Properly diagnosed, in a stable, positive routine, & with a good, working knowledge of my illness & its symptoms, the last frontier of my journey with bipolar disorder is dealing with my episodes. As it is, I’m handling the day-to-day symptoms well, avoiding the scary ones thanks to being off the Prozac & on the right anti-psychotics, & balancing the destabilizing ones through practicing mindfulness alongside my mood stabilizers. But there’s still the issue of my bipolar episodes, long mood cycles that uncover those dangerous symptoms & pushes me off my stable track.
About every three months a new experience or transition comes up, & exhausted from keeping it together on a daily basis, I collapse under the weight of the new stress, falling into one of these cycles. Most recently, I tried to get back into the classroom, feeling ready to teach, but like has happened every time over the past three years trying to start a new job, I was overwhelmed by negative voices in my head, triggered by something (often minor) in my environment, & sent into this week-to-two-weeks-long spin of manic outbursts, depressive collapses, & hopeless feelings of grasping for safety.
Inevitably, my support system says a similar thing: “I’d love to help, but I just don’t know what to do.” In the episodes, I don’t have the energy to communicate what I need or have the insight on how to ask for help. At my mother’s request, I decided to create this “user manual” for my loved ones in helping me during these spells. While I’m stable & coherent, I want to give you the tools to be your best self in relation to me when I’m unstable & incoherent. I figured it’d be helpful to: 1) describe as accurately as I can what I’m going through 2) give tips on what you can & shouldn’t do 3) provide access for more empathy.
When I was misdiagnosed & improperly medicated, my spells were seemingly “random,” able to be triggered by the delusions & paranoia floating around in my head. Luckily, now that I’m properly treated, we have a better idea of what triggers them, usually a major transition—starting or ending a job or relationship of some sort, most notably. For many years, I’ve struggled with appropriately responding to embarrassment or abandonment, & we think this is related to my mood cycles. When I’m already feeling vulnerable & imbalanced, as we all do from time to time, something that feels threatening to my stability will set me off, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
This is what happened with the teaching situation. After a successful teacher work day, I was feeling a little manic in responding to the natural nerves of starting a new job, especially after being out of the classroom for so long. After a night of dark dreams & restless sleep, I woke on the day off before school started feeling very uneasy. I called my mother for some reassurance; unfortunately, my call woke her & she responded inappropriately with an “uh-oh” to my stressed voice on the other end (not blaming her, just stating what happened). This sent me into a rage-induced black-out, the beginning to what would be a week-and-half-long bipolar episode.
See, the beginning is subtle, & thankfully, these days I can usually feel it coming on—out-of-character anxiety, intrusive thoughts, & tingling in my hands, feet, & eyes. The problem comes when I am triggered into a highly manic mode before I can resolve those early feelings. Mania is where the moods are elevated, both in positive & negative feelings, with an increase in energy & reactiveness. For me, this early manic stage is volatile, marked by extreme irritability & usually rage-filled, physical responses, which is where the black-outs come in. Reduced to my lizard brain, I am completely irrational & obsessive. During the “uh-oh" situation, I apparently screamed “uh-oh” over & over while writing the phrase in sharpie & spray paint on the walls & garage door.
This type of manic outburst usually gives way to a few days of rapid cycling, the true ups & downs of manic depression (the old name for bipolar disorder). This is the roller coaster often depicted in media. Unpredictable & irrational, these days are a blur for me, alternating between the previous day’s outbursts, positive elevated highs, & big depressive crashes, over & over again. It is just a wave I have to ride, if I’m not able to catch it & shut it down. Because of this unpredictability, it is best for me to be at home & alone.
As much as you might want to intervene, there is really nothing you can do & though it might not seem like it at times, I’m safe if I’m home & alone. Just let me go through it. I might say crazy, hurtful, or confusing things; please do not ask for apologies or explanations then. I am not in a rational mind, so it is important to not feed into any embarrassment or abandonment fears, by avoiding judgmental or catastrophic language of any sort. In this state, I can twist just about anything into a personal attack or more fuel for the fire. If need be, cut off communication by being direct & kind; others have had success with something like, “I can tell you are having a hard time (gives me the sense of feeling seen). I’m going to let you focus on that (non-combative goodbye). I will check in tomorrow (anti-abandonment).”
This will take us into our next phase, which is depression, partly fueled by the exhaustion of rapid cycling & partly caused by the embarrassment & confusion as things start to settle down a bit. This is the “it gets worse before it gets better” part, a sort of hangover after the high. Though often ugly, it is where I begin to recharge, lasting as long as a week. I’m fine if allowed to chill, watching a lot of television, eating one big meal a day, & generally just trying to keep my energy low so I don’t start the rapid cycling again. This is where suicidal problems come in, when manic energy gets reintroduced & drives depression thoughts. Thus, it is important not to re-escalate, as I can easily slip back into mania.
This is where reminders can be useful—that I’m loved, that you’re there for me, that you’ll be here when I’m ready. Remind me to take my meds. Encourage me to go on a walk. Offer to join me for a walk or a sit. Tell me I’m doing what I need to do. In the depressive phase, those abandonment / embarrassment fears are the strongest. Please don’t mention abandonment or embarrassment though, as it could be an “uh-oh”-like trigger, but instead do things that remind me, while I’m home & alone, that there are people out there on my side. Above all else, just try to be proactive & on my side.
Once I’ve worked through some sorrow, I start to “try to be a regular person again,” going to the store or meeting with a trusted person. Usually, at first, I can only last an hour before its back to the couch, but each day, I try to extend that stamina. I’m able to know my limits here pretty well. It is also in this phase where I’m ready & craving human connection, though I often don’t have the confidence or energy to express that. This would be a good time to invite me over, give me a phone call, or feed me a meal. Think of this as a “testing the waters” phase.
After that, the worst is over. It takes another week or two to be fully stable, but I’m at least able to communicate effectively about where I’m at & what I need. Even in mood episodes, I’m decent at telling others what’s going on, though not great at saying needs or behaving appropriately. So, if you’re not sure what stage I’m at, just ask. Yes, I might be pissy, dismissive, or odd. Please remember that this isn’t personal or about you. This is me working through a serious chemical swell. I appreciate you wanting to know how to help & hopefully this will give you some confidence in being proactive about helping. Stable, sane Tyler sure does appreciate you.
I’ve developed this theory: one can tell a great deal about the worldview of a person based on his or her reaction to my home disc golf course, lovingly called the E.D.G.E. (Elwood Disc Golf Enthusiasts!) here in Indiana. One sector of people will instantly grumble, their focus consumed by the glass shards & scrap metal pieces that dot the course (more on that in a second!), what they judge as ineptitude or incompletion or whatever. The other group will lead with curiosity & celebration, acknowledging context (stick with me here!), attention paid instead to the short, technical, wooded wonder that is this course. Born naturally hyper-reactive & later suffering from a serious mental illness, I have spent the last decade of my life learning to be the latter, convinced that being a member of this disc golf community has given me the models, the modes, & the insight to be a more present, mindful person.
Our current mayor, Todd Jones, who has been tremendously supportive of local disc golf efforts, likes to emphasize Elwood’s classification as a city (at around 8,000 residents!), but it has all the markers of a Midwestern small town, half-balanced between poverty—meth problems, low employment, dietary issues—& opportunity, as local support is high & enthusiastic, at least in spirit, if not in funds, for anything that will add value to the lives of its citizens. A disc golf course carved out of the woods that overgrew the old city dump (hence the glass & metal that sifts to the top!) by a group of blue-collar men, truly a DIY labor of love, is an apt example of the good that arises from places like this.
That group—including folks like Aaron Hill, Trent McPhearson, & Alan Hazelwood—found each other at the Morse Beach course in Noblesville, Indiana, about 30 minutes away, as Hill told me on a previous episode of this podcast. At the time, it was one of the few courses within a short drive, the only in the now-booming Hamilton County, adjacent to the then-zero in our Madison County. As their crew grew & as opportunity likes to spring out, they were offered the woods behind the Elwood Athletic Club complex, home of the Babe Ruth baseball field & youth football field, where many of us in the next disc golf generation first caught the bug for playing sports.
Never having created a course, they led with passion & hard work, pulling at both ends, fundraising as they began building the course. As Hill remembers it, McPhearson & Hazelwood set up a booth at our yearly local fair, the Elwood Glass Festival, with baskets & putters to introduce folks to the sport, as well as taking donations for the in-progress course. The group, a dozen or so strong at this point, had started carving fairways, pulling ribbons through the dense honeysuckle & overgrown vines, cutting paths until lines began to emerge. With local businesses & other stoked area disc golfers pitching in funds to buy baskets, tee-pads, & signs, the first nine holes were complete in late 2010. A full year of this incredible effort had yielded a truly unique & bizarre course with some of the tightest lines around; it is slightly reminiscent of the legendary Honey Bear Hollow course up the road in Peru (our state’s first course!), & certainly nothing like the open, pitch-&-putt park course that birthed this group.
I was falling in love with disc golf at the time, having picked it up a year prior as a college student at Ball State University, Muncie’s beefy McCulloch Park being another local course. That next spring in 2011, following graduation & my first major psychological episode, I moved back in with my parents here in Elwood, clutching my creative writing degree & a nagging suspicion that something was going haywire with my brain. Young, lost, & oblivious, I learned quickly what a course like E.D.G.E. in a place like Elwood could offer: simply, a place to go & others to be around.
Something like this, I realized, stretched beyond disc golf, an opportunity to work through our struggles, celebrate our triumphs, & uncover a little more, day after day, hole after hole, about who we really are. When the course first opened, I saw many men from the area (like many clubs, we still hope to get more women & children involved!) who didn’t fit in other, more traditional places, such as the ball golf course down the road; they found, in the course, their own safe space for working out their demons & cultivating their angels—the ones struggling with addiction, the ones who had gained some weight & lost some confidence, the ones in need some positive company, a weirdo artist like me who was terrified about what the next decade would bring.
As the course extended to 18 holes a year later, thanks to E.D.G.E. member Travis Faucett convincing the company he worked for to bankroll the back nine, I soon left for Austin, Texas, chasing some answers, slowly losing my mind, & with a tub of discs in my trunk. I would play local events when back for holidays, meeting up with the E.D.G.E. guys to check out the other courses swiftly popping up in the area (like Madison County’s second 18-hole course in Anderson!). When I finally moved back to Elwood in the summer of 2019, I was more of a disc golf enthusiast than ever, returning with a wife, another creative writing degree, & more than a hunch about my increasing mood swings & psychotic symptoms like paranoia & rage-induced black-outs. I did not know much, but I knew that playing rounds at this course balanced my moods & grounded my awareness like nothing else did.
There’s an episode of King of the Hill where Hank Hill & his buddies push their friend & local conspiracy theorist Dale Gribble too far, pranking him by stealing his mower & concocting a story about its disappearance being tied to aliens & the U.S. government. Dale’s paranoia is intensified to an off-the-deep-end level, with a regretful Hank remarking that they dropped “extra stress on a structure not up to code in the first place.” In retrospect, that is what the spring of 2020 did to me. Already unable to work because of my unpredictable, psychotic symptoms, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed me into my house, away from my support system & emotional outlets, & deeper into my growing distrust of the world. To make matters worse, my wife, rightfully terrified of my “spells” (we didn’t know what they were yet!), left me less than a month into the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, this was my Dale Gribble moment, the structure of myself crumpling under the triple-threat stress of global crisis, personal grief, & my heightened disconnection from reality. I was hospitalized, first for a week & then a few other times for shorter stays that summer, overwhelmed by suicidal ideations. I was finally properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder (bipolar I, severe, with psychotic features, if you’re nasty). As BP Magazine (a great online resource for those curious about this illness!) teaches us, bipolar disorder is “a treatable illness marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy, and behavior...also known as manic depression because a person’s mood can alternate between the poles—mania (highs) and depression (lows).” This was it; similarly to how I saw myself in the men flinging discs through the ups-&-downs of life, I, at last, witnessed myself in a description of a mental illness & the experiences of others afflicted with it.
Like with any ailment, the treatment trajectory is never linear nor without its flailings / failings, necessarily aided by structure & support. Thankfully, our society has finally started to reckon with the millions of lives uncared for due to a lack of mental health treatment & awareness. A couple years before my rock bottom, professional basketball player Kevin Love published an essay in The Players’ Tribune called “Everyone is Going Through Something,” detailing his own panic attacks & urging us to be gentler with others & ourselves. I recall baskets at multiple courses cradling discs signed with the names of victims of suicide, asking players to throw it in their honor & leave it with the awareness of the tragic effects of depression & other mental illnesses. In the last year-and-a-half, I have witnessed how organically a community like ours can turn that awareness into action.
It starts with simply showing up. I obviously was not the only person whose mental health tanked in 2020, with 4-in-10 adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders a year into the pandemic, compared to only 1-in-10 the year prior, according to KFF. I also certainly was not the only one that turned to disc golf to restore some sanity, stretch some muscles, & be out in the world again; with disc golf arguably the top socially-distant, outside activity, disc golf rounds played nearly tripled in 2020 compared to 2019, according to UDisc. My eye test concurred, the parking lot of our small-town course seemingly never empty, the woods constantly buzzing with folks slinging plastic as a means to get through the day.
In my recovery, assisted by mood stabilizers & anti-psychotics on the medication side, as well as regular communication with a therapist & my support system (big shout-out to my parents & my best friends!) on the processing side, I kept hearing the same things: That I needed to develop a regular routine—sleep, diet, exercise, meditation, writing. That I needed to inform & stabilize my support system. That I needed to find meaningful work, not necessarily for money, but for structure, for confidence, for self-worth. Soon, I realized those necessary facets of my life were best practiced out at the E.D.G.E. course.
Within the community, I had a regular place to be, be it the two weekly E.D.G.E. leagues, the visiting leagues from our displaced friends in the Anderson Disc Golf Club (their home course sadly knocked out mid-pandemic!), or my regular Thursday morning round with my longtime friend, Josh Lee, who himself had found his way onto the course at the beginning of the pandemic. As I became more involved in this community, my support system widened to include several disc golfers who would check-in if I missed a league round (oh the importance of being seen!), who I could talk to casually about my journey during warm-up chats, & who I grew to trust as our conversations widened, as the rounds & the year progressed (I’m looking at you, Bourff brothers!). Likewise, I found meaningful work, such as running the Saturday morning random draw doubles that had become so important to me, or through participating in course maintenance in preparation for tournaments.
I often admit to people that it was impossible to know how troubled I actually was while in the midst of my madness, just now able to reflect on how truly imbalanced my last decade was psychologically; similarly, it is hard to measure how much I have grown while still very much engaged in the recovery process. As I attempt to bring my mindfulness practices onto the disc golf course, as I begin to write about these experiences, I find the markers of my rehabilitation not just in the improvement of my scores or rating, but in how I handle the rough rounds & high scores, how I have regained confidence as a community-oriented guy, how the number of connections I make & the knowing nods I give continue to accumulate.
The day before the 2020 Madison County Open, my grandfather died, I the last one to sit with him, to see him alive. I played the tourney the next morning, shooting as well as I could expect, stoked that Matt Bell was playing our little course, but the thing I most remember is carrying my sadness alone, simultaneously managing my disorder & freshly grieving my grandfather’s passing without substantial connections in the community to lean on. In contrast, I played this year’s tournament on the one-year anniversary of his death, & because of the community that had taken me in the previous year, I did not have to reflect in solitude. I sponsored a hole “In Loving Memory of Fred Tyner.” I talked to my card-mates & my other buddies who were playing about the importance of this date & the pressure I felt to play well. I chatted with the caring organizers, Colt Carpenter & Ashley Waterbury-Carpenter, about the reality of my mental illness & the steps I am taking to manage it (hello sobriety!). This sort of confidence & transparency would not have been possible less than a year previous, me teetering on the edge of taking my own life.
Could another course have had the same effect? Sure, absolutely. But the fact is, melodramatic as it sounds, the Elwood Disc Golf Enthusiasts saved my life by giving me a regular, welcoming place to go & in offering structure within which to practice my self-care & personal growth. Now itself stretched to 27 hard-hitting holes, I see the course working its magic on others still, offering folks like Roy McCormick what it has gifted me. With his own equipment, McCormick (always with a smile on his face!) spends countless hours of his retirement doing maintenance at the course—mowing, weed-whacking, trimming trees, picking up broken bottles & old brake pads. It is in people like Hill & McCormick that I find the kind of man I want to become & finally, thankfully, feel it is possible to be.
This course saved me because it is so much like me—dotted with the stuff of its past, cared for by the people who keep showing up, growing because of those same folks. I want to be a third kind of person, the one continuously in awe of the parking lot stretched full of cars & trucks with disc golf bumper stickers, the one that tells the league organizers & tournament directors thank you every time, the one that, first & foremost, celebrates the strange & beautiful Elwood Disc Golf Enthusiasts. Only then will I enter this ass-kicking course, sure to never forget the debris & what it symbolizes.
I had no clue / I'd be the boy who / your momma warned you about - Turnpike Troubadours
People in my life these days forget sometimes how volatile my psychology was for a good stretch of time. People in my life back in those days went many different ways in their response--ghosting me, learning about my challenges & illness, giving me a pass. The most dramatic response was when I was "cancelled," after it was publicly revealed, a couple years after the fact via a now-unpublished online essay, that I physically & emotionally assaulted my girlfriend during a psychotic episode. I was publicly shamed by & shunned from the poetry community that I loved dearly. I lost teaching opportunities & loved ones & book deals & whatever semblance of stability I was clinging to. And you know what? Maybe I deserved it, maybe I was a danger, maybe my actions made me unfit for those roles & relationships.
Recently someone I met on a dating app cancelled our planned date due to hearing from a "mutual friend" what happened with that ex-girlfriend back then. At this point, if someone wants to make final judgements on me based on something that happened 7 years ago during a psychotic break, I can accept that, as it probably says more about their values & journey than it does about where I am at. The thing those continued detractors don't understand though is that my story didn't stop 7 years ago; it is mid-telling today as I continue to learn to manage my disorder, seek forgiveness for the harm I've caused, & use this very ongoing story as a learning opportunity for how we view & treat mental illness.
Through the last year or so, I've been trying each month to tweak my mindset, routine, & lifestyle to better support the management of my illness & to ultimately extend my capabilities as a rational, caring human being. Early on, it was developing a mindfulness practice & recommitting to the local disc golf community. Lately, it has been developing a better relationship to what I put in my body, namely quitting drinking alcohol & practicing an every-three-hours small meal "diet." I'm also currently in the process of getting back into the classroom as an educator.
As someone who craves collaboration & connection, I think the next step that I am ready for is exploring possible romantic relationships. I stumbled in late 2020 / early 2021 trying to date, for two major reasons. Mostly, I hadn't adequately processed losing my ex-wife--how & why she left, the lack of closure her disappearance caused, the nagging feeling I likely won't find anyone more compatible & enchanting. Also, I wasn't quite yet confident in sharing my shaky past & the reality of my illness with new folks.
Through therapy & through this blog, I've sifted through both of those necessary hurdles, & I feel like I'm ready to share my full self with someone else again. As the earlier example shows though, my past will inevitably be a stumbling block for some folks. In practicing telling my story, honestly & vulnerably, I hope to find people who are open-minded to the nuance of mental illness & judge for themselves through actually current experience with me, not passed-along stories or others' previous perspectives. I promise to be forthright, probably within the first couple dates, about my illness, its possible problems, & my historical episodes. I also hope to be confident in my current iteration of self, one neck-deep in self-care & illness management.
For me, I grew because of graceful accountability, knowledgeable guidance, & added presence from loved ones; I got better because I was provided opportunities for meaningful work & safe collaboration. I didn't get better because I was shamed, threatened, or shunned; in fact, those measures, in many ways, pulled me from resources & motivations, even slowing & derailing progress at times. I worry that our dualistic, simplistic thinking on these very complex situations robs us of beautiful stories of redemption & healing, as well as keeps us away from much true progress, both in ourselves & others. In dating again, I hope to invite others into this wider perspective & understanding, knowing that the good / right ones will be willing & able to stare into that particular flame.
That has been a struggle my entire life, balancing boundaries & this frantic urge to love & support others who are struggling. When I was a kid, my mom would always laugh because of the kids I asked to invite over--the fourth grader already in alternative school, the kid from the family of criminals, the friend who had been caught stealing more than once. I think I always knew something was off with me, that I was one of these difficult friends, but luckily, I had also been born with a combo of good, supportive parents & (during balanced time) a good head on my shoulders, as my dad would say. I felt like I owed it to them, to share my privilege with them, to see through their struggle to the solid core I knew was there.
In April of 2020, when I was hospitalized for an extended period of time at a psych facility, I did the same thing again, this time as an adult, trying to bring home two of the guys I met in there who needed homes. Luckily, my mother convinced me that I needed to focus on my own recovery & that two ex-cons with drug addictions were not reliable support in that journey. Instead, I gave them some money for a couple nights in a hotel & my phone number in case they ever needed to talk. Sometimes, I realized, my mania blasts through expectations & common sense, singularly focused on camaraderie & ultimately, not being alone.
Lately, I've been having to remind myself of a lesson I've had to stress with a few friends, that we can't take too personally & seriously the rude / odd / difficult things people do & say around us, even to us, because it is out of our control & usually has very little or nothing to do with us, a dead end of frustration & hurt. Among my many acceptances in this bipolar journey has been accepting that, while I love everyone, I don't like a lot of people's negative & coarse vibes. With my tendencies towards paranoia, delusion, & psychosis in stressful situations, I can no longer be close with or frequently around people who project pessimism or disconnection.
I must better surround myself with people who lead with a wider perspective, people who understand the difference (& importance) between facts & experiential reality, people who are reciprocal with sharing our full selves, people who lean on positive communication, thoughtful action, & expanded consciousness. This, ultimately, is the kind of person I am, hoping to enact it a little more each day.
This revelation led me to some tough chats with a couple family members this past week, addressing some behavioral problems that were negatively affecting the family, obviously stemming from unresolved trauma. I had to be upfront, confessing that I can't be around them, can't have the close relationship I would like, if they aren't working on themselves. I am trying to project positivity, awareness, & collaboration, so folks, even family members, not up to reciprocating that task do not fit in my current iteration of self. This conversation should've happened years ago, but better late than never, as I've seen all involved grow more aware in their actions as a result.
For me, I spent much of my Insane Decade (as I'm calling it), either being written off as a bad person for my mood swings & explosive outbursts or given a free pass out of sympathy for my mental illness. Neither of those approaches actually addressed the root cause & created any substantial change to better myself & to prevent future problems, what I hope is the goal for all. I floundered for years because of a lack of directness & nuanced thinking, in both myself & those folks who took up the task of caring for me. It wasn't until my mother took it upon herself to make some professional calls, learn about my illness, & lead with her backbone that I truly felt supported & empowered to get better.
On the other side of that particular muck, I'm determined to be that active witness for the great loves in my life--to reflect back what I see, to be proactive in my support, & to zoom out to the larger picture of what's happening. Sick people of any sort can't get better alone; they need thoughtful, assertive people to do more than send prayers & well wishes--to have real conversations, to assist with troublesome tasks, to provide accountability & contextualization in everyday life.
When I was very mentally ill, I heard the phrase "hurt people hurt people" a lot, an important step in acknowledging the cyclical nature of trauma & necessary wider approach to dealing with the ill, the difficult, the outsiders, the folks causing harm in our society. Still, it rang incomplete for me, missing the hope of more, better living. Today, I stumbled upon the idea that only transformed people can help transform people, thanks to Richard Rohr, to the extent that they themselves are changed. For me, this means right now I can support folks in finding the courage & resources to get help, witness others' choices, reasoning, & symptoms, & be present in their times of need.
In order to do the support work I want to do fully--providing professional guidance to rural & small town men--I have great strides still to make. I must continue to grow in my practice of mindfulness & nonduality. I must further commit to a nonviolent approach to conflict. I must manage my disorder to properly engage with more education. I must gain a better understanding of & resolution to my collected traumas. I must sustain a routine rooted in holistic health, personal growth, & collaborative living. I can't believe I'm this well, & I'm stoked to see how much more I can recover in order to benefit both myself & others.
I think I share this same photo every year for Father's Day because it captures the essence of my male / Gobble lineage so well--the body shape, the particular style, the smile & its corresponding vibe, the camaraderie, the white square that plagues our faces. My dad is in the dark brown jacket; my Uncle Cooter is the other feller. Has my dad been a perfect father? Of course not, no one is (& we must stop expecting people to be perfect!), but the most important lesson he taught me was learning from one's father's mistakes & continuing to grow as a human being no matter what. He saw the mistakes of his father--alcoholism, poor financial choices, & a lack of community--& went the opposite; he barely drank when I was growing up, emphasized buying things that provided positive activities, & he modeled having hobbies & a good circle of friends. As he got older, he made great strides in understanding & sympathizing with folks who were different from him, myself included, his mentally ill, weirdo poet son.
I, in turn, am working to not fall into the cultural & societal traps that were some of his shortcomings--fear-based decision-making, quick judgement, & an over-emphasis on job-related work. Thankful for all my father has taught me, gifted me, been beside me for. He is retired & living in North Carolina these days, for the first time in 35 years, just a golf cart ride away from his last surviving brother. I couldn't be happier for this chapter of his life. As for me, I got a redneck dad who was playful, kind, & not a Trump supporter. Lucky me!
On holidays like this, I think it is always important to acknowledge & send good vibes to those on the other side of celebrating, the ones with hot wires under the surface in regards to this particular F-word, "father." This is an important step in my journey to rewire my default setting, the one that insists I am the center of the universe, that my experience is the primary experience. On Father's Day, let us not forget the folks without fathers, the folks who can't be fathers, the folks who have been hurt by their fathers, the fathers who've lost a kiddo, the folks separated from their fathers.
I see the difficulty in moments like this, when the world is locked into a lane that one can't access, & I'm sorry that has happened to you. This year, I was sending good vibes to those folks, & I always hope they have the support needed & plenty of other things to celebrate, this & everyday. I say to them, "May you be happy, may you be comforted." In upcoming holidays & celebrations, I hope to be more proactive in reaching out to those othered by moments like this.
As for the fathers in my life, I did my best to reach out to all the good good ones out there, to give props to all y'all keeping it real. From my time as an educator & my outsider perspective, not just on this day, but every day, I hope to offer what I can in encouragement & inspiration. To keep playing with your kids. To keep improving yourself. To keep communicating your feelings & growing your passions. To keep modeling your values for the little ones.
When I was married, I'd often get asked why we didn't have kids or plans to pop some out. I usually mentioned the issue of overpopulation or the ethics of bringing someone into such a cruel world or our lack of a stable lifestyle, blah blah. I'd also throw in "not wanting to pass this along to a poor kiddo," making a crazy hand gesture encircling my head. Sure, I could talk my way outta those first reasons, but that latter answer had to be honored, unflinchingly.
Truth is, for the last decade-plus, even through true madness, misdiagnosis, & improper treatment, I knew enough to know that something was dangerously abnormal in my mind, causing me to have severe mood swings, impulse control issues, & even violent outbursts. I knew it was immoral to subject a kid to that, no matter how awesome I might be as a parent (& you best believe I'd be fun as hell & a grand supporter of curiosity & hands on learning). Yes, I'd love to have a little buddy to teach disc golf & read poems to at bedtime & have dance parties in the truck. But up till now & for the foreseeable future, I'm gonna have to put that energy into being a rad Uncle T-GOB.
As for the guys in my life thinking about becoming a father or already in that role, I always urge them to not forget to take care of themselves, holistically. I know many people, myself included, who were unnecessarily negatively affected or even traumatized by their father's simple lack of awareness about their psychology & how their behavior affects their children. Male mental health matters, for the father, for their partner, & especially for their kiddos.
As men, we are taught to hide our feelings, suppress natural urges to discuss what's going on, & put our energy into more "productive" or "masculine" activities. I say the exact opposite is true, especially in regards to giving our children a better life than we had, a goal I hope all fathers share. If one is modeling self-awareness, self-improvement, & self-care, the kiddos will see that & likely grow with that in their value system, thus hopefully leading more expansive & dynamic lives. What I'm saying is let's normalize men taking care of their mental health, okay.
Pete Holmes introduced me to a more mystical, humanist perspective on Heaven & Hell, one that I'm sure has a richer & deeper tradition than I am just preparing to explore. Instead of this silly & stody idea that Heaven & Hell are actual, physical places based on an opaque reward/punishment system, this other perspective suggests that they are more metaphorical, humanity-based concepts. Simply, if you've left a good legacy of people remembering you fondly, kindly, & often, then you're in Heaven after death. Oppositely, if you're remembered negatively, then you're in Hell. Of course, this isn't a literal understanding of how it works; taken literally, it'd be just as short-sighted & flawed as fundamentalism. However, it is very appealing as a story-focused mind frame, an opportunity to ground ethics in human-centered, practical modes.
I'm lucky to have a good-sized property for Ginny Bug (my six-year-old pitbull) to wander around on & even luckier to have a dog who will stay in the yard & who listens well. But I have been trying, a couple times a week, to take Ginny in town or to a park disc golf course for leashed walks. I think it reminds us both of our connection, our collaboration, our compromise.
I want to flirt with the world!
What's that they say about the difference between hearing & listening? It's a below-the-surface-level thing, how much processing & engaging are had & how that manifests a continued response. My new therapist, in our first session, threw me off because unlike recent professionals who listened & nodded, she was asking bold questions & making big connections. Even when off-base, it felt invigorating to be heard like that, met in the middle of a depth that's rare around here these days.
During therapy today (5/19), we pin-pointed the physiological underpinnings of my disorders (bipolar I & intermittent explosive disorder). It seems clear that these are both related to the unresolved trauma of my Uncle Ricky's death & my Grandma Tyner's death (age 8, both of which I had premonitions about), as well as the separation from my half-brother TG when I was 4. As both my therapist & Peter A. Levine in Waking The Tiger have pointed out, the aggressive outbursts, the on-the-edge feelings, & the depressive pitfalls are the leftover energy from that early trauma. It never got explored or resolved, so my whole brain has rewired to anticipate such calamity & maintain that intense on-guard reaction to my ongoing life.
There was this kid Jack (name obviously changed) at the park the other day when I took my little cousin. I knew Jack from when I worked at the school. He is probably eight now, but he's big & his parents already let him roam town. Every generation in Elwood has a couple of these kids--oversized, undersupervised, no emotional / social skills, very physical. He just terrorized the other kids--slapping them hard on the back for no reason, scaring them at the bottom of the curly slide, randomly yelling. It's easy to think "little shit," abut the real work comes in sympathizing with him for all the physiological, environmental, & genetic factors stacked against him.
I think I'm gonna quit drinking. It just feels like the right time. One part financial decision, one part physical lifestyle change, one part psychological necessity.
I had the pleasure of spending the Memorial Day weekend with a bunch of new-ish buds camping down in Red River Gorge. It was full of the usual joy--campfire jokes, time among the trees, dogs trying to navigate the unfamiliar. But what added to the wow of this weekend was the fact that I had zero behavioral incidents & the most minuscule of bipolar symptoms. If you've known me awhile, you know that trips & excursions are both my favorite thing & a load of dread for me. Let's just say I don't have the best track record as an adult when removed from my comfort zone & routine.
I grew up camping with my parents, first in tents as a toddler & then in campers through my late teens, but when my symptoms started to set in in my early twenties, primitive camping became often problematic. Right after graduating from college, I organized a camping trip for a group of buds, & it quickly came to an end, when a friend's drunken mouth met one of my psychotic rage attacks. I had a couple successful camping trips in Texas, but those usually only worked when I was alone. Most recently, I tried a solo trip last summer after my wife left, but ended up shoving the tent & all my belongings in the van at 3 a.m. as hallucinations overwhelmed me. As much as I love the outdoors & adventure, something about tent camping knocks me off my psychological balance.
Knowing the possibility for trouble, I communicated with the group my concerns about the trip, but after their understanding responses & noting my recent successes in managing my illness, I decided to join, making the three-&-a-half hour trek down to Kentucky. I knew being removed from routine & comfort can cause me to become moody & unstable. I knew poor sleeping & eating habits could affect my ability to be aware of my symptoms & make the proper adjustments. I knew, in the past, responsibility, such as planning a trip or being in charge of the camp, added more stress than I could handle while trying to manage my moods. Ultimately, I had to watch out for falling into the unregistered, unaware trap of my more animalistic feelings & behavior.
I've been re-reading Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine (with Ann Frederick) & it's been providing me much insight on that last key to understanding my mood episodes, the big boom we were avoiding. As Levine notes, "Sensations come from symptoms, and symptoms from compressed energy" (76). I've learned it's not just about being aware of the symptoms & sensations, as important as that is, but also about releasing that compressed energy in clear, intentional ways. During the day, I made sure to step away from the campsite, be it for a hike, a walk with the dog, or a solo round of disc golf; on the site, I made sure to take moments to check in with myself, like with a power nap or a session of Dr. Weil's breathing cycle. Any success I had on this trip, compared to others, was all about awareness & intentionality.
As Levine remarks in his book, "The fundamental challenges we face today have come about relatively quickly, but our nervous system, but our nervous systems have been much slower to change
" (43). Partially removed from that modern grind, camping can be a jolt to that nervous system too, half-hung up on the quick-paced stress of modern life & well-exposed in the slowness of a weekend away. Looking back, wondering what was different this go-around, the core answer is simply that I'm taking better care of myself on a regular basis, having established some positive forward momentum--being well-medicated, developing a solid relationship with a new, trusted therapist, & following a daily routine balanced on meaningful work & reflective rest time. For the trip itself, the bookends were first being up front with the group & releasing myself of much responsibility pressure & allowing myself to pack & leave on my own internal schedule.
It is a weird thing to be proud of as a thirty-two-year-old, having a successful holiday weekend camping trip with buddies, but I can't help but smile looking back on all the good moments, knowing my bipolar disorder & I didn't ruin anyone's trip, MINE INCLUDED. I will always feel awful for the torment my rage attacks & mood episodes have caused, the fissure I've created among should-be peaceful time, often for some of my most beloved people. But with each successful trip out of the comfort zone, I have a better understanding of how to concoct such success, & I feel a little more confident in my ability to pull off such a task & prevent calamity in the future.
I noticed recently that a lot of people around here, even some that know me well, talk to me as if I believe exactly like them, especially when it comes to Christianity. Where I live (Elwood, IN), like much of the Midwest, is steeped in a conservative fundamentalism that treats god as some dictator sending down punishments & rewards in response to his subjects' behaviors. Many folks I know, even some more progressive or educated types, are bogged down & often seemingly confused by this antiquated system governing morality, & in interactions with others, because it is often the case, they assume the other has the same strange foundation.
I think that impulse, to assume your conversation partner believes parallel to you, is a natural default setting, but certainly one that could use some revisiting, a spitshine. Isn't a more productive & open-hearted method of approaching people one that leads with curiosity & diversity? I find much joy & growth opportunity in witnessing & unpacking, in collaboration, what others are thinking, experiencing, & witnessing in their own right. Unfortunately, our American society is on this fast track to conflict, where differences seem synonymous with antagonism.
To be clear, I am an atheist, have been since I was fourteen, but more importantly, I am continuing to grow as a secular humanist, believing humanity is both the key and the lock in regards to morality, ethics, & progress. While my journey to "there is not god" (or at least, not one that has been presented to the world thus far) was a short & obvious one, my understanding of humanity--what it is here for, how to interact with it, what to value, etc.--has been a rollercoaster, especially as I navigate the mood swings & anger attacks of my bipolar disorder, as well as the consequences of those mental health struggles, in my day-to-day life.
I say all of this not to chest-puff or initiate some conflict, but as a reminder to us all, myself included, that the folks we intersect daily are all carrying different belief systems & the baggage that comes with it. I, for one, want to learn from others & for others to learn from me, so that we might meet again with better mutual understanding & a more whittled set of impulses & reasons the next time around.
As someone who was married to a Episcopalian chaplain, who lived at a Christian seminary for three years, who has had the pleasure of knowing folks practicing many variations of faith, I have progressed from an angry atheist, a firm black/white viewer, to someone who is able to hold the "there is no god" belief while also remaining curious in others' perceptions of belief. I think what it has really done is to broaden my concern, leading me to ponder, "Why have people invested so much time, energy, & resources over the millenia into create hundreds of religions & thousands of gods?"
This is where we can all re-meet: the concerns of humanity. It goes back to the basic existential questions of life--How did we get here? What do we do while we're here? Where do we go when we're dead? The point of life for me is rooted in the well-being of conscious creatures, the end. I don't need a higher power to tell me to treat people well, not murder, take care of myself, etc. I don't need a religion to give me purpose or something to do.
There is this irrational concern in Christians about the possible moral chaos without god that I believe stems not from any actual interaction with god or the supposed teachings of a particular faith, but rather from a distrust & disconnect from both the self & from humanity at large. You see it in the questions I've been asked over & over again when Christians find out I'm an atheist: "How do you know what your purpose in life is?" "Where do you get your "rules" from?" "What keeps you from raping & murdering?"
Just because existence is "random" or finite doesn't inherently mean it is purposeless, boundary-less. Even without a ruler, we are governed by ourselves, the moral intuitions & proven concepts of ethics & reason. Like Ricky Gervais's quote above implies, that very fleetingness injects existence with real meaning & urgency. One might see that as discomforting at first, but I think it's one of the most enlivening aspects of being here, no raping or murdering necessary.
This week is the one year mark of when my life changed in ways I'd long imagined but also long hoped I'd avoid--my insanity reached a point I could no longer deny, I spent a week in a psych ward, my wife left me, & I was diagnosed with bipolar I, all in the same week. Since then, I've tried to utilize art, loved ones, & projects to keep my league of selves grounded, my mind focused, & my body alive.
Unfortunately, I live my day-to-day life in constant fear of relapse & the life I have set up, originally intended for the previous iteration of self, often drains my general level of hope & enthusiasm for the future. I'm still overwhelmed by my struggles, still struggling to manage my illness. I'm still easily sent into mood episodes by the activities & people who are supposed to help me.
Right now, I'm stripping my life, my responsibilities, & my activities down to minimal requirements in this second year, honoring the privilege I have of doing so. Unfortunately, that includes halting this blog, a regular activity I can no longer maintain. Thank you so much for reading this past year, giving me some momentum when likely there would've been little.
I don't know what this next year will look like, but I need a different journey, one that better fits my capabilities & values. I'll be sure to update you when things are a little more solid. Until then, may you be warm, may you be happy.
It is pushing a year since the Great Convergence of 2020, that fateful two-week window last year where I had a complete mental breakdown, I was hospitalized for a week, my wife left me, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, & COVID came bearing down (oh & my septic tank--pun intended--went to shit). This past year has been all about getting stable--finding the proper medication, sifting through my past to gleam lessons about choices, environment, & symptom management, separating the grief of losing D from the cacophony of mental illness, developing a sustainable routine & support system. Standing here in the spring of 2021, I am proud of my current condition, feeling like my best self without the blur brain tripping me up regularly.
Part of this new step forward was supposed to be getting back to work, something I haven’t been able to do well in two years. In the past, lost in my misdiagnosis / undiagnosed mental illness, I was never able to fully concentrate on the job, or rather, the job became such a burden, having to mentally prepare so much that it caused major exhaustion & often the problems I was trying to avoid were self-fulfilling prophecies because of my condition. Within my safe, supported life, that condition is now well managed, complete with solid boundaries & a clearer, consistent perspective; thus, I went out searching for job-based purpose & fulfillment, carrying the weight of my previous failures with me.
In order to avoid disastrous guilt & shame, I must always remember I was sick & not properly taking care of myself. As a teacher, I often took jobs that demanded more hours & energy than I had then, requiring much structure & space outside of work to recuperate & deal with my disorder. In preparing for this new job, I thought a lot about what with wrong at my other jobs. At a ranch for adults with intellectual disabilities, where I taught day classes such as creative writing, public speaking, & golf cart driving, my focus was constantly pulled away from my students & the classes, & I was forced to deal with organizational dysfunction, ultimately outside of my control. This disruption brought down upon me much undeserved stress & responsibility.
Many of my other pitfalls in jobs have been because of a disconnect between my need to manage my disorder at the time & a heap of responsibility. I held it together for a solid year at this awesome preschool in Austin, as an assistant teacher; I really excelled at the hands-on teaching/learning approach. Again, however, when they promoted me to Director of Operations, the mess of managing the self & the weight of managing others was too heavy for me to carry. Same was true this past summer when I tried a couple jobs with local businesses--working on cars, waiting tables--my need to manage my disorder actively incompatible with learning new skills in a high-stress environment.
This time I was looking for a job that would utilize my skills, while also being flexible. Mostly, I am most cautious of not overextending myself. The best jobs I have ever had since the onset of my disorder’s symptoms were task-driven, active, & independent. Most recently, at a farm in Austin, I excelled in my job sorting, washing, & packing vegetables for restaurants & grocery stores, able to listen to podcasts/music, work at my own pace, & focus on completing my to-do list each shift. I think it is why I’ve always excelled working for myself--be it handyman stuff or writing/tutoring. The task is straight forward, keeps me focused, & is solely my responsibility.
About a month ago, I took a job with a non-profit here that supports adults with developmental disabilities, as a direct support professional in a group home; it seemed like a solid gig for me, nightly tasks--medication, dinner, activities--in a setting that is designed to be nurturing. During orientation & training, I saw a very organized & professional system with clear goals focused on caring for these vulnerable individuals. Unfortunately, in practice, that was not the case, as I witnessed several cases of abuse, both mental & physical, each day I was there in my first four shifts, which, obviously, was triggering.
After addressing these issues with the management / leadership team, I was told that it was taken care of & not to file reports with the authorities. On my fifth shift, I witnessed both other employees on my shift screaming at the individuals in our care, putting their hands on them, & making demands outside of their role as a support professional. I tried to remind the staff members of the individuals’ rights & better tactics for interacting with them, but I was also battling my own symptoms, namely impulse control.
That all came to ahead when the male staff member began teasing one individual with low verbal capabilities & she got so upset it seemed she was having a seizure. I tried to calmly-yet-sternly confront him, to explain how his behavior was inappropriate & actually abuse, but he wouldn’t listen. I knew I had to remove myself from the situation, heading to my car to call the team leader. Somehow, he got ahold of her before I could & told her lies about what had happened, all while trying to intimidate me, standing next to me at my vehicle. After he hung up with her, the team leader called me, immediately scolding me based on what he had told her & not hearing my side. I couldn’t take it anymore.
I felt the embarrassment of being misportrayed & the recollection of my previous blunders all come flooding in. My hands went numb, my eyes went blurry, & eventually I blacked out on the drive home, frothing with anger & disappointment. This is all to say, yet another attempt to work didn’t, well, work out. Instead, we’re back to the drawing board, hoping to find a small business idea & side hustles that will sustain my financial needs while still allowing the space & flexibility for me to take care of my mental illness & do the work, like this blog, that I find necessary on that journey. Till then, I’m putting my energy into a few treasured relationships, my writing, & my day-to-day conversations, remembering that love is the greatest work.