Living on the Ceiling

Under the Bridge

I walked around angry and sad for years. I walked around with a monkey on my back that was tugging at my hair, pounding on my back, and blocking me from the sunlight of the Great Spirit. The monkey was vodka. Vodka was also my God. I worshipped vodka around the clock.

I had another monkey on my back that occasionally caused me to be either deeply depressed, or highly manic. The two monkeys are evil twins, although not identical. This second monkey is named manic-depression, or what is now known as bipolar disorder.

Today I am 39 days sober. And of my manic depression, I am symptom free. The monkeys are off my back and hiding somewhere in the darkness waiting for me to let down my guard. Psychiatrists have named the twin monkeys Bipolar 1 with Co-occurring Substance Abuse Disorder. I am the type of alcoholic that the Big Book of a twelve-step program I am working reads “There is the manic-depressive type, who is, perhaps, the least understood by his friends, and about whom a whole chapter could be written.”

When I would have bipolar episodes of either mania or depression, I would often self-medicate with booze when prescribed medications failed me. Alcohol could mask or exacerbate the symptoms. I’d often lie to my psychiatrist when he asked if I used alcohol, causing him to scratch his head in wonder as to why medications were not working.

Manic-depression and alcoholism have amassed much havoc in my life. I was a tornado in the lives of others as well. I had lost jobs, friends, vehicles, family and a whole lot of dignity. By the time December of last year rolled around, I was homeless too. My drinking entailed swallowing 1.75 liters of vodka over a 24 hour period.

I was lost, alone, and afraid.

I had crashed my last vehicle into a ditch in Camptonville, California and was arrested for a D.U.I. After I got out of jail the next morning, I went straight to a bar and spent the afternoon throwing back long island ice teas, then straight Stolli. I was soon, mercifully, hammered again.

I spent months couch-surfing at the homes of friends. Then, when I felt my welcome was wearing thin, I’d resort to staying with other practicing alcoholics and addicts where I wouldn’t stay long because no one cared. Finally, a friend, a good friend, my ex-roommate Jen, offered her home up for a few days. She was shocked over how much I was drinking. She left me alone one morning and I slugged back nearly half of a 1.75 bottle of vodka in record time for me, and ended up having great pain in my chest. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. I thought that maybe another drink would take away the delirium tremors, but the pain was new and different for me. I stumbled across the street to a Chevron on South Auburn Street in Grass Valley, California where I had collapsed before I could even utter the word help. I found myself next at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, admitted to a room, with and I.V. in my arm, and oxygen under my nose. I would stay there for five more days before a living guardian angel, William W, arranged for a bed in a treatment facility for me.

When I entered the treatment center’s, door, Pathways in Marysville, California, the first person I ran into was a homeless person from back in Nevada City, California who looked pretty good for himself. This man, who I will call Bob, was arrested 156 times for being drunk in public. He was arrested in front of me at least twice. He was the cause of public nuisance over and over, and could be seen panhandling for booze outside Bonanza Market as soon as the store opened every morning. My own cousins took him in once, and after a few weeks, had to ask Bob to leave as he was drunk all the time. Bob made no attempt to quit.

I was in disbelief when I ran into him in treatment. I was happy to see him sober! I was so happy to see him looking great and speaking with coherency. I thought him an intelligent man – a kind man, a well mannered man.

Fast forward to last night, day 38 of my sobriety. I was volunteering at a warming shelter for the homeless in downtown Nevada City. The temperature outside was in the low 30’s and the skies had begun spitting out snow. Our curfew is 10:00 P.M. and I had begun to lock the doors, and dim the lights. Then, someone knocked on the door. I was horrified to find Bob outside, dripping wet, and stinking of booze. What had happened? I was instantly depressed. I had such high hopes for Bob. But I knew this was the vicious cycle of the chronically homeless.

When we were in rehab, I had shared with Bob that I suffered from a mental illness, and he relayed that he did as well. He suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. When I had begun to feel symptoms of my own illness begin to manifest, I asked the treatment center’s doctor for a medication adjustment. I was told that I needed to focus on my sobriety and to talk with my doctor after I graduated from treatment.

It is clear how Bob fell through the cracks of the system. Currently there are very few alcohol and drug treatment centers that treat both addiction and mental illness at the same time. I feel that residential drug and alcohol treatment programs should be denied of any state funds unless they offer treatment for co-occurring mental illness as well. It’s a what-comes-first, the chicken-or-the-egg situation. Does mental illness cause alcoholism, or does alcoholism make mental illness worse? They go hand in hand, and it’s not rare at all for people to suffer from both, in fact, its common.

Today, I walk around with a heavy heart, and angry thoughts even though as an alcoholic I can’t afford resentments now, or ever. For Bob, I’m hoping for the best but expecting the worse; jails, institutions, and death. Today, I only ask one thing of the Great Spirit; to save Bob. The Great Spirit can move mountains, but unfortunately, he will still expect Bob to show up with a shovel. I just don’t think that’s going to happen.

“When I grow up, I want to be a monster.” Part I

By Darin Barry

At age five, I wanted to grow up to be a monster, like Dracula, or Frankenstein. So I grew up to be a monster.  I then aspired to be a CIA agent. I was eight. That never happened. At twelve, I wanted to grow up to be in the movies. That happened. At seventeen, I wanted to be a veterinarian. That sorta happened; I became a certified veterinary assistant. When I was eighteen, I remember telling my Mom that by the time I was thirty, I would be a millionaire and drive a Jaguar. But when I actually did turn thirty, I had moved back in with Mom, and all I really accomplished in the span of my twenties was several failed attempts at various careers, and all I was truly professional at was drinking. I also had started to show signs of bipolar disorder in my early twenties, but my behavior, and failures were always chalked up to my alcoholism.

I put the plug in the jug for the first time at 32. That’s when life began to get interesting. I became a bartender, and server at a restaurant in Mariposa, California. I lived with, and worked for the Stayner family, who were known nationally for a couple of tragic reasons; their youngest son was kidnapped, and the eldest was a serial killer. During that time, Cary Stayner’s murder trial was going on a couple of miles from where I lived. As Lloyd Bridges famously said in the movie Airplane, “It looks like I picked a terrible time to quit drinking.” One day, drunk and disheartened, I ran away from it all, and rode my motorcycle up Highway 49 towards home, Nevada City, California. Yet again.

Then I moved to Colorado after I had, once again,  stopped drinking, and became a mortician. I didn’t see that in my future when I was a kid. Colorado was the only state in the nation that had no licensure in the funeral industry. It was a bizarre set of circumstances that pulled me into becoming a funeral director, and mortician. That is a novella in itself, and too lengthy, and irrelevant to the story I tell now. But I will tell you this; I was a Walgreens manager at the time I got hired as a funeral director, and I got the job in a Yahoo chatroom basically because I looked good in a suit. I had no desire at the time, nor the experience to become a mortician. But the starting salary of $60,000 a year, clothing allowance, and expense account, took me away from creating Chia Pet displays to embalming, and cremating people overnight. I even had my name on the door of the Boulder Mortuary: Darin Barry – Funeral Director – Manager.

It didn’t end well. I ended up being a whistle blower, going to the district attorney with serious complaints about egregious practices, and criminal negligence committed by my employers. I ended up on national news. Stunningly, the victims had no recourse as there were no consumer protections in Colorado to protect them from the funeral industry. Years later I would help to write new legislation with a Colorado legislator to regulate the state’s funeral industry. An accomplishment for which I was proud. And I got through it all still sober. I was proud of that too.

I had a brief stint as a counselor for at-risk kids in New Hampshire. I never saw that career for myself either when I was young.

Then, in Portland, Oregon, me and my little brother opened up a coffee shop, The Brews Brothers. I do remember fantasizing about being a business owner when I was a kid. I had arrived. I loved that new career. I loved the culture in Portland. We were hugely successful. Sadly, we had decided to sell when our parents began to fail. We moved back in with them, this time for unselfish reasons: to take care of them until they passed.

Shortly after my Mom died in my arms, my bipolar disorder threw me into the lowest of the lows, and I ended up hospitalized for depression. Manic highs would also send me off to mental wards. I had been struggling for five years to overcome my mental illness, trying different cocktails of medications with the goal of stability.

I had alienated, and distanced myself from all my siblings. My mania always ended in periods of rage – I was an insufferable monster during those times. My childhood dream came true. I was a monster wreaking havoc in other people’s lives.

  

I moved back to Portland where I got into the television industry. I started from the bottom again, getting principal background actor gigs in Grimm, Portlandia, The Librarians, and a Jeep commercial. One happy afternoon, I walked into a hipster bar in the Alberta Arts District and ordered a scotch. And then another. Grandiosity set in, and I had convinced a production company over the phone that I had the skills, and experience to become an assistant director; a profession that isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds. It was a huge opportunity. I slept in the next day missing my chance completely, and I had a terrific hangover. A month later,  I got kicked out of my apartment too.

I moved back to Nevada City, broke. I lived with a friend for few years growing pot for medical marijuana dispensaries.

Then, something happened that I never possibly could have imagined as a kid. I became a hopeless alcoholic. My mental illness was also off the hook. I don’t know how I got a job at a local natural foods Co-Op, but I did. Then of course, I lost that.

Then, yet another career of sorts I never saw coming as a kid developed quite naturally. I became a homeless.

After several nights staying in my car, I answered a friends message on Facebook inviting me to come stay at her restaurant in nearby Camptonville, California. I lived above a bar; a fantastic place for a practicing alkie. Soon after, I moved out to their fifth-wheel trailer on the property, where I could drink with impunity. Nobody would bother me with seemingly self-righteous warnings, and concern. I drank the winter away in that cold-as-ice trailer. The bar had become lowered; it was ok for me to be homeless, drinking away in a trailer in the boonies. Once a week, I would drive drunk into nearby Grass Valley to attend class. I had hopes to become a peer support specialist; something my psychiatrist, and my therapist had set up.

One icy night in November of 2016, I fell off a porch while drunk off my ass, and broke both my wrists, and damaged my shoulder so badly that months later, surgery would be required to correct it. Another lowering of the bar occurred that night. It was ok to be a homeless drunk, and to severely injure myself while drunk. I was ok with that.

I was a shaky, sweaty, anxiety ridden mess without my booze at this point in my life. I had graduated to 1.75 liters a day of cheap vodka that I would run to the store to purchase, every morning, as soon as it opened. I never let myself become a shaky, sweaty, anxiety ridden mess. I needed to drink to keep that at bay. When you are an alcoholic of my variety, you know, or have known, what it like to NEED a drink. And at that point, it becomes vital: to withdraw without professional help is deadly. This was another lowering of the bar. I was ok drinking the party size bottle of vodka every day, over a twenty-four hour period.

Then yet another lowering of the bar occurred. On another icy night, this time in February of 2017, I slid my car into a ditch on my way to get vodka. I got a D.U.I, and was arrested. I spent the night in jail in Yuba County. When I was released early the next morning, I promptly found myself ordering long island ice teas at the closest bar I could find, a dive called The Silver Dollar Saloon. So I totaled my car, I got arrested and charged, and I was ok with that.

I moved into town, leaving my belongings behind to pick up on another day. I couched surfed at friend’s homes until I was asked to leave, one by one. I still managed to attend class once a week, although I was stinking drunk. My instructor took pity on me, and even thought it was charming when I broke into song during class singing Depeche Mode songs.

I was taken in by my friend Jen, who was the crisis worker answering phone calls for those who were suicidal, days after my arrest. During the last few days in February, I walked into a convenience store near Jens’ home, and collapsed. I was taken to the hospital by ambulance. I stayed for seven days, being treated for alcohol poisoning, alcohol withdrawal, heart monitoring, and severe chemical imbalances.

On day four, while connected to and I.V, and machines that go “ping,” my first moments of clarity began to shine through. Everything changed. A stranger who had been following my journaling on Facebook came to visit me in my hospital room, telling his own tale of drug and alcohol use, his own experiences with mental illness, and his eventual recovery. He offered something I didn’t have, and something I desperately wanted: hope.

I had lowered the bar, digging to the lowest depths of the earth, almost to the molten core of the Earth, before my rock bottom was reached. I was in a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body, and hope come from a total stranger. I was an atheist. I had long tossed off what I viewed as the constraints, and judgements of organized religion. But in retrospect, I believe this was divine intervention. It was a spiritual experience, not from any deity of a religion I knew, but of something undefinable. And I’m not holding the man who brought me hope up to the pedestal of divinity, but I did dub him my guardian angel.

Months went by. I had been through a 28 day drug and alcohol program, where I discovered a promise of recovery from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body through the beginnings of work in a twelve step program. I had been given a place to live. I was given employment. I was given continued support. All from my “guardian angel.”

I had shoulder surgery in Spring of 2017. The recovery time allowed me to focus on doing my work in completing the twelve steps that I had dove head first into working. More clarity came to me as the time passed. I began to develop renewed interest in talents I had laid down for years: music, art, photography, and writing. I had begun to volunteer for homeless organizations, and spoke about my experience, strength and hope at institutions. I had graduated from my peer support specialist class, earning my certification. I earned my 90 day sobriety chip in June. I became the secretary (host) of the Young People’s Meeting within the twelve step program that kept me sober.  I had regained the trust of friends I thought I had lost, and made a host of new friends.

July came with the sunflowers I helped plant reaching 15 feet tall. It was then suggested that I was a good fit to become manager of clean and sober house in downtown Nevada City. I felt it was time to move on from beneath the wings of my guardian angel.

I hung my peer support specialist diploma on the wall of the house I began managing. Yet, another position that I never could have seen coming. Just a half a year earlier,  there could be not be a way I could see myself in the future as being a peer support specialist, and manager of a home supporting those who were formerly homeless, with co-occurring disorders. I would have been extremely focused on getting my next bottle of vodka, and that is all there was to my life back then. Now I am service to others in one of the most unselfish ways I have ever had to pleasure to know. Who would have thought?

I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. Although, I will never be cured, I get to remain recovered from that state, so long as I seek to stay spiritually fit. This is something I have gained from the Big Book of the twelve step program that saved my life. I haven’t found God. I seek him. Daily. I do not believe for a second I could have got sober, and remained sober without the intervention of the God of my own understanding.

When the sun rises in the mornings, and if  I am awake to see it, I see something new. I see the sunlight of the Spirit. But with or without seeing the sunrise, I am constantly bathed in the sunlight of the Spirit. I feel eternally grateful to be able to pass what I have been given, to those who still suffer. I feel grateful to be able to bare hope to those who feel they have none; to those lost, and alone, and afraid.

When I think back to what I wanted to be when I grew up, none of it seems silly in retrospect. I thought those silly career choices would make me happy, and after all, that was the ultimate goal. It took exploration, and fruition of many of those fantasies I had as a kid to discover that, ultimately, those particular paths wouldn’t bring me happiness. Self-seeking has wrought for me grief like only other alcoholics know. This may seem crazy to those who are non-alcoholics, but I am grateful to every drop of alcohol that got me to this point where I am today. To work with others who suffer, to see the light come back in their eyes, is like having a front row seat to watch God work – it’s a joy I’ve never known until now.

We are taking action: Our Part in the Solution to Homelessness.

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By Darin Barry

I am the house manager serving people who were formerly homeless, suffer from mental illnesses, and who have co-occurring addiction disorder. I am also one of the formative co-founders of the CoLiving Network in Nevada City. We, The CoLiving Network, are taking action. We have purchased a large piece of property in downtown Nevada City with a big house. We have big plans for the property, but in the house, I currently have ten members of our co-living program, all of them formerly homeless, who now have a place to call home. I’ve chosen people who were chased from park benches were they were sleeping, those who staying at the Hospitality House (local shelter), or were staying at the shelter in Auburn, as well as recent graduate of a drug and alcohol program who had no place to go. All of them have co-occurring (formerly termed “dual diagnosis) disorders. The local homeless population has a large proportion of individual who suffer from both mental illness and addiction. It is best that both disorders be treated at the same time. Both disorders are addressed here by certified Peer Support Specialists who live in the house, I being one of them. As well, we have volunteer mental health professionals who volunteer their time helping the house at large; helping to help themselves with coping skills and how to live with their challenges. We have a high focus on addiction disorders. We provide a clean and sober environment with zero tolerance, which makes our residents comfortable and safe. We provide assistance with clothing, placing them with employment opportunities, helping to set them up with medical, dental, and behavioral health programs. We help them to create goals for themselves leading to self-sufficiency. The most important part of these components is helping them help themselves, and others.

Now let’s talk about affordability: TRUE affordability in downtown Nevada City where the rents are ridiculous – we have dorm style rooms for $175, we have private rooms for $275. We have members of our program pay rent to get them used to the expectations in the real world when they are ready to leave the house. We are a rung in the ladder towards self-sufficiency. Even when our house members graduate from our program, they are welcome to still be a part of it by working in the network and attending our Monday night group to offer others support and receive support themselves.

Aside from the CoLiving Networks co-living opportunities in four locations, we have plans for our residents to be involved in building, and participating in our proposed tiny cottages that we are planning to build on our two acre plus property. The tiny cottages will house one to two people per cottage with a center nexus building, or mobile unit where a kitchen and meeting space will be provided to serve the newly formed community. We call this community Homeward Bound University. It is the first rung in the ladder towards self sufficiency. A huge enphasis will be placed on teaching life skills, and coaching to get them on their feet – to get them to a place in their heads where they are ready to take the next opportunity to climb the ladder within our Network. We are going ahead and building this. What might stand in our way, is the City. If the City stands in our way of us creating the ADU unit community, we will be temporarily set back, but we are not going to back down. We are helping the homeless with no government funds.

We have also purchased the former Pic and Pan market to build our CoLiving Network Co-op. It will be built by the Network participants who will have an opportunity to be entrepreneurs within the co-op space. We have already pulled the permit to go for the with our exciting new Co-op opportunity in downtown Grass Valley.

Action is what is needed and we are doing it. We are pulling people off the streets, in shelters, recent graduates from recovery centers and giving them a place they can call home. Our participants are those who are ready to take the steps they need to learn to be on their own.

Our part of the spectrum of the homeless issue is not for the chronic, and severely mentally disabled – that is out of our slice of the pie, out of our scope. There are other organizations within the Nevada County community better prepared than us to properly serve those individuals.

But for the homeless who are ready to help themselves and others, we offer not just housing, but a home. Our model is working. Everyone in the house now has jobs. We bring in people to speak in our group on Monday nights to teach life skills such as money management, employment preparedness with the goal of obtaining employment that is not considered under-employment, effective communication and listening skills, anger management, drug and alcohol support, etc.

At our Monday Night Group is where people learn to live with others and to interact with others, identify their challenges, and learn how to trust others for support, and in return to give it. The house in return is harmonious. Everyone has learned to be honest and open with their own personal challenges, and has learned to support one another.

For those who actively play a leading role in working on the homeless solution, I can invite one or two of you to attend our Monday Night Group throughout the year. Contact me, and I will schedule you in.

Being the house manager, and group facilitator, and peer support specialist for our home in Nevada City has been one of the greatest bright spots in my life. I was formerly homeless, and alcohol addicted myself. I have had a fierce battle with bipolar 1. I know what hopelessness feels like. Having recovered from a seemingness hopeless state of mind and body, I am now able to focus my attention towards others. To see the lights go on in a lonely, terrified, depressed, confused person who used to know only the streets and the bottle, or drugs, is an experience that no-one should miss. You wouldn’t want to. Its like having a front row seat to watch God work.

Hope is a vital gift when people feel like there is none. I am glad to be part of The CoLiving Network that is offering that great gift.

Sobriety, Having a Home, and Hope: Giving Back What Has Been So Freely Given to Me

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By Darin Barry

DarinBarry.com

I didn’t know how to love. I was alone. At least I thought I was. I was lost. I was afraid. I was a taker, who was always looking for others to put a band-aid on my problems. I was a tornado in other people’s lives. And I drowned it all out seeking comfort in 1.75 liters of vodka a day. My life had become unmanageable.

I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 when I was 39. At that time, I had been sober for five years so my actions, my moods, and my emotions could not be blamed on alcohol. Trial and error with medications to find the right combination that would work for me was frustrating – all I wanted to be was like other people. I hated myself, and would often feel a lot of guilt and remorse after a manic episode. Years would pass with me, and those close to me, suffering through my illness with seemingly no hope. After many hospitalizations, countless sessions with psychiatrists and therapists, I had reached a place in my life where my illness could be managed. But along the way, I thought allowing alcohol back in my life could help manage my symptoms even better. I was self-medicating, and that road led me to the darkest places I have ever experienced. I lost everything. I lost everyone. I was homeless. So I made plans. I had asked strangers, anyone who would listen on social media, to take my beloved Isabella, my cat,  because I was going to check out of life for good. I was going to take all my medications at once, and go to sleep permanently. My life had become unlivable.

But the Universe, or what many people call God, had other plans. The swill of medications and alcohol came up violently from my stomach during that snowy night in the winter of 2017. I stood outside in the frigid air in the three o’clock hour of morning heaving my guts out. I was in Camptonville, California, out in the middle of nowhere because I had no other place to go. My life was nowhere. I went back inside the trailer I was staying in feeling like I was going to die, and passed out. Then morning came. I was a shaky mess, and needed a drink. I was drinking within a minute of my eyes opening. In the coming few days, I would total my car on the ice covered roads of Camptonville, and receive a D.U.I. and a night in jail. Several days later, I would collapse in a convenience store in Grass Valley, California, and be taken, unconscious, to the local hospital where I was admitted for seven days. I had acute alcohol poisoning and withdrawal symptoms, electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, cardiac symptoms, alarming body chemistry, and delirium tremens. I would have died without medical help. There, in that hospital, I had reached my rock bottom.

The first couple of days were filled with hallucinations. I thought I was in a hotel at one point, and got up from bed, my I.V. ripping from my body, causing a bloody mess, and went to the nurses station thinking it was the hotel concierge, and asked for a room service menu. Friends and family members were there, I thought, to bring me clothes for a wedding. On the third day, I had clarity. Then hope walked through the door of my hospital room when I had no hope.

The man who came through the door had been following my story on social media, about wanting to re-home Isabella, and decided to take action by offering hope. He told me his story of recovery from the same hopeless state of mind and body that I had been in for a while. He took part in arranging for me to get into a residential drug and alcohol program upon discharge from the hospital.

All I was concerned about was the well being of my cat at the time. I had little concern about my own well being, although I wanted to finish school. This man took care of those loose ends and many more. He was being of great service to me. That stranger gave selflessly to me, doing things for me that I could not do for myself.

In the treatment center I was living in, I didn’t find a lot of teachings about sobriety that actually spoke to me. I rolled my eyes a lot during group. But, good people with good intentions nurtured my new sobriety. They held me accountable, and being a closed facility ensured I wouldn’t have access to alcohol. I couldn’t have people I knew phone in, and I wasn’t able to phone out, except for the “guardian angel” who had given me hope – . I was able to focus on my sobriety, and take a long hard look at the way my life had been going.

At Pathways, the treatment center in which I lived, we went to twelve step meetings away from the campus. It was at my first twelve step meeting that I heard a man use the word “recover.” This was counter to the teachings I had been taught in the drug and alcohol center where phrases like “stay away from people, places, and things” that had anything to do with alcohol – that we will never recover. I asked a gentleman at the twelve step meeting about that.

“I thought we never recover, and I’ve heard that word a few times.”

“Yes, we recover.”, he said.

“I thought we would never be cured, that we are always recovering.”

“No, we recover. We will never be cured, that is true, but we do recover from a seeming hopeless state of mind and body. You will find the word “recovered” used seventeen times in the volume of this book. Read the first 164 pages and call me.”

He gave me the text of the twelve step program, and I read it that night. It told of the authors alcoholism, the alcoholism of others, and how they recovered from it. My new found hope was honed by a whole chapter devoted to a solution aptly named, “There is a Solution.” I had new faith in hope. In a nutshell, I was given a program of recovery that involved cleaning house, trusting God, and working with others. The recovery center allowed calls in and out for twelve step sponsors. I called him.

Upon graduating from the program, I stayed in a temporary housing program in Nevada County, California called the Insight Respite Center that was a peer support program. My guardian angel who helped me so much after my near death experience, found me once again and offered a place to live, and a job.

My life was like a country song in reverse at that point; the dog came back, I got the truck back, I got the people in my life back, I got employment back, I gained a home, and I stopped drinking. (Although in my case, the cat came back, and I never had a truck.) But I didn’t get my life back, and that is a good thing. Why would I want the life back that brought me such misery? No, what I received was a blueprint for a different life; a new life. I came to know what it was like to be happy, joyous and free.

After establishing a new home, and getting on my feet, I went through the steps of a twelve step program with my current sponsor Justin. I also, through doing a lot of make-up, and going through tutoring, was able to graduate from school and earned my certification as a peer support specialist. The light came back into my eyes, and those around me at the time took note.

I was and am someone new. I was in touch with the God of my understanding. Fear, frustration, and anger were gone from my life. Problems that used to baffle me were easily addressed by my newfound clarity. I had mended the relationships with friends and loved ones I had tossed to the side in the midst of my drinking.

I had begun to focus on others. I found great happiness when I helped a man in the same desperation I had lived through by sharing with him my story of hopelessness, and then the solution I found. I wanted to experience those moments over and over again. Watching the lights come back on in a drunks eyes is like having a front row seat to watching God work, and I wanted to experience that over and over again. Through helping others, I had learned to love others. And this new knowledge, of being able to truly love others by selflessly giving myself to them, was extended to all of those around me – not exclusively to other alcoholics. My loved ones where happy to have a new Darin in their lives.

And what have I done with my new life so far in my newfound happiness? I give back to others what has been so freely given to me – that is the root of my newfound happiness. In the program I strive to be of service to other alcoholics through sponsorship, through being the facilitator of a weekly meeting, being the speaker at drug and alcohol programs, and through journalizing my experience, strength, and hope in social media, press, and radio (I still keep the identity of the twelve step program anonymous*).

In the realm of behavioral health, I have become an active part of the homelessness solution by becoming the house manager, and peer support specialist, in a clean and sober, dual diagnosis house for the formerly homeless. This experience has been one of the most rewarding of all in my lifetime. The house is a newly formed residence I co-created with a with an amazing social entrepreneur who is devoted to helping the homeless. I formed the house culture by writing, and facilitating the weekly house group where house members come together to learn how to support each other, and how to help themselves. I invite guest speakers to teach life skills, or to offer support with addictive behaviors. I’ve had the pleasure in watching the formerly homeless, addicted men and women, with behavioral health disorders, gain self esteem and better their lives while helping their peers. I have assisted them in finding employment, in obtaining clothes for job interviews, led them to clarify their goals and helping them towards the fruition of those goals. I’ve helped to set them up with behavioral help professionals, and medical and dental services. I go to food banks, and fill up multiple vehicles with groceries to fill the kitchen of a ten member household. I seek and obtain donations that our program members need to succeed, like a computer for job searches. We as a household are giving those who come into our fold, the next rung in the ladder to self sufficiency  And I, and the other house members, don’t just give them housing, we give them a place to call home.

Helping others has become the bright spot in my life. I have gained a host of friends, and enjoy their fellowship. I have come to know a new joy. The congratulations for my fulfillment of happiness, goes to my Higher Power, the God of my own understanding – the one who I only had to seek, not find in order to recover. I am leery of those who claim to have found God. I never had to find God to recover because he found me.

These days I see God in everything and everyone. I see God in those who have supported me by helping to pull me out of the deep abyss of despair. I see God in those I have the pleasure to help.

An old friend of mine who lived in my hometown, Roger Hodgson, formerly of the band Supertramp, wrote the lyrics “See the man with the lonely eyes, take his hand, you’ll be surprised.”

I get that now. 

* The traditions of the twelve step program that gave me the gift of sobriety dictate what we be anonymous about it at the level of press, radio, and films. That doesn’t prevent one from contacting me to find out what that program is. If you or a loved one suffers from alcoholism, please do.

Setting Boundaries With Those Living With Mental Illness.

 

 

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When I was first diagnosed with my mental illness, bipolar 1, over ten years ago, my friends and family stopped treating me like I was on an even playing field with them. They treated me like a victim, with all the care, sympathy, empathy, and patience that moral, loving folks give freely to a victim. In response, I acted like a victim. I was given carte blanche to act out impulsively, and permission to treat others with disrespect, or in an unkind manner. It was quickly dismissed or forgiven when I pulled an act of great irresponsibility. The seed for self-centeredness was already planted with my co-occurring illness of addiction early in my life. Being without boundaries that my loved ones could have drawn for themselves in helping me cope with my mental illness, my self-centeredness grew to be a tornado in their lives, and often to those who were simply in striking distance to me.

The first few years after my diagnoses in particular were some of the hardest times for my friends and loved ones. During, or more often towards the peak of my manic episodes, extraordinary rage would set in. Dangerous rage. It was rage during a manic episode that led me to pull a man out of his car in the parking lot of a strip mall and beat the crap out of him in broad daylight. My parents had to come bail their 39 year old man-baby out of jail. My Mother and Father were the kindest, most loving as parents come. But, their mentality ill son didn’t come with an owners manual.

My Mother waiting outside the jail where I was being held in Placer County, California, had these questions for me when I was released, “Are you taking your medications properly? Are you hungry? Did you get hurt? Do you need to see your psychiatrist again?”  She didn’t ask if I had hurt anyone, nor if I owned my own actions, or what was my plan to change my behavior so I wouldn’t be harming anyone with violence in the future. I was her baby, her victim. And that’s all there was to that.

My alcoholism had masked the symptoms of my mental illness for the first couple of decades of typical onset. I was guilty of many a debacle. I drank in my teens, and twenties to the extent that drinking became my identity. To my friends, I was funny, often outrageous, a crusader vigilante who punched those in the face who deserved it. My parents had viewed my drinking as just being a party drinker, or a heavy drinker – there was no way their son could be an alcoholic, after all, in no way did I resemble the unkempt, “long haired”, drug using offspring of some of their friends. My loving folks were in denial. They loved me nearly to death. At the end of the Nineties, I found myself living under their roof again being weened off alcohol by my Father who didn’t drink himself, to keep me from extremely dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Then I got sober. My parents once again provided me with financial assistance, a new car, and a renewed optimism that my life would get back on track. I don’t know how many times they had given me that same opportunity before. They never even asked what would be different that time. They had been walked all over. They had been taken advantage of. They had been lied to so many times that they didn’t even care about wether I was telling them the truth anymore or not.  My happiness was more important than themselves to them. My self centeredness was rewarded lavishly. 

I moved all over the country. Mental illness started to come into question, and actually, in retrospect, to become obvious with alcohol being out of the picture. I suffered from delusions both at work, and with my relationships with friends, often leading to the severance of both.  I had many unhealthy, hurtful-to-others coping mechanisms when I didn’t get my way. In my playbook was the game of “I’m not talking to you anymore”, the game of “How far will micro aggressions work to get people persuaded to do my will”, the game of “It’s all your fault”, and “let’s play passive aggressive until it no longer works for me.” If all else failed, I’d just write my friends and loved ones off. All of these sorts of behaviors stopped working for most people when they were four, maybe five years old. But because so many people in my life failed to set their own boundaries, I got away with those behaviors well into adulthood. So many people who greatly cared for me had no idea what a master manipulator I was. Some did. I have no idea why they stood by me.

The person I was, and still am closest to in my world, my brother Gordon, was the first person to strongly set clear and definitive boundaries with consequences for my behavior that was the impetus of change, personal growth, healing and progress for me. That was over eight years ago. It was hard for him. I just finished yelling at him at that time. I was shaking in rage. He tearfully said, “You make it really hard for me to love you, but I do. If you don’t comply with taking your meds, or refuse to see your therapist and apply what you get from him to your life, if you continue to blame your behaviors on your illness, I will have to withdraw from your life. These are things I will not negotiate with you.” The thought of losing him hit me like a ton of bricks. Someone I loved more than anything, or anyone had just stood up to me and called me on my behavior. I had even agreed to go to family counseling with him.

Gordon wasn’t always so strong. In his teens, he idolized me. I was his big brother who did big things, exciting things like work in the motion picture and television industry, a musician and recording artist, and strangely became a mortician; someone he never wanted to be in bad standing with. He was always wanting to go with me wherever I went. If he did ANYTHING that didn’t meet my wants and needs, my disapproval and manipulations would cause him to hang his head low. He began to suffer deep depression in his early twenties. He began seeing a therapist. It was then he learned that he was a caregiver whose self imposed job of keeping me happy had been taking a terrible tole on him. It was there, in therapy, and by going to Al-Anon meetings to better understand me, that he was educated and helped to implement boundary setting. Thank God for that.

People like Gordon, people who have dedicated so much to those they care about who suffer from mental illness, often surpass their limits before they realize it sometimes. Caregivers who have surpassed their limits will notice that their patience and energy has diminished. Once this sets in, and they continue to surpass their limits, anxiety, fragility, anger, anxiety, and depression can take over a caregiver’s life.

If you are a caregiver, or support provider to a loved one, or a friend living with mental illness, you have got to take some time to do some personal inventory, to look inside yourself and assess just how much peace you have with yourself. You have the right to be happy. You have the right to take care of yourself and exercise responsibility for your own well being. Setting boundaries will feel counterintuitive to you. But, it must be done, both for the person you support, and for yourself. It is not a single event, drawing boundaries is a process.

As a person living with mental illness, and someone who has become stable, self-aware, reunited with sobriety, and a contributor to his community instead of a detriment to it, I can say that my healing wouldn’t have been possible without my primary caregiver, in my case my brother, taking the initiative to help himself by setting limits.

Where would my brother be today if he didn’t established boundaries with me? Instead of going to college, instead of having a fulfilling career as a cruise ship musician while enjoying exotic ports of call, instead of making new friends, instead of maturing naturally from his own trial and error experiences, he would have been hovering around me, taking abuse, verbally and mentally, while slowly dying inside. Where would I be if my caregiver, my brother, had not have drawn the line? I would probably be wallowing in victim mode, never taking responsibility for my mental health, or owning my bad behaviors. I would have never pursued healing, and becoming self aware, and I certainly wouldn’t be of service to others. I would never have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. Today we both have value. We both know happiness. We both have hope for the future. We have a better relationship than ever.

It is helpful to remember the acronym F.O.G. That is something you want to rid your life of when you are about to set healthy limits – fear, obligation, and guilt – F.O.G.  Again, you have the right to be happy and not be constrained by the expectations of the mentally ill person in your life. You have the right to be free of F.OG. For your sake, and the one you are caring for sake, do not tolerate the relationship if it is abusive. Trust your own opinions, feelings, and intuitions and do not excuse your loved one’s bad behaviors otherwise your will set your boundaries further, and further back, probably to square one.

Do not let yourself be convinced by the person you are setting limits with that your feelings don’t matter. Your feelings are yours, and you need them. Mentally ill people can have great powers of persuasion. They can make you feel self doubt, and lead you to not even trust your own perceptions or yourself.

Explain your feelings with him or her. Do not excuse them from your limits you set, or be led to change your mind. By explaining what you have to do, you have set the first stepping stone to a better relationship for both of you.

Do not let them make you feel guilty for the boundaries, and consequences you have outlined. You will lose respect if you back down, and you don’t want to do this. The limits you set are as important to you loved one as it is to you, even if it doesn’t feel like it at first. Like I stated, it will feel counterintuitive. Be strong. If they break your boundaries, that person has made a choice. It is up to you to enforce the consequences of that choice.

Professional support. Get it. It’s something that is well worth the time and investment to both of you. Learn what you need from it, then learn how to be your own professional – your own best advocate. Sooner or later the reward will be that your loved one learns from your boundaries freeing up the possibility of working together towards growing and healing. It is then a real relationship can begin to develop.

Do continue to have compassion for your mentally ill loved one. Do continue to seek professional help, and demand compliance of your loved one towards it. Do continue to be an advocate for him or her, but not at the expense of your own needs, health, and inner peace.

Setting boundaries is crucial, if not vital, for both of you.

I am eternally grateful that someone I care deeply for set boundaries with me.

A Front Row Seat to Watch God Work; My Path from Hopeless Alcoholic to Recovery and Happiness.

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I used to be homeless. Now I’m not. 

I used to be a practicing alcoholic. Now I’m not.

I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. That doesn’t mean I am cured of my alcoholism. It means exactly as I have declared; that I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. I have hope, clarity, and a body on the mend. I stay sober by helping other alcoholics to find hope – showing them the way out of misery, insanity, and some from the brink of jails, institutions, and death. I give away what has been so freely given to me. This is how I stay sober.

Five months ago, I was hopeless. I was absolutely shipwrecked on the island of despair. I was in a deep depression, drinking around the clock, and had lost everything. The tattered remains of my life, my soul, and dignity had landed on the bed in a hospital room, with nowhere for me to go. What remained of my life had nearly fizzled out on the floor of a convenience store where I had collapsed unconscious on the floor, bringing frenzied paramedics, and an ambulance days before. For seven days I was treated for extremely high blood pressure, alcohol poisoning and withdrawal, severe dehydration, and monitored for what physicians thought might be an eminent cardiac event. My once shapely, extremely fit body, had deteriorated to a sucked up mess.

After delusion brought about by alcohol withdrawal, and a body loaded with sedatives, had subsided, I had no longer believed I staying at a hotel. I had rising clarity, and clarity had been one of the things that eluded me for several months. The reality that I was hooked up to machines, and an I.V., laying ill at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley, California hit me like a ton of bricks.

About a month earlier, I had decided I wanted to die. I had reached out on social media, FaceBook, and specifically a group within the site dedicated to serving the locals of the county I live in Northern California, asking for someone to care for my cat, Isabella, should I spontaneously go through with carrying out the act of suicide.

Laying in the hospital bed, I decided to reach out to loved ones, on the same site I had posted that grim plea, that call for help, to let them know where I was. I had become such a tornado in my loved ones lives, and all who were around me during the last year of my drinking, I wasn’t sure if I was still loved by anyone.

A day later, still mentally cloudy, but experiencing more clarity than I had for a long time, a man walked into my hospital room who would become to be known as my guardian angel. He was a complete stranger. He only knew me through my posts on Facebook, in a group called Nevada County Peeps which has a membership great in numbers. He was warm and friendly. He offered up his own story of struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. He said there was hope if I had the desire to stop drinking, and wanted a new life. I did. And I once again felt hope. He became active at once, hooking me up with aid provided by the county’s behavioral health programs, and a drug and alcohol treatment program, and provided me with guidance with the skills he gained through his education in peer support counseling; ironically a certification I had been in school with, and graduated from. I just didn’t know how to help myself with those same skills. Clearly he knew how to help me.

After spending a few days in a mental health facility for evaluation and treatment, and a medication adjustment to treat my bipolar 1 disorder, I found myself in a drug and alcohol program in Marysville, California called Pathways. There, I learned about addiction, and was supported by caring counselors and peers. It was then, through outside meetings, I was introduced to a twelve step program, and it’s accompanying text that outlined the steps I needed to follow in order to achieve continued sobriety. The book mirrored every aspect of my experience that I knew as an alcoholic. It spoke to me – I could relate. It was a blue print for a new way of life I was about to be rocketed into. It outlined a solution that had eluded me.

My guardian angel, the man who came to visit me during my hospital stay, had remained in contact during my 30 day treatment in Pathways. When I had successfully completed the program, he found me at a temporary shelter for those going through mental illness crises, or those suddenly homeless, called the Insight Respite House in Grass Valley. There another miracle, the first being getting sober, occurred. He offered me housing in a clean and sober house, and a job. I couldn’t believe the kindness of this man who showed me that there was hope in a new life.

While at that house, I was able to undergo surgery to repair a shoulder injury I sustained while drinking months before I got sober. I was laid up for ten weeks, and in a device that kept my arm stationary. I also had to sleep upright. I was cared for by members of the house I lived in as well as good friends in the community. Weeks later I would move.

I became a manager for a new clean and sober house in Nevada City, California, owned by the same organization of the house I had lived in after my treatment, The Co-Living Network. Today, I help others who are homeless, addicted, and going through mental health issues. I am a peer counselor, coach, and mentor in the house, and I love every minute of it. Helping others provides me some of the greatest joy I have ever known.

I have also worked the steps in the twelve step program that brings me continued sobriety, and secretary a young people meeting of that program in Grass Valley. I speak often about what keeps me sober as the chair person in meetings outside my homegrown, and at institutions. I have been interviewed on radios shows, and soon to be interviewed by a television news station where I will talk about the model for living I am a part of forming with the Co-Living Network.

A lot of people in the midst of their addictions express a yearning for their life back. For me, that notion is crazy. Who would want to return to a life that brought them to the very misery they seek to escape from? I enjoy a new, bigger, better way of living today. I get to bring my experience, strength and hope to those who are suffering, and want to achieve sobriety and continued sobriety. I get to work with those seemingly hopeless individuals and watch the light return to their eyes. I get to have a front row seat to watch God work.

The Happiest I’ve Ever Been and the Joys to Come

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“I am the son

And the heir

Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar

I am the son and heir

Of nothing in particular

You shut your mouth

How can you say

I go about things the wrong way?

I am human and I need to be loved

Just like everybody else does” – The Smiths

Nothing in this world could change the misery that I knew, when I woke up this morning. A small joy in my life wasn’t having it as she purred on my chest, rubbing her head against my face during her daily prelude to being fed. Her large innocent eyes know only peace. If only my cat, Isabella knew how I was feeling. Maybe she did. I knew and know this day has to be all about taking steps towards healing; my psychiatrists doors can’t open soon enough. I keep telling myself all those things I hate hearing from other people when I am in deep depression; be happy, you’ll snap out of it, and just get over it. I didn’t turn on the radio because some d.j. might say it’s going to be a nice day reminding me on how it’s not. I sat in my big comfy chair in my room at 3:00 A.M. staring at nothing in particular thinking about what steps I can take today to help lift me out of profound sadness. The warrior in me is still kicking through the walls of depression.

I began thinking about what in my past has brought about happiness.  I  had a breakthrough moment about a mistake I had been making – that is I was comparing moments and elements that made up that happiness to what’s going on now. I realized those were futile thoughts bringing me down further.

You can’t bring people back from the dead, those who were the bright spot in my life. Nor can I ask others who are on their chosen paths to stop what they’re doing and come back to me. I can’t recreate the circumstances that brought about euphoric times, not with any authenticity. But I can look back at those moments and smile. I can think about when my mom, my brother, my dad, close friends Mary and Saint when they were still alive. I can think about times in the sun with my living brother never being an arms length apart from each other. I can reflect on them and the times in life we shared, but I can’t bring them back.

My brother Gordon in his teens and early twenties was and is the bright spot in my life. I do miss the times  we spent coloring with crayons as adults, stoned, out in the middle of the woods. I miss the epic bicycle trips we took together in the warm months of summer. I miss being in business with him, owning a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. I miss the moments in the sunshine, skinny-dipping at our favorite swimming hole at the South Fork of the Yuba River in California. Most of all, I miss having him go with me everywhere, even grocery shopping. He’d automatically jump in the car no matter where I was going. I loved that. We did most everything together. Then, after my Dad died, Gordon went off to college, and to pursue a career as a musician aboard a cruise ship – a profession that takes him away from me for long periods of time.

Mary was always laughing. We got along so well that we moved in together as close friends. She was always up for adventure, especially off-the-wall crazy ones. Concerts, morning coffee rituals at our favorite haunts, midnight movies, underground plays and performances; she was up for it all. I lost her to alcoholism. She bleed out in our apartment in 2006.

I thought of them all this morning; those who brought me great happiness. I tried not to let the overshadow of them passing tragically or going away.

The breakthrough I had this morning is that I need not replace those I’ve lost with exact duplicates. That’s what keeps me pushing quality newcomers in my life away. I need to be open to new experiences and pastimes that might unfold a great new triumph of happiness. I need to think of the joys that will come if I let them.

In the big book of a twelve step program I am in, there is a passage, a promise that reads, “ We are going to know a new freedom, and a new happiness.” It is the newness of things I feel I need to embrace. For too long I’ve looked to re-create history and to replace others. I need to stop looking for qualities that those in my past have possessed and realize and explore the inward beauty of newcomers to my life. I need to embrace new experiences and not shun them.

I am sad and know a great tiredness that is enveloping me today, but I know this is a temporary predicament. There is great joy ahead if I let it be, if I let it unfold.

Down the Rabbit Hole

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I cannot move. I don’t want to move. I certainly don’t have the energy to move. This crazy guy, crazier than me, just introduced himself then started moving furniture around. I’m just sitting here looking at him with stoic indifference probably resembling a carved, stone face on Mount Rushmore. I open up my laptop and start pounding out these few sentences. I’ve checked myself into the Crisis Stabilization Unit, a mental health facility next to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in California, knowing I need help. I know the faces behind the desk. They know me. I feel safe here. There won’t be any wrist cutting, or window ledges to jump from. Not that I’m considering those possibilities because, for one, it would take too much effort. I just want to sleep.

Crazy guy has gotten on my nerves. I didn’t think that was possible because I don’t care about anything. I go smoke outside. Cigarettes are wonderful when I’m down and I’m grateful to have the privilege to smoke at this facility. Halfway finished with a cigarette, crazy guy runs past me. Back inside, they are calling the cops. Later I would watch the poor chap being handcuffed from my hospital window, and taken somewhere out of my view. He’s completely oblivious of his butt showing through the open back of his blue hospital gown. If I could feel anything right now, I would be sad for him.

I laid down on my bed and slept for hours.

There came a knock on my door, and through it’s glass panels I could see the smiling face of a strange woman holding a clipboard.

“Darin, your friend Sara is here” she announced. Then, “I told her I could neither confirm or deny you are here so its up to you if you want to talk to her or not.”

“I’d be happy to.”

Sara is an older classmate who I love dearly. We are training to be peer support specialists, ironically, in the behavioral health field. I am lead to a room off to the side. She has to be buzzed in. When the door unlocks, she enters and gives me a big, warm hug.

“Honey, you look tired. Are you sleeping?”

“It’s all I’ve been doing. After class on Thursday, I came home and went right to sleep. I slept for nearly 24 hours. I have bouts of time where I’m not asleep.” I half smile, not entirely comfortable looking her in the eyes.

We sit down on the leather sofa.

“Are you taking your meds?”

“No”.

“Darin, you’re bipolar. You have an illness. You know better. Why aren’t you talking your medications?”

“Well, I’m still taking Lamictal, but Ability is making my face do weird things, like causing my jaw to lock, and draw back causing a weird underbite and..”

“Tardive dyskinesia.” Sara interrupts. “You were wise to stop taking it immediately.” I could see that she was thinking as she looked off to the side, then says “and it’s a weekend so there’s no-one to prescribe for you until Monday…”

“And so I’m here.” I say.

“You haven’t thought about hurting yourself? You’re just being pro-active or what? How are you feeling?”

“I feel like I’m walking through three feet of sand. I’ve lost interest in everything I do. I haven’t written any music in like two weeks. Every movement is an effort. I’m not interested in socializing or hanging out with any of my friends for any reason.” I let it flow out of me with little effort. I trust Sara.

I shifted in my seat then added more to enlighten her. She was listening.

“Sara, I AM my illness right now. I am depression. It’s taken me over. I’m here because I don’t trust myself. I’m here because I need a safe place to be alone.”

“Let me see your arms.” She says as she reaches out to grab my hands. I roll my arms around exposing the underbellies of them.

“I told you I”m not hurting myself, I’m way beyond that now. The physical part, and so many people don’t get that depression is also physical, is really kicking my ass. Every movement is an effort, everything is hard. I can’t even yield a mop.”

“Well, Darin, you’re having shoulder surgery next week. You’re in pain in many ways. What’s going on in your head? You know, my husband couldn’t get out of bed for a week at a time – he’d call into work sick a lot.  My son did the same.” She gets sidetracked and smiles. “You remind me a lot of my son, that’s why I think I love you so much.”

“What’s going on in my head…you’re asking maybe what I might be making a big deal of that isn’t so big in reality because I’m a messed up bipolar guy, right?” I nudge her, referring to our professional training.

“Yeah, what’s going on? Things ok at home?”

“Yes and no. It’s a clean and sober living environment, and I feel supported in that way, but the head of our household has told me he doesn’t believe in diagnoses and buys into this airy-faerie belief system that we can pull ourselves out of mental illness by shear will power or some shit.”

“Not good. I’m glad you’re here. But you know, that just doesn’t sound like William. Do you think that maybe your disease is talking and not William? Everything can be greatly exaggerated when you’re going through these mood swings Darin. You know this. Things aren’t as big as they seem, and sometimes things aren’t even what you think they are at all.”

We talked off topic for quite some time. She told me she lived close and would be there for anything I needed. But then she could tell I was fading and let me be. I knocked on the door and was buzzed back into the facility. I found myself barely picking up my feet as I walked to the couch were I collapsed and just sort of stared at nothing for a bit. Kitty-corner to me was this kid, probably early twenties, half naked holding his legs, shivering. I watched the hands of a clock move and didn’t say anything to the guy. His head was buried in his legs anyway. I pressured myself to speak to him, after all I was in training to be a peer support specialist, I SHOULD talk to this guy. I took off my hoodie and offered it to him.

“Dude, you are making me cold. Go ahead, put this on.” I said.

He looked up, then stood up, eyeballing the wadded up hoodie in my hands. He didn’t say anything and couldn’t look at me.

“Really, go ahead. I’m just going to crawl back into bed anyway.”

From the front desk; “Darin, he’s got some issue with wearing a shirt, it’s been going on all day. Nice of you though”

The still silent kid walked up to the front desk.

“Can I help you with anything Sam?” the therapist asked.

He remained silent. Then pressed against the door leading to the hallway. He found it unlocked, and then he bolted. The therapist called the police. I went to my window were I could see him running down the road and make a left on the intersecting road. “He’s running towards Presley!” I shouted. From my window I could see a smattering of hapless people on their way into the emergency room. An arriving ambulance filled my crazy-room with dancing blue and red lights. In moments, the Grass Valley police department had arrived in several cars. Soon an officer would be asking me where I saw Sam last.

No drama was elevating me, in fact, I was sleeper than ever. Then another strange woman walked up to me and said; “I told him I could neither confirm or deny you were here, but there’s a man here who said you would know him as  “the guardian angel”. If you want to talk to him, I’ll let him in the side room over here.” She pointed.

“Yeah, sure.” I answered. Oh God, it’s William. I was thankful that he saved my life easier this year, but now I thought it was all different and just maybe he might be asking me to live somewhere else. That was the worst case scenario I had in my head. The door buzzer sounded, and with a click it unlocked, and William walked into the room.

“Buddy, what’s going on?” He asked softly and with kindness. He took a seat and I did too.

“It’s just that super dangerous bipolar depression. I am my illness right now. I am just really down, lower than low, and I needed some professional help.” I laid it out.

“You haven’t been yourself for a week now. You haven’t spoken much to me, I thought you might be avoiding me in fact.” His big blues looked desperate, and kind of sad, much like his old yellow Labrador Retrievers’.

I met his eyes, “Frankly I have.”

“Why?”

“Because why would I talk to someone who doesn’t believe what I’m going through?”

“Wait, are you talking about the conversation we had about labeling? By that I meant that you shouldn’t let yourself be defined by the label of mental illness, or alcoholic. I certainly believe in diagnosis. You’re living proof, I’m living proof. I meant I didn’t believe in labeling, not that I didn’t believe in mental illnesses – you get me?”

I took some time without responding. Then he said, “I apologize up and down if it wasn’t clear, and that I had inadvertently created an unsafe living environment for you by my anti-labeling words, that wasn’t my intention. You can talk to me anytime. You are a dear friend. I’m glad you are here, and had the spirit to get here. You are smart and way ahead of the game. I do think you need a break from some of the volunteerism, and some of the other things you have taken on. You are only 65 days sober, and you have dove head first into all this activity. Slow down.”

“I don’t have much of a choice, my body won’t let me be anything but slow. And apparently my mind is thinking things are much worse, and bigger than the problem, if any,  are. That’s bipolar delusion right there.” I said, voice quivering a bit.

Hugs were exchanged, and see ya later’s were said, and I was buzzed back into the crazy ward.

I sat down on the chair were Sam had been before he went awol. I reflected on real and unreal things that were causing me anxiety and bringing me down further. I was still left with the feeling of dread. My body still ached. I still feel like I just ran a marathon when I had not. I was still feeling like I was walking through three feet of sand and anxious over nothing. A change of meds was in store for me first thing Monday morning, but for now, a mild tranquilizer had calmed my nerves.

The kindly therapist who had talked to me on arrival sat on the sofa next to it. She laid her hand on me knee and said, “You look better.”

“I feel a hundred pounds lighter. That was hugely constructive. It’s like you said, my head is just making things up, or at the very least exponentially exaggerating.”

“You know this will pass, you have been through it before. Your strength in all this is your insight.” She smiled.

“They find Sam?”

“He’s over at the ER receiving some care.”

“I was like that once. I’d get off my rocker manic, thinking I didn’t need a place like this; a walking danger.”

“Experience gives you empathy, but in you, I think it’s also innate.” She looks at me with kind eyes.

“That’s two that went awol since I’ve been here.”

“Three total today. There was one that blew out of here before you got here.”

“It’s been a long day for everyone here. I have the luxury of going to sleep. I hope you are off soon. Goodnight.” And with that I laid down for the night.

Morning came. At some point Sam was brought back in, and now he’s sleeping in his room, still shirtless. I wonder if I will get to talk with him today. I’m glad I’m curious because I have been lackluster in that department lately. I just haven’t cared enough to be curious about anything or anyone. Nothing interests me. I could very well just go home, lock myself in my room and listen to songs by The Smiths. I’m living in shear despair about nothing, maybe Morrissey would give me something to cry about.

The nurse will be in soon, and I will know what they recommend I do, and I will follow it. A young friend texted me this morning suggesting I go play with kittens with him at a local animal shelter called Sammies Friends as a way to cheer me up. Really. He means well.

As this day unfolds, I find I have no expectations, wants, or needs. I am just riding on a tide of willingness, and for now that will have to do.

Sober for 60 Days

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I had feared that sober meant somber; that no more fun was to be had. I had a lot of fears, in all actuality, about getting sober and staying sober. I feared that I would have to be religious and follow some hair-shirt wearing order of those who literally feared a horrid, and vengeful God. I feared anxiety would once again become an overwhelming, and ruling factor in my life as I would no longer be able to medicate with alcohol. I feared living life on life’s terms. I feared that being alcohol free would dampen my creativity. I feared how people might treat me without the social lubricant of alcohol. I feared fear.

But I was already living in fear. Booze kept me living in fear. I didn’t realize alcohol was keeping me from being happy, joyous, and free. I didn’t realize that it was holding me down, exacerbating all my problems instead of helping. My notion that booze was easing me through life was pure deception on my part.

I thought I was having great fun, mixing with bar regulars, and newly found single-serving friends. In all honesty, there were great laughs, great times, and epic moments I had during my drinking career. I remember riding on the back of a friends Harley in downtown Nevada City, California, a gold rush era town that is now a tourist town, swatting tourists on the butt with a broom as we road along. It was tremendously funny, even to those being swatted. Sure there were good times. But alcohol is a progressive disease, and when drinking becomes a disease, all the fun is underscored with great depression and fear. There came a point that the only people I wanted to do was be around were other people that drank, and then, even they became just an annoying presence; all I wanted to do was drink alone.

Life had spun out of control. How fun was it for me to sit in a cold travel trailer in the dead of winter drinking vodka before anyone was even awake in the morning? How fun was it for me to not want a drink, but to need a drink to keep me from shaking, dry-heaving, and to cure ravaging headaches? Where was the fun in loosing my job, alienating good friends and family, being homeless, totaling my car and scoring a D.U.I? I was lost, alone, and afraid.

I had time to reflect on just how fun liquor had become when I was in the hospital for five days suffering from alcohol poisoning and withdrawal over 60 days ago. It was then, that a total stranger, whom only knew me from my posts in a Facebook group, came to my hospital room with hope, and was I ever ready for hope. I was so out of it, that even today I don’t remember the ambulance ride to the hospital, nor collapsing in a Chevron beforehand. But I do remember the kind actions of a total stranger, and the one who would become known to me as my guardian angel that would eventually lead me to sobriety and a joy that I had long misplaced; a new joy and freedom that I would soon discover.

I found myself in Pathways, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility in California, as well as a twelve step program in which I live my life by today. From day one I felt my debilitating fears begin to slip away. My life wasn’t just beginning to be restored, but a new life was being founded, one that was much better than the one I had long ago enjoyed before getting sober. I had even feared being in a live-in drug and alcohol center, but had more fun there than I thought was even likely. I also met true friends who will be with me for a lifetime. They are friends without conditions. Friends whom I would ordinarily not mix with had I not been seeking a life of sobriety. I am truly lucky.

Once I graduated Pathways, a bittersweet graduation, my guardian angel, William, once again reared his helpful head and offered me a safe place to live in a sober environment, and a job as well. I no longer feared God, that word I felt was a dirty word – God. I had found my own conception of God, the Great Spirit. There would be no hair-shirt wearing, or sour-faced, judgmental church ladies trying to direct my spiritual path. I had turned my life, my will, and my fears over to the Great Spirit of my own understanding. I even found a religious organization, the Unitarian Universalists, who embraced and allowed me to be guided by my own conception of God. It’s a church that allows me to be spiritual, not religious.

And of friends, and the fun that comes along with friends; who knew I would have so much fun? My old friends are still with me, those who accept my sobriety and embrace it. And my new friends who share the path of sobriety with me are golden as well. We support each other and share a great deal of humor, sometimes greatly irreverent and inappropriate humor; my favorite kind!

Fear is one of the greatest enemies of an alcoholic. Today I walk in the sunlight of the Great Spirit, and the company of great friends. I can also love the person I look at in the mirror each morning. My fears are processed with the tools of the twelve step program I am living, and given over to the one that can better handle them than me, my higher power.

Each day, with a clear head, I can face life, and handle life on life’s terms. Everything is infinitely easier to handle. Things seem to fall in place as they should. I have come to know life as I had never known it before. It is a joy-filled life of happiness and freedom.

I have 60 days of sobriety today. I have a lot of people to thank for it. I have the Great Spirit to thank for it. I am grateful that I have found the bright spot in my life. I am grateful to be truly living the life I was meant to have.

(About the photo. Canon EOS Rebel X 35mm,  with fine grain film, Kodak CN400)

Why I Am No Longer a Mortician

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Dawn was streaking between the towering buildings of downtown Denver as I drove under them on 17th Street on my way to work. The music in my car was loud and I sang along. I’d be directing a funeral in Boulder that morning and I was dressed for the part. Amanda, my favorite barista at St. Marks, a blue-haired girl with a big smile and a pierced face would be handing me my morning Americano while asking for the gory details of my job. Sometimes I obliged her, and although unprofessional, I didn’t really care because Amanda was my de-facto therapist.

I was operating on three hours sleep. In the early morning, I was called to do a removal as the guys that usually did so could not be aroused. All the funeral homes in the Denver metro area took turns dealing with unclaimed remains of the homeless and that morning was our turn and I worked alone. The hospital morgue held the body of a man whose family basically said he wasn’t their problem and that morning he was mine. He weighed close to four hundred pounds. A couple of security guards instead of orderlies were summoned to help me slide the body on my gurney, but I had no help on the other end of town where the gurney gave way, spilling the bodybag onto the ramp of our mortuaries back entrance. I tried, but there was no way I alone could lift the body. I made several telephone calls for help. Again, no-one could be woken up to help me. I resorted using a cherry picker to get the man off the ground before I could wheel him into the icy atmosphere of our cooler with the other bodies awaiting cremation. But before I did all that, I had to franticly build a makeshift barrier using cardboard from the recycle bin to shield the body from view of passengers aboard an oncoming Amtrak train. That’s the last thing tourists and commuters needed to see on their way into Denver was a body bag laying on the ground outside a mortuary. Sleep wouldn’t come until around 2:00 A.M.  Amanda would have a story that morning, that was for sure.

Once in Boulder, I was alone; found a note that said I would be working alone because my young boss decided to go skiing. I didn’t know much about the family I would be counseling so I did a little research on them, reading their file before I would meet with them later that morning. It was all typical.

Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, as I will name them, were surprisingly well composed. Earlier, before they arrived, I had set all the floral arrangements sent by family and friends out where I thought they looked best and placed the cremains of the decedent near the alter of the the church at the rear. Mrs. Bradford said everything looked beautiful. I was pleased with myself. I thought the funeral would be simple and smooth. Then a group of the decedents’ class mates entered the room with their teacher. They were all special needs kids wailing like teething toddlers. They were around the sixth grade level. Several were downs syndrome children. They could not be consoled. I wanted to hug each and every one of them but that was considered unprofessional and not allowed.

Later, a little downs syndrome girl took to the podium. I lowered the mic so she could reach it. She started speaking with her impaired, downs syndrome voice, “Joey was a friend of mine. He helped teach me to ride a bike. He good guy…good friend. He’s my best friend…” Then I heard a little boy ask his teacher a little too loud, “When’s Joey coming back?” I lost it in front of everyone in the church audience. I was balling. The little girl was quivering, saturated in despondency. Her voice was shaking. I grabbed her hand and lead her to her teacher. After a moment, I walked back to the podium and asked the crowd if there was anyone else who wanted to speak.

Back at the funeral home, I gathered my thoughts in the office. Why oh why am I doing this?  I asked myself. It was clear the children could have no concept of death, or the afterlife if there was one. After all, how could a God do this to the children, much less a very innocent child and his friends? I decided if there was a God, he must have a very sick sense of humor. The little boys’ question haunted me the entire day, “When is Joey coming home?”

My boss came in drunk just then. I had scolded him over the phone earlier and he left the ski slopes to get back to business. I yelled at him for the lack of support lately and the omission of facts I needed to mentally prepare myself for the services that took place that morning. I had gotten used to scolding my boss. He was a young idiot. I sent him home. His own employee told him to take a taxi home, and to get out that instant. He was only 23, the child of a mogul who owned a drug store chain in the Midwest whose Daddy bought him several funeral homes in Colorado and Wyoming. I managed his Boulder location. I was hired with no experience or schooling in mortuary sciences. In Colorado at the time, one needed no license to be a mortician. I had been a Walgreens manager prior to be hired at Boulder mortuary and was pretty much hired on the basis that the owner thought I looked good in a suit. Days after I left Walgreens, I was embalming and cremating bodies. It’s unconscionable that he thought this was a good idea. This was an example of his professionalism and how seriously he took his work. He was a morbid little male bimbo. But it was also crazy on my part to take the job.

That day just kept getting better. A man entered my office without notice. I apparently left the outside entrance unlocked. He was visibly upset.

“This is not my mother. She was taken away in a nightgown.”, he said, red-faced with a tinge of anger. He then unscrewed the top of the urn and pulled out an ashy, destroyed mans watch. He laid it down in front of me on my desk. And then, from his pocket, he produced a ziplock bag with a couple of buttons in it. “There were also Levi 501 buttons in there.”

I didn’t know what to say for the longest time. I just stared at him. It was all I could do. I had nearly cremated my boss over not labeling people before. I really didn’t think it could ever come to that level of horror. I thought my boss had gotten it together. I seriously did not think that would ever happen. No human being could have let that happen.

It took me about ten minutes to come to a deliberation. I decided to take this incident and other complaints to the district attorney. I also went to O.S.H.A over the fact that we were breathing in formalin during the embalming process without being provided masks, and the eyewash station blocked with books, and showers were being used as storage.

“I’m sorry Mr. Barry. In the state of Colorado, the consumer has no recourse. According to the law, Mr. Stevens has done nothing wrong other than violate some consumer protection ordinances, a misdemeanor. However, there is a woman on the state legislature who wants to talk to you. She’s been trying to get the funeral industry regulated for years.” the district attorney stated.

I worked with representative Debbie Stafford, testifying on the floor of the Colorado State Legislature for two years before the governor finally signed the act to enact regulation for the funeral industry.

I was inundated with phone calls from the press. News stations were outside my house for days on end. I did several interviews on television, and the newspapers were full of headlines about the story.

But with all that drama, the most haunting part of that whole experience were the people, soaked in inconsolable sadness -peaces of their wholeness dead – over the loss of their loved ones. That would get at me most. And then there was the mentally retarded little boy, “When is Joey coming home?” The bewildered wife whose husband was killed days before in a car accident. The list goes on. I was saturated in despondency myself.

I remember sitting out on the patio of a Denver ice cream parlor the day after the bill was signed into law, staring out into the air thinking about the whole experience of being a mortician. These memories would soon be formidable ones in my psyche. They would be key players in the start of a future drinking career. One that would last a long time.