Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Bonus Round: My Journey of Disovery, Healing, and Connection - First Three Chapters


If we could plan our own disasters, I couldn't have done a better job. Really, as far as personal catastrophes go, this was an absolute masterpiece, so good, in fact, that I simply cannot take all the credit. God, are you there? Please stand up and take a bow.

I'm at my desk, at my computer. It is mid-July, 2016. It's a beautiful sunny day in rural East County, San Diego, and I'm experiencing it indirectly via the light streaming in through the windows. From somewhere among the branches of the oak tree outside my balcony, a mourning dove is chanting, “hoo-hoo-hoo-ah-hoo-hoo.” In the six years I've been in this place, the chant has been as persistent and punctual as a cuckoo clock. Different birds over the years, perhaps, same hoo-hoo-hoo.

For the last two months, I've been hard at work overhauling my website. I'm two days away from what can pass for a finished project, with all the pieces in place: New design, new homepage, new and updated articles, navigation system fully operational.

My site is devoted to depression and bipolar disorder. I started it in late 2000, back when anyone who had anything to say could find a ready audience and sometimes be taken seriously, even regarded as an authority. Call it the age of the citizen publisher. The corporate entities weren't yet present in force and Wikipedia was but a figment of the imagination. We were the pioneers. We pretty much had the web to ourselves.

I debuted my site with a collection of 70 articles I had written. In no time, I had 150 pieces uploaded, organized into 12 categories: “Treatment,” “Diagnosis,” and so on. I even had a small section devoted to my story. Three titles say it all: “When I First Knew I Was Different,” “Me, Alone Against the World,” “Crash and Burn.”

These recollections came to me in a flash, back in early 1999, coming out of a killer depression, soon after receiving my bipolar diagnosis. Now, suddenly, I had a grand organizing principle for my life, a map of my own personal reality, with just enough landmarks to give me a sense of up and down and left and right. Now I could connect the dots across vast blank swaths of Terra Incognita to get a read on how, over nearly a half-century, I got from there to here – boy to man, man to whatever. But the map also offered a rough guide into where I needed to go from here. By looking back with new awareness I could develop the insight to look ahead. This time I could write a new story, a hopeful one about my own healing.

For the next 16 years, I pretty much lived my story the way I wrote it. It was a story about a person who brought himself back from the dead, picked up the pieces, and made a new life for himself as an expert patient writing about depression and bipolar disorder. My website was part of that story. But the moon waxes, the moon wanes. Nothing stays the same.

I'm at my desk, my Dreamweaver program up and running, adding one new article to my site after another. I'm racing against the clock. A few months before, a health site I had been contributing to for ten years unceremoniously dumped me. I'd seen it coming some time before, and responded by transitioning into my own self-publishing venture. My resuscitated web site is going to be part of that.

By now, though, it's become clear I'm going to run out of money before I can start generating new income. I'm also running out of breath. My breathing is labored. I'm feeling fatigued. I decide to take a short nap. As it would so happen, this was the last time I would lie down in my own bed.

This is the story about what happened next, or, rather, six months after. What happened next, strictly speaking, in quick succession, was a heart attack, bypass surgery, eviction, and a dear friend bailing out on me. The details will emerge as my narrative unfolds. What you need to know for now is that three days after leaving the hospital I found myself in the spare bedroom of a near-stranger, my stuff in boxes all around me. My heart is fine, my breathing is normal. It's a miracle I'm alive. But now what? I'm 66 going on 67. How do I pick up the pieces this time?

My cracked chest is held together by surgical staples. A latex coating prevents airborne invaders from getting through. I need to walk with a pillow held against my chest. One bad fall and I will splat open like an over-ripe melon. Consciousness is now my enemy. Mending from my surgery has sapped me of all my strength. Unable to drive, I'm isolated, cut off. I'm lying in bed, looking up at a rotating ceiling fan, trapped in my own dark thoughts.

Sixteen years, I could only think. And this is what it comes down to?

Recovery starts with knowledge,” reads the heading to the home page of the latest version of my website, two days from completion, now inside a digital file inside my Dreamweaver program, inside a hard drive inside a desktop inside a cardboard box. “Here, you will find more than 150 articles, plus 26 videos, that will give you greater insight into your thoughts and feelings and behavior, and help you make your own choices in getting well and staying well.”

I have two public service awards to validate my efforts, one of them a prestigious international award – the Mogens Schou Award for Public Service, after the Danish physician who demonstrated the efficacy of the simple salt, lithium, in the treatment of bipolar disorder. Thanks to his persistence – he was swimming against a powerful Freudian current – millions were released from lives of madness and institutionalization. To have an award that honors this scientist and humanitarian still humbles me. The award itself is a plexiglass slab with a lithium crystal embedded inside. I like to joke that mine says: “In case of emergency, break glass.”

Even more important than my two awards are untold testimonials from my readers, people who found my work invaluable to their understanding and recovery. “The perfect book for those living with mood disorders,” said the President of one patient advocacy group. This appeared as a back-cover blurb on a book I had written, the first on mental illness by a patient from a scientific and clinical perspective. Even today, mental health patients are supposed to content themselves with writing personal memoirs, and leave the expert stuff to the MDs and PhDs. My Amazon reviews, mostly from patients and loved ones, don't share that opinion.

Best book on the subject,” reads one review. “Life changing and dramatically improved my emotional life. The book is the how-to for giving one hope and living with this disease.” Ironically, that was posted on July 17, 2016, nearly 10 years after the book came out, just as the hammer was about to drop. A new reality has set in, a future that involves me living hand-to-mouth, in a succession of strange beds.

I sense a monster depression brewing. Without hope, the will to ride it out vanishes. I can only close my eyes and surrender. I wake up – morning? Afternoon? - with a strange new thought, namely:

If I were to wake up in a strange bedroom or someone's couch in, say, Arizona or Montana – anywhere but San Diego – then I'm no longer a pathetic charity case, dying in slow motion. Rather, I'm having an adventure, high risk but life-affirming. My last 16 years have to account for something. There must be readers of mine out there who would only be glad to put me up for a short time, or put up with me.

At once, I sense neural networks coming online: The ventral tegmental area in my midbrain is zapping dopamine to the nucleus acumbens nearby. A surge of pleasure and anticipation of reward rushes through me. Suddenly, I'm feeling motivated.

The dopamine is also lighting up the neurons in my cortical areas, the ones that inevitably shut down during depression. My thinking is coming in crystal clear. One idea pops into my head after another. Midbrain and cortex are now talking to one another, positive impulses feeding off each other. At the same time, another conversation is going on. The cortex and pleasure circuits are overriding the fearful impulses coming in from the limbic brain, home of the dreaded amygdala.

It feels right! A road trip. My brain is telling me this is doable. If disaster strikes, so what? This beats staying put, waiting for nothing to happen. Serotonin is now flooding into various brain regions, marinating neurons. I could go on and on. The point is, my whole brain is now back online, working like it just came out of the box. Feel-good hormones are now swimming in my blood stream. My entire body is now responding to the call. I'm coming back to life. This is a miracle.

I put out the word on Facebook. In no time, I'm receiving encouraging responses. “I have just made a duplicate key to my house,” reads one. The fact that his house happens to be in Dubai renders a visit a bit problematic, but his goodwill cheers me immensely. Nearer to home, the offers are coming in – Phoenix in one direction and the Sierra foothills in another. Further out, Montana this way, Louisiana that way, New England and Carolina way over there, Ohio and Iowa somewhere in the middle.

It's not just readers of mine. I'm also getting positive feedback from what I call my didgeridoo tribe. The didgeridoo is one of my passions, and the personal bonds I have forged through this unique instrument are as meaningful as the ones I have made through my mental health writing and advocacy. You will hear a lot about the didgeridoo in the course of this book. What you need to know for right now is that I'm convinced – here, lying in a bed in the house of someone I barely know – is that the didgeridoo is what kept me alive through my heart attack.

Over the next day or two, a plan begins to form in my head: Once I have recovered from my surgery, once I have taken care of personal business, once I have uploaded my website and finished another book I'm working on, I will hit the road. Early November, end of November at the latest. Over the next few weeks, a basic itinerary emerges: Out of San Diego to stay with a friend in Orange County, then into the Southwest for some serious camping. The land heals – I intend to take full advantage of that. Then across Texas and the southeast to my sister's in Florida, then up the eastern seaboard to reunite with my daughter and her family in New York City. After that, a loop through New England, then west toward Oregon. Maybe from there I can fly to Australia, where my daughter will soon be living, or drive back down into California.

Who knows?

If I'm lucky, my life will resolve before I even cross the border into Arizona, but I know better than that. This is the story of my improbable journey, one that involves a heart patient taking an enormous leap of faith and hitting the road (two months later than planned, naturally), heading out of rural east county, San Diego at the end of January, 20017 and logging 13,000 miles through 30 states over 11 months, and returning shortly before Christmas right back where I started. The same place, but not the same place. Same person, but not the same.

A couple of months later would find me on a folding chair in the shade of a palo verde tree in a wash in a desert in southern Arizona, about to tap out the first half of this book on my laptop. A humming bird flits past me. Over in the nearby scrub, I hear a familiar sound: Hoo-hoo-hoo-ah-hoo hoo …


Life, I am wont to say, is a first draft. In my case, I have just about filled the page. There is precious little blank space left. Somewhere near the bottom, the typescript ends as abruptly as the Mayan calendar. We're reduced to margins now. I'm writing on borrowed time. I've got the paper turned sideways and am scrawling with a pen that refuses to yield its ink into a side margin. To get the most out of the space, my letters take on microfilm dimensions. The margin soon exceeds its carrying capacity, and next thing I'm exploiting openings in the typescript – line breaks, paragraph endings. Squiggly arrows now connect my disparate narrative, first this way, then that way.

Soon enough, I will run out of space. Soon enough, I will set down my pen.

We never get to write a second draft. No do-overs, no going back. What's there is there. The best we can do is read and review with an aware mind. If we're lucky, we may divine a sense of meaning and purpose, some indication that there was more to our short time here than a mere series of accidents.

If I think that is all there is to life, a friend tells me, then I haven't been paying attention. What she is suggesting is that if you live with your eyes open, you will catch glimpses into how our lives are mysteriously entangled. My default belief lies squarely in the randomness camp, but the crazy events in my life are laying serious challenge to that notion.

It's been five months since I've set out from San Diego. Against all expectations, I made it over the California border into Arizona and New Mexico, through Texas and the southeast, into Florida to see my sister, then up through the Appalachians and into New York City to be with my daughter. A bronchial infection and car problems kept me sidelined for a month at a friend's in New Jersey. But now all systems are go.

I'm driving into Connecticut, mother of my childhood memories, cruising along at 60 MPH, taking a photo through the windshield in my car. Don't do this at home. As acts of folly go, statistically this ranks with photographing marine life from inside a shark cage acquired at a garage sale

The object of my attention is the Merritt Parkway. Some of my earliest memories involve this stretch of road. Back before seat belts became standard issue, mom and dad would dump my older sister Jo Ann and I (baby brother was up front) into the back of our Ford ranch wagon (or something earlier dating from the Spanish-American War), and head into New York City. In those days, the drive shaft ran down the length of the car and formed a hump through the center of the back floor. It was standing on this hump, hands braced on the back of the bench front seat, that I got to take in almost the exact same view, albeit in the other direction, I am now enjoying from the driver’s seat more than 60 years later.

I take in the canopied thoroughfare and the bridges out of a Hollywood movie set. The Parkway – together with its New York counterpart, the Hutchinson River Parkway, which the Merritt runs into – is totally unique in the realm of humankind. We are talking about a strip of wooded Eden running through one of the most densely populated sections of the country and into and back out of one of the world’s great cities.

But you would never know it, driving this byway. Way way back, motorists actually picnicked by the side of the road. Even the pit stops are out-of-world experiences. I content myself with driving past, but can't help but wonder if they contain the same hot chocolate machines. I taste piping hot sweetness. I may have begun my journey back in California five months and five thousand miles earlier, traveling through seventeen states, but it is here, into my eighteenth, that my journey takes on a new dimension, one with a new starting point.

My quest begins here, an innocent boy, in a state of wonder, unbroken by the brickbats life would later hurl my way. Earlier in the day, my family would have been traveling down the same parkway that I am now traveling up. Same Hollywood bridges, same forest canopy. But my older sister and I are looking ahead. We're on the lookout for buildings, really tall ones, the redwoods of urban architecture. Here I am, on the observation deck of one. [See photo above.]

Other family photos from the era show me at places like the Bronx Zoo and the circus. In one of them, my mom is actually engaging with me, showing some warmth, not looking as if she is auditioning for the role of absolute zero on the Kelvin scale in some sequel to Frozen. There she is, in close physical proximity, pointing to something in the distance (a circus trapeze artist, perhaps?).

We are off the Merritt Parkway now. Once into New Haven County, the Merritt morphs into the Wilbur Cross, scenic in its own right, but, shorn of its leafy canopy, just another byway. In the town of Meriden, roughly in the state's center, the Wilbur Cross becomes the Berlin Turnpike. We are now on a commercial strip straight out of the fifties and sixties. This is owing to the opening of I-91 in 1965, which would allow five decades of human intercourse to completely bypass this thoroughfare, thus leaving it practically in its original state, complete with rustic motels and billboards, minus a drive-in or two.

I’m headed toward Newington, outside Hartford, for dinner with an old friend and a bed for the night. Back up a bit …

For weeks, I had been pondering: When I got to Meriden, would I turn off the Wilbur Cross? Perhaps check out the house I grew up in? Maybe veer off into nearby Southington and visit my mother’s grave? I wasn’t there when she died a few years before. I last saw her a few years before that, soon before she descended into dementia. Should I try to find closure of sorts? Ceremony? Ritual? An act of remembrance where her remains lie beneath the oaks?

The exit looms. No, I decide. Ritual without the right intent not only lacks meaning, it borders on desecration. Better to let her – and my memories of her – lie undisturbed.

Next morning, I'm heading out from my friend’s. My nemesis, Google Maps, takes me to the Berlin Turnpike. Suddenly, the sight of a McDonald's greets me. Suddenly, ancient memories overpower me. I'm looking at my first McDonalds, probably the only one in existence in central Connecticut back in the early 60s. Its retro look – white tiles, red accents – mimics what I ventured into when I ordered a 15-cent hamburger way way back, though I'm sure the arches were a lot closer together. The teenagers – in crisp paper hats – taking my order would address my 11-12-year-old self as “Sir.” All takeaway, no sit down.

This particular Mickey D’s also represents one of the rare opportunities I had to bond with my otherwise distant mother. Both her parents would die within months of each other. My mom would pick me up at my junior high in Meriden, and together we’d head up the Berlin Turnpike to Springfield, Massachusetts. I-91 was still under construction. A glorified road with traffic lights was how you headed north in your ’59 Ford Fairlane 500.

My mom would stop off at the Newington McDonald’s. I would jump out of the car, and return with our orders. Then we’d head up to Springfield, eating our burgers, my mom on her grim mission of mercy. Looking back, I like to think my presence steadied her. Who knows? What I do know is that those drives up to Springfield, munching 15-cent burgers together – just her, just me – afforded me one of those rare and precious moments of getting to know her.

Years before, at her 80th birthday party, I had searched in vain for a story I could relate to the gathering, you know, a special mom moment, some mom wisdom, some mom acts of love and affection. To my dismay, I came up empty. Instead, I told a story about how I almost killed my little brother by taking him tree-climbing with me. The gathering was too busy laughing at my recollection to notice that I wasn’t actually talking about my mother. I simply didn’t have a story to share.

Now, thanks a simple drive along ancient byways, I had at least one, maybe even two or three. Such is the nature of unexpected healing.

A few months later finds me on the other coast, on a beach along the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, where I have pitched my tent. Night is settling in. Eight thousand miles of uninterrupted surf is pounding against rock formations, which protrude from the water like ancient pyramids. Behind and over, the moon is working its evening magic. Ahead of me, in the distance, I make out the lights of a passing ship.

My father would love it here,” I find myself saying.

Now where did that thought come from? I could only think. Nevertheless, I feel his presence, walking beside me, the two of us leaving two sets of footprints. Earlier, back east, I had encountered the ghost of my father on a Civil War battle site, along with a ghost of my earlier self. A lot of unresolved issues back there, but here, I experience a sense of release – if not a healing, then a sort of truce. Yes, he would have loved it here, I realize. Yes, we can share this, together.

More family road moments, these ones deliberate: A final beer with my brother outside San Diego, two days prior to taking off. A stay with my sister at her retirement village in central Florida, one that went surprisingly well, especially considering we hadn't talked in three years. A joyful reunion with my daughter and son-in-law and four grandkids in New York City. A day with my nephew in Connecticut.

Then there are my other families – call them tribe - the ones we choose. My two main ones:

  • My didgeridoo family, people drawn to an ancient instrument of Australian Aboriginal origin, a deceptively simple four to five-to-five-foot (or more) tube that you blow raspberries into to create a vast range of harmonically complex and wholly mesmerizing tones. In a social context, the didge acts as a type of Harry Potter sorting hat, connecting on a conscious level those of us long ago connected on an unconscious level. I'm guessing most of us are Hufflepuffs.

  • My mental health family, defined by the wisdom and insight we picked up along the way. We may have started off identifying with a particular condition or disorder, but we're way past that now.

What separates tribe from all the rest of everyone else is you never have to explain yourself to tribe. With tribe, you're never an outsider. This is the key to a long life filled with happiness. Trust me, I can write a book on this. I think I did, actually, maybe only a chapter. On the road, I'm looking forward to strengthening my tribal ties, but I am also keeping myself open to new tribe. What kind of tribe? Easy. One with people who don't bat an eyelash when you tell them that you're living out of your car and sleeping in a tent while recovering from bypass surgery. Let me give you an example ...

It's the end of February. It's only been a month since I've been on the road, and I'm learning as I'm going along. I've pitched my tent in the desert at Camp Verde, in central Arizona. I'm 3,500 feet up. Just me and the ground and the sky. The morning air feels like it was delivered fresh from a special place, so pure you can put it in a bottle and sell it. Don't worry, some day someone will.

I'm taking a short walk, indulging in my clear crisp air bath, clad in at least four layers - two jersey-type garments and two fleecy jackets. The sun is well below the horizon, but it is already putting on a spectacular show, lighting up the bellies of some low lying clouds, painting them brilliant orange.

The fact that I'm up so early speaks volumes. It happened my first time camping out, in Joshua Tree in southern California, a few weeks before and there's no stopping me now. Outdoors, there is no wall separating me from nature. Thus, there is no choice but for the two of us to sync up. I'm living on nature's schedule, now. I'm new at this, but I'm sensing the formation of a major insight.

After breakfast, I head out to check out the Indian sites in the area. First to Montezuma Castle, cliff dwellings that have nothing to do with Montezuma. It's all about the Sinagua, who around the seventh century established permanent settlements in central Arizona, then, eight centuries later, mysteriously moved on, probably absorbed into other tribes, still present. Their culture paralleled that of the better-known Ancestral Pueblo, further north.

Afternoon finds me at a place called Montezuma (that name, again) Well. Walking in a short distance, I find myself looking down into a spectacular sinkhole. To my left, is a tiny cliff dwelling. Down below is a jade pool. The water is not for drinking. A path winds down the cliff, taking me to more dwellings.

Time to break out the didgeridoo. When you feel the spirits of the land, you just feel it. No explanation. My ancient instrument is calling out to an ancient people. The cliffs around the sinkhole create an echo chamber effect. In nothing flat, I am in another world, untethered to time and space.

And this is when Becky and her three delightful kids walked into my life. She, too, is on the road, together with her husband Rob and their brood. I explained the didgeridoo to her in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration. Nikola Tesla used those words in reference to understanding the universe. Of course, were Tesla alive today, he would be playing the didge.

When one of the kids asked when Tesla died, I explained that technically it happened some 70 years ago in his room in the New Yorker Hotel, but that perhaps he merely entered another dimension. This, of course, made perfect sense to the kids and their mother.

This is what tribe is all about. In my case, it just felt right bringing up Tesla, without wondering whether I was going to come across as weird. I'm guessing at least three decades separated me and Becky, but the beauty of tribe is this doesn't matter.

Later, our paths would recross near White Sands in New Mexico. After waiting in my car for a sandstorm to die down, I showed up to their site with four didgeridoos. We settled into our folding chairs outside and the kids and I started honking up our own storm. Later, dinner inside their RV – excellent conversation with the grown-ups, Pokemon with the kids. Let's call Becky and her gang part of my new road tribe.

Perhaps just plain tribe. As I would discover on the road, the qualifying labels represent strictly point of origin, how certain people came into my life. Staying connected goes a lot wider and deeper. In no time, the distinctions blur. We just are.

My friend Joanne easily crosses tribal lines. She came into my life about six years earlier as one of my more active readers. In no time, we had a long-distance friendship going. I’m not sure she knows what to do with me. You see, she gives me advice, and I actually follow it. She’s the one who came up with the title to my recent book series, The Bipolar Expert Series.

Some time before, a personal crisis resulted in her being unable to return to her well-paying position as an IT specialist on Wall Street. She downsized into a camper van and hit the road with her service dog, traveling cross-country between one family in Connecticut and another in Arizona, learning as she went along. It quickly turned into a way of life. A few years ago, anticipating my current financial crisis, Joanne suggested to me doing something similar. At the time, this was way beyond the realm of my comprehension. Now, here I am.
I like to say that our only purpose here on this earth is to make God laugh. God, in effect, sees the banana peel we are about to slip on. Now God is snorting milk out his nose. Joanne is far too polite to do the same.
We happen to run into each other for the first time face-to-face in Tuscon. Several days later, she and I and her friend are camping out in eastern Arizona. I wish I could get a pic of the night sky over the desert. We're sitting out in the open, sipping tea, gazing up into nature’s splendid canopy, mere specks amongst the specks. Then one of the specks breaks loose and bolts. It shines brilliantly for all of a second, only to extinguish into nothing. Such is our fate. No matter what, how you choose to parse our existence – reason for everything or a series of accidents – it all ends up the same. We will all return to the nothing from which we came. Our only crime is to never take up the challenge of breaking loose and daring to shine when presented with that rare opportunity we call life.
By rights, I should be occupying the same nothing as that burnt-out piece of space rock. Perhaps I am. Einstein got it wrong when he devoted the last three decades of his life in pursuit of his theory of everything. In hindsight, he should have been pursuing a theory of nothing. According to Einstein, nothing travels faster than the speed of light. Hence “nothing.”
Perhaps “nothing” should be in the title to this book. All I have right now is the subtitle: A Journey of Discovery, Healing, and Connection.
By now, you have got a sense of that. But now it dawns on me that what we are really talking about is the entanglements that bind “nothing.” In my case, it is if my late mother and father were still alive, with some kind of gravitational pull on my every thought and action. Likewise, it is as if Becky, whom I only just met, has always been in my life. Perhaps she has. Maybe she is here with me right now, in our the family station wagon, driving down the Merritt, looking forward to our outing in New York City.
Forgive me for going on like this. By rights I should be dead – this stuff is important. The year before, my heart nearly stopped beating. Later, on my first outpatient visit, my cardiologist asked me if I had any questions. “Only philosophical ones,” I replied. It just popped out. Of course, there are no answers, but I needed to be asking the questions.
Several months later, I would be packing my life into my '99 VW Passatt. No fancy gear, no camper van. You go with what you've got. As I said in the beginning, life is a first draft, no do-overs. But now, through an improbable convergence of personal disasters, I am being granted that rare opportunity – you might want to call it once-in-a-lifetime – to review that draft with a new sense of awareness.
The time has come. For the last several months, I have been the guest of my good friend Warner and his family, occupying a leaky trailer on his ranch in rural East County, 40 or so miles out of San Diego. After days on end of bitter rain, today dawns bright and blue. I've said my goodbyes, made my last dumpster run. No more thinking. No more philosophizing. Time to close the lid of my trunk and go.
Here's something I recently came across: The same principles that govern time going forward also govern it going backward. Yet we know that can't be so, that the broken egg on the floor is hardly about to put itself together and levitate back to the table. Were that the case, we would all get our do-overs, our going backs, our chance to write a second draft.
Then I would simply just tear my up the page and start all over again. But here's the rub: In all the alternate realities, all the parallel universes out there, I am dead. My heart stopped beating. Ergo – ipso facto, E pluribus unum – every decision in my life, this reality I occupy, has been the right one.
Maybe in other lives I found more success. In love, in career, in spiritual realization – pick a card, any card. The catch? In that life over there, I'm dead of a heart attack at age 45. Over here, it's age 60. Indeed, at just about that age, some eight years earlier, it was as if I could see it coming. In response, I slowed everything down, pulling back on my hours and commitments, and started smelling the roses a bit. But it also meant passing up on opportunities to get my name out there, to make more income. In the meantime, the business environment I was operating in was changing. I saw the writing on the wall, but my adaptive responses lagged a step behind. Had I been more adept, I might have steered clear of disaster. Then, again …
I would be dead!
That, I must never forget. As for my heart, looking back, the first warning sign was maybe a year and a bit before the event, in 2015, coming back from a weekend camping trip with a group of friends. I had a social obligation later in the day, but I felt particularly drained and stayed home, instead.
After that, I noticed my breath would become labored after taking long walks. This I wrote off to getting old. The hundred billion neurons in our brains are limitless in their capacity to deceive us. Not long after, the labored breathing would manifest on shorter walks. It's all in my head, I rationalized. In a state of defiance, I tossed my camping gear and a couple of didgeridoos into my car and headed up to my annual didgeridoo gathering in Oregon. On the way up, I spent a few nights camping out at Mt Lassen National Park and climbed to the top of a 700-foot cinder cone, then down into its hollow interior. For good measure, back at the top, I produced a lightweight didgeridoo and started playing.
My sounds draw in a young couple. We get talking, and the woman takes my picture. There I am, serene, in perfect harmony with my surroundings. It's as if the spirits of the cinder cone are granting me a reprieve. From a distance, Mt Lassen smiles in approval.
The new year rolls around. I am now experiencing the best of times and the worst of times. The bottom is about to fall out of my main income stream, but I've just self-published the first book in my Bipolar Expert Series and am full speed ahead working on the second. As well as giving my website a complete overhaul, I'm about to partner with a good buddy of mine in producing some bipolar videos. Oh, yeh, and I've written two novels, but they're just for fun.
In the meantime, amongst my local shamanic tribe, which I look upon as an extension of my didgeridoo tribe, I'm getting rave reviews on my didgeridoo-work. The trademark drone of the didgeridoo has a way of penetrating deep into the psyche, which makes it a perfect addition to the more standard drums and bowls used in shamanic circles. Indeed, the results I'm getting, in partnership with two others, has me scrambling to the scientific journals to see if I can find a neural basis to what I am clearly observing.
I may be a Hufflepuff, but I'm no duffer. I pull up stuff hot off the press that suggests that with the aid of certain agents – psychedelics in one case, meditation in another – neurons that don't ordinarily talk to one another – suddenly start talking. Or its opposite – talking neurons going quiet. Whatever the case, the brain – for a short time at least – is operating with different circuitry, out of its daily routines. This leaves room for new perceptions, some leading to the type of transcendent experiences William James wrote about in The Varieties of Religious Experience.
And here I am, a part of that. The catch is I am running out of breath as quickly as I am of money. In June, my daughter Emily, with her husband and three kids, pay me a visit. Emily and husband Hamish grew up in New Zealand, where I lived for 11 years. They recently made Brisbane their permanent home, but now they're headed for a year in New York City, where Hamish will be doing a surgical fellowship at Sloan-Kettering.
Even with my family in town, my current financial crisis has me laboring under deep depression. Getting out of bed is a major struggle. My breathing difficulties are more pronounced, and I wonder if I will be able to keep up with my grandkids. Then the second I spot them, I'm breathing normally, I'm energetic. This has to be all in my head.
One day, I let the kids know we're going to a didgeridoo party. Everybody has to bring a didgeridoo. Emily and Hamish are far from enthusiastic. Over lunch, the oldest kid is acting up. On the way over, it's the two-year-old's turn.
The person who is hosting the event is way out in the country, and my nemesis, Google Maps, now decides that this is a good time to send us many millions of miles away. We arrive in a state of advanced frazzlement, ready to leave our food offering at the door and head right back out. Then something magic happens. With no prompting, the oldest boy grabs one of my didges and seats himself in a chair next to one of the didge-players. He is capable of getting out a drone, but he opts to sing into the instrument. In this way, he can fully engage with the others.
The effect is magic. Earlier in the day, I just wanted to throttle him. Now, I want to run over and hug him. Later, I'm seated on the ground, trading passages with another player across the way. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot my oldest and youngest grandkids approaching with didgeridoos. Without a word, as if this is the type of thing they do everyday, they sit down with me and start playing. The two-year-old, I notice, is getting off a credible drone.
My friend Warner sees what's going on, produces his phone, and takes the shot of a lifetime. This will be my Facebook cover photo forever. Three weeks later, a surgical team is cracking me open like a lobster.

Transitioning to Wise Elder

A lot has happened to me in my nearly three years on the road. Transitioning into a sort of "Wise Elder" has been by far my biggest one ...

Approval vs Validation: Thooughts on my 70th Birthday

A pet on the head vs a pat on the back. Big difference ...


Every age group has something to bring to the table. At the Arches National Park, I had a great time hiking with Thomas and Mary, ages 24 and 23. Here, we share insights into what we can learn from each other ...

Would You Do It? A Thought Experiment

What if you could change for the better inside and out, in greater touch with your own hunanity and divinity. There is just one catch ...

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.