to receive more effective treatment or be cured.

I’ll be on medication for the rest of my life

More often than not psychiatrists convince patients that they must constantly be medicated or they will become worse. The powerful medications they prescribe frequently cause severe side effects, which must be treated with additional powerful medications. Rarely, those medications result in permanent disability.

Times are changing. More and more, scientific studies are showing the effectiveness of natural treatments using diet, exercise, meditation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, acupuncture, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and more. Scientists are discovering the body’s incredible ability to heal itself, given the chance.

A psychiatrist once told me that I’d be medicated for the rest of my life. When the medication she prescribed nearly killed me, I refused to take anything else and she dropped me as a patient. I’ve been medication free ever since—for nearly five years—and no longer suffer from mental illness.

I encourage you or anyone you know suffering from mental illness to investigate naturopathic and natural solutions as well as conventionally accepted ones. Your treatment may be easier and healthier than you can imagine.

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To anyone suffering from mental illness, my heart goes out to you. I wish you the best on your journey toward the normal life that I am confident will one day be yours.

 

Why I Ride

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“Motorcycles are dangerous. I know of someone who died from head injuries/lost his leg/is a vegetable.”

Yes, motorcycles are dangerous. I figured that out in the 90s when I moved to Phoenix, Arizona and experienced frightening incidents with traffic routinely. Certain that my days were numbered if I continued, I reluctantly donated the motorcycle to my older brother and retired from riding. For the next twenty years, I didn’t give motorcycles much thought.

That all changed when a homeless man stole an acquaintance’s 49cc Honda Metropolitan scooter. Although he never got the scooter running, he damaged it extensively with a claw hammer and screwdriver while trying. Why would a homeless man even have those tools?

In the process, he made such a racket that neighbors eventually peered through window blinds to investigate the commotion. Shortly thereafter, the police arrived, and reminiscent of a Charlie Chapman film, gave chase to the homeless man.

Sometime later, the police returned the scooter to its dismayed owner, who relied on the diminutive machine to commute to college. With no insurance, tools or the knowledge necessary to repair it, he found other transportation. For the next few months, the broken scooter gathered dust. I am a sucker for potential, however, and that broken scooter soon caught my eye.

I bought it for a song and fixed it like new, spending much more money and time than I could justify. During its return from brokenness, I fell in love with that quirky and admittedly cute machine.  When I finally tightened the last screw, fired up the engine, and twisted the throttle, the feel of the wind in my face and the purr of piston and valves between my legs reawakened a dormant passion.

Before I’d even sold that scooter, I convinced my wife to allow me to buy another for my sixtieth birthday: a 2011 Yamaha Zuma with a top speed a shade under 60mph—with a decent tailwind. “It’s all the motorcycle I’ll ever need,” I promised.

That Zuma transported me to heaven as I drove it hundreds of miles over the next few months. I had not been so happy in years. However, its limitations soon became apparent.  After an ambitious hours-long ride to the top of South Mountain and back, I needed a nap to recover.  It was one of the harshest motorcycles I’d ever ridden. The suspension was bone-jarring stiff and to make matters worse, the small size and limited power restricted me to pothole ridden surface streets. The more I rode, the more painful it seemed. It wasn’t long before I reminisced about more capable steeds:  motorcycles that formerly carried me thousands of miles through fifteen states.

Nonetheless, I feigned contentment, that is, until I encountered a website proclaiming “Tour the PCH on a Motorcycle!” The Pacific Coast Highway: a two lane strip of asphalt hugging the western U.S.  coastline from Seattle to San Diego. As adrenaline coursed through my veins, the scooter quickly lost its appeal.  I longed to ride farther, and longer, to see the world again as I once did: as a free spirit awash in the natural elements.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself at RideNow Powersports in Chandler, swinging my right leg over one motorcycle after another. Eventually, I spotted a perfectly outfitted model: A Suzuki V-Strom 650 Adventure bike.  A-d-v-e-n-t-u-r-e.  Now, that’s what I’m talking about. I salivated as I the word reverberated through my mind. After noticing that it was the previous model year and on sale for 40% less than the current model, I was sold. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I drove the V-Strom home the next day. “Motorcycles are dangerous,” she reminded me.

I think about that all the time. Have I lost my marbles? I’m 60 years old, not twenty. What the hell am I doing riding a motorcycle? Loving it, that’s what. Once you’ve spent time on a motorcycle, it becomes a part of you—a rung on your DNA ladder.  And when you put on your leather jacket, sporty helmet, and gloves that fit like a second skin, you are twenty again. I rode and rode. As I did, I had plenty of time to think and here is what I realized…

We are lulled into a false sense of security by fractions of an inch of glass or steel separating us from catastrophe as we drive our automobiles. Oblivious to the dangers surrounding us, we distractedly text, converse on cell phones, joke with friends, tend to our children, or sing along with the radio.

We fly on jet airplanes at tens of thousands of feet at insane speeds approaching that of sound. Any number of events could end our lives in the blink of an eye. Can a jet even land safely anywhere but a major airport?

When I ride, I acknowledge danger constantly. One wrong move, one animal crossing my path or debris falling from a truck could be the end of me. I am connected with my mortality, my fragility, my vulnerability. It doesn’t make me fear, it makes me feel alive. What I am experiencing is real and involves all of my senses. Riding is completely immersive requiring both hands and feet to brake, shift, apply the clutch, throttle or turn signal while keeping a close watch in both mirrors and ahead for potential trouble.

On the other hand, I hear everything from the sound of transmission gears and rev of the engine to the muted or aggressive exhaust note in response to my bidding. I accelerate or brake more swiftly than all but the most exotic automobiles. The wind in my face communicates my speed without need of a speedometer. I feel the temperature drop when I pass green fields and the heat of the engine when the wind shifts. My panoramic view is unhampered by steel beams or tinted glass and the only music I hear is that which I hum in my head. Despite the fact that only gravity holds me on this machine, I feel more grounded than ever.

Roads that I’ve traveled uneventfully for years suddenly come alive. Every crack, pothole, change in texture, and whether the road widens or narrows becomes a life-threatening concern. Animals scampering in the brush along the road side—jeopardizing my existence should they leap unexpectedly in front of me—never escape my watchful eye. A bird swooping across my path could render me unconscious or at the very least, knock the wind out of me, and a single well-placed bug splat on my visor could rob me of vision.

I notice much that I previously missed:  the vastness of the desert southwest, the raw beauty of Arizona sunsets, the intimacy of a winding mountain road on which I lean so sharply that my foot pegs nearly scrape, the sheer delight of flawless new asphalt, the luxury of having roads to myself while everyone else eats dinner, sits glued to video games, or vegetates to a television series.

Riding makes me appreciate our world like nothing else, and when the ride is through, I can hardly wait for my next adventure. One thing that I especially enjoy is the fact that more often than not, fellow motorcyclists will wave at me in acknowledgement of our shared passion. I wish that more people could share such a connection.

Already, I am planning my first road trip: 1700 miles from Phoenix, Arizona to Fort Collins, Colorado and back. I’ll witness some amazing scenery from a viewpoint that can’t be beat. Until then, wish me safe journeys and please, be watchful for, and considerate of motorcyclists. If you encounter one of us, feel free to open your window, extend your hand into the wind to share a bit of our world, and then wave.

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