Category Archives: depression

Know What Your Problem Is? Mom and Dad.

Family of origin events and habits form a good part of what makes us who we are as adults. For example my dad never expressed his anger until he literally exploded and scared the crap out of all of us. I have that same repressed anger, except I never get to the explosion part. Of course, for my dad it took a drink or two to loosen his vitriolic tongue. And my mom taught me how to suffer in silence and worry, worry, worry about everything. She also showed me my first example of depression, after her divorce when I was 7.

Those several facts have given me a blueprint of my emotional DNA.

  1. I have trouble expressing anger.
  2. I have trouble with people who drink too much.
  3. I’m scared to death of someone raging at me.
  4. I worry a lot about things that never happen, wrecking a good bit of my here-and-now present moment.
  5. I have a depression symptom that looks a lot like simply giving up.

And all of these factors weigh into my adulthood personality and personality disorders. I am conflict adverse. I’d rather lie to you than fight you, about anything. (Kinda wimpy, right?) Well, these parts of me also caused me to lose the three primary relationships in my life in some form or fashion.

In both my marriage and my recent relationship my depression was really the crushing factor that caused the other person to opt-out. And I get it. I don’t blame either of them for their instincts towards their own personal preservation. I was a wreck. And I had no idea when or how I was going to get out of it. I was hopeless and it made them hopeless too. And two hopeless people can only be together so long before something breaks. It’s terrifying and heartbreaking at the same time. And both times I was asked to leave. I get it. I honor both of them for taking care of themselves. That’s all we can do in life, take care of ourselves. Even if it means ending a loving relationship.

This same DNA will form the future of my relationships as well. And the clearer I get on the issues and the solutions, the easier it will be to keep a relationship. It’s not 100% up to me. But my actions will determine my own course of action, even if that means getting fired and losing my shit and falling into depression. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I know the depression will rear its ugly head again in the next 50 years. It’s not if, it’s when. And the rest is up to me and my care team. Gross. It’s a disability that is part of loving me. And it’s one I have a hard time loving about myself. But I get over it.

And the drugs, in my case, do work when they work. They also poop out and leaving me a shivering fearful wreck. And really, we know that pharmapsychiatry is a dark art. They have no idea what they’re doing. The simply rotate the same handful of drugs until they find one that seems to make things better. serotonin, Dopamine, norepinephrine, the chemicals in my head, are simply concepts about what’s really going on. But most of the time even my psychiatrist is scratching his head, discussing with me options when things aren’t working. He doesn’t know anything. And all we have is my 10 year history together, and a lot of trust.

Depression aside, the most powerful work we can do on ourselves is to get straight with our family of origin. It may take a lifetime, and you may not be able to fully rid yourself of the unhealthy influence, but you’ve got to keep trying. So ask yourself, “What did mom give me?” and “What did I learn from dad?” And listen to what comes back. You might need someone else to talk to in order to gain some objective feedback.

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

Always Love,

John McElhenney

image:  unhappy family, creative commons usage allowed

Facing My Personal Dragon: Depression

It’s a bit risky, all this talk about depression. By writing about my struggles I might, for example, give anyone googling my name access to my personal medical history. I might be limiting the future of my career. I might be scaring away potential employers, lovers, friends. But I can’t stay in my darkness alone. Depression is a disease of isolation and fear. I have courageously embarrassed my illness, though I’m not ready to admit to the actual diagnosis that is now part of most job applications. I have a disability. Hard to swallow sometimes, but real.

In my teens I experienced this major depression for the first time in my life. Sure, I’d been a moody kid, but a lot of that mood had been creatively fueled optimism. But when I moved away from home to attend a prep school, my foundations crumbled under the intellectual rigor of the school and swept me into a hopeless and airless place. I could no longer think straight. I was failing Spanish for the second time. And I was depressed and beginning to self-medicate with marijuana. Not a good period of my life.

Since that first breakdown I have struggled 4 or 5 times with utter and complete darkness. A darkness so dense that is wrecked every project, job, relationship in my life. And I know I will be depressed again. It’s a crippling diagnosis when you hear your therapist or psychiatrist say, “You will probably deal with varying stages of this your entire life.” How would you to share that with a potential girlfriend or employer? Hard to stay positive in most circumstance.

While the discussion about mental illness has come a long way, the real darkness and power of depression is not well depicted in our popular culture. Sure TV shows have “manic” or “depressed” characters, but seeing actual depression is nothing like the worst show’s scenes and conflicts. Quite simply, when a person is depressed, even if they “want” to write about it, purge it, let is come out creatively, it’s as if a power switch has been turned off in your creative brain.

Going into my last depression that was triggered by the loss of a new job, I knew I was headed into a depression, but I was powerless to stop my slide into despair. I could see it was coming. I asked my talky  doctor and my meds doctor for help. I pleaded for help. I committed to writing it out, and staying present with my sad ass self. It simply was not possible. Stringing a few sentences together while in full-blown depression is… well… nearly impossible.

So, headlong I went, tumbling, into despair. I was fulling conscious of what was taking place as my creative and emotional faculties diminished. I was front and center as my 2.5 year relationship crumbled under the weight of my illness. And ultimately I was left to face my dragon alone. Utterly alone, homeless again, and defeated. And yet, not defeated. Somehow, I kept going. I kept walking 5 – 7 miles a day. I kept eating and sleeping well. I kept making and keeping appointments with my care team. I kept going in spite of feeling like ending it.

There is no time to slay the dragon. The dragon is your friend. — Reshad Feild

Somehow, I have been forced to accepting my fatal flaw. I cannot escape my own demons, I have to live with them. I cannot fight with the dragon when the dragon is a part of my DNA. As crushing as it is, I have to befrind my own depression, learn to accept my limits, and continue to work on forgiving myself for succumbing to the madness that is depressive illness.

Let me describe for a minute the experience I had three weeks ago, as a new medication came on-line and vanquished my depression. From the pits of isolation and self-pity, I kept working my program. I kept taking the meds and demanded of my psychiatrist that we try something new. I was not satisfied with survival. I was going to thrive again. And while I wasn’t confident in my plan, or in my doctor’s ability to offer me a fresh torch inside my deep cavern of shame and sadness, even in the absence of confidence, I had to walk on.

And then an amazing thing happened. It always happens. I always come out of it. But this time it was so dramatic, this switching back on of all my facilities, this return of hope and confidence, that everyone around me noticed the change. My inner power source was lit again. I began blogging immediately, even though I was dealing with a major breakup AND depression. This new drug, somehow, lifted the sleep-like fog that had suffocated me and my loved ones for the last 6 months. Like night and day, I was writing, contemplating new songs for my band to rehearse, I was imagining myself back in a relationship, with a good job and plans for the future. I was reborn.

And that type of swing is scary as shit. It’s horrifying for the people arround you to see the lights go out and their happy friend vanish into some abyss of sadness. In depression my thoughts become so heavy, my very existence becomes so tentative, that I simply STFU (shut the fuck up). I can’t tell you how I’m feeling, so don’t ask. If I told you it would freak both of us out. I can’t express my utter rage and disappointment with my life or my illness that seems to routinely rip all the joy and hope in my life. So I get real quiet. And for someone who writes, and someone who loves to talk and laugh, this transition becomes obvious and dramatic for everyone around me.

Okay, so I have this illness. I have this diagnosis that isn’t ever going to change. I might have long periods of stability and progress, but in the shadows is ALWAYS this prospect of losing it all in a wash of bad chemicals in my brain. It’s no joking matter. My family and a very select group of friends knows or have seen my loss. For everyone else around me, I just seem to disappear. Sure I”m still ON Facebook but I’m not posting anymore, I’m lurking and feeling sorry for myself that so many of you are going on with your normal, amazing, everyday lives. I’m stuck in the asylum of my mind, struggling to get out of bed in the morning, struggling to stay out of bed in the afternoon, and struggling with the simple tasks like shaving and dressing in normal clothes every day.

And, once again, I’m hopeful. Once again I have confidence to look for a high-powered marketing job. Once, again, I’m open to looking for a new relationship, even though my last one was crushed under the weight of my sadness.

That’s the part that I’m more in touch with than ever. Okay, doc, so I’m going to go through cycles of this the rest of my life? I’m not sure how to plan for that, or tell prospective mates that they might lose me at any moment, but I’m willing to take the steps to keep moving forward. The dragon, my depression, is with me. He’s not going anywhere. And to fight him is to fight and destroy myself. So instead, I’m going to love and befriend this dragon of mine. And while the beast has the fire power to destroy my life again, I have hope, I have confidence, and I press on with the believe that understanding will make the cycles less potent., the depression less debilitating. Still I’ve got to talk to any prospective mate about this dragon before we begin making future plans. And while I’m not ready to check the box on job applications that says I have a disability, inside I know I do. Inside I know the fall is just a slight tweak of my brain chemistry in the wrong direction.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to, check out my coaching page.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

image:  my temporary tattoo, creative commons usage allowed

The WholeParent Mission: Positive Single Parenting Year Four

Here’s the starting mission statement written back in Sept. 2013.

My unwavering and immutable mission:

1. 100% positive
2. Kids first
3. Honest feelings

I thought I would give pause and reflect, update, muse, on what’s been going on here and in my single-parenting life.

One way I’ve wavered from the original missions is the 100% positive part. I realized that not letting any of the anger, conflict, and struggles out was not painting a very accurate picture of being a single dad. So, while I try to keep the focus on myself and not others, I am sure I have let a zinger or two fly here. I think it’s more important to be real.

I do believe that my kids come first. The marriage is over, but my parenting never ends. If I can stay focused on their wellbeing I can get over any frustrations I have with their mom. I am committed to being the best dad I can be, in spite of troubles, depression, anger, flights of fancy.

And the final mission, “honest feelings” is the glue that makes this entire adventure work. I think that’s what keeps this blog going even when I’m not contributing to it. I went on a year or more hiatus from writing here and the blog was still getting 100 – 200 reads per day. That’s pretty exciting. So, it seems like my voice is resonating with some folks. I’ll do my best to continue, even in the hard times, even in the blissful times when I don’t feel like writing. Most of all I will continue to be the best single dad I can be. And if I can give you a glimpse of what my life is like, struggles and all, then I have done my best for you as well.

Keep the faith, and if you need someone to talk to, check out my coaching page.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

image:  recent pic of me, creative commons usage allowed

The Single Dad and His Teenaged Kids

Well, it’s official. My kids are both in the separation phase of growing up. My son, 16, is driving, has a girlfriend and it not responding to my texts about 75% of the time. Get used to it. It’s not about you. My daughter, 14, is a true social butterfly and stays over at friend’s houses every night in the summer, and on the weekends during the school year. She’s better at responding to texts. And always responds to SnapChats.

The kids I once knew as “kids” are gone. The easy planning has become a stretch for me. If I don’t put plans together (not my strong suit) then plans don’t happen. I’m asking them for more interactive feedback these days, and I’m getting mixed results. At least we’re trying. Well, I’m trying and they are trying to figure out what kind of relationship they want with their dad.

I miss the little kids. I miss the years that I’ve missed by being a single dad. They are much closer to the 75% parent. MUCH. And that’s okay, she’s done a terrific job a parenting them. And she’s been solo up until a year ago. I keep thanking her for the job she’s doing.

You can see it in your kids when they are thriving. They have ideas of their own. They do respond when the offers are made, and they often respond in the “Yes, I will be there on Saturday.” And I’m learning, again, to be alone in a new way. The primary relationship I’m working on at the moment, given recent events, is my relationship with myself.

And to get the elephant out of the room, my kids are very aware and sensitive to my depressive episodes. I’m sure their mom has had numerous chats with them about “What’s happening with your dad.” That kind of makes me sad to think about, but when I’m in a DOWN I’m in no position to try to explain what’s going on. When I’m doing well, like right now, I’m happy to update them with more information. But they’ve learned, from experience, not to fully trust my moods. Heck, even I’m not fully trusting of my own emotions.

I’m getting better at that too.

When you lose your kids to divorce and then to teenagehood, you really have to begin letting them go. It’s only two years before my son will be heading out on his big adventure. What can I do with him in the next two years? How can I show up for both of them?

Those are the challenges ahead for this single dad. I’m up for it. And I’m in a good place to pick up the pieces, again. And fortunately they are resilient. We all are. May you spend as much time as you can with your kids, and find ways to connect in real-time non-phone ways. It’s a journey.

How are you keeping in tune with your kids? Let me know in the comments.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

image: happy family, creative commons usage allowed

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

image: a stringer of fish, creative commons usage allowed

Don’t Wait and Don’t Settle

You are worth it. You should be with someone who makes you feel special every day. Sure there can be disagreements and dark periods (most relationships go through some trials) but as long as both parties play by the rules and never do anything to hurt the other person, relationships go on. Mine dragged on. And I realise after the fact that I was settling. And I’m worth more. I am loving and loveable and I deserve the same in a partner. Not sometimes, not mostly, but all the time, even when things are bad. I deserve that and so do you.

So, if you’ve been following along you know I’m single again. Not by my choice, but I think this wonderful woman did us both a favor. I’m also conflict averse and I was never going to say uncle. And after a glimpse into the online dating pool, I’ve decided I’m not ready for a relationship yet. Not with anyone but myself. I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot of work to do. If you don’t love yourself, how can you love someone else.

I had fallen out of love with myself. I was the most negative voice in my head. All the time. I hated myself. Imagined offing myself. And I knew I was pathetic and worthless. All because I lost a job. A job that was not right from me from the beginning. The problem is, this was the 3rd job in a row like this. Miserable. But this last miss crushed more of my spirit than I could handle. I mean, when you’re imagining that you’d be better off dead, you’re in a seriously fucked up place. That’s where I was.  And in this relationship we were hanging on, both wondering where the relationship and magic that we started with had gone.

Now, I’m working on finding out more about myself. I’ve been on a weight loss journey that has given me the healthiest body I’ve experienced since my 20s. And for the first time since I can remember I don’t have love handles. I’m not down to my 16 yo swim team weight, but that’s where I’m aiming. Why not? I should have that body again. Would I be more attractive and loveable? Probably not. Have I gotten a huge self esteem boost from losing all this weight? Yes. And it feels good to feel a bit hungry. That’s my body working on becoming a better machine. A leaner machine.

And the biggest part I’ve got to work on is loving myself. I know I’m repeating myself but I’m saying it for me. I need to hear it. My friend texted me one day while I was feeling particularly down, “You are loveable and you are loved.” It hit me with some force. I didn’t feel lovable at that moment. Far from it. But this phrase has become somewhat of a mantra. imagining myself lovable is a task. It’s a practice. It’s my journey towards loving myself. Not losing more weight. But just accepting and believing that I am loveable just as I am. I still don’t believe it, but I’m working on that issue right now. A am. And you are loveable too.

And you deserve to be loved fully and unconditionally. I know that sounds like a stretch. Like who really believes that woowoo shit? But it’s true. Even 2% out of sync is not what you need. You need 100% loving or you’ve got to pass. Miss almost, no matter how appealing she might appear, is not the one for you. Sometimes we call them red flags. And at this time in your life, you should not settle. Not one iota. I know this means it will take longer to find that match, but it’s going to be worth it. And you are worth it. I believe in you. And I believe in this Real Love.

So I’m staying out of the dating pool for a while as I reset my own self worth. My esteem was at an all-time low because of my job loss, which turned into one of the most protracted depressions I can remember. And while I’m no longer depressed (thank god) I’m also not about to start thinking about another woman. I’m not ready. I feel it. Sure, I feel the desire and longing to be with someone. And sure, I desire sexual connection with someone other than myself. But I’m not ready, and I’m worth the wait.

But I also said don’t wait. And what I mean by that is GET ON WITH YOUR PROGRAM. What do you need to improve about yourself. What kinds of non material things, what types of activities would make you feel happier? Seek those out. Learn again what YOU want to do, not attached to anyone but yourself. Only when you show up 100% for yourself can you really be ready for the next relationship of your life.

That’s what we’re talking about here. THE ONE. And if you see the signs at any point along the relationship journey, any red flags, the deal is off, the person is not the ONE. The person does not deserve you. And I’m sorry to say, they don’t get a second chance. Once you’ve seen someone’s true colors and you know in your heart that their behavior was hurtful or at best unthoughtful, it’s time to move on. “Let them walk,” as T. D. Jakes would say.

I’m walking my path alone right now. And I can say I’ve missed me. All that time in a chemical depression showed me, once again how bad it can be, and I’m grateful to be vibrant again. I’m developing a relationship with myself and I will eventually believe that I am loveable. And so will you. And anyone that takes that glow away from you is not worthy of your gifts.

So get on with it. Get on with yourself and your program to find the ONE. Anything less would be unfair to the awesome you that you are continuing to become.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

image: couple, creative commons usage allowed

Avoidance Never Works

When I was little my dad was a rageaholic and an alcoholic. And I learned to run and hide. Sometimes as an adult this is still my reaction to conflict. I’m a chronic avoider and it’s hurting me and my relationships. The coping mechanism that served me when I was 5 no longer works, it actually makes things worse. And sometimes, even when I know I’m doing it I can’t stop myself. Later I can look back and see the foolishness of my non-action, and if I really examine the behavior I can begin the process of undoing my childhood trauma and become a better adult. That’s my theory, anyway, and I’m ready to explore it.

Avoidance can show up in my life in the simplest of ways. Like sometimes I don’t open my mail for a week. If it’s from the IRS or my insurance provider, I might go longer. But it’s not working for me, it’s actually doing self harm as I worry about what the IRS wants. Turns out it was a letter letting me know my tax refund was once again being delivered to my ex-wife for child support. Oh joy. Not bad considering I was sure it was an audit. A simple act of opening the letter would’ve spared me a week of pointless worry. That’s how it starts. That’s a little sign of my dysfunction.

At work this type of behavior has actually cause a lot of chaos and worry. It’s not really procrastination as much as it’s fear of hurting someone’s feelings, asking them to stay late, holding them accountable for delivering on a project. It’s called conflict avoidance. And while I am a people pleaser at heart, this is more about my fear, my worry, and my avoidance. It never helps and always makes my job harder. I try to toughen up, I try to get more organized and still I find myself avoiding unpleasant conversations, unpleasant tasks, and the unpleasant task of managing other people. You can see how this might be a problem.

In relationships the stakes are even higher. Love is the emotion I crave, perhaps to an unhealthy extent, but I’m willing to roll with that. The avoidance that comes along with always trying to keep your partner happy, now that’s another story. And a big problem for me. If I can blow off the conflict by not responding, sure I don’t get in a fight, but really I’m giving up my part of the argument before it begins. I’m lessening myself worth in some way so the other person gets their way and remains happy with me. This is a formula for disaster.

What other ways to I avoid things? Setting up dental appointments is always a struggle. Paying bills never comes first, heck I used to leave letters in the mailbox for days. And then I met someone who was exactly the opposite. She attacked the mailbox, the bills, the chores, the unpleasant discussions. I was in awe. I was also pretty shut down by her direct action. I admired her, I was amazed at her energy and resolve to just “do what needed to be done.” Whether she wanted to or not. She was never lazy. And she was rarely avoidant.

So I’m looking at my avoidance with a more clear perspective. It’s not a flaw in me or my personality. It’s something that I learned at a very early age that I also need to unlearn. I need to be a bit more like my friend and  just do things. Like take out the trash when the bin is full. And here’s the kicker: without being asked. Filling up the water filter in the fridge. Changing the air filters. It’s not that I mind doing the tasks, I just tend to not do them when I see they need doing. I tend to think, “Oh I’ll do that in the morning.” Not my friend. Not ever. She just does the dishes at 10pm even when she’s tired and would rather get in bed. She just does stuff. I just avoid doing stuff.

Now I have a saying I use when I feel myself doing this. “Just do the right thing. And do it now.” It works well with chores and minor tasks. It’s a bit more complicated with relationship discussions or opening the IRS envelope. It’s a trait that I’m learning how to unlearn. Avoidance never makes things better, in fact, it causes me to worry and ruminate over all the possible awful outcomes. Those worries are better confronted in the moment. Open the bill, open the letter, tell someone they are hurting your feelings. I’m getting there. But it’s not a linear process. While I know this information well, I’m still avoidant.

I could be mad at myself for this behavior. I could beat myself up, and do, when I finally open the letter and realise all that worry was just wasted precious time. A lot of time not being fully present. Sometimes it gets so bad I freeze up and stop communicating at all. And that’s when things get really bad. But I do recover. I am conscious of when I’m avoiding. I still do it, but I’m doing it less. And I’m learning to take the uncomfortable feelings or worry by the horns and looking the damn bull in the eye and saying, “To hell with you, fear, I’m going in!”

What kinds of things do you avoid?

Always Love,

John McElhenney

creative commons usage allowed


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

image:, creative commons usage allowed

My Side of the Mountain – Understanding Depression

I can only talk about myself and my experience. And my experience includes some serious lapses into depression. Hard for me to admit, I’ve got an achilles heel, that scares the hell out of me and everyone near me, including my marriage and my last relationship. The disease is hard on everyone. And if you’ve never experienced it, you have no idea what it’s like, but I’m going to try to give you a glimpse into my dark days.

Depression is different from feeling sad or unmotivated. Depression is not laziness, though some of the symptoms may cause your loved ones to think you are just not trying to get better. I can assure you I was doing everything in my power, using all of my tools, to get well. But sometimes, even when things seem to be going well, the meds poop out and the depression grabs me and jerks me back below the surface of the water. Depression feels kind of like the flu. It’s as if your body has no energy for doing things. And nothing, I mean nothing, sounds good. You don’t want sex, you don’t want ice cream, you don’t want conversation, you just want to isolate and be quiet with your dark thoughts. But that’s a bad idea. That’s always a bad idea.

Depressions are usually triggered by some major emotional event. And my variety of depression comes along before your twenties and colors the rest of your life. My first freak out happened when I was sixteen years old and away at prep school. I’ve been touched ever since, with varying degrees of seriousness and duration. And I learned early on that meds were my friends, that I needed the equivalent of a pharmaceutical vitamin to keep me regulated. Over my life, it has been a real struggle to accept that fact, and several of my falls have happened years after I was off all medications and seemingly doing great. But it’s always there in the back of my mind. What if it comes back. And it just did, and probably will, with variations and if I’m diligent with smaller and less severe cycles. But I know that it will be back. This disease once it has been diagnosed doesn’t ever get cured.

I’m not trying to have a pity party here, or get sympathy. What I am trying to get is some clarity on what just happened to my loving relationship as a result of a prolonged bout of depression. They call it treatment resistant depression. That’s when the meds that used to work, just stop working. My free fall into fear and anxiety happened last December. And by January things were tense and unhappy in my relationship. Not just her. But I was deeply unhappy too.

The thing about my symptoms is I go off on apocalyptic fantasies about the future that I can’t stop worrying about. And I’m not just talking about some vague concerns about money, or career, or the future of my relationship, I’m talking about wild ass fantasies that consumed my consciousness so that I became forgetful and scattered. And this kind of depression makes it very hard to keep a job in the high-tech sector of marketing. But I couldn’t just get over it. I couldn’t just “man up” and keep going. I almost became mute because I didn’t want to share what was going on in my head with anyone. Fortunately I had a loving therapist who consoled me. Unfortunately there was no one consoling or coaching my then fiancé.

Here’s what’s scary. This same pattern caused the failure of my marriage to the mother of my children seven years ago. And I don’t know if this disease is going to continue to show up, freak out my partner, and end up with me alone and more depressed and hopeless. It’s hard for me to imagine it’s not going to happen again in some car wreck of a breakup. And that’s a way to get hopeless pretty fast.

But there is some good news. My story is going to end on an up. For me, meds work when they work. Unfortunately it may take a lot of tries to get it right, but when they kick in I am my old creative and loving self within weeks. And that’s just what happened two weeks ago. After being on a new med for 45 days I suddenly began to have creative thoughts. And this was after I broke up with my fiancé. So even in the depths of what would cause normal people to be sad, my meds allowed me to get a handle on my mind, put things back into perspective and develop the most critical part of recovery: hope.

Today, even alone, I feel hopeful. I know more about what happened. Perhaps I’ll learn how to get my partner to get a support system that will help her through her own doubts and fears. And here’s the plan: when a med works, stay on that med. So I could have years of good results, with ups and downs like everyone, but no crashes. That’s the goal, and that’s what I believe. When I was 16 my brain shut down on me and brought my sophomore year of high school to a screeching halt. And at several points in my life since then, during some major life crisis, I just give up. Well, I don’t give up, I’m fighting like hell, but my brain gives up and focuses on creating pictures of doom so dark I was afraid to tell my therapist what I was thinking sometimes.

So we start again. I’m alone but hopeful the next relationship will get it right. Of course, the relationship I need to work on most is with myself. Forgiving myself for my part in the demise of a seemingly brilliant relationship, with a committed future. And then, letting go of my best friend enough to imagine myself in a new relationship. I’m not there yet, but I have the clarity and energy to work on it.

Oh, and the funny thing for me, is when I’m starting to feel better my creative drive comes back and I start writing. Yesterday, with my blog post, I was showing myself that I was emerging from one of the longest depressions I’ve been in as an adult. For me creativity and brain health go hand in hand. So I’m happy to be back, still working, but on the up swing.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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Losing Dads in Divorce


My dad died when I was 21 years old. I was a freshman in college. And the loss nearly took me out too. While our relationship had been tumultuous, losing the opportunity to connect with him, forever, was devastating. The real story is, however, that I lost my dad when I was about six years old. My mom tells the story that she told him he could choose to continue drinking and lose his family, or he could stop drinking. I’m not 100% sure it went down that clearly, but I am sure of the fact that my father was an alcoholic.

He exited my life in a big way when he moved out of the house. Even before his divorce was final he was remarrying another alcoholic and the slide down into darkness was as swift as it was complete. I have no idea what his new wife felt about his kids, but it was clear that neither of them cared about their kids as much as they cared about partying together. I recall this period as one of estrangement. I could no longer get close to my dad. He was either drunk lamenting his divorce, or drunk celebrating his newfound love. But there was not a lot of love to go around. The love was for the bottle. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s more truth than myth.

What my dad missed from my 6’s on was everything. I was a star tennis player (as my dad was a tennis player) but he never hit with me. I was a successful football player but my dad made one game that I can remember, and he brought “her.” I was an awful baseball and basketball player, and today I can see how other kids dads were instrumental in helping them get over the fear and challenge of competitive sports. But my dad was nowhere to be found.

Sure, he was a hard worker. He was a successful doctor. And somehow he kept his schedule and his medical practice even as his vitality was going down the tubes. You’d think after his first heart attack he would start making changes in his life. You’d think. And maybe the second heart attack would really be a wake up call. But, in fact, my dad had three heart attacks before he was forced to quit drinking and smoking due to the chemotherapy that was required for his cancer treatments.

For the first time in my young life, from age 6 on, my dad got sober. It was a glorious and amazingly sad time. As his brain unpickled, he began to speak about “missing so much of your life.” He was dying, and yet he began to understand what he had lost in the 15+ years since the divorce.

I took all the time with him that I could. I spend weekends out at his condo, at the golf course, with him. I even tried to play golf with him, but he was still a tyrant and jerk about losing balls. Well, me losing balls. Him losing balls, no problem. I was satisfied riding in the cart with him and enjoying spending time with him. Even though his body was emaciated, he did his best to enjoy the last year of his life. But the poignancy of the loss was almost too much to bear.

On Sunday as I was about to drive back into town, he said, “I really want to do more of this with you.” We had spent the weekend playing cards, me watching him play golf, and essentially catching up on our lives. The next weekend he was admitted to the hospital for the last time. What glimpse I had of my real dad was short and sweet. He died about three months later, after a protracted withdrawal phase where he couldn’t speak or communicate by more than a squeeze of the hand.

I miss my father. I wish he had been around to see my kids, to know my kids, to enjoy my kids. But not if he had still been drinking. So maybe he did us all a favor, by allowing the alcoholism to cure and then kill him rather than prolong his agony and drunken stupor. I’m pretty pragmatic about drinking these days, I do it some, but more than two beers simply does nothing for me. Why blunt my experience of living.

My father was blunting his experience of loss. In his marriage he made the wrong decision. He chose to leave and lose the best family he could ever have imagined. And even as he tried to grandiosely celebrate his new wife and new adopted daughter, the real love of his original family escaped him. Until he was dying. Then we all came rallying to his bedside. All four kids spent the last few months in town, trying our best to be cheerful and supportive, but quietly crying with each other at what we had already lost and what we were losing.

Today I saw a dad and his kid on the baseball field. I wonder if I would’ve been a better baseball player if my dad had not been an alcoholic. I wonder if I could have played first string basketball if I’d had someone to shoot hoops with. As it was, I was left to playing horse in the driveway by myself. My mom tried, but she wasn’t all that sporty.

Dad’s fulfill a vital role in our lives. When that role is limited or eliminated the children suffer the consequences. Let’s put the balance back in parenting. And when divorce happens, let’s fight to make 50/50 the norm and not the exception. I don’t think it would’ve made any difference in my father’s case, he didn’t want 50/50, he wanted out, in some respect. But the out he was granted was final and absolute. And until he was dying he drank to keep himself from feeling the loss.

Always Love,

John McElhenney

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