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.

***

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.

The Power of Dreams

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Dreams have tremendous impact on our lives. Have you ever had a dream that frightened or inspired you? Recently, a kidnapper took my youngest daughter at gun point into a Lifetime Fitness. I desperately wished to rescue her, but I was afraid that she’d be shot if I tried. I reached for my cell phone to call 9-1-1, but it wasn’t in my pocket. I located another phone, but had no idea where I was. Once I found the address, I tried dialing 9-1-1, but there was no dial tone. In a panic, I woke up. I was thankful that it was just a dream, but it tormented me for hours. Why do we dream such things? That thought led me to investigate dreams further and here is what I found…

She lived on a remote farm, owned a pet pig and hoarded books from her favorite author. She was his biggest fan and when she finally met him, she told him so: “I’m your number one fan!” She said bizarre things like “He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doody car!” Her name was Annie Wilkes from a book entitled “Misery,” by Steven King. I’ll never forget when the movie came out. There’s a scene in it where Annie hobbles Paul with a heavy sledge-hammer. It shocked me! I saw the movie a second time just to watch the audience’s reaction to that scene. I sat on the right side of the theater and as Annie raised the sledgehammer, I glanced over my left shoulder just in time to see the entire audience jump in unison as it struck home. After falling asleep in an airplane, Steven King dreamed of a fan kidnapping her favorite author and holding him hostage. When he reached his destination, he remained at the airport and wrote the first 50 pages of Misery.

While suffering from a high fever, James Cameron dreamed fitfully. In his dream, a gleaming figure of doom dragged its broken body from a fire using kitchen knives. It was a skeletal, metallic monster with a rictus smile and glowing, ember eyes. That dream led to the unforgettable character—the Terminator.

The year was 1892. Albert Einstein lay sleeping in his bed dreaming of sledding down a snow-covered mountain. As he accelerated, he soon approached the speed of light. At that moment he looked toward the sky. The appearance of the stars astonished him. He spent much of his career trying to understand that dream. Thirteen years later, it resulted in the theory of relativity.

Nikola Tesla was once an employee of Thomas Edison but left to follow his own ambitions. Years later, he found himself competing with Edison for the first major power project in the United States: the massive hydroelectric power plant at Niagra Falls. He won the contract and because of that, his invention, AC power, impacts our lives every day. Why did Tesla win that contract? What advantage did he have over Edison? Tesla was passionate about dreams. He taught himself how to dream lucidly, and used that ability to create a dream laboratory in which he experimented with his ideas while fully awake.

As I read about Misery, the Terminator, Einstein and Tesla, I wondered how dreams impacted my life. It amazed me to discover that almost every story, poem, or invention I’d ever conceived originated in a dream. Dreams play a big role in my novels Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad. Each novel has several dream sequences based upon real dreams. In some cases, they foreshadowed events that I hadn’t even written about yet, and I didn’t realize that until I read the entire manuscripts for the first time.

My troubling dream about my daughter being kidnapped drove me to learn more about dreams. What I found is that whether they frighten or inspire us, it is difficult to deny the power of dreams.

(Image courtesy of Paul v2.0, Flikr Commons)

The Little Man and the Crowd of Miseries

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Once upon a time, a little man lived in a ramshackle cottage on a weed-choked lot not far from a castle. Every day, the little man opened his door to find a huge crowd waiting. As the door swung open, they all shouted “Huzzah!” Then, one by one, they shared their miseries with him.

The little man was very popular because he was a good listener. He also possessed a great talent for transforming suffering into anger and riling the crowd. Fueling their rage filled him with a sense of power and purpose, which he greatly enjoyed.

The crowd spent the day together roaming the countryside, complaining, swearing, and shouting, always with the little man at the lead. At the end of the day, however, the little man returned home exhausted.

When he looked back upon each day, he realized that they were all the same: nothing accomplished, nothing changed. Many days he felt too tired to fix himself dinner, or he drank himself to sleep and forgot about dinner entirely. His life depressed him, and surprisingly, he felt lonely. After many years of the same routine, his health began to fail leading to frequent headaches, illness, and fatigue.

One morning, the little man awoke with a realization: No one is holding a crossbow to my head or a broadsword to my throat forcing me to do this.

Rather than continue his downward spiral, he instead decided not to open the door. Every so often, he peered through wooden shutters at the crowd gathered outside. They gazed at the door expectantly, talked among themselves, and shrugged their shoulders in confusion.

“Where is he? Why won’t he come out?” After a time, they began to leave, and by noon, everyone was gone. The little man breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, I’m alone.

Slowly, he opened the door to the most beautiful day he could remember. He left his home and strolled through the nearby wood. Bumblebees droned and Peacock butterflies circled lazily in courtship over his head. Celandine, Primrose and Bluebells painted the earth in shades of gold, yellow, and blue at his feet and the repetitive ballad of a Song Thrush whispered in his ears.

He followed a meandering path until it ended near a breathtaking waterfall. A beautiful little woman sat at water’s edge admiring the splendor. The snap of a twig underfoot caused her to turn in his direction. Upon seeing him, she smiled invitingly. Immediately smitten by her charm and good looks, he joined her in reverie.

The little man married the little woman, and they moved into the cottage together. Lush grass and pristine gardens replaced weeds and perfectly groomed thatch sealed the leaking roof. The cottage became one of the loveliest in the kingdom. People came from all around to see it, but most days, the little man and woman were not there—they were busy exploring all the wonders that the world had to offer.

*** We are victims of life not by design, but by choice ***

Image by Ron Adams, Flikr Commons

Together or Alone?

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This morning, I pondered the differences between my two novels: Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad. Joined at the hip in many regards, these novels are nonetheless as different as night and day in a certain respect: one is about being alone and the other is about being together.

In Detour from Normal, I was thrust from normalcy into a life of cold, heartless professionals and the tragically mentally ill. A normal person in my place would feel frightened and alone, and many of the experiences I described are from a solitary perspective. Instead of feeling terrified, I felt at peace, and at times, blissful. A mysterious process had freed me from judgment, expectations, worry and fear.

That mindset allowed me to befriend people who were toothless, foul-smelling, crippled, rude or unable to communicate—people I would never associate with before. My best friend was a drug addict recovering from his eighth relapse who had lost his job, savings, car, home, wife and family because of addiction. Through different eyes, I found these people funny and interesting, and for those among them who felt frightened and alone, I became their guardian angel. It was an immensely freeing experience and I could not help but imagine what the world would be like if everyone could live life as I did then.

The Road to Amistad explores just such a scenario. People from all walks of life were spontaneously freed from their mental prisons and introduced to my world overnight. Unfortunately, their changed mindset more often than not led to heartache as family and friends demanded the return of their absconded loved ones.

A few managed to avoid that struggle and find a unity of spirit with others like themselves. Friendship and trust thrived regardless of former walls that separated them. They were magnets to each other, formed strong friendships and accomplished great feats together. None among them ever felt separate or alone.

Nowadays, it is difficult for me to tread the line between alone and together. I have a wife, children, friends and a full-time job. There are many rules and walls that impede me and I have limited time and resources.  It would be easier to abandon my vision and rejoin my former world, but I don’t want to close doors—I want to open them. I don’t want to be alone—I want to be together. I want to be part of something big.

I hope that you will read both Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad and open your mind to possibilities that are ours for the taking. If my message rings true, press the button; twist the throttle; swing; jump; do whatever it takes to begin your own journey, and as you go forth, spread the word so that you may do it together instead of alone.

Flowers

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I’m thrilled that you’ve come to visit my Blog, and read what’s on my mind. Since I am a writer, I may occasionally share an interesting story here with you. If you’ve read Detour from Normal, you know that I am also a dreamer. I might share some of those dreams now and then. In short, I’m going to go where my mind leads me. I’m sure it will be a fascinating journey. Without further ado, here is my first post, an interesting one about flowers…

I’ve spent a great deal of time recently thinking about one thing: flowers. A plant cannot see, yet it produces flowers in every color of the rainbow. A plant cannot smell, yet it produces complex aromatics which smell for great distances. To complicate things further, flowers pollinated during the day are very colorful, and have a sweet aroma to attract bees, and butterflies. Flowers pollinated at night are principally white, and produce a pungent aroma to attract moths, and bats.

The mystery continues with the seed. Plants cannot feel the wind, yet a dandelion produces parachutes so that the wind will carry its seeds away, and a maple tree produces a perfectly balanced helicopter blade nearly as complex as a bird wing, enabling the wind to catch its seeds, and set them gloriously spinning toward a new home.

Evolution teaches us that a flower is a result of random mutation.  But an organism that cannot see producing color from organic pigments, and consistently pure aromatics when it has no concept of smell seems impossible.

The myriad cells of our bodies work in tandem without our conscious knowledge addressing every detail of keeping us alive. Those same symbiotic relationships exist in nature, as if every ecosystem is a living entity in itself with a secret system of communication to maintain homeostasis.

Based on this, I can only draw one conclusion: plants are aware. They don’t have a brain or a nervous system, but they know that in their particular environment, bats will be the best pollinators, or moths, or bees, and they are perfectly optimized for those creatures olfactory and vision systems.  And they know to harness the power of the wind to spread their seeds.

Some people attribute these miracles to God or Intelligent Design, but to me those labels are merely a rubber stamp that really says UNKNOWN, and whose purpose is to lessen the discomfort of our ego. I am perfectly comfortable with the fact that I don’t know all the answers. My curiosity tells me that there is something going on, and that even though plants have no brain or obvious intelligence, and no way of sensing their environment, they know about it, and they interact with it all the time.

Somewhere out there another person exists, perhaps even more curious, knowledgeable, and skilled than me. One day, that person will find the answer, and with luck, I will still be around to appreciate the wonder of their discovery.

Image by Digital Cat