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!