Philosophies & Experiences (1-4)


       I have collected so much research on ways to improve mental health that it is hard for me to contain my excitement. I want to get the information out in an easily digestible way, as quickly as possible. Before I forge ahead, however, it is time to cover the WHY of my efforts and actions.

       I have been encouraged by those closest to me to write this post for quite some time now. They’ve pointed out that I haven’t written enough about, what they see as, two of the most powerful things I do for my mental health. I always strive to have fun and not to take myself too seriously. Before anyone feels the need to inform me how serious mental illnesses are, please realize that I understand. I have been to more funerals of people who have lost their battle with mental illnesses than I care to remember (I don’t like the phrase “committed suicide.” It makes their loss sound criminal). One of the reasons I do my best to keep things light is because mental illnesses are inherently serious.  If I allow myself to get overwhelmed with the seriousness of my situation, then I can lose sight of my goal in life, which is to enjoy it.

       I work extremely hard to find solutions and incorporate them into my life. The reason is simple. I want to live life to the fullest while having fun. Hunter S. Thomson summed up my philosophy nicely when he wrote, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming 'Wow! What a Ride!'” To do that, I have to put my mental health first, yes, but the reason is so that I can truly live, and not just survive.
       Ultimately, I dig through all these studies and research so that I can have a good time. I pride myself on having fun. I’m loud and flamboyant. I go out of my way to make even the most mundane things in life joyful. I like who I am. Some people don’t. That’s okay. Often, before I meet new people my friends and family give them a warning about me. The warning usually consists of them telling the person that I’m crazy but absolutely loveable--cue GASP! Yes, I am okay with people calling me crazy. What do I care? By society’s standards, I certainly am. I decided long ago to live in defiance of stigmas. Besides, when they describe me as crazy, they do so lovingly. Most people actually enjoy the fact that I’m abnormal, and that I embrace it. I love the way Bernard M. Baruch put it, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.” It is probably obvious with a self-ascribed name like The Mental Runner that I'm okay with good-natured ribbing. In short, I like who I am. I’m not going to start apologizing for being me. 


       I am well aware of the strange looks I get when I talk about this. It seems that many feel that I should be upset, downtrodden, or, at the very least, want a different life. I don’t. A suicide attempt, rehabs, mental wards and tragic mistakes have made me who I am. I wouldn’t wish these things on anyone, but I wouldn’t change them in my life if I could. I love who I have become and what I do. I couldn’t have accomplished any of it without the struggle. I don’t want an easier life. I want to continue to find ways to enjoy my life.


       Surely I want an easier life for my wife and daughters, right? No. We have a blast, and they wouldn’t have me any other way. When I experience symptoms, they know what is happening. We like to joke about it. They have been known to come and drag me out of bed when I have been overcome with symptoms. Besides, my wife was a finalist for teacher of the state last year, and both my kids have made straight A's their entire lives while being in advanced classes. They're doing just fine. We are all stronger, more compassionate and determined because of what we have been through. I wouldn’t want to take that away from any of us.

       Keeping things light, and having fun, has been instrumental in us being able to achieve these things. A good example of how I have decided to keep things light, and how I view my life, is the way I have come to view the sleeve of artwork I had tattooed up my right arm. I had the work done during a psychotic break that lasted for three weeks. In the beginning, I was somehow able to function in a coherent enough manner that people didn’t realize what was happening, and so they weren't terribly concerned. I'm told that, at first, I was acting very strange but not completely out of it. I don't know how. I can't remember anything but little green men dancing around me and flying through the cosmos.  Before anyone realized that I had truly lost touch with reality, I went and had a thousand dollars worth of artwork tattooed from my wrist to my elbow. Apparently, I came home and announced to everyone that I had needed a little extra beauty in my life. Every time I look at my arm, I could be terrorized by thinking of a time when I was unable to keep it together. I choose, instead, to see it as a victory stamp. I pulled through. I got out of another mental ward. I triumphed, and I have the scars to prove it! I love to tell that story. It makes me laugh. What sober human being gets tattoos all up his arm, announces it was done because he needed a little more beauty in his life and then doesn't remember it? Me. That's hilarious. It is true that what I look at is of small consequence compared to what I decide to see. It isn't a permanent mark of defeat; it is a permanent mark of victory.

       My attitude towards life and my insistence on having fun may seem absurd but think of the alternatives. Lying around feeling sorry for myself, looking for someone to blame, living in constant fear or being morose is not my style. I decided to play with my weaknesses; it takes away their power over me. I'll take my mental health seriously, so I don’t have to take the rest of my life seriously.

       The way I do that is by giving my best effort each day. That’s all I can ask of myself. Once I’ve done everything I can, then the pressure is off. If I can truly say I did my best, then the results are irrelevant, because I can only control my actions. I cannot control outcomes. Realizing that simple truth has allowed me to poke fun at myself and be silly. Why not? If I hadn't learned to laugh at myself, I would be in real trouble. My life is often absurd, so I will be too. Making myself, and others, laugh is powerful medicine. No one is making it out of this alive. So, I decided I might as well lighten up and enjoy myself.

video

(My daughters are always trying to capture my silliness on their phones without me knowing it. Here are a few seconds of one that my eldest took before I realized what was happening. She insisted that I put it in this post. Here it is, my dear.)
       
       I realize that I’m not quite right in the head. I'm okay with that, and so are the people I love. We enjoy each other for who we are. Speaking of which, if you ever see me at a race with a superhero shirt on, a partial mohawk that I decided to dye blue for the day and my multicolored piercings in, I hope you come and introduce yourself. I bet we’ll have some laughs and be friends before you know it.


       After reading this, it will probably come as no shock that the following clip of Maya Angelou quickly talking about, and then reciting her poem Still I Rise is my most viewed video on YouTube. It moves me, inspires me and gives me courage. I hope that it helps others as much as it helps me.



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       As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
Feel free to send your questions or comments to:
questions@thementalrunner.org

       I have discussed how much my life has improved and how much my symptoms have diminished, but that so far no cure has been found many times. However, I have never dedicated an entire post to it. The stigma is so harsh for people with mental illnesses that, as a group, we are easy targets for ridicule and for con artists who would like to swindle us. 

       I get emails, tweets, messages on my Facebook page, DM on Instagram, comments through Google+, etc., from people explaining that if I would only try a certain technique, or buy their device or Ebook that I would be cured. I've learned to laugh at most of them. Some of them really are hilarious. 

       Other times, some well-intentioned, but uniformed, people send me messages telling me that I am simply not exercising correctly, eating the right vegetables, meditating in the right fashion or that I haven't read the right book on how to be positive. Otherwise, I would surely be cured by now. 

       I hope by my posts on the many different things that I do and have tried, to lessen my symptoms that it is obvious I am an openminded person. I throw everything I can at my illnesses to feel better. If there is good science to back up a technique, then I am going to try it. Because of that, I have made fantastic progress. That does not mean that I am going to listen to every Tom, Dick and Jane, who tell me that they cured their depression, anxiety or manic episodes by reading, eating, taking or doing XYZ. Just like with an illness such as cancer, mental illnesses have many different causes (most of which are not yet understood), different types and many different stages. Not to mention that there are varying degrees of severity. 

       So, when anyone starts talking about cures, belittling others' efforts or dismissing mental illnesses as simply some sort of bad philosophy of life, I get highly suspicious. This excerpt is from the Does "It" Work post:

Finally, I wonder if what people are actually asking, when they ask if "It" really works is, will "It" cure me? The reason I do the things that I do is not because I believe they will cure me, but so that I can experience fewer symptoms from my illnesses. Fewer symptoms means I struggle less and enjoy life more. I have stopped trying to find cures. 

Often, other people believe that I should be "better/cured" by now. I have learned to simply smile and walk away when a well meaning, but untrained, person tells me that I should read The Power of Positive Thinking (or whatever hot new book is out on the topic), try talking to a therapist, or go to support groups. The implication, more often than not, is that I haven't done something correctly, or I would be better by now. I have read stacks of books on the subject, spent interminable hours with licensed therapists, and been in more support groups than I care to remember. Those things have helped in immeasurable ways. However, nothing can change the fact that my brain chemistry differs from that of an average person. 

If you feel like you are, in someway, a failure when people try to "help" you, because the implication is that you aren't doing something correctly, then know that you are not alone. Finding so many facts like this one (from reputable scientists and doctors, not from gurus, self-help experts or new age philosophers), has helped me to accept my illnesses as part of who I am:

"Medical research has found that people who suffer from clinical depression have changes in important brain chemicals, such as serotonin and norepinephrine. New medications are available that help restore these brain chemicals to their proper balance and relieve symptoms of clinical depression...At this time, most mental illnesses cannot be cured, but they can usually be treated effectively to minimize the symptoms and allow the individual to function in work, school, or social environments" 
(National Institutes of Health (US); Biological Sciences Curriculum Study Bethesda (MD); 2007). 

The part that brings me the most peace is, "At this time, most mental illnesses cannot be cured, but they can usually be treated effectively to minimize the symptoms..." I have struggled since I was a kid to try and fix what was "wrong" with me. Now, I accept my conditions and move on. I play the hand I have been dealt to the best of my ability. That is what I strive for, to live the best life possible. 

I have learned to stop letting people make me feel bad about who I am. No one gets angry when cancer patients don't experience complete remissions from their illness. No one tells them that if they only adopted a new philosophy all would be well. Why is it acceptable to treat people with mental illnesses in such a way? It isn't. 

In summation, science has proven that eating healthy foods, consistently exercising, engaging in wellness activities and taking medications (as prescribed) works incredibly well at treating the symptoms of mental illnesses. Do they cure? No. That's why I keep doing them, not because I believe they will cure me, but because they have worked so well at bringing me hope and making my life worth living again. That is my message. That is what I have found by doing these things, Hope! 

       One other post that goes into detail about this topic is Starting Over With Mental Illnesses. I hope it helps.

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       As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people. 
Feel free to send your questions or comments to:

       I have started over more times than I can remember. Mostly because of the stigma associated with mental illnesses, the people I have talked to have said that when they slide back into a depressed, anxious or manic state, they feel like it is some sort of personal failure. I don't see it that way at all. I don't see it as a weakness. I don't even see it as a negative anymore. It is simply part of who I am and part of the process. 

       In the past, starting over has been described differently and called different things, depending on who I was talking to. A therapist I saw once called it relapsing back into negative thought patterns. Two psychiatrists said basically the same thing, that my body had built up an immunity to the medications, and they needed to be changed. Emergency room physicians have said that I had crossed into a dangerous manic episode before admitting me into their hospital's mental ward. 

       Again, relapsing into depression, anxiety or mania has just been part of the process for me. I had to make peace with it. Sometimes, even when I did everything right, my brain chemistry still took a turn for the worse. That's okay. Other times, when I looked back on it, I realized that it may have been possible for me to have done a few things better. I want to put the odds in my favor as much as possible. That's why I have a plan of action now. 

       A doctor gave me a relapse warning sheet, so that as soon as I think I may be headed downhill, I can start checking it off to see where I am at. I designed it in a Jpeg format and put it below, in case anyone wants to click on it to print it off. That helped me immensely because it is so easy for me to lose perspective and not realize what is happening until it is too late. Now, when I use that sheet and realize something is wrong, I put my plan into action. I immediately call my doctor and seek her advice. Then, I review a list that I made of positive actions I can take. 

       For some, taking time to do things that bring them joy is very important, but for me it is vital. If I don’t take time out for myself, I can get into dangerous territory quickly. When I’m not feeling well, it’s easy to cut back on these activities. I wrote down a list of things that help me when I start to feel overwhelmed or notice warning signs. Some examples on my list are:
  • Exercise
  • Setting aside time for extra sleep
  • Talking with a friend
  • Spending time in nature
  • Writing in a journal
  • Spending time on my hobby
  • Helping someone else (volunteering)
  • Watching a funny movie
  • Cutting back on non-essential responsibilities

       I also have a list of things that have a negative impact and that I avoid until I feel better. For example:

  • Staying out late
  • Taking on extra responsibilities
  • Spending time with people who aren’t supportive
  • Overanalyzing why I feel bad
  • Watching depressing movies

       I keep this list, and the Mental Illness Relapse Warning Signs sheet, in a place where I see them often. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or unwell, I pick them up and get to work. I call my doctor. I pick a helpful activity from my list and set aside time to do it. I also make sure to stay away from anything on my list of activities to avoid. 

       Finally, in case of emergency, I have a crisis plan filled out. The same doctor that gave me the Warning Signs sheet gave me this one. I have put it below in Jpeg format in case anyone wants to click on it to print it off. Having a crisis plan brings me additional peace of mind because I know, even if everything does go wrong, I still have a plan. 

       Exercise, eating healthy foods, a warning signs checklist, a helpful and nonhelpful activities list and a crisis plan are a must for me. Having a plan of action has brought me an enormous amount of peace of mind. 
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       As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes with eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people. 
Feel free to send your questions or comments to:
       
       In the twenty-two years since I was diagnosed, I have seen many trends come and go in the world of mental illnesses. I have learned a great deal from each one by finding what did, and did not, work for me. There is a trend that seems to be gaining more traction right now, that I found absolutely did not work for me. That trend is to justify resignation by calling it acceptance.  Some people are being told to accept their fate, and even identify themselves by their illness. There are several mental illness writers, gurus, and a few doctors that are telling people to label themselves as a bipolar, a depressed or an anxious person. I certainly have bipolar disorder. I do have a highly sensitive adrenal gland, and yes, sometimes I am depressed. Those things do not define who I am, though. They are only a small part of me. I am so much more than a simple diagnosis. I am not bipolar. I am not anxious. I am not a depressed person. The same way a cancer patient isn’t cancer. I am here to set identifying oneself as a label aside and to promote individuality, mental health and having tenacity of purpose.

Acceptance of my diagnoses was crucial for my well-being. There was a time when I was angry that I wasn’t “normal”. That was not a productive mindset. It led to me resenting myself and exacerbating my symptoms. I had to make peace with the fact that my brain chemistry differs from an average person’s brain, and that I have a highly sensitive adrenal gland. Those are the facts of my life, and I accept them now. I have actually learned to appreciate many aspects of my illnesses. I’ve found an enormous amount of strength and compassion that I would have never been able to tap into, had I not had to go through the things that I have gone through.

My acceptance of my conditions is where my acceptance ends. After my fourth visit to a mental ward, a doctor almost had me convinced to throw in the towel and accept that my fate was to try and survive while minimizing the damage caused by my symptoms. I have to admit that the idea was seductive. Crawling back home and trying to learn more ways to better manage symptoms, while popping ridiculous amounts of pharmaceuticals, seemed like the best I could hope for. Giving up, waving my white flag and admitting defeat were actually welcome prospects. How dark it is before the dawn.

       Thankfully, a dear friend pointed out that this new philosophy “smacks of defeatism.” I have never been a quitter. That is not who I am as a person. When I read her words, I was shaken from my daze. I realized what was happening. I wasn’t accepting my situation; I was giving up! The sweetest anger I have ever known flooded my mind. I was furious with this version of acceptance/resignation that I had been sold. I decided instantly that, no matter what happened, I was not going to give up or give in. I refused, right then and there, to live in the shadows of my illnesses. I would not be a victim and decided instead to strive to be a victor.  For the first time, I truly understood what Dr. Wayne Dyer meant when he wrote, “There’s nothing wrong with anger provided you use it constructively.” That anger gave me the motivation I needed to focus on improving my mental health, instead of trying to manage symptoms. My efforts would be used to get better, not to get by. After all, I figured if I was going to fail, I might as well fail while daring for greatness. That has made all the difference!

I had researched, and consequently tried, many different things in the past to reduce symptoms, but I had never thought to make a plan using them all at the same time to create a synergistic effect. I got out my research and a notebook. I began to write down strategies for a wellness plan, not a symptom management plan. I wrote down everything I could think of, and then I began reassessing my priorities. One of the first things on my list was to seek out the counsel of a new doctor who would help me on my quest for mental health. There would be no more resigning myself to the belief that the best I could do was find ways to work through symptoms and survive. I wanted to thrive.

To do that I realized I couldn’t go on fighting through symptoms. I had to start striving for mental health. This may seem like a subtle difference, but that change of focus revolutionized my outlook on life. Now, even when I use anger towards depression, mania or anxiety symptoms to motivate myself into action, I’m not angry with myself. I can do that because those symptoms are not who I am as a person. They are nothing more than symptoms of my illnesses. I’ve never heard anyone say I am cancer. No one tells those patients to identify themselves as their illness, accept their fate, simply take their medicine and try to learn to get by. Why should people with mental illnesses be told to do so?

I understand that people like shortcuts and “life-hacks” today. Selling books and programs teaching tricks to function with symptoms is much easier than selling books and programs on hard work and tenacity. There is absolutely nothing wrong with selling tricks on how to better deal with symptoms. The problem lies in the fact that, to sell them, some are teaching their readers/participants that they are doomed to suffer harsh symptoms and setbacks for the rest of their lives. The logic put forth is that it is important for people to buy their books/programs, because in doing so the reader/participant will be better prepared for a never-ending storm. I write today in defiance of that philosophy. 

It is true that there is no cure, yet. Symptoms can creep up, but the amount of time they are experienced, and their severity, can be greatly reduced. Yes, I have an emergency plan. I know what I am going to do if symptoms were to start overwhelming me again. I do believe in being prudent. Once that is done, however, the question becomes, what am I going to do so that hopefully I won’t have to use that emergency plan? I’m certainly not alone in this way of thinking. The National Institutes of Health’s curriculum1 on mental illness states, “At this time, most mental illnesses cannot be cured, but they can usually be treated effectively to minimize the symptoms and allow the individual to function in work, school, or social environments.” They didn’t say batten down the hatches and find ways to fight through it. They state outright that mental illnesses can usually be “treated effectively to minimize symptoms…” Knowing that helped reinforce my decision to focus nearly all of my attention on achieving better mental health to treat symptoms, not on learning endless ways to cope with them.

       What that means is, I take small positive actions every day that improve my mental health, minimize symptoms and allow me to live a wonderful life. I don’t do anything fancy. I use the research I gathered to ensure I eat healthier foods, exercise, fit in as many wellness activities as possible and take my medication. It works. There is hope! Do I still have bipolar disorder and anxiety? Yes. Do I still experience symptoms? Yes, but they are milder and leave much more quickly than they did in the past. When I focused on ways to battle my symptoms, I was destined to be a hopeless victim of my circumstances. Now, I focus my energy on attaining mental health and getting on with my life.

Even I have been shocked by the results. I am now a mental health warrior. I’ve lost over ninety pounds that I gained during my last episode. I am breaking personal records in races and recently had my first top ten finish. I’m training for a marathon again. I’m healthy. I’m content, and my wife and daughters are overjoyed. That doesn’t mean that I feel I’m immune to my imbalanced brain chemistry. What it means is that I play a large role in the quality of my life again, and no matter what, I can always find some way improve my situation. I am no longer helpless and hopeless.

       I sometimes wonder where I would be if I had listened to that doctor and those mental illness writers/gurus who tell people to accept their fate, identify as their illness and simply try to limit the damage. I would undoubtedly still be spending my days trying to work through symptoms and figuring out how to survive. Instead, I’m learning how to thrive. That is why I only write about the absolute essentials for working through mental illness symptoms. I focus my writing the same way I focus my life, on working towards mental health. And I’ve just scratched the surface. There is an enormous amount of research and data out there that can help. If a trembling wreck of a person can stumble out of his fourth mental ward and revolutionize his experience of life like I did by using it, then I have a great deal of hope that many others can do the same.

I am not a special case. I experience self-doubt and fear the same as everyone else. Things are so much better now that sometimes I worry this may all be a dream. Perhaps it is inevitable then that, occasionally, old demons whisper in my ear, “What if you lose it again?” So, what if I do? I only fail if I quit trying. I have experienced more joy, contentment and bliss since I started this course of action than I have at any other point in my life. I’ve already won, no matter what happens. If I were to have another major episode next week and end up back in another mental ward, I can promise you this, I would come out and start back right where I left off. My life isn’t perfect, but it is far better than if I were to sit back accepting that bad times are inevitable and that I’m doomed to a life of finding ways to work through symptoms. 


If doubt and fear start to take hold of me, I pull out the following quote. I take it with me everywhere I go. It is my comfort blanket, and it reminds me to stay true to who I am and what I am doing.


It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.   -Theodore Roosevelt
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       As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people. 
Feel free to send your questions or comments to:
questions@thementalrunner.org