Monthly Archives: April 2015

The empathy of silent voices

I’m solidly middle class. One might even say I’m yuppie-ish. I have a well-paying job, own a house, have a nice car, and am financially stable. I’m pretty fortunate, actually, given my modest upbringing as a child of welfare and food stamps, as upward mobility in the United States is pretty poor, despite what the American dream would imply. Nonetheless, I lead a pretty comfortable existence, with or without my mental illness.

Like many middle class folks, I rely heavily on my smartphone. I’m a total podcast junkie and listen to them almost any time I’ve got some time to myself where I don’t need to focus deeply. Podcasts have been a staple of my media consumption ever since I got my first smartphone in 2008, the iPhone 3G that poisoned me to Apple products forevermore. I listen to a lot of public radio, like any good white person. Among my favorites is The Diane Rehm Show.

Just today, I listened to a fascinating interview on Diane Rehm with Dr. Robert L. Okin, author of the book Silent Voices: People with Mental Disorders on the Streets. Dr. Okin decided over the course of a year to visit and interview people on the streets, speaking with them in detail about their lives, what brought them there, and what they needed. I have not yet read the book, but I hope to, as his interview was riveting. A large proportion of the homeless and inmate populations are mentally ill. Dr. Okin hoped to shed light on this fact in reference to the former, and help people understand just how similar the homeless are to all of us.

His stories were heartbreaking. Already quite vulnerable people made themselves even more vulnerable by opening themselves up to Dr. Okin, allowing their stories and photos to be made public in his book. He spoke to people who’d been sexually abused, ostracized, addicted, and mentally ill both before and during their homelessness. Dr. Okin discussed one man, Jeff, and his motivations and fears, motivations and fears shared by all of us. Jeff had lost all of his teeth, dental issues being common on the streets due to lack of care. His lack of teeth made him deeply ashamed. Jeff often dreamed of having a romantic relationship with a woman, but he willed himself to never look at women because he just knew that his lack of teeth would disgust them, even if he had dentures. A big nose was something you were born with, and thus many people would overlook it, he thought. But a lack of teeth indicated a dirty person, someone who didn’t live life correctly. Jeff wrestled with shame, as do we all.

I listened to this episode as I was removing blackberry vines from the property that I own, with a comfortable and well-maintained house on it, listening to a podcast on a device that I’m privileged enough to afford, after having come back from a meeting discussing giving scholarships to high school students who will be given a chance to succeed and likely will, and all that following a day working at a job that I’m fortunate to have only because others invested in my education so that I too could succeed. Jeff could have easily been me, I thought. I’m in a position where I can take medications and deal with my health and lifestyle in such a way that I can manage my dysthymia. Had my life’s circumstances been different, had someone – including me – made a different decision, I thought, I could have been on the streets. My mother raised my sister and I on a very low income, but we were fed, clothed, housed, and educated. What if our grandparents hadn’t been around to help support her and us? What if, like my father, I’d become addicted to drugs? What if our mother had died from the illness that has plagued her since my sister and I were young? What if, what if, what if?

The thought of what these people go through, how they must feel, and how very poorly I would have done in such a situation made tears well up in my eyes. Perhaps that was the sweat and sunscreen making that happen, but I don’t think so. That was empathy.

Empathy is not a quality I had to much degree previously, for reasons that are probably obvious to those of you who’ve read some of my other posts. Said more directly, I lacked empathy in any real sense of the term. Sure, I could intellectually identify with someone’s plight, but truly being able to feel what someone else might be feeling didn’t come until after I could see in color. Now, while I don’t consider myself strongly empathetic, I nonetheless am capable of imagining and, in doing so, feeling what other people feel, just as I did with the people Dr. Okin profiled.

I’m just getting used to processing empathy. It’s been hard enough processing the new-to-me emotions brought on by things in my own life, but processing emotions raised by events in others’ lives adds a whole new element. Reading or hearing about something like this in the past would have engendered a logical assessment of how awful such a situation was. It generally wouldn’t spur any kind of response, though. It wouldn’t make me change the way that I interact with the homeless. I’d still have avoided eye contact, still refused to help them, thinking that such things were better handled by supporting shelters and soup kitchens. Now, though, I’m not sure I can just turn my head anymore. We share a kinship, and I don’t mean our struggles with mental illness. Rather, I refer to our shared humanity. I’m finally able to grasp both the emotional and intellectual parts of being a humanist. Like Dr. Okin, perhaps I can carry a spare set of socks or a hat, buy a homeless person a sandwich or a bus ticket. These are things that I never would have considered before, showing my progress.

And the fact that I even have to consider them shows the sad lack of social progress in treating one of the underlying causes of homelessness. So please, give to your local homeless shelter, domestic violence center, social support agency, or whoever you feel would best support the downtrodden in your own area. Write to your state and federal legislators to encourage them to invest money in prevention rather incarceration. I don’t believe that we can completely eliminate mental illness, but at least we can prevent its most deleterious impacts on people’s lives.


Inadequate

Twice this month, I’ve broken down and cried. I’m not talking about the slightly weepy kind of crying; I mean the bawling while curled up into a ball on the bed variety. “Wrecked”, as S would say. Each incident had its triggers and buildups, though I saw neither coming. But both stemmed from my obstinate, deep-seated sense of inadequacy.

There were signs of these breakdowns that I see only in retrospect. In one, it was lack of sleep, missing my medications, and meeting some amazing people my partner’s life (more on that later). In another, it was – once again – lack of sleep, having just come back from a conference, a song, and possibly taking two doses of my meds. In both cases, my feelings were a jumble. It was only time and hindsight that helped me figure out the reasons for my tears.

<aside> I’m writing under the influence of that possible double dose of bupropion. I say “possibly” because I honestly can’t remember, which is why I would have taken the second pill in the first place. But my hands are pretty jittery, unusually so, which could be extra meds, could be the stint on the rowing machine this morning, or could be the kayaking trip from yesterday. Or all three! But considered yourself warned regarding this post: I may be overmedicated. </aside>

I’ve written about my feelings of inadequacy before. One of their likely roots comes from my father (or lack thereof). It took me a while to realize that I had such deep shame. I externalized it for a long time, and still do. The shame attaches itself to so many aspects of my life, but a few in particular: parenting, being a good partner, and job performance.

If you read my post about my father, I’m sure that you understand why I feel inadequate molding a young child’s life. Although “child” is a bit too specific. “Molding a young boy’s life” is more accurate. I break up a bit every time I hear some cheesy country song about a father and his son. Curse you, Brad Paisley.

I lacked a real father figure in my life. That role was served by my grandfather and mother, who raised my sister and I by herself on Social Security disability, food stamps, and the help of my not-at-all wealthy grandparents. But having my mother and grandfather weren’t quite the same as having a father figure. I looked up to my grandfather, certainly, but he acted like a grandfather. And an excellent one at that. And my mother’s parenting allowed for a lot of freedom but not a lot of guidance, as I’d always envisioned a father would do with his son.

I’m not really a “stereotypical gender roles” kind of guy; hell, typically I’m the least “manly” in the couple, however one might define that term. But, perhaps due to my history, I still think that a role a male parental figure serves in a boy’s life is somehow special. I am not a parent, but I do have some very dear young men in my life. I often don’t feel adequate to be a proper role model for them, to do parent-like things. People tell me that nearly no parents really feel up to the task, and they learn as they go. And they make mistakes. I get that. I know that. I also know that I’m a pretty decent male figure to have in a child’s life, all things considered. But I don’t feel it. I try to feel it, but I don’t.

That same inadequacy carries over into being a partner. For a long time, I depended heavily on a partner for personal happiness, a quality in which I’m assuredly not alone. It took a major depressive episode and its resulting revelations to help me take my happiness into my own hands. Now, I’m in a relationship that’s a partnership in the truest sense of the word, and I see how wonderful and healthy it can be. But that nagging sense of doubt still creeps in.

One of my breakdowns was predicated on meeting a couple of amazing people in S’s life. We stayed with them for a night, and I was in awe of how great they seemed and how much joy they brought to her and to each other. The whole experience felt so truly special, although it likely didn’t seem as such to S and them. I went to bed that night happy to have met some more of the people my partner holds dear.

And then I woke up in the morning, and the comparisons began.

Why would someone with such wonderful people in her life, and such wonderful people as potential partners, choose me? Awkward, unattractive, boring, diseased me. I’m not a catch, I’m a liability. All of my faults and inadequacies were laid bare, or at least the things I perceived as faults and inadequacies. I didn’t see how I could be a decent partner with all of those demerits against me. S accepts me wholly as I am, warts and all, and tells me so often. But I don’t accept myself. That lack of acceptance bubbled to the surface that morning.

This lack of acceptance carries through in little ways, where I feel rejected by small things that people do that really have nothing to do with me: “I have other plans tonight”, “I’m too busy for lunch”, “I’m tired today, but maybe we can catch up another time” etc. Such statements aren’t about me but rather about the other person. And usually, I know and feel that. But sometimes, I feel inadequate and turn those things on myself.

Inadequacy was queued up in my brain particular strongly of late because I just got back from the Oregon Library Association conference. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of the professional year, a chance to catch up with respected colleagues and dear friends and learn from the amazing things going on at other libraries across the state.

Colleagues often come up to me at conferences like this and commend me for the work that was done in Hood River County. The work was indeed incredible, to be sure, and while I had my role in it, it was a community effort in every sense of the term. I get commended for other things, too. This year, I was involved in a few presentations which were well-received. People actually specifically complimented me after them.

I’ve learned to accept compliments more graciously as I get older rather than, as I often did and still sometimes do, deflecting them. In one sense, I welcome them; they help that shameful part of myself realize that maybe I’m not half bad. On the other hand, they also make me think of all of the things I did wrong. When I get complimented on a presentation, I think how unprepared I felt for it, how disorganized I sounded in my head as I spoke, how much better it could have been if only blah blah blah. And when people mention our library district, my head instantly goes to all of the deficiencies we still have, all of the things that I haven’t gotten to, the things at which I’ve failed. As I said before, I sometimes go through my work life worrying that my colleagues, staff, and community members finally will out me for the fraud that I am.

So this morning, before I cried, I was already primed for inadequacy. I began working from home, and my emails reminded me of the OLA conference. I also saw messages about the big conference I’m planning in Hood River, an event at which I feel like I’m failing miserably as it comes closer. I was alone in my house, having spent the night alone as well. While I sat down to check my email, I queued up a song S recommended that I’d written an old note I happened to run across that reminded me to listen to it. I broke. Hard. I cried on the bed with the song on repeat.

These feelings show to me now how essential therapy is to my treatment. I went into therapy this most recent time thinking I didn’t need it. Well, I “should” be in therapy, I thought, but I had no particular goals. My meds, diet, and exercise would keep me stable. But I do need help to work through some of these issues. Writing about them like this helps a lot, actually, but sometimes I need to talk to someone, too. Someone who knows what they’re doing. This is all to say, treating mental illness is complicated, people!

I know that I’m not really inadequate. Sure, I have my dirty laundry (much of which I air publicly on the interwebs!), but so do we all. The side of me that’s usually dominant knows that I’d be pretty good as a father figure, make for a pretty adequate partner, and am pretty good at my job. But I need to be patient with myself. I’ve done a lot of work in the past few months, and progress has been swift. Shame and inadequacy so deep-seated as these are going to take time to work through. They’re never going to go away, but at least I can learn to cope with them. For that reason, I think these breakdowns are healthy for me. I’m confronting those feelings on the surface where I can see and analyze them, as I do so well. But I also feel them with all of their intensity. And as a former emotional eunuch, that’s a part of my healing process. So bring it on, shame!

… but maybe could you wait until conference planning and budget season are over, please?


Heathen

I’m in a dysthymia support group on Facebook. It’s been an interesting, educational experience that I’ll write about some other time. The group has been of particular interest lately, however, as the group has been arguing over the proper role of religion in such a group. A friend of mine in an illness support group had a similar experience.

The argument was spurred by a couple of posts and comments. First, a participant asked, how can a benevolent god leave me to suffer with this terrible affliction? This is a mild version of the problem of evil, considered one of strongest arguments against the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent being. It essentially boils down to this: how could such a being allow the clear evils that occur in our world to happen? Proponents of theism do not have a good argument to defend against the problem of evil other than “god has a plan” or “we’re incapable of understanding such a being’s motivations”. These responses typically are dismissed out-of-hand by most philosophers as the non-responses that they are.

(Did I mention that I’m a recovering philosophy major? If you didn’t know, then you do now!)

The second event that caused the religion flare-up on the dysthymia group was a person saying she didn’t want people to pray for her when someone said as such in response to one of her posts. This woman had poor experiences with religion in her youth, and prayer made her uncomfortable. Others perceived this as an attack on their religion and their well-wishes.

I have a confession to make. Well, okay, I already made it in my very first post: I’m an atheist. Or, more accurately, I’m a humanist. Like many humanists, I dislike the term “atheism” because it defines my belief system in terms of another, more “dominant” set of beliefs, rather than accepting it as a system unto itself. By proclaiming a lack of belief in a supernatural being(s), I am not making an extraordinary claim about the world. Quite to the contrary, those who believe in a supernatural being(s) are making such a claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Such evidence is lacking (See how easily the cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments for the existence of a supreme being(s) are dispensed). I also dislike “atheist” because there’s still a significant amount of bias against humanists.

Many people who have chronic or deadly illnesses find comfort in religion. People use it as a source of strength and hope. Step two of Alcoholics Anonymous is “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”. It’s hard for many to imagine having hope in absence of faith. Otherwise, the world just seems random and cruel. And just as those people in the dysthymia support group think, religion gives people the power to carry forward, confident that things will get better.

Such beliefs seem unnecessary and often counterproductive to me. Nonetheless, I don’t begrudge people feeling comfort in religion, as long as they’re not forcing it upon others, of course.People should find solace where they can. The thought of suffering through an illness such as dysthymia minus the help of the divine likely seems frightening to some, but I receive my comfort from science, reason, interconnection, and our common humanity.

So religion doesn’t help me to live life with dysthymia. What does help me is the thought of how incredibly amazing it is that we’re here. Us. Individually. The specific people that we are. Think about it: in order for the multiverse to have produced you, it took a series of events and choices spanning billions of years. Billions with a “B”. Any slight difference anywhere along that line of happenings could have produced someone or something completely different. But instead, you are the culmination of the multiverse’s work. I think that’s pretty damn amazing, and inspiring. How can I not be spurred to make the world a better place when it took so long for it to make me the person who I am, cosmically and just within my lifetime? Richard Dawkins says it best:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” (From Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder)

It’s hard to see such perspective when I’m in the throes of depression (Which, by the way, might very well be an evolutionary adaptation. More coolness about the world!). Then again, as evidenced by the interlocutor in the dysthymia support group, neither necessarily would a religious perspective. But in my stronger times, I find the enormity of the world an inspiration, even if there may be bugger for intelligent life here on earth.


Brave

Next week I go to the Oregon Library Association annual conference. I always have a great time there, especially now that I’m more established in my career. It’s a time to network with colleagues, learn from other libraries, and see some good friends. It’s also a time that I wear a lot of my faces. The work face, to be sure, but also a face I find both exhilarating and draining to wear: the presenter face.

But, as I’m wont to do, I digress. I didn’t log on to discuss my multiple personae. Instead, I wanted to write the post I’ve been threatening to write for a while: how could my decision to go public affect my career.

I didn’t fully understand the ramifications of what I was doing to myself personally by going public with my illness. Since my identity has historically been so tied to to my job, I worried primarily about whether I was deep-sixing my career. This was definitely a valid concern, as these advice articles show:

To be sure, I didn’t think that my current employer would fire me on the spot. After all, mental illness is covered in the USA by the Americans With Disabilities Act: “An individual is considered to have a ‘disability’ if s/he has a physical or mental impairment” (source). More importantly, as I’ve noted, I’m performing fairly well in my current position. I worried far more about the chilling effect on my future career. What if I applied for some fantastic new job and they did a web search on me only to find this blog? While one might not admit it, what supervisor wouldn’t give pause at the thought of hiring someone who’s at risk of a mental breakdown or suicide? And what library would want members of their community to search for info on their new library director only to find his blog where he talks about his plan involving a razor blade and a bathtub?

I’ve noted before that my work has been one of the few areas of my life where my confidence has tended not to wane. My resume is pretty decent, and I’ve been in the profession for a while. If someone wouldn’t hire me because of this blog, I thought, then maybe I don’t want to work for them. Call it arrogance, call it bravado, call it what you will, but that’s what I thought (and still think); they’ll have to take me as I am.

The personal risk I was taking was not foremost in my mind when I decided to go public, though. Oh sure, when I was writing my early posts and considering releasing the blog to the world, I thought about whether a future date might find the blog and turn around running. But worrying about potential romance wasn’t something that concerned me, despite being single at the time.

New Yorker cartoon by Peter SteinerI guess I pretty much thought, well, I’m writing this stuff. Maybe I could help someone else, or educate someone, by sharing it? This seem brave to me. Perhaps a bit because of the career worries, but not much. After all, I was still sitting behind a screen somewhere, and so too would be any readers I might have. The Internet seems so impersonal, even if people I know are reading this. Internet, dogs, blah, blah, blah. So I told WordPress to let sites index me. Consequences be damned!

It started sinking in when I was going to a meeting about the possibility of starting a Columbia Gorge chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). A song popped up on Pandora. A song I’d never heard. A song that really forced me to consider what I’d done.

I almost started crying, something I find myself saying often now. Well, often for me. The enormity of what I was doing was sinking in. I was on my way to a meeting where I was going to tell people, in person, that I’m a wackjob, a crazy, a mental case. That freaked me the hell out; telling people to their faces just seemed so … vulnerable. And, to top it all off, I’d also been telling the entire damn Internet. Potentially anyone who wanted could type a few words and find me discussing some really personal shit about myself. It gave me pause.

Personal shit indeed. If I were to have paused anywhere, it would have been my last post. It was by far my hardest yet to write; it brought up so many deep-seated issues that I still ponder and will continue to ponder, despite having mostly come to terms with them. It was one of the only posts I’ve considered deleting. It was far harder to click “Publish” on the post about my father than for ones on my self-hatred, on breaking down in public, or even on suicide. I felt like I was revealing a part of me to the world that I barely yet knew myself.

Two things gave me the confidence to share that story, despite my new found hesitancy. The first was my therapist. Early on, when I told him I was considering making my blog public, he encouraged me. His only worry was that I would want to write about a topic but hold back because it might be read by others. That would be detrimental to my healing, he thought.

The second was you. Thinking of the responses I’d received from many of you helped show me that I hadn’t made a terrible, terrible mistake. You shared some incredible stories with me, about your own struggles with mental illness, about how it touched a family member or friend, or simply about the difficulty you have sharing your emotions. Your stories were incredible and inspiring (and I feel extremely guilty that I haven’t responded back to many of you yet!).

You gave me a gift. You revealed intimate parts of your life despite the fact that, with many of you, we don’t even know each that well. You made yourselves vulnerable. And if I learned anything from Brene, it was that vulnerability is much more a source of strength, not weakness. We make ourselves vulnerable by opening up to each other, and it’s pretty fucking scary. But I hope that you’ll continue sharing, because now I know that it’s also pretty fucking brave.