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.
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.
“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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.
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)
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.
Last week I volunteered at a local homeless shelter cooking and serving dinner to the residents. Earlier in the week I had attended a meeting for a local organization, Sierra Roots, where before the photoshoots took place for volunteers, we served lunch for the local homeless. What I noticed is that there were people there whom I observed on the streets a decade earlier; people who were getting drunk, and/or using drugs, creating public nuisances, or whom I saw being hauled off by the local police in public parks, and the Streets of Nevada City and Grass Valley. These homeless men and women, many of whom can also be seen panhandling outside businesses, and along the sidewalks are the faces that we often associate most with homelessness. However, in my experience in working with the homeless, particularly those in shelters, I’ve encountered many faces we can’t put to the stereotypical branding of the homeless. I’ve met the newly unemployed, families with children, the gravely disabled, seniors, teenagers, traumatized victims of crimes including human trafficking, over the years I have been observing homeless people and families. Quite frankly there are people who want to be homeless. And then there are those who don’t. I’m addressing the needs of the latter. I personally am formerly homeless having suffered from mental illness, addiction, and job loss. I didn’t want to be homeless.
Many if not most Americans are only two paychecks away from being homeless. Our economy forces many families to live hand-to-mouth. Downsizing, jobs that relocate to foreign countries, businesses that go bankrupt, businesses that pay their c.e.o.’s exorbitant salaries while underpaying their base workers all contribute to the problem of homelessness, as does greedy medical insurance companies and big pharma.
In dining with the homeless during one of my volunteer shifts, I met a family who was very low income who were displaced because their landlord decided to sell their home and the family has no funds for first, last, and deposit towards a new rental, and yet another individual who lost his place to live because his landlord decided to turn his studio over the garage into an airbnb. Again, these folks were only two paychecks from being homeless.
The prevalent services to the homeless lack depth. We aren’t simultaneously treating mental illness and co-occurring addiction disorder. We lack follow-up. We aren’t making sure those who need medications are receiving them or taking them properly. We aren’t issuing temporary passes on public transportation to get them to work, pharmacies, medical, psychiatric, social services, and work. We are lacking, or limited in the areas of vocational training. We are lacking in facilities for them to bathe even. Some non-profit organizations, and cities have addressed these issues, while there remains a majority that do not. All we seem to be doing on the large scale is feeding them or throwing money their way without looking at the bigger problems or providing a path to a permanent solution.
Giving help, providing meals, money, and medical services isn’t a bad thing at all, we just don’t realize that those things are not the broader overhaul badly needed to provide the means for the homeless to become self-sufficient. If we invest in the broader picture of solution, we will save money in the long run, improve our economy, and can feel good in helping our fellow human beings.
(About the photo: Homeless man in San Francisco, Canon Rebel 35mm, Kodak Portra 800, f8)
If you’re not an alcoholic, you don’t know what it’s like to NEED a drink. It’s quite normal for people who are non-alcoholic to say, “I need a drink” at the end of a bad day. Maybe they do. There’s nothing wrong with someone who can handle their booze winding down with a pint of beer, glass of wine, or a cocktail. I’m not referring to that. No, the kind of practicing alcoholic like I was truly NEEDED a drink. In fact, I could have died from withdrawal had I not thrown back a half glass of vodka when my body began to sweat and tremble. Non-alcoholics might experience a mild to heavy hangover, but it’s not possible for them to know the physical pain that sat in with me, or the helplessness of being so fearful, I could hardly think of anything else – the paranoia. Nor can they realize the intensity of my dry heaving that left me feeling like pins and needles were penetrating my skin – or the co-occurring migraine level headaches. And what a non-alcoholic doesn’t experience is the shame an alcoholic like me felt like handing over my last twenty to buy booze at a liquor store at seven in the morning; hands shaking so violently that I could barely place the money in the hands of the cashier. With vodka in hand, I remember the feeling of not being able to look at anyone in the eye as I left the stores. I hated myself.
In the wee hours of the morning, when I got to wherever I was calling home those days, or sometimes even beforehand, I would take those first couple of drinks. I felt more relief than any non-alcoholic can possibly imagine. It was then that the shakes would subside. My headaches, and body aches would go away. I’d stop throwing up. I would feel as though I had returned to some semblance of a human being who was well. But it would take more, and more alcohol for this reprieve of my sickness to happen. That is the progressive nature of alcoholism.
It was the increased need for alcohol that would eventually land me in the emergency room. It happened over and over until one day I was hospitalized or five days from severe alcohol poisoning and withdrawal.
Like many people suggested I do, I just could not simply stop. I could no longer live with it, or without it. I needed medical attention in order to live, in order to stop.
Today is day 50 of being stopped. I do not need to go to the liquor store at dawn anymore. I can look people in the eyes.
Alcohol was but a symptom for me. There was a lot of me that was sour underneath the mask of my alcoholism. I had deep emotional problems. I was battling bipolar disorder. I had a spiritual malady. I had strong resentments. In order to stay sober, I have to deal with all of that. I have to find out where I have been self-seeking, dishonest, and afraid. Setting this to paper hasn’t been easy. It has required a lot of soul searching.
I’m currently setting this all to paper. Its part of my recovery in a twelve step program I am in, and I have to share it with my sponsor. It requires rigorous honesty on my part. It requires a thoroughness from me that is sometimes hard to swallow. But I remember how sick I was and the uncomfortableness of this process is quite worth it all to me. Some of the resentments are surprising like I have a resentment against my dear mother who has passed. I resented her not going through with a surgery that could have added many years to her life. I resented my sister in law for the same reasons. And then there were the resentments that were easier to put down, like horrible bosses, friends who have wronged me – these resentments are seemingly ad infinitum. At this point, it’s quite clear that I was angry at nearly everything and everyone. Resentments will take an alcoholic out quicker than anything else. We simply cannot afford to harbor them.
Resentments are like chewing on glass. While I am doing so, the person I resent has no clue; he or she might be at home chewing on popcorn watching Jerry Springer for all I know. The point is, resentments are only harming me.
In setting all my resentments down on paper, it becomes easier for me to see exactly where I’ve been self-seeking, dishonest, and afraid. Had I not been self-seeking in harboring resentments against my mother and sister in law? Sure I have been. Was I not dishonest and afraid in the areas of my resentments I carried against my bosses as well as those friends who I thought had wronged me? Sure I was. This soul searching is hard work, but it was much harder to live like I had been for so many years. I embrace this step with all my heart. I can begin at once to be free of all those cancerous resentments and emotions. I can begin to let go of the dishonesty, the fearfulness, and strive to be non self-seeking.
Life has taken on new meaning for me. When I look in the mirror, I see a noticeable sparkle in my eyes that have been missing for years. My whole being has changed. I am happy, joyous, and free.
Before I got sober, I contemplated suicide. It was crazy. I was crazy. Now, I can’t believe I ever actually tried to end my life, but I did. As it’s said, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I don’t want the permanent solution these days. I’m in my right head. The idea brings a rightfully so terror in my mind theses days, and it took some counseling, sobriety, and a great deal of inward reflection to rid myself of suicidal ideation.
While going through deep bipolar depression, and in the midst of my alcohol addiction, is when the ideas were strongest in my troubled mind. The ideas were potent and powerful. They were overwhelming. They led me to the edge, quite literally.
I was in my mid twenties and distraught over a relationship gone south. The end of the relationship was to me at the time, infinitely too big for me to handle on life’s terms. And so I sat, on the edge of the window of my San Francisco apartment looking down onto O’Farrell Street eleven stories below. The thoughts of unworthiness, hopelessness, and loneliness raced through my mind, and were in a collision course with my residual sanity. My legs dangled out the window, and I had pretty much worked up the nerve to jump out. The situation reminded me when I was a teenager at the edge of a high rock at the South Yuba River in my hometown in California, feeling the peer pressure to jump off into the water one hot summers day. When I worked up the nerve, the spontaneity of it surprised even me, I just suddenly jumped, seemingly without self will, and found myself submerged in cool water before I knew it. I told myself to just do the same thing on that ledge of my San Francisco high rise that day – just find the courage to jump, and soon all my pain would be over. I thought spontaneity would take my life at any moment. I would be free.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a small puff ball was ambling towards me. It was the new kitten I had rescued on Haight Street from an animal rescue group. “Alice GET DOWN!” Alice was unsteady on the ledge. I crawled back into the apartment and coaxed her back down. I shut the window, sat on the floor cuddling the kitten, and just wept for a really long time. Then I could hear keys jingling and the door unlocking. I collected myself.
“Woha. Are you ok?”, Lisa, my roommate asked.
“Yeah.”, I weakly replied while getting up from the floor to run to the bathroom. My stomach was tight. “Just a little sick.” I wasn’t lying. I threw up in the bathroom. Nerves.
I had been up all night. I was weak and tired. I grabbed Alice, went to bed, and slept soundly for many hours.
It wasn’t the first time. My Father drove me to the hospital, racing through red lights of busy intersections after he found me in a bloody pool when I had slashed my wrists the I-mean-business way; up and down, and sideways. I was in my early twenties. I don’t even remember what was the triggering point of that attempt. The horror of a hospital stay, many psychiatric interviews, a five day stay at a mental ward in Placerville, California, and dealing with the tattered remains of my self esteem are indelibly stamped in my head.
February of 2017, I found myself once again thinking my life wasn’t worth living. I sat in a fifth wheel trailer, drinking alone. I lived with friends, who owned a bar and restaurant, and lived upstairs from it. I started drinking in the bar one night, Burgee Dave’s at the Mayo in Camptonville, California, when my friend Sandy, one of the owners, asked if there was something wrong with me, and added that she was concerned about my drinking. So, I had retreated to the fifth wheel where I could drink alone, undisturbed, without judgement. I drank a liter of vodka on top of my antidepressant and mood stabilization medications. I was then out of vodka. I decided to run to the neighboring community to get more. I was going to take more of my medication and add a bottle of valium to get some permanent sleep. While on the way there, I ran my car into a ditch and totaled it. The CHP arrived, gave me a field test for alcohol, which I failed. I was handcuffed, fingerprinted, thrown in the drunk tank, and slapped with a D.U.I. As terrible as a D.U.I, and the wrecking of my car sounds, I am lucky to be alive. For that I am grateful.
People are trained to look for warning signs in those about to carry out the act of suicide, but those who really are planing to do it, are pretty clever. I tried to put on a much different face amongst my friends and the community I lived in. Nobody, not even my therapist, could have known that I was planning such a thing. I hid it well.
Bipolar depression, and hardcore alcoholism were once again the monkeys on my back, pulling at my hair, while pounding on my back trying to end my life.
I got help, but if was purely by accident. If left to my own devices, I’d probably be dead. I was pretty downtrodden that I was homeless for months, couch surfing from place to place, spending a few nights in my car, all the while telling people I had a permanent place of residence. I thought about these things as I laid in my hospital bed. Days before I found myself in the hospital, I had stayed with my former roommate, Jen in Grass Valley, California and then collapsed at a service station before I could say “help.” I had alcohol poisoning after drinking 1.75 liters of vodka for days on end prior. I had to be detoxed over a period of five days.
During my hospital stay, with and IV in my arm, and oxygen under my nose, I had moments of clarity. I realized how much alcohol had played a part in my suicidal ideations. It had to go. I opened up my laptop and shared with friends and the community that I had bad thoughts in my head and I had a problem with drinking. A stranger who found me on Facebook, came to my aid with a powerful message. He shared his story. It was not unlike mine. He went out and took care of things I was worried about, arranged for a county social service worker, alerted behavioral health, and had arranged for my stay at a drug and alcohol treatment center. The stranger had done all that. I dubbed him my guardian angel.
Today, I am 42 days sober and happier than I have been in a long time. Me and my cat, Isabella, have a permanent place to live, I have a job, a huge support network, in a twelve step program, and live happily, joyously, and free. I have a newfound spirituality. The monkeys are off my back, but as I have said before, they lurk in the shadows waiting for me to let my guard down. I must remain forever vigilant. I have to think about those I love; those I would leave grieving for their lifetimes should I choose to exit this plane in such a horrific manner. I’ve seen what suicide does to those who are left behind, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone; especially my little brother Gordon. As long as I can keep the plug in the jug, me, those who love me, and Isabella can live happily ever after.
(About the photo: I shot this using 20 year old Chinese made film. The numbers are the film back of the camera that have been burned into the film by decaying chemicals. Shot with a Diana at F11. )