Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Waiting Game ("Life, Medicated." Part II)

After you tell the world that you're starting medication for depression and anxiety, and nearly two thousand people read all about it, what do you do for an encore? 

Simple. You keep telling the truth. Welcome to the next chapter in my new story, "Life, Medicated."

The Waiting Game

As promised, I met with my doctor last week and we talked medications. I had a lot of questions for her about her choice of meds, the recommended dosage, potential side effects, and what to expect as the drug began to work. She patiently listened to my concerns and addressed them directly and clearly. And we worked out a plan to move forward.

So here I am a week later, taking a daily pill as prescribed. It's too early to really tell if the meds are working, but just taking them has given me something that has been missing for as long as I can remember: hope that the chaos and stress in my head might start to ease.

Interestingly enough, the biggest indicator that the meds are working won't be what happens. It will be what doesn't happen. I'll know I'm on the right track when I can process the ups and downs of my day without kicking in to high gear or dropping in to low mode. I should still be able to feel happy about good stuff and concerned about bad things, but I don't have to feel all the things and do all the things all at once.

A Cautionary Note

Medication for anxiety and/or depression isn't a miracle cure-all. It will help, sure, but it's only one piece of a bigger puzzle. It's not unlike taking medication for high-blood pressure. It will help you, but you also need to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Drugs alone aren't the fix.

That's where I am. I am taking the medication as prescribed, and I will continue to do so. But I am also scheduled to meet with my therapist and to follow-up with my doctor. In addition, I'm changing behaviors that were more likely to take me to dark places. I'm being more candid with friends. I'm asking for help when I need it. And I'm making it a point to surround myself with good, strong, loving people.

I have a responsibility to myself to do everything I can to get and stay mentally healthy. And I'm going to do that. My very life is riding on that. And I kind of like my life, actually. There's a lot of really good things happening.

Why So Public?

I'm a pretty open person, sharing a lot of myself across social media. I've always been like that, living a life on the skyline with everyone watching. I was an early target/victim/survivor of an anti-gay witch hunt in the Marine Corps and lived to tell the tale everywhere from my local Public Television station and newspaper to a multi-day story in the New York Daily News. My wedding photo was published in the New York Times. I'm in a documentary film about weight loss and running. And I've been a blogger for more than a decade.

In other words, my life has always been open to the public. And sharing personal and painful things is tough, but the rewards far outweigh the loss of privacy. When I blogged about my sexual assault and survival, I received thousands of private messages thanking me for sharing openly what others still felt the need to hide. And not surprisingly, my post last week about seeking out mental health care and medication generated many private messages itself.

I don't share all of that above to brag about myself. I share it to illustrate that I am used to being out in the open and living my life out loud. And the support and encouragement I receive makes it all worth it. But not everyone is in my position, and I feel an obligation to be a public face of what is a very personal struggle. Every part of my struggle that I share is a chance to speak for so many who are still unable to speak for themselves. And I take that obligation very seriously.

If you were one of those people who messaged, texted, or emailed, know this. I am so grateful for your support and I am committed to being open and upfront about this entire journey to health. I'm worth it. You're worth it. And we'll all make it if we just trust in each other and get the help we need.

I'm Still Here

One thing more I need to say. In last week's blog, I was painfully candid about my own sadness and my suicidal thoughts. That scared many of you, and I am sorry for that. But I'm not sorry I was honest. And now, I want to add to those thoughts from last week.

Yes, I have been overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts. I've felt so sad and broken that I thought I would literally just stop existing. But I'm still here. Nothing in my past was strong enough to truly break me. And now that I am releasing a lifetime of guilt and shame over my mental health struggles, I am even stronger.

I'm not going anywhere, friends. I have so much to do in this life that another hundred years won't be time enough. Thank you for worrying and thank you for caring. I'm still here.

"I'm Still Here"
Mindy McCready

I'm okay, I'm alright
Hurricanes and train wrecks only last one night
Would you believe all I've been through?
Had the hands of tempted fate, oh, if you only knew
What it costs, how I wait, what I got, what I gave

I'm still here, after the heartache
After the storm blew through, I kept me and it saved me
I'm still standin' right where you left me
On a cold dark cloud with nowhere to fall but down
Like a single, naked, unrelenting tear, I'm still here

There was darkness all around me
There were times that I was sure I was drowning
There were people, who tried to reach me
But no matter how they loved me, I kept sinking
I got tired of my own hell, I reached inside and I saved myself

I'm still here, after the heartache
After the storm blew through, I kept me and it saved me
I'm still standin' right where you left me
On a cold dark cloud with nowhere to fall but down
Like a single, naked, unrelenting tear, I'm still here

This time I can survive
I ain't dying on nobody else's cross
I ain't sufferin' no more unforgivin' loss, oh, no

I'm still here, after the heartache
After the storm blew through, I kept me and it saved me
I'm still standin' right where you left me
On a cold dark cloud with nowhere to fall but down
Like a single, naked, unrelenting tear, I'm still here, I'm still here

End On A High Note

I got my hair cut yesterday and now it's all standing up. It's got me feeling like this cat, Johnny Bravo. I don't have that body, but a little more gel and I'd totally have this hairstyle.

Johnny Bravo meets Captain Awesome.

I can dig it.

Friday, September 23, 2016

"Life, Medicated."

Less than five hours from now, I will take a significant step in my lifelong mental health battle. And it's just like me to do so with this very public announcement to the world:

"I am taking my doctor's advice and trying medication for anxiety and depression."

There. I said it. And once I post this blog, there's no taking it back. And I'm okay with that. Because I've tried most everything else and it hasn't worked.

I've struggled with anxiety and depression all of my life. I've denied it. I've drank myself through it. I've made terrible decisions and life-threatening choices while pretending I wasn't feeling it. And I've spent far too many 3AM's alone with sad songs and a battered soul. I've put myself through so much pain, ironically in an effort to make the existing pain go away.

It doesn't. Not for long, at least. And when it comes back, it doesn't just creep in. It returns with a roar and a vengeance that threatens to take me down completely.

(As I'm writing this, I imagine that people reading it will fall into two camps. One group will understand the words but not really get what I'm describing. The other group, though, will nod along and think, "fuck, that's totally me, too.")

For those who aren't quite getting it, I'll be even more direct. No matter what I am projecting on the outside, no matter the jokes I make or the laughs I share, there is always a voice inside reminding me that these people don't really care if you're here, they'd rather talk with each other than with you, and it doesn't matter anyway because you'll soon be home, by yourself, sitting in the dark and feeling like you are absolutely, completely alone.

Pretty screwed up, right? I mean, cognitively, I know that's not true. My heart knows that I have amazing people in my life who would do anything to make me happy. But it's not my heart that is the problem. It's the insecurities and irrational thoughts that drag me under. And no amount of Facebook "likes" can keep me afloat.

And it's not just imaginary scenarios. Real life plays its part, too. When bad things happen, it's not enough for me to process the reality of the situation. I feel the need to magnify and amplify the pain, like what is already there isn't bad enough.

When we lost our Marine to suicide, it broke my heart. But instead of grieving for the life we lost, I began to obsess about what to do to keep it from happening again. I became consumed with the fear that saying the wrong thing, or not saying the right thing, or not being there for someone in need... any of these would lead another Marine to take their life, and I'd live the rest of my life knowing that I had failed. Again. How screwed up is that sort of thinking, to take an already tragic moment and turn it into a weapon to beat myself up with?

And so much more pain followed. Other suicidal friends. Rescuing a stranger and losing them to their injuries. Another stranger choosing to end his own life by stepping in the path of an oncoming car. A friend falling to his death in a horrible climbing accident. So much pain and loss, with no end in sight. Each of these events were awful, but the combined wave of sadness was too much.

So my outward appearance became more forced and my anxiety and depression became more severe. But I still acted as if I could just make myself feel better. Go places. Drink more. Laugh louder. Have fun. For fuck sake, John, have fun. Hey everyone, look at me and the fun I am having. Life is awesome, isn't it?!

All the while, my life was steady falling apart. Many of you noticed and tried to help, but I wasn't willing to let you. I just said, "I'm good now, thanks," and went on about my day. I did go for counseling, which was a huge thing. I saw a counselor several times and he was able to help me as much as anyone could. He gave me suggestions for handling the dark moments and, for the most part, they've been effective. I mean, I'm still here, right? But there was also the recommendation that I add medication to my treatment plan. And I said no.

But here I am now. And I'm ready to say yes.

What changed my mind? A painful, tearful conversation with my husband. Listening to myself talk, saying things like, "I'm just done with this, all of this. I'm so fucking tired and I just don't care, anymore."

Yeah, that will set off alarms. Because I know that's not me. That isn't the person I really am. That's the messed up brain chemistry telling me lies. It's telling me that life is too difficult to endure and death is a solution. It's telling me that the joy I experience is a bandaid, that reality is nothing but pain and disappointment.

How fucked up is that?

Fortunately, I know better. In my rational moments, I know better. I may not feel okay right now but I believe that I can feel okay. I know that life can be filled with authentic happiness and joy. The good times in life are the tonic that carry us through the bad times. And as my husband so eloquently put it, "love is the point."

I matter.
I am loved.
And people need me to stay.

So, today marks the next chapter in the journey. I meet with my doctor this morning and I've decided that I am going to have the prescription filled. I don't know if I will be on medication for a few months, a few years, or even the rest of my life. And right now, I don't care. I'm going to focus on the here and now.

And like all the other good and bad things in my life, I'm going to share this experience with any of you that are willing to read along. Because there should be no shame in getting help. No shame in taking necessary medication. And no shame in admitting, "I'm in pain."

Not everyone is comfortable sharing something like this with the world. I'm not all that comfortable with anything about this myself. But I know how important it has been to me to know that I was not alone in times of struggle. Seeing other people going through what I was going through helped me believe that things would get better. If they can do this, I can do this.

I need help. And I'm going to get it. And if you are in the same situation, I am begging you, please reach out to someone. Find the help you need. Because there is no honor in suffering in silence and no reward for standing alone.

Happiness is the goal. But I'll start with my own survival.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Gravedancing Without Apologies.

Phyllis Schlafly is dead. And I'm glad.

There. I said it. No half-measures, no hiding behind subtlety. No pretending there's a moral high road.

If you don't know who she was, then you don't know know the damage she did. And you won't understand why I'm glad that she is no longer able to damage this country with her bigotry. But any woman who was ever raped by her husband and expected to just accept that it is part of marriage should feel free to spit in her general direction. Any gay man or woman who grew up feeling like their very existence was someone an affront to creation is invited to celebrate the end of her miserable life.

Brutal, you think? You have no idea what brutality looks or feels like.

Because this isn't about just one person. It's not about political or social disagreements. And it's most certainly not about rising above the anger and offering forgiveness.

Schlafly is dead. And that's fine with me. But she's not the only grave I intend to dance upon. There are many others. And I offer no apologies. Because some people live their life in such a way that the only appropriate response after they die is to ring the bells and cheer.

First, despite the self-righteous claims of some on the political Right, gravedancing is not the exclusive playground of the Left. Need I remind everyone of the hateful cheers in response to Jimmy Carter's announcement that he had brain cancer? Does "#ACancerHasCancer" ring a bell?

Second, celebrating the death of a terrible person is nothing new. And it's certainly not a defining action by any one side of the political aisle. When Osama Bin Ladin was killed by Navy Seals in 2011, Americans poured into the streets in a spontaneous display of happiness and satisfaction. We not only danced on his grave, we turned his death into a patriotic and joyful parade from coast to coast.

When he died, I don't remember being chastised for my joy. I don't remember being told that celebrating someone's death was somehow macabre or hateful. And I definitely don't remember anyone thinking I was darkening my own soul by rejoicing in the loss of another.

Clearly, it's okay to celebrate SOME deaths. It isn't a question of IF, it's a question of WHO. So what defines a person as so horrible that it's okay to be glad they have died? Where is that line between an appropriate response and a hateful celebration?

To understand my response to the death of someone like Schlafly, or Fred Phelps, or Jerry Falwell, you have to first understand the impact of their lives. Each of these people, and so many others, made their lives more about the people they hated than about anyone they claimed to love. Their public rhetoric was so hateful, so inflammatory, that they made the lives of so many people a living hell.

One example: Schlafly's oft-repeated claim that the rape of a wife by her husband was impossible, in that the wife had already consented to sex by marrying the man. For many years after, lawmakers hid behind that claim and used it to justify their own failure to legally protect victims of spousal rape.

Another example: Schlafly's equally popular claim that sexual harassment in the workplace was "rarely a problem for the virtuous woman." This victim-blaming philosophy was cold comfort to the millions of women who were repeatedly harassed on the job and had no legal recourse in a judicial system that saw them as the problem.

Fred Phelps' hate and bigotry were so extreme as to appear almost a parody. Gays and lesbians suffered his judgement for years, but it wasn't until he turned his attention and actions towards the fallen military servicemen and women that the country recoiled against him.

And what of Jerry Falwell, whose only action that made the world better was his death in 2007? His hateful anti-gay preaching inspired generations of America to judge their gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors as evil, to cast them out and leave them to find their way alone and ashamed. He was a hate-monger and a religious zealot who didn't care about those he judged as sinners.

It's easy to look at these people and see them as outliers, as voices from the fringe. But their actions had real consequences for those they targeted. Specifically, gay and lesbian young men and women grew up ostracized from their "good Christian" families, and people like Falwell encouraged parents to separate themselves from "the evil that has taken root in your child."

How can anyone read these words from Falwell and NOT be happy his tongue is silenced?
"Homosexuals are brute beasts... part of a vile and satanic system that will be utterly annihilated, and there will be a celebration in heaven."

These horrible people had zero respect for the lives of those they judged as "less than," so why am I expected to return that hate with compassion and understanding?

I honestly don't think people understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of such hate and vitriol. It's not just a political disagreement, wherein two people have a difference of opinion on the potential financial impact of raising the minimum wage or the effectiveness of a food-services grant for a public school. Those issues matter, but they shouldn't denigrate to personal attacks.

Compare that to the rhetoric of the so-called "Christian Right" against the gay community. The quotes are endless and get worse and worse.

Honestly, is there anything more vile and disgusting than an adult who would sexually prey on children? Imagine it was you that was being accused of this. Would you want to engage in civil, respectful dialog with this person?

No. Simple answer, no. These people cannot be talked to like rational, mature, sensible adults. Because they aren't. They are idiots, hateful little fuckers who choose to attack others in an attempt to raise themselves up as moral leaders. And when they finally die, and are silenced forever, I will rejoice.

Their words and actions have direct consequences. The increased likelihood of suicide by young gay men and women is just one concrete example of the damage done by this hateful rhetoric.

I'm done playing along. I'm a good person. I'm a proud American. I'm a Veteran of the United States Marine Corps. I'm a husband of nearly twenty years. I'm a homeowner and a taxpayer and an active participant in the great democracy of this nation.

What I am not is a person willing to go along to get along. I am done pretending that everyone's opinion deserves respect. It doesn't. Some people are ignorant assholes and deserve to be recognized as such.

Gravedancing? Believe me, I've just begun.