Reality Check – Part One and Two

A reality check for any of you that this might apply to – hold it until you are ready to deposit it, OK?

Early recovery is tough. I don’t know if you’ve experienced the “pink cloud” phenomenon that a lot of us do where it feels like everything is wonderful, with rainbows and unicorns and the euphoria that comes from not having thrown up on someone else for several consecutive 24 hours at a time; regardless of whether or not you ever did hit that phase, it is not real. Elements of it? Certainly – it is often in this initial euphoria that we make our first efforts to pray, and to thank God for what we are receiving – but make no mistake: this, too, shall pass.

Real recovery is learning how to cope with life on life’s terms; of having to do things you didn’t want to do in the first place not because you want to but because you need to in order to thrive and not just survive. It’s the going to meetings on a weekend when all your friends are going out getting buzzed up and your disease is talking trash to you (“What’s the point? I can’t do this anymore!”). It is paying the bills, not because you want to but because you used the service and want it to continue. Its being there when someone close to you loses a friend or a loved one to illness or accident, just because its the right thing to do. Its learning the difference between “like” and “love” and choosing to love people just like you who may treat you as badly as you once may have treated others, but today – just for today – you’re about changing the world one life at a time – yours. It is – for many of us – when we finally have to face the fact that God is neither Santa Claus (only shows up once a year to give gifts, then leaves) nor genie who grants our wishes. People die from this illness, yes – but they also die in other ways, in other places, from other causes – and sometimes these deaths or major illnesses are a part of the charge needed to destroy a faulty conception of God.

I got clean (and sober, but I repeat myself) when I was 28 – I never expected to live to see 30. I’m 60 now – and there have been some horribly, horribly rough spots in those years. The loss of a child. A business. Friends. A marriage. A serious suicide attempt – untreated depression just amplifies the insanity already there. Two full-blown heart attacks. The most recent challenge was cancer. I’m still here, still willing to help if you – or anyone else – wants the help. But it has to be your choice – life on life’s terms can be lonely, yes – but you do have a say in that. Remember that we’re powerless, not helpless.

OK, check’s all written. I hope you stick around and fight past the feelings and the thoughts that make you think that your friends – who are committing suicide on the time plan – are really having fun, when for you? The miracles are yet to really begin unfolding…

Most of the above was written in response to someone struggling to stay clean, and very recently at that. Part two is what’s going on here, at the same time I wrote the above, on this side of the screen.

Dont give upI’ve made no secret that there are days my cheese is not squared on the cracker on numerous occasions; first time visitors may want to read this post or this one for some background. There are days when depression[1] kicks into high gear; most of the time it is little more than a vapor, but occasionally it shifts form and hits with hurricane force for a while. I start noticing the return of a sense of feeling overwhelmed. Email messages from others – bloggers and friends as well as daily devotionals, ads and sales copy – fill my inbox, and though the machine may send out read receipts? I haven’t done more than click on the message to change the status. Next? Feeling overwhelmed with the nature of our life here[2] – the 24/7/365 responsibilities of being a caregiver and doing the work that is required – and the sadness creeps in a little more with the certain knowledge that there is no respite care available in our community. Even if there were some compassionate souls who could step in and do care for Dad for a week or so (that he would trust, who wouldn’t mind the increasingly more personal aspects of personal care, who could cook, and do the laundry, and the sundry other chores required to keep him at home)? We don’t get paid for doing this – there is no income to budget for a week away. No respite. The best we can accomplish is for one of us to get out of the house for an hour or so at a time – me to my meetings, her to a dinner with friends. We swap out which of us gets to go to church based on whether or not I’m playing. Why? Simply because he is at serious risk of falling with no warning.

Since – for me at least – the early stages of a return bout with depression tend to read (on the screen or the page) almost like a bout of self-pity, when I try to neatly pigeonhole the thoughts and the feelings, it gets difficult to sort through what is and is not a flare-up of my mental illness. As has been noted before, depressives tend to be far more realistic about what is going wrong with them – we often know the why quite well – but feel inadequate to do anything about it.[3]

I made the conscious choice years ago, in close consultation with a competent psychiatrist and my wife, to come off of anti-depressants so that I could once again experience a full range of emotions, not the abbreviated set that SSRI’s permit. [4] It has been, by and large, a choice for mental health over chemical well-being that is still important enough to me that I will not compromise the ability to cry when something is sad, or laugh side-splittingly when something is funny. If I cannot laugh with those who laugh, and weep with those who mourn, I am sacrificing a part of who I am and was meant to be by God. When I talk it out, or write it out? Funny enough – I get better. When I work with others? It takes my eyes off of me, and allows me to come back into the same battle, with the same circumstances, with a renewed sense of purpose. Of mission. Of gratitude.

Objective reality may not change, but my perspective on it does – which is why I am able to encourage others when I feel like I am failing, for failing I may be (someone else will have to determine that – I am too close to the subject), but today, through His grace? I am not a failure, nor will I be, so long as I don’t pick up – and that check you can take to the bank.

Image credit: Petite Magique

  1. [1] As noted, depression is merely one of my mental health diagnoses.
  2. [2] Compounding the recent injuries, Joy and I are both beginning to suffer problems with our right knees, and hers is getting serious enough to require surgery or replacement soon. The funny part is the guy with the COPD and the chronic pain is likely to soon be caregiver to two.
  3. [3] Depressed people tend to have more realistic wold views in general, which fact, when told to my wife (now a Ph.D. of Psychology), prompted her to respond “So, you want us to get them all on pills and deny their reality, is that correct?” That didn’t sit well with the instructor, but he could not argue with the logic or the current truth of the paradigm. For those concerned souls who are thinking “Just get back on your anti-depressants, and all will be well!”? The only thing that will accomplish is a temporary alleviation of my emotional state somewhat equivalent to laughing gas – the circumstances that I have described would still be there. There would still be no respite care, or income.
  4. [4] My choice is not, for most, one I would advise. There are moments that thoughts and feelings combine to form the thunderhead of despair, and briefly – be it ever so briefly – I think about throwing it all away. Those thoughts pass. If you are struggling with them now, call 1-800-273-8255.

Homecomings and Goings

Warren came home this past Tuesday – and, as the old joke goes, there’s good news and bad news.

Warren at homeFor him, it was simple – I’m ready to go home, so you and Joy fall in line and tell the doctor that you agree with me. For us, it was anything but simple – he had not been getting sufficient exercise since the transfer back to Luverne, and his muscles, weak already, had weakened considerably more. He had suffered a few more hallucinatory episodes since the hospitalization began which had not been discussed with either the doctor or the discharge planner. His balance and his spatial orientation had gone downhill as well. The physical and occupational therapists had already noted the items in their purview, and were going to recommend an additional week. We concurred in that assessment. After a couple of really bad days – he threatened to fire us and have his son replace us, only to have his bullying bluff called[1] by our countering with “You can’t fire us – we quit” – he realized that we were not only right but appropriate in our level of concern, and things went smoothly from there through his return home.

Visiting with the Suko FamilyThe day before Dad came home, I had a chance to connect with Caleb and Christina Suko and their children as they drove back to Washington and make the final preparations for returning to Ukraine. Even though they are Americans, “home”, when you are a missionary family, is a flexible concept, and they are more at home in Ukraine with their brothers and sisters in Christ there – where persecution of Christians is far more real – and faith a necessity in a war zone.

Caring for people is hard work; if you do it at all, you quickly find out that it is best done as a team effort because it is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. This is especially true for folks in recovery from either substance abuse or cancer and their caregivers – we have to rely on God, as we frequently misunderstand him, to give us the words, the thoughts, and the strength to do the work. I’m not referring simply to what we do here for Warren, but for what all of us do with the people we care for in life. Consider the following exchange between myself and a young mother and wife the other day. She started off pretty negative with this:

“3 Things to know in life – Never Beg Anyone, Never Trust No One, Never Expect Anything From Anybody”, to which I responded

“If you never trust anyone, you may prove yourself untrustworthy…
If you never let people know you have a need, they cannot offer what help they can…
If our expectations of people are unreasonable, how will we know it if we don’t find someone we trust to talk about it?”

Her comeback to that could easily have been taken as combative or angry:

“…I guess all these poisons and narcotics these doctors are pumping me full of to stop the pain and the progress of this cancer eating my insides leaving me with approximately 3 months of life left at 33 years old leaving a husband and 2 small children…So that’s making me just a little intolerant to NA, AA, CA, SA – and any other organization that utilizes the term Higher Power. Thanks though. You think this is anger talking don’t you? No, my friend… It must be the drugs.”

My reply:

“I’m an esophageal cancer survivor – going on five years in November, and I was down to months (Stage III, T-2) when I went to Mayo – and no, I don’t think it is anger or drugs. While I was going through the heavy-duty stuff, I told the docs to give me whatever pain medications they felt I needed, and if I needed to be detoxed later, so be it. Just letting you know that I care as a person. I lost my mom to the same kind of cancer I had when I was twenty-six, and my brother to lung cancer about 14 years ago now. My family and I are no stranger to this kind of pain.”

Still talking – this exchange took place over the course of a day – she sends this:

“This situation is taking me to some pretty dark places…Places I don’t wanna know anything about. You and I have spoke before…I remember. But whether I get through this or it kills me… A happier, more positive person has died… And I don’t know how to resurrect her. Just gotta embrace the horror.”

At this point, as I sit and read this, my shoulders slump and I bury my face in my hands. Joy walks by and asks me what’s wrong, and I have her read the exchange, and after we talk a bit more, I send this on:

“I just pulled up our message thread and saw that I did already give you my contact information; my wife came in here and read this thread over my shoulder. When I told her I wasn’t sure what else I could say to offer you hope or encouragement, she reminded me of a fellow at a church we used to attend. One day, I heard that he had been diagnosed with the same kind of cancer that I had, but it was at Stage I, which is normally easily treated. They had just completed adopting a couple of kids, as their own were grown and mostly gone – a neat and loving couple.

They elected to have the cancer treated locally (we are a four hour drive from the top treatment place for this kind of cancer); the surgeon – to put it politely – screwed up badly, the actual diagnosis should have been Stage III going into IV. He died just over a year ago, leaving his widow and the grown daughter to raise two kids. This was a family with more than a little faith in God, and a faith that never wavered even knowing that things had gone horribly, horribly wrong and nothing anyone could say or do could change that outcome.

Why do I tell you this story, when I want so much to encourage you? Maybe in part because I know every story doesn’t have a happy ending, and maybe in part because God as I frequently misunderstand Him doesn’t want me to blow smoke up your butt the way so many people in the church – or those in the rooms – would have us do.

For however much time you have – whether cancer takes you or a bus hits you – be there for your family and loved ones. Neither of us are promised tomorrow; if you are here tomorrow then find a reason to hang on through tomorrow. If resurrection is needed, let’s talk, you and I.”

I held my breath for a long time. Finally this reply came:

“You are making it extremely difficult for me to just say ”f@!K it!” When I pull myself together, I will PM you and speak to you like a rational person. Thank you and thank your wife for keeping at it.”

We’re still talking – no matter whether you are coming home or going home, know that God is there already – whether you understand or agree (or even believe some days), and may he bless your coming in and going out as He has done by placing people like you in my life.

  1. [1] Where we live? There is no one who could or would do the things we do at the wage that would have been offered, and the level of care he gets at home is equal to or better than he would get in a nursing home. He trusts us, and really knows we want his best, not for our own sake but for his.