“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.

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.