Sunday, October 6, 2019

Road Lessons Six, Seven, and Eight: Nature, The Sacred, and Meaning and Purpose

From a talk I gave to Mental Health Con, Estherville, Iowa, Sept 28, titled Eight Lessons I Learned on the Road ...

I want to leave time for questions, so I'll run through the next three real quick:

Lesson Number Six – Getting out in Nature

I could go on and on about this. One really important point: Our DNA was built to be out in nature. Our whole modern life: We are fighting against our DNA. This, I believe, more than anything else, is the root cause of mental illness. Not to mention much physical illness. Depression, anxiety, addiction, obesity, heart disease, you name it. We’re falling apart. We’re simply not built for modern life.

So, what can we do? Well, how about a walk in the park? Here’s a few things that will happen: Exercise, stress reduction, light therapy, aroma therapy, oxygen therapy, wow! moments. And now we’re finding the trees release mood-enhancing endorphins.

My recommendation: A one-hour nature hike, at least twice a week. And get away from the crowds. Try it. Note how you feel. Also, do it in bad weather. Do it with mosquitoes. Then take the time to stay out in nature all day. Breathe it, soak it in.

I beg you. Get out in nature, get out in nature, get out in nature.

Lesson Number Seven – Cultivate a sense of the sacred.

It doesn’t matter what your conception of God is or faith or spirituality – always make a space for the sacred. In my case, being out in nature has brought me closer to the land and to the people who used to live in nature, not outside of it.

Under a night sky, all bundled up, hot tea in hand, I feel I am watching what I call Paleo TV. A moon peering out from the clouds as the roar of the ocean booms off the cliff. A shooting star breaking loose above the desert. The big pines swaying with the wind in the forest.

My first commandment: I am Mother Earth, giver of life. Honor me, hold me sacred.

But you are the hero in your own script, your own narrative. This is your journey. I urge you - Get in touch with your own sacred space. Enter it without prejudice, without judgment. Tune out your daily mental chatter. Allow yourself to become open to new insights, new perceptions, new wisdom. In time, neurons that never talked to one another will start talking. Be alert. Pay attention.

Finally, lesson number eight – Meaning and purpose …

Having a reason to live was the key to my recovery, back in 1999, coming out of a suicidal depression. Reinventing myself as an expert patient researching and writing about my bipolar gave me a new lease on life. I found myself looking forward to waking up each morning. I experienced the thrill of learning new stuff, of picking up new skills. I enjoyed the company of new online friends and a few face to face ones. From the feedback I was getting, I knew I was helping a good many people.

Well, as you know, in 2016, my world fell apart again. What was my reason for going on this time? Well, you know the answer. I embarked on my journey of discovery, healing and connection. The thought that what I learned out on the road might help others is a large part of what kept me going. And here we are, together, in Estherville. Say no more.

Thank you very much for having me here.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Road Lesson Four: Wow! Moments

The following is from a talk I gave at Mental Health Con on Sept 28, Estherville, Iowa, titled Eight Things I Learned on the Road ...

About a month into being on the road, I started noticing that every day had a big wow! to it. The realization came in loud and clear several months later. This was two and a bit years ago. I had stopped here in Estherville to visit Amy. After three or four days, I was back on the road, headed west on I-90. Three or four hours on the road, in South Dakota, on the banks of the Missouri, I pulled into a rest stop.

Any idea what was there?

Right, the Dignity statue. Amazing, right? (See top photo.)

So here I was, pulling into this rest stop to stretch my legs, having no idea this statue was there, and – Wow! And that’s when it hit me: If you’re not experiencing a wow! every day, you need to change your life.

Now, a wow! doesn’t have to be about stumbling into an amazing statue or some spectacular scenery. It could be hugging your child or being moved by a piece of music or taking a quiet moment to contemplate the sun going down. It could be experiencing vicarious joy over someone else’s good news. It could be finding beauty in unexpected places. It could be a sense of accomplishment, like completing a project or putting a smile on someone’s face or learning a new piece on a musical instrument.

But don’t confuse wow! with some sort of instant pleasure or indulging in a craving or seeing something cool on TV or social media. That’s just temporarily filling in a hole in your psyche. A true wow! comes out of something you devoted some effort to. It doesn’t have to be direct cause and effect. I just happened to stumble into the Dignity statue. But note -  I wasn’t exactly lying on the couch at the time.

So wow! is more like a perception. An attitude. An affirmation of life. So, here we are in Estherville – wow! Isn’t it great that we are all gathered here, sharing a common purpose?

And how does that make you feel?

Does that make sense?

I’m guessing we all need work on our wows. Think of low wow as a warning, like the oil light on the dashboard. You need to fix it right away. Take stock. Closely examine your life. Your work, your relationships, your diet, everything.

If you’re low on wow! then you’re probably high on depression. So, you need to work on the depression. But not just the depression. Everything in your life that may be contributing to that depression.

Listen to your depression. Your anxiety. Your agitation. And so on. These are your oil lights. Your dashboard indicators. They’re telling you something is seriously wrong under the hood and about you.

Adding more wow is not necessarily going to be easy. We’re on a journey, after all. And disappointment and struggle is part of that journey. But the good news is this is your story, your narrative, and you get to be the hero. Do your best to create some wow! in your life.

Road Lesson Five: Know Thyself

From a talk I gave to Mental Health Con, Sept 28, Estherville, Iowa ...

Now, I’ve been preaching Know Thyself for years, but the road has really validated me, here. I could spend days talking about this, but I just want to cover a few points real quick. Basically, you and I – the people at this conference – we fall into a class of people I describe as outliers. In essence, we tend to feel that we don’t belong on this planet. As I like to joke, we’re peanut butter people stuck in a tofu world governed by Vulcans.

So who are we? Basically, we tend to have a lot of the following going on:

    • Introverted – built for self-reflection and deep thinking.
    • Highly sensitive – equipped with different radar, reacting to things seemingly not there.
    • Idealists – a classification on the Myers-Briggs, mystics and dreamers and visionaries born to march to a different drummer.
    • Intuitive-creatives – finding associations not apparent to others.
    • Intuitive-psychics – peering into a different reality.
    • Empathic – possessing that rare quality to walk in the shoes of total strangers.

Talk about not fitting in. Plus we need to consider all the other stuff we have going on with us. Not just the label or two or three your psychiatrist gave you, but all kinds of stuff that flies under the diagnostic radar – a little bit of this, a little bit of that. A little bit of anxiety, a little bit of ADD, a little bit of borderline, and so on. Plus all manner of personality traits and personal preferences and tendencies and quirks: Exuberant, pessimistic, dog-lover, cat-lover, not to mention normal.

God! Who wants to be normal? Normal – yuck!

And this is the point: We need to seek our own normal, our true normal, not someone else’s version of normal. Not your learned doctor’s or therapist’s version of normal, not your well-meaning brother’s or sister’s version of normal, not your dear Aunt Tilly’s version of normal, not Oprah Winfrey’s version of normal.

Your normal, no one else’s - I cannot emphasize this enough. The normal you arrive at must be your own, not someone else’s. Otherwise, you will always be far from home, a stranger in a strange land, forever wondering why the hell you don’t belong.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Road Lesson Three: Gratitude

From a talk I gave to Mental Health Con, Sept 28, Estherville, Iowa, titled, "Eight Lessons I Learned on the Road" ...

This leads to lesson number three – Cultivating a sense of gratitude. On the road, I’ve had the privilege of connecting and reconnecting with all manner of people. These were people who shared a piece of their lives with me, who opened up their homes to me, made room by their fire for me, who broke bread with me, extended to me acts of kindness.

To a person, these people had been through hell and back. And they managed it with grace. How did they get through it? All around me, I discovered, were lessons in gratitude.

Heaven help, after the website I was writing for kicked me to the curb, after my heart nearly stopped beating, after I was unceremoniously evicted, after a dear friend flicked me off like a flea, I had every reason to feel bitter.

After nearly two decades, working tirelessly on behalf of those with depression and bipolar, and what did I have to show for it?

Wait! For one, I was still breathing. At the hospital, I encountered a medical team, from cleaning lady to head surgeon, who were unconditionally dedicated to restoring me back to life. So now it was as if I were presented with two possible default settings. This one or that one. Once I made my choice, it would be very difficult to undo it. From now on, when I felt my emotions flooding to the surface, they could go in one of two directions – bitterness or gratitude. Which would it be?

March, 20017 ...

I've pulled into a free camp site in a city park by a lake in a small Texas town. There are tornado warnings. I decide not to pitch my tent, and instead opt to sleep in the car. In no time my legs are crying out for a place to go. I oblige by rolling down the window.

At three in the morning, I awake to an ungodly beeping. I haven't switched the key completely back in the off position. My battery is completely drained. Four hours later, I get to meet Frank and John. They were loading their truck nearby and very kindly came to my assistance and got me up and running. I tell them a bit of my story. This moves John to request a prayer. We bow our heads as he thanks the Lord for bringing us together this day and asks the Lord to look over me on my journey.

Hard to hold back the tears.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Road Lesson Two: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

From a talk I gave to Mental Health Con, Sept 28, Estherville, Iowa, titled "Eight Lessons I Learned on the Road" ...

Guess what? After a heart attack in which I’m supposed to be dead, every day is a gift. Things that used to be important to me are no longer important to me. This takes a lot of stress out of my life. Stress is a major killer. It can be found at the scene of the crime in every illness, mental and physical. Stress sets us up for anxiety, depression, mania, addiction, anger, psychosis, trauma, obesity, heart disease, on and on.

Trust me, stress is far more damaging than whatever it is you happen to be stressing yourself about.

Stress, I am convinced, is what brought on my heart attack. But my heart attack, oddly enough, turned out to be liberating. By not sweating the small stuff, I’m am in much better mental health now. If I screw up, I screw up. If someone doesn’t approve of me, so what?

Jesus, himself, said don’t sweat the small stuff. Only he phrased it a lot more eloquently: “Consider the lilies of the field,” he said in the Sermon on the Mount, “how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. ... O ye of little faith? Be not therefore anxious.”

Mind you, being on the road has a way of turning the small stuff into big stuff. My can-opener, for instance, has a way of migrating from the front of my vehicle to under a pile of laundry in the back without so much as leaving a forwarding address.

I also have a very bad relationship with gravity. This is one of the many aspects of reality that I was hoping would change after my heart attack. That gravity would somehow take pity on me and prove to be more accommodating. Say, when I dropped something, instead of falling to the ground and rolling under a nearby refrigerator, the object would thoughtfully hover in mid-air for say two seconds.

But, guess what? Much as I would like to change reality, I cannot. My only choice is how I respond and interact with it. This involves cultivating a sense of acceptance. Maybe one day, when I get good at at this acceptance business, I will stumble into enlightenment. But it all begins with not sweating the small stuff.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Road Lesson Number One: Stronger Than We Seem

The following is from the first part of a talk I gave to Mental Health Con in Estherville, Iowa on Sept 28, titled "Eight Lessons I Learned on the Road. Here is Lesson One ...

As you recall, I’ve been in the road for more than two-and-a-half years. I didn’t exactly choose to go on the road. I was called to action, so to speak. Heart surgery, economic collapse, a good friend bailing out on me – there was nothing to keep me in San Diego, where I had been living comfortably for 10 years.

Quite the opposite: It was almost as if San Diego were kicking me out.

So, six months after my heart surgery, in January, 2017, I packed my didgeridoos and other necessities into my ‘99 Passat and hit the open road.

My first year, I did a complete circuit of the country – 30 states, 13,000 miles. Most of the time, I didn’t know where I would rest my head for the night. Sometimes, it was on the couch or the spare bed of a friend. Most of the time, it was in a tent out in nature.

So – this brings me to today’s talk. This talk is about the many things I learned on the road. Life lessons. Lessons I’m hoping you can apply to your recovery. And here is my first lesson:

One – We are a lot stronger than we seem. Don’t be fenced in by your perceptions of your own limitations. I’m doing things at age 69  I never would have dreamed of doing when I was much younger and in much better condition. If you told me I would be doing the things I’m doing now four years ago, I would have told you you were crazy.

Well, guess what? I’m having the time of my life.

Let me tell you about one early test. I’m in the Superstition Mountains in Apache Junction, outside Phoenix, Arizona. One of my mental health tribe, Leanna, has offered me a place to stay. Plus she's a keen hiker.

I was expecting some short walks close to the parking lot. You know, get out, walk along an easy well-maintained path, look at the scenery, get back in the car. The first hike we did was a bit like that, and I recall remarking to her about the joy of just being able to breathe. I’m only seven months out of my heart surgery and I’m thinking of myself as a heart patient. I have no idea how I’m going to hold up.

So next hike - now we’re scrambling on a loose rock surface up a 1,400-foot ascent. Going back down, we’re on our asses a good deal of the time.

Up at the top, I balance myself on a rock outcrop. Leanna takes a photo. I’m going to send this to my cardiologist, I tell her. You know what? After my hikes in the Superstitions, I no longer thought of myself as a heart patient.

So, let’s bring a new element into this discussion: Fear.

I'm experiencing the adventure of a lifetime, but it isn't one I signed up for. I'm in my victim-of-a-series-of-accidents mindset. No matter where my journey takes me, I will be taking my fear with it. Sometimes, I will punch through to the other side. Other times, I experience the thrill of tapping into newly realized strengths. But I'm doing it with the Anvil of Damocles suspended over my instep. The Sword is already lodged firmly in my head.

Six or seven months later, I just happen to check my Facebook feed. My good friend Leanna has posted a meme: “Sometimes the fear won't go away, so you'll have to do it afraid.”

I'm in it for the long haul, me and my traveling companion.

Monday, September 30, 2019


The following is based on a short talk I gave at Mental Health Con, Sept 27, in Estherville Iowa. A lot of it is based on articles I previously posted, here. Here, you will find my message a lot more focused ...

So glad to be here. So real quick, here’s my story:

In early 1999, at age 49, I finally sought help for severe depression. I was suicidal at the time. The upshot was a diagnoses of bipolar. This led to me researching and writing about my condition. Next thing, I was reinventing myself as an expert patient. This involved a newsletter and a website and then a blog and some books.

Fast forward to July, 2016. I was running out of steam. And money. And breath. In the hospital, they ran some tests and told me they needed to operate first thing in the morning. My heart was completely blocked. I should be dead.

Modern medicine saved my life. But I had no home to return to. Certainly not my old life. So, six months after my surgery, in late January, 2017, I packed my didgeridoos and other necessities into my ‘99 Passat and hit the road. That first year, I covered 30 states and 13,000 miles. I did a complete circuit of the country, and went right back out on the road. And here I am, nearly three years later, still on the road. The same person, but not the same.

Later on, I will be giving a longer talk about some important life lessons I learned on the road. These were real knock-me-over with a feather moments, and the mental health implications for us are enormous. But first, I need to talk about something really important, something that I trust will set the scene for Mental Health Con. It’s called being the hero in our own narrative. Or being the hero in our own journey.

So here we are, the lead character in our own lives. How would you portray yourself? Hero? Victim? Hands up, heroes. Okay, I’m hoping by the end of this Conference we will change that. In the meantime, don’t blame yourself for seeing yourself as someone less than a hero. The whole system is geared to making us feel helpless.

I could go on and on about this, but I want to focus on us. This is our narrative. Everyone, it seems, wants to write it for us. Take it over. But no, we need to write it ourselves. Be our own casting director, cast ourselves as the hero.

So, I’ll tell you a little story about myself:

February, 2017: I’ve been on the road for two weeks. All of it in southern California, near where I’d been living for 10 years. I pull into a paid campground on the Colorado River, separating California from Arizona. I’ve spent a good deal of the day driving east from the Salton Sea where I pitched a tent the night before, through agribusiness farmland and into desert, much of it Lawrence of Arabia-quality, with pristine dunes cresting and falling like giant geological tsunamis. Tomorrow I look forward to the signature saguaros and jagged peaks of southern Arizona. But now, on the Colorado, I unexpectedly encounter wetlands - tall grass and a variety of trees flanking both banks of the river. The sun is setting, the full moon rising. A formation of cranes flies past.

Next morning, up on my riverbank, sipping tea in my folding chair, a spectacular white bird swoops below me and alights near the reeds by the opposite bank. I’m on the phone with my daughter, who is now living in New York City, with her husband and four kids. I last saw her and her family in San Diego, some eight months earlier. Three weeks following her visit, I experienced my moment of truth.

Total surrender. It was all out of my hands.

That was then. Now here I am - refurbished heart - my whole life packed into my ‘99 Passat, with no home to go back to. I have a vague plan that involves seeing my daughter as I do a circumnavigation of the country. Perhaps ending up where I started. Who knows?

I have no confidence in a successful outcome. I’m courting disaster, in questionable health, with a suspect car, zero finances, no knowledge of what I’m doing, plus a brain that should have been returned to the customer service counter of life ages ago. Nevertheless, I dare to give my journey a theme: discovery, healing, and connection. If nothing else, I’m going to make it to my daughter across the continent, even if I have to hitch-hike. After that, let lightning strike. Just let me see my daughter one more time.

So - I break camp and head off. In my mind, my journey begins for real once I cross the border into Arizona. Less than 30 minutes later finds me headed east on I-10. A sign looms in the distance. Then I begin to differentiate its features - yellow star and rays against a field of red and blue. I’m in Arizona.  Pinch me, it’s real. I’ve crossed the threshold. GOODBYE, CALIFORNIA! I let my Facebook friends know. Ahead of me, my journey awaits.

I have no choice but to trust in the process. On a journey, trust is the feeling of the wind at one’s back. Its opposite, fear and uncertainty, is about facing a stiff headwind. The fear and uncertainty will always be there. Somehow, in my mind, I have to trust that I will somehow make it through the headwinds. Create, in effect, my own wind at my back. There are no guarantees. On any journey, there are many ways to fail. Lack of resolve should not be one them.

OK – how many of you have heard of Joseph Campbell? Right. He studied stories from all cultures all over the world and unearthed common themes that a hero experiences on her journey. He once wrote:

“We must let go of the life we planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.”

That’s what recovery is all about. Getting from where we think we want to be – or where we are right now - to where we need to be. So let’s see how Joseph Campbell breaks down the hero’s journey:

The hero gets called to action, often very reluctantly. In no time, she crosses a threshold, leaving her safe and comfortable world behind. This new world is a strange fantastic one, fraught with dangers and obstacles and hardships, which extremely tests her mettle. Along the way, she picks up a mentor and a helper or two, plus a magic object to aid her in her quest. As the quest proceeds, the stakes grow higher.

In the meantime, various gatekeepers emerge, subjecting our hero to all manner of challenges. Upon the successful completion of each challenge, new doors are unlocked, new knowledge is gained, new dangers present themselves. There are also times when all seems lost, when our hero caves into despair. She enters the belly of the whale.

In due course, though, our hero emerges from the whale. She doesn’t really fight her way out. It’s more like a surrender. She lets go. Lets go of her old way of thinking, all those false beliefs – assumptions that may have worked for her in her old life but are now holding her back. Now, with a new awareness, she returns to the quest with a renewed sense of purpose. In due course, she achieves her goals and maybe saves the world, but what is really important is how she has changed. She is no longer the same person she was when she set out at the beginning. She has acquired new wisdom and insight, with a new sense of self.

Maybe she returns to her old life. But that old life is really going to be a new life.

Hollywood owes much to this way of story-telling. Think of Star Wars and how a reluctant Luke Skywalker received his call to action. Luke has no choice but to join Obi Wan. He needs to let go of his old life. And Lord of the Rings. Life is no longer safe in the shire. Frodo needs to let go of his old life. The journey begins.

So what about ordinary people?

Say, the tradesman who has lost years of his life to drug abuse, and now, with a supportive community, is back on his feet, helping others. Or the single mom battling tooth and nail to keep her family together through all sorts of financial and other hardships, who discovers strengths she never knew she had. Or the neighbor up against a debilitating medical condition, who emerges from his struggles with a new perspective on life. Or the young adult who has risen against all odds from where she grew up - war zone, ghetto, rust belt environment - who now serves as a living witness, opening people’s eyes.

But what about our own stories? Where are we? We’re the invisible ones. Yes, I know, there are no shortage of memoirs out there, but these tend to come out of Hollywood and New York. Celebrities. Intellectuals. Where are we?

I’m looking at you right now. You’re looking at me. We know the story: You and me, cut down in our prime, our brains hijacked by a force beyond our comprehension, our lives turned upside-down, marginalized to the fringes, scared shitless, wondering how the hell we're ever going to rebuild our lives, much less make our rent. Why aren't we hearing these stories?

I look forward to hearing a lot of them at this gathering.

Anyway, here we are, heroes in our own narrative, our own journey. A very painful one. You don’t get to where you need to be by staying home. Medicine and therapy tend to want to keep us where we are, stable and comfortable. Maybe that’s what we want, too. But to get to where we really need to be involves something very different.

Typically, we have to go through a trail of tears.

Does anyone know what the name Israel means? Struggles with God. You may recall that Jacob wrestled to a standoff a mysterious entity in the dark, who turned out to be God. In recognition for his efforts, God bestowed on Jacob the new name, Israel.

Lesson: You’re not going to win against God, but you’re perfectly within your rights to put up a fight. And the lessons you learn from that fight will imbue you with the kind of wisdom and insight it takes for you to take stock and move your recovery forward.

So, there is no shame in not winning. No shame in failure. No shame in not turning out according to expectations. Success, it appears, is written in failure. And, as sure as night follows day, you are going to experience a whole lot of it. And you will find yourself overcome by despair, stuck in the belly of the whale. You don’t want to be there, but when you find yourself there, maybe that’s where you need to be for a little while.

So, here we are on the threshold. We have been called to action. The journey lies ahead. There is no going back. Let me leave you with another story, another Bible story. God has just delivered Israel from Egypt. Upon their safe passage across the Red Sea, Miriam the prophetess played her tambourine and sang and there was much rejoicing.

Forty years of trial lay ahead, much uncertainty, much hardship, but Miriam had the courage to smack on her tambourine and sing.

“Someday I will be laughing at this,” I recall saying to the crisis intervention team that had one look at me and gave me my diagnosis of bipolar. That was back in early 1999. So what kind of a person would I have to be to one day laugh at my current situation? Someone a bit more at ease with himself, in better shape to take on the next round of trials? Someone who can one day laugh? Maybe that’s the point. One day, I will laugh at this. Faith in God, that’s easy. Faith in yourself, that’s hard.

Have faith. Be the hero in your own narrative, your own journey.

Let’s rock this conference!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Cooking Outdoors (and in the rain) on a Rocket Stove

John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcman and on Facebook.

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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Let's Get John Into That Minivan

John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcman and on Facebook.

Become a Patron!

A Lesson From My Heart Attack

John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

Follow John on Twitter at @johnmcman and on Facebook.

Become a Patron!