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.