Tag Archives: recovery

Getting High: The Flip Side of Depression

It’s sometimes called bipolar, but that term is overused. In my case I have depression and I have non-depression. And sure, my non-depression (or normal) me is a bit more energetic and creative than most people, I would argue that I have not had a manic phase since I was a teenager. I get high, yes, but its natural energy (maybe some coffee) and it’s what I consider the real me. The undepressed me. Still, you might think I was high if you met me.

And that’s a part of the problem. When I’m “energetic” I can get a little scattered and hyper. But really, that’s me. I’m usually a happy and inspired person. I’ve been this way since I was a little kid. Always engaged, always trying to lead the group into some crazy fun adventure. And as an adult I’ve learned to turn my energy into an asset that’s engaging and successful. And if I can stay on the UPSIDE of my depression, I’m golden. When I fall off my balance, however, it’s quite dramatic. It’s scary for me and the people around me.

So this is the aspect of my condition that I’m working on in therapy. What is the trigger that sends me sliding into the darkness? Is there anything I can do as it’s happening (I can feel it, like some bad intoxication) is there therapy that can help? It’s truly my Achilles heel, this falling depression that overwhelms me and shuts down even some of my basic functions.

I’m working on it. But it still scares the crap out of me. How can a fullly-funtional adult drop off the face of the Earth? And I go low. I get confused and overwhelmed. And I get real quiet. I don’t speak. If I did speak the crap I would talk about is so scary, even to me, I think I would run you off. And the damage this cycle has done in my life is unexplainable. The lost days, weeks, and months I’ve spent in non-functional depression is too many for me to admit. It’s a lot.

What we know about depression these days, is it is a physical disease. After a few major depression your brain and body begin to adapt to the situation and over time the physical properties of your brain begins to change. And this adaption is not a good thing. It’s as if the pathways towards depressive emotions are superconductive. It makes it easier for my brain to flood itself with the panic chemicals. And when that happens all bets are off. It’s as if the lights go out in my eyes and I become some zombie form of myself.

Again, I’m working on it. And I’m confident in my new meds. And I’m getting a new therapist. So I’m as active in my healing and recovery as I can be. I’m still scared. I’m still worried as I’m interviewing for new jobs. How can I be confident that I can do the job if at some point I fall apart? I’m not. I’m scared. But I’m moving forward as best I can, and doing all the things I can think of to get help.

I’ve got a care team. And I’ve got a supportive and understanding family. And it’s not enough. When I drop I drop off the deep end. I can’t see or feel the love that surrounds me. I can’t feel anything but hatred for myself and my condition. And that’s a circular path that leads even further downward.

I hope you don’t know what I’m talking about. But I’m guessing you know someone in your life who has suffered from depression or bipolar illness. And if you can get a glimmer of  empathy from my stories, then I’m happy with my reveal. I’m taking a big risk letting all this “depression” information out. I’m still in the prime earning years, and any employer who Googles me will come upon this blog.

Years from now I’d like to be writing about how my drug cocktail has been successful for 10 years of remission. That’s not likely. The disease raises its head at the most inconvenient times. And I will be depressed again. I’m hoping to mitigate the down. I’m hoping to have more compassion for myself while I’m going through it. And I’m hoping that through some cognitive therapy that I can reduce my cycle time. Heck, I’m hopeful that the down will be a blip and not a deathly yaw.

Either way, I’m on my way towards health. I’m optimistic. And the new job opportunities are here right now. Fear forward. Then keep going.

Take care. If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: depression, creative commons usage

Sitting In Silence with the Grief

I didn’t think I was going to survive the last breakup. Sure I was experiencing a prolonged depression that was kinda scary, but this was darkness multiplied. I was certain I was going to collapse into a depression so deep that I would be unreachable.

I knew even before I moved out that I needed to beef up my support network. I started attending Alanon meetings almost daily. I got a sponsor and about 4 phone numbers of guys I could call just to check in. What a great resource. And what a great lesson the program teaches: you can’t focus on the alcoholic and their recovery, you can only focus on yourself. In fact, you are the only one you can worry about. You are the only one you can change.

Dear God grant me the serenity,
To accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference

The serenity prayer from AA and Alanon got me through this dark period. But prayer and community were not enough. I was still left with hours, days, nights, of aloneness. And the darkness came and tried to swallow me. The hardest part is the loneliness. Sure the heartbreak is a bitch unlike any other bitch, but the loneliness is the killer. Loneliness keeps you up at night when you’re tired and hopeless. loneliness is the killer. And loneliness is only in your mind. Loneliness is a feeling. An idea. Loneliness is changeable. But getting beyond the loneliness takes time and effort. And for me that meant a lot of praying. Getting spiritually connected again was the gift that keeps on giving.

AA and Alanon are spiritual programs. No matter what you believe in, you come to believe in a “higher power” as you begin to visit the meetings and listen to everyone else’s stories. That higher power can be God, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, nature, or even the collective love and power of the group. You’re relationship to your higher power is up to you. And here’s the real eye-opener, your significant other has a higher power too. And they must surrender and find that relationship for themselves. There is no fixing the other person. And there is no waiting for them to change. Their path is between them and their own spiritual program.

In the darkness, and the days and nights of silence I began to pray again. Simple prayers like, “Help me God.” Not really asking for anything specific but guidance for God’s will for me. Which is really my will and hope for myself powered by prayer and belief that there is some larger force in the universe that I can put my trust in. And there is a force in the universe that I can release the drinker to. Their path involves this transition too. It may take a year, it may take a lifetime, but I believe we call come back to a god of our choosing.

The silence and loneliness and grief brought me back to a deeper connection to my own soul. A deeper connection with myself. And that ever elusive self-love.

May you find your own path back to a higher power. And may you learn how much you are loved and valued in the world. Even if it’s only the love of the group. Attend meetings. Talk to people. Get phone numbers of people you can call when you’re down. And then sit quietly and listen. Your soul and inner voice will begin to tell you stories. Maybe some lies too, that you can examine over time and release.

You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.

If there’s anything I can do to help you on your journey, let me know.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: sad child, creative commons usage

Refinding Yourself After a Breakup

It’s easy to lose yourself in a committed relationship. And for those of us inclined towards codependency, it’s too easy to get overly wrapped up in your significant other. It’s not like I made a conscious effort to skip other activities or turn down invitations from friends to go do stuff, but I’d rather be with her. I don’t care if we’re cleaning the house, watching tv, or reading in bed. Being beside your girlfriend, fiancé, wife, is more comforting and rewarding than almost anything.

There’s something else that happens as a result of this dependency. You begin to cling to that person. You begin to lose touch with other friends. You stop reaching out. Because you think you’ve hit your happy place, you sit and wait for your bestie to get home so you can be together doing “whatever.” But it’s not the most healthy choice for a growing and evolving relationship. And I got into this trap, big time.

This was one of the hardest lessons of my recent break up. I had no one once she was gone. I had 3 close friends. And I spent a lot of time alone wondering what went wrong. I did get on the process of building up a support network by going to Al Anon meetings and asking for phone numbers. And I attended a lot of Al Anon meetings, just to be with people rather than being alone.

Then something amazing happened. I started reaching out via Facebook and people started reaching out to me via Facebook. What? Facebook? I know, it seems contradictory to most people’s complaints about Facebook. Still, I reconnected with some high school buddies and started having conversations.

Yesterday after work, I drove an hour out into the Texas Highland Lakes area and went fishing with one of my good friends, one of my hanging buddies, from high school. We’d spoken a few times over the last year. But it was this man who reached out to me a month ago to “check-in” and make sure I was okay. He noticed my usual bouncy and over-sharing self had gone quiet on Facebook. And he just wanted to check-in and make sure I was doing okay. I was not.

At the time I reassured him that I was just taking some time away from social media. But I was lying. I was dying. I knew the relationship was in serious trouble. I was depressed. I was anxious. I was miserable. But we don’t usually reveal these things to friends. “I’m fine,” is usually the answer.

A few weeks ago I reached out to him and let him know his “check-in” had really touched me. I let him know what was going on in my life and that I was not doing well. His response, “Well, the least I can do is have you out to go fishing.”

And last night I went and met this friend of 35+ years and it was like we’d been friends all along since high school. We had a lot of stories to share, catching up. But it was as if we’d never missed a beat. And then we hit the fishing hole and floated around in bright green kayaks and caught quite a stringer of bass.

It was a perfect afternoon and evening as the sunset drew long red lines across the fishing hole and we floated and chatted and cause a cooler full of fresh fish. It was the most fish I’d ever caught in a day. I understood for the first time why men who know how to fish love to fish.

The friendship, however, was the most important and healing part. Here was a selfless and giving friend. A spiritual friend. An example of a happy marriage. And a man who had seemed to put the pieces of work, love, and play together in his life.

Losing my consuming relationship was critical to finding this loneliness and then finding the way to reach out to people who cared about me. Even if I didn’t really understand how they cared about me, I could not deny his check-in on Facebook.

Give in to the invitations. Reach out when you need help. And return the favor when you have the ability. I don’t know what I can give my friend at the moment, except excellent friendship. But he has given me more than he knows. He’s given me a new hope. A hope for connecting with another person at a deep level. Hope for just learning to live life to its fullest. And hope for finding a mate to spend the rest of my 50 years with.

Thank you my friend. And oddly, thank you Facebook.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: a stringer of fish, creative commons usage allowed

Drinking Lessons

I have a love hate relationship with alcohol that has been with me since I was five years old. My dad was a mean drunk. And I could’ve easily gone that direction in my life as well. I was a very angry young man in high school. And when I discovered drinking (underage, yes) I went after it with a passion. I liked how confident it made me feel. invincible. I was in love.

The summer after my high school graduation I was at a party that had kegs of beer. I remember it being a euphoric night. I was popular and well-liked in high school and the beer just made our joyous celebration that much more joyous. That was probably the last time I really enjoyed going beyond a light buzz. That night as I was drunk driving home I crashed my car trying to miss a deer stalled in the road. I’m very amazed that I’m sitting here, after the wreck that should’ve killed me. I suffered a minor concussion and a lost car and that was about it. But I woke up. I no longer thought alcohol was a great friend.

And it’s not that I didn’t drink after then, I drank a little bit and still enjoyed the feeling of being slightly buzzed. And I’m sure in college I also drank to excess and had a few wicked hangovers. But it was never the same after my wreck. I saw the physical danger of being drunk. It was about that time, during my second year in college that my dad got sick.

Now, the really amazing part of this new development was that my dad could no longer drink because of the meds he was put on. And as he sobered up from 20-30 years of constant drinking, he sort of became my dad for the first time. At 19 I was able to relate to him in a new way. And when he wasn’t drinking his old happy self came back. Sure, there was a ton of sadness, because he was dying of brain cancer, but we had time. I got my dad back, for about a year and a half before he died. And while it wasn’t the drinking that directly killed him, it was the drinking that had kept him hidden and distant from me for most of my formative childhood.

If I had some doubts about the coolness of alcohol up until that point, I got the message loud and clear. Drinking sort of fucked up your thinking. And continuous drinking changed the physical/chemical structure of the brain. It was a heavy price for ending the estrangement between my father and his kids, but it was the best (and worst) time I’d ever had with him. While he was dying. We reached for each other and sought time that we could be together for the first time in my life.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been drunk since my dad died. What’s the point? It’s an escape and I was too focused on capturing and recording my life (through writing and other creative projects) that I didn’t want to miss a minute of it being fogged up by drinking. That’s not to say I didn’t want to from time to time. But something held me back. Some internal governor was set and after two beers I was done. I still like the taste of some beers. But I usually have something I’m working on in my creative brain that I don’t want to lose to the buzz, so I just don’t drink that much. And as a preference I’d rather have sparkling water.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t continually been touched by alcohol. I just choose to stay conscious. I hope that I am facing my issues head on rather than trying to escape from them or block them out. I have issues. But I’d rather face them sober.

What’s your relationship to alcohol?

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: beers, creative commons usage allowed

Here’s more about my journey with alcohol.

relationships, breakups, divorce, single dad

What My Breakup and Recovery Have Felt Like

4 weeks ago I lost my best friend and lover. I moved out of her house and promptly fell apart. But then again, I didn’t fall apart like I thought I would. I was certain that deep depression was in my near future. I was certain that I would give into the pull of isolation and shut everything down and everyone out. That didn’t happen.

Here’s what I did. I put my mind on the next step. Heal. Grieve. Get my shit back together. And move on. I kept my exercise routine in place, every single day. And I found support in Al Anon. I did not isolate. In fact, I was less isolated than I had been in my partner’s house. I kept my chin up and felt the overwhelming sadness and kept going.

I also shut down 100% of the communication between us. This was advice from a brilliant book Getting Past Your Breakup by Susan J. Elliott. They called it NC, no contact and I believe it was essential to push me into the longing and loss I was feeling. I tried to find things to make me cry and I cried. I tried a new therapist along with my current therapist. I knew it was going to take some time for me to even feel normal again, much less able to consider a new relationship. The NC was key for me. Everything I wanted to tell her I wrote in letters I knew I could never send. I found my anger. I found out how much I missed the little things we did together. I dug into the tears and kept saying, “Goodbye” over and over until I believed she was gone.

I’m not saying I’m over her. I’m not. But at least I’m not thinking about her every single day. In fact, deep relationships you may never get over fully, but they take on less weight as time goes by. So in some ways time does heal all wounds. I wasn’t going to take the passive approach. I went after my grief with a vengeance.

And something good came from all this. I no longer felt constant anxiety about losing her. She was gone. I no longer pined for us to be together again. And I started to think about other women in my life. I contacted some old friends, mainly women, just to be around different women. And yes, I got on the online dating sites, but I’m not really looking for a relationship. Too soon. I’m just looking for some ways to talk to and be near women. And it made me feel hopeful that some women seemed to like my profile and want to talk to me too.

In Susan’s work we say “Do the work. Feel the feelings. Make peace with the peace.” And that’s what I’m still doing. I might always feel the prick of a finger every time something reminds me of her, something we did, something we talked about doing, anything really. But the prick doesn’t have to derail my day. Sometimes it only takes about 30-seconds before I redirect my wandering mind back to something more positive.

I’m not saying I’m over it. I’m not saying I’ve moved on. I’m saying I’m happy by myself for the first time in a long time. And I like it this way. I’m exploring new horizons and new options. From here I can go anywhere.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: https://goo.gl/images/DhYpZh, creative commons usage allowed

Focusing On the Other Person is a Trap

OFF-2016-dancing

We are only responsible for our own happiness. Taking another person’s inventory is not beneficial for either party.

She’s still certain that I have done her some major injustice during the year or so that I was unemployed. And she’s got the big, state enforced debt to prove my fault. But it wasn’t supposed to go that way.

In recovery we learn that focusing on another person’s problems is really none of our business. We can only be responsible for our own recovery (from alcohol, sex, drugs, pornography, whatever). It’s called taking someone else’s inventory. In a marriage it begins to happen if you don’t guard against it. I think I was pretty good at looking at and working on my own shit. I think my then-wife often looked for reasons that I was the cause of her unhappiness.

Now, seven years later she’s still unhappy with me. She’s still certain that I have done her some major injustice during the year or so that I was unemployed. And she’s got the big, state enforced debt to prove my fault. But it wasn’t supposed to go that way. It’s the way the law is written, and it’s the way she chose to “enforce” it that became the issue. But had we been cooperative, or 50/50 as I asked, we would’ve cooperated and negotiated my economic hardship just as we do things like medical bills. No one expects them, but they come up. And together you deal with the issues.

When I told my ex-wife that I was going to be a bit late on one of my child support checks she got furious. I explained the situation, and the prospects for new clients. She was unfazed and threatened taking action with the attorney general’s office. The second month I still did not have an exact answer for when I could “catch up.” And after a few more threatening emails she stopped talking to me. She wouldn’t even meet with me over the Summer when school was starting up again. “When and how much?” became her standard response to any request for parenting discussion time.

We withdrew into our fighting corners. She threatened. I pleaded. I looked for new business for the company I was working for. I struggled to make my mortgage and keep the lights on. I was burning through my retirement to make child support payments and when that ran out I ran out of options. She was mad. She was mad like she had been mad when we were married. It was my fault that she was mad. I was the reason for her pain and anguish. All of it. Except we know that’s not the way anger and anguish work.

I am not responsible for my ex-wife’s happiness. The debt I owe her, money I did not make and therefore did not have to give her a portion of, is not going to make her happy.

Even at this time I could only focus on myself and my issues. I was working contract jobs for a small handful of clients but was not making money to make my mortgage and/or child support payments. My employer had lost a primary client that had kept me on the payroll. Nothing I said or did, short of delivering a check to her, was enough for her to relent or even discuss options with me. She was done and she let me know she would deliver our decree to the AG’s office by the end of the Summer. And that’s just what she did.

Now, about three years later, she is still owed this debt. The money I should’ve been making during our divorce, and the payments I should’ve been paying her, and now the debt I owe her has become a lien on my credit account. Yes, she has transformed me, a good-natured, honest, and transparent dad, into a deadbeat dad, in the eyes of the state and the credit bureaus. This new black mark on my record killed more than one job opportunity in the last few years.

This past week, when we reported to the AG’s office to reset the child support payments based on what I am actually making, she was still pissed about the money I “owe” her. I’m still her biggest problem. If I’d just pay her all the money I should’ve paid her, from money I should’ve been earning, then things would be just fine.

I tried this same kind of logic while we were married. If I could just get enough money in the bank she would relax. If I could get more of the chores done, hire a made once a week, and do the dishes every night, she would be happy. If I could get everything done and get an activity for the kids to do maybe then she’d entertain the idea of sex. Except there was usually a reason or two, an issue or two, that I had not anticipated or taken care of.

See, she was waiting for me to change. She was depending on me for some happiness that simply was not inside of her. Another person cannot make you happy. Sure, their actions can make you madder than hell, and sometimes their actions can be pleasing to you, but happiness is more of an internal thing. Happiness is a personal responsibility. That my ex-wife is still focused on me as part of her unhappiness just shows how much she still has to learn about compassion and self-improvement.

I am not responsible for my ex-wife’s happiness. The debt I owe her, money I did not make and therefore did not have to give her a portion of, is not going to make her happy. She’s not happy. She’s still unhappy about the way I’m treating her.

For me, I have moved on. I am dealing with the stress of the AG’s lien. I’m in a new relationship and feeling as happy and centered as I’ve ever been in my life. See, I know my happiness begins and ends with me and my thoughts. Even my ex-wife’s rage and antics don’t bring me down. She lost that power over me years ago when she decided to divorce me. And of course, I was learning that she never had that power to begin with. By focusing on my own issues and my own faults I am responsible for my actions. I am responsible for how I wake up each day and attack the hill with joy or anger.

I’m a happy climber. And I’m in a relationship now with another happy climber. There’s always going to be hills in life, and it is your attitude about your own work ahead that makes the difference.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: dancing, creative common usage