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.”

 

 

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.

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.

***

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.

 

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.