Sunday, January 08, 2017

Quote of the Week

Experience is a good teacher, but she sends in terrific bills.-Minna Antrim

Saturday, January 07, 2017

An Alternate View of Being Born Again

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him."

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God." "What do you mean?" exclaimed Nicodemus. "How can an old man go back into his mother's womb and be born again? Jesus replied, "I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.- John 3:1-5


When I was in elementary school, I rode the bus to and from school. The driver was a kindly man named Brother Pete who was a lay minister at a local church. He talked regularly about the sinful life he had lived before he was born-again. I admit I didn’t really understand the concept, aside from the fact that it was a religious one different with my own. The way I felt was not judgmental, though I neglected to pick up the leaflets of religious literature always stationed at the front of the bus, or the free bumper stickers that warned me to not be caught dead without Jesus. The Methodist Jesus I knew in my childhood never pushed the idea that being saved before the end of life was of paramount importance.

As I grew into a typically questioning teenager, I began to be skeptical of the idea of being born again. It seemed too easy, too neat. One could make the initial step, but to be human is to backslide, to sin, to err. How could I know that being born again could really take, that it could be a transformative event that would revolutionize a person’s life from then going forward? I knew my own hypocrisies, my own shortcomings that routinely proved me to be a hypocrite. I made vows to change, adhered to them for a while, and then always broke the promises I’d made to God and to myself.

A story is told of the influential Protestant theologian Martin Luther. Luther would spend hours praying at a church, be satisfied with his work, and make plans to leave and accomplish other matters. Then he would have a sinful thought, and furious with himself, return to the church to pray for hours more. Luther held himself to a high standard, as he did the Roman Catholic Church, as our history teaches us.

I’ve written numerous times about my struggles with mental illness. I’ve also written numerous times about my Quaker faith. For the sake of a non-Quaker audience, allow me to share the story of our founder, George Fox. It is postulated that Fox suffered from bipolar disorder, and it is almost certain that he experienced debilitating periods of self-doubt and depression. Early in his ministry, in 17th Century England, Fox wandered the countryside in search of peace of mind. He found no shortage of advice and people who gave him explicit instructions of things to do to provide resolution to his internal crisis.

Like George Fox, I have wandered from person to person, place to place, seeking guidance and a lasting cure to that which has been troubling me deeply. Once, in my twenties, I visited an Episcopal church for a time, thinking that surely there would be the answers and the peace that I craved. On Sunday morning, during the service, a man about my age went out of the way to show me how to sing the hymns, to say the prayers, to know what to do and when to do it. But even entertaining the prospect of being a devout Episcopalian was not enough for me.

The order of service noted that special blessings were provided to those who requested them in special circumstances. I made my inquiries, and was directed to a smaller worship room adjacent to the larger worship space. As I waited eagerly, a priest arrived to greet me, who I recall was a blonde haired Australian woman. She asked me my reason for the blessing, and though I wanted to blurt out everything, I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t answer. She didn’t press me long.

I remember how she smiled at me and asked me to kneel in front of me. She opened a small circular metal container full of a clear, greasy, waxy oil. In accordance with my wishes, she intoned a blessing and with a thumb made the sign of the cross on the center of my forehead. For the moment, I felt greatly relieved. Surely this act would accomplish its purpose. I admit I did not wash the oil from my body for days afterwards, intending to extend the power and potency of this ritual as long as possible.

When I have resurfaced from a depressive or manic episode, I have come to associate the experience with being born again. And in so doing, I pray for a fresh start, a new lease on life. Manic episodes have been destructive to myself and others, leaving me with substantial guilt, a guilt I have hoped to cast upwards to God. Born again doesn’t have to mean a conservative Christianity obsessed with having every soul avoid a life spent in hellfire and brimstone. And for those of us who don’t have chronic illnesses like I do, born again might mean a recommitment to live a good life, a Godly life, a time spent on Earth working for the betterment of our fellow person, as we interpret it.

As for me, I believe in Heaven. To some, Heaven is a sweet notion of a place where we can rid ourselves of our human limitations and the basic pettiness of life as flawed creatures. And I understand why some are skeptical, why some believe that this life is all we have, after which we die and cease to live. But I have seen the heavenly parts of other people, the best case scenarios of interpersonal conduct, and I don’t think of basic nature is corrupt and evil. We can be easily knocked off course and misdirected in unhelpful ways, but this to me is not proof that no goodness exists in humanity. Together we are working to perfect ourselves as a people and as a civilization, even when we backtrack or go sideways.

One of my favorite poems is “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. It summarizes the human condition, the back and forth between pain and pleasure, joy and pain. But the message within it is a positive one. Keep hope. Keep moving forward. Fight the good fight with all your might. There are challenges ahead of us but we have a duty to ourselves and to everyone else to fight for what is right, what is fair, and what is just.

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time

I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now—
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

Saturday Video

Lookin' back on my life
You know that all I see
Are things I could've changed
I should have done

Where did the good times go?
Good times so hard to hold
This time this time
This time I'm gonna find

Lookin' back on my life
You know that all I see
Are things I could've changed
I could have done
No time for sad lament
A wasted life is bitter spent

So rise into the light
In or out of time
Gonna rise straight through the light
In or out of time

Woke up one other day
The pain won't go away
I am growing
In peculiar ways
Into a light I pass

Another dream, another trance
This time, this time
This time I'm gonna rise into the light
In or out of time

Gonna find my way in life
In or out of sight
I'm still seeing things in black and white
Gonna rise straight into the light
In or out of sight

I'm gonna see the light
I'm gonna see the light
I'm gonna see the light

'Cause I know there is time
There is time
There is time
There is time
There is time
There is time
There is time
There is time

This time, this time
This time, this time
This time, this time
This time, this time

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Please Please Don't Go

I'm not going to write about everything in my life. Though I have more than ample reserves to pull from, this blog is too public a forum for that. Much to my disappointment, my new therapist called in sick today, begging off to reschedule for tomorrow. I have in my mind how I'll introduce the information I intend to convey tomorrow. It's a sad story of cause-and-effect, and I think would be true for anyone who had been forced into a sexual environment at far too young an age. The problem is that the problems created don't wholly go into remission.

About six years ago I decided to confront childhood trauma through a specialized form of therapy. It is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (or EMDR, for short.) I was quite enthusiastic about it, even saving up money for the expensive sessions, which were $150 a piece. Insurance did not cover them even a penny. In theory, this method would finally allow me to move past the pain of the past. What it ended up doing is heavily destabilizing me on a strong emotional and psychological level.

At the time, I was trying to organize a Young Adult Quaker group and I regularly took e-mail addresses of interested parties. Unfortunately, the traumatized part of me later reached out to complete strangers with intense pleas for help and assistance. After collecting their contact information during the day, a dark night would eventually come and I would feel a compulsion to reach out. I'd e-mail someone like this. Help me! Help me! I'm in so much pain. Can you do something?

I know it's odd to receive an e-mail like this from someone you barely know. And I received a variety of responses. Some people were cold as fish or shocked and pushed me away immediately. (A few of them wrote for a prominent online Femininst publication) Some felt that I was creepy and spread word along similar lines. Some were afraid. But these do not comprise every response. I'm thankful for the people who weren't scared off. I'm grateful for those who knew that I wasn't well and directed me and healthy solutions. That is really all we can do when we find others who we know are in suffering and pain. If we can, we should give them avenues to help heal themselves. And, of course, in my situation, a basic understanding of the forms mental illness takes would have been of fantastic value to anyone reaching out and certainly those seeking to judge me.

Several people became afraid of me. I was in the middle of the chaos and unable to articulate what was really going on to anyone else. It wasn't until sessions ended months later and my head cleared that I made sense of what had happened. I had no knowledge of what happened and have only been able to piece back what transpired through old e-mail records. To this day, some people think I'm a harasser of other people because they didn't understand (and still don't) know to deal with a person in severe crisis. Would it have been too much to ask for people to not automatically jump to the worst case scenario? All is not what it seems to be here.

Don't get me wrong. The world that young women, in particular, face is difficult enough. The vulnerability they display to the world does not guarantee safety. But rather than seeing everything automatically as a threat, I'd prefer we not scare the hell out of women in every circumstance to secure their safety. I wasn't anything to be anxious or worried about it. I was just a really sick man, one about their age, who just wasn't well enough to state his needs sufficiently and get the medical help he needed. And for that, I suffered and was labeled some terrible things by people who didn't bother to understand the situation enough before they rushed to judgment.

Back to what I was talking about before, the issues with boundaries and crisis have roots that begin very soon in life. I'll begin at the beginning tomorrow afternoon. I'm trying yet again to be more comfortable around men. Because men abused me, my trust and comfort level with them is not very high. This then places me around women, who have a tendency to not understand a physically large man and his emotional struggles.

Nothing makes me guiltier than to have scared and frightened women who feared for the worst with me. If only I could have let them know that their concerns were baseless, and that I am always more a harm to myself than to anyone else. I hate that other men have led validity to fears like these. I can be an advocate and an ally speaking against this sort of objectionable behavior. But the lesson here is that we can paint with too broad a brush here in seeking to specify what means "dangerous".

I fume with anger at the serial abuser, because I have known them within my own family and I know how real their violence and rage are. Those are not my stories to tell, but I have known them, and experienced them in the faces of family members I loved. One of my sisters speaks out openly at her abusive ex-husband and I'm proud of her for being vocal about domestic abuse. Things are not nearly as cut-and-dried as some might want to believe.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Great Existential Post

The bitterness of the past Presidential election and Trump victory have knocked me off my moorings. It's not this big existential liberal dilemma as much as it is a lack of writing material and a great unknown facing me. I don't want to write a hit piece on Trump every day, even though there will be great opportunities for righteous indignation arriving on the scene soon. Part of it is that I'm not physically and mentally sound at the moment.

About every three or four years I switch therapists. It's nothing personal against my past provider. I've observed what her limitations are and have decided to try again, seeking a new skill set and range of possibilities. She's the first true PhD psychologist I have seen in probably ten years, having relied usually on LCSWs, even those with tons of experience and multiple degrees. The true PhDs can be pricier and more exclusive, or not take insurance at all. This time around I probably sent out ten inquiries to prospective therapists and got two prospective leads. This one seemed to be the best fit.

The new therapist appears to be in her mid-fifties, a native both of the South and New England, with a personality that is quirky and a little introverted. She specializes in adult ADD, which is a condition that I fortunately don't have. During our first interview in the get-to-know-you period, she mentioned she had a snake-handling (her words, not mine) part to her personality and personal spirituality. I'm curious to know more what that means. Apparently her husband was once a Methodist minister. As a person of faith, I find that a comforting notion, meaning she can understand the importance I assign to that part of my life. I was raised a Methodist, so I'm familiar with that language and liturgy.  

The past therapist was kindly but could be a little emotionally distant at times. Being married to a Briton might have been part of it, but though always kind she did not always encourage easy introspection. I found her personality getting in my way from time to time. I was never fully comfortable with her for the whole of our time together, which I thought I would get over eventually. She could be hand's off to a fault with judgment and when I expected more involved engagement, which is not to say that she is not proficient at the craft, but that I probably outgrew her. Some personalities mesh more effectively with others. I'd love to find a perfect meeting of the minds that lasts for years and years, but I've never found it yet. Some people keep their same therapist for decades, but it's never worked like that for me.

In short, I'm depressed again. The last 34 sessions of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation were effective, but not enough. I meet tomorrow evening with a doctor to get another 36 on the way. I've been able to manage with a fraction of the antidepressant medication of I had to take before. That is a significant improvement. I don't have the scary dipping lows that I used to experience. The doctor is going to have to be emphatic to the insurance company of why I need a second round to get it to cover the new sessions. It will require a lot of jargon and finagling on his part, but soon I'll start my schedule of regular weekly travels again. If the first round worked so well, I'm optimistic that the second will be as successful.

Each session costs $300-$400. I'm fortunate that I live in a region of the country where the machines are available and insurance plans cover the treatment. This same method has been proposed as an effective treatment for my mother's condition, but as a condition of getting started, the one provider with a machine demanded $7000 up front, which isn't affordable. It makes me mad, but there's nothing I can do about it. These are the benefits of living on the East Coast.

As I return to how I started out, I remember the therapists who have treated me over the years. My favorite was a middle-aged Canadian woman who I used to burn CDs for, back in the days that we did such things for each other. I was alone on my own in a big city, a very bad relationship just concluded. No one ever took the time to get to know me as much as she did, or maybe it wasn't as difficult for her. When I had been recently treated so cruelly it would have been impossible to not love someone who provided a steady diet of positive reinforcement and effective guidance.

I wrote the last time about my partner's grieving process. That continues at a pace that I cannot control, even if I might want. She zones out in front of the television or breaks into quiet moments and I try to give her the space she needs. This is a new thing for me as it is for both of us, but at least we only have to go through this one time. I'm hoping it will be several years before her father passes away. I was ready to be at her side through the passing away of parents, but anticipated it well into my later adulthood. None of us knows the time or place, as the saying goes.

I'm going to conclude for now. Writing has been difficult recently, for a variety of reasons. I will try my best to put up a substantive post every week or few days.      

Friday, December 30, 2016

Quote of the Week

I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.- John Adams

Saturday Video

All is quiet on New Year's Day
A world in white gets underway
I want to be with you, be with you night and day
Nothing changes on New Year's Day
On New Year's Day

I will be with you again
I will be with you again

Under a blood red sky
A crowd has gathered, black and white
Arms entwined, the chosen few
The newspapers says, says

Say it's true, it's true
We can break through
Though torn in two
We can be one

I, I will begin again
I, I will begin again

Oh, maybe the time is right
Oh, maybe tonight

I will be with you again
I will be with you again

And so we are told this is the Golden Age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
Though I want to be with you, be with you night and day
Nothing changes on New Year's Day
On New Year's Day
On New Year's Day

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Saturday Video

Somebody shut the door
I know where temptation lies
Inside of you heart
You can talk during this

I know where the evil lies
Inside of your heart
Well get out of here

If you're gonna try to make it right
You're surely gonna end up wrong
Wrong wrong wrong wrong

That's the only chord I know
I know where the mirror's edge
Is inside of your heart

It's no even within five feet
Well if you're gonna make it right
You're surely gonna end up wrong
You don't look like Martha and the Vandellas
I'm just gonna start it all over again

Somebody get her out of here
Electricity comes from other planets
(It's not that a bad solo. Four times is pretty together)
(You can stay here)

I know where temptation lies
Inside of your heart
Yes he's ready

I know where the evil lies
Inside of your heart
Is he ready

Well if you're gonna make it right
You're surely gonna end up wrong

Oh the hole mess start again
Well New York buildings are very height
And not all offensive
Lock the door

Gonna carry on at infinite light, my dear
The Pope in the silver castle
Was that awful.
Hey, that's fine. That's it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Melancholy Christmas

I’ve I’ve decided I’ll talk a break from politics a while to share a personal story. For a time I resisted writing about it because the pain was too fresh. Now, three months later, I’m finally able to talk about it in some detail. I write as much to share this story with you as to make sense of my own thoughts.

My wife’s mother died in October from an extremely aggressive form of stomach cancer. The family barely had time to say goodbye. Though her first symptoms presented themselves in January of this year, she was not formally diagnosed until August. The first stroke that left her unable to speak and largely inhibited occurred barely thirty days later. A mere month later following that she was gone, not before lingering in a comatose state for two weeks in hospice care before finally expiring. I was not present for that portion, my wife feeling it better that blood family only be present. At any rate, there would have been a limit to my ability to help, complete with that sinking, helpless feeling of waiting, day in and day out, for someone to eventually expire.

In some ways, the process of death was mercifully brief, but a more protracted period of illness would have allowed her mother the ability to make amends and say a final goodbye. As it turns out, she never heard the chance. Much is left unresolved, no doubt many grievances and final remarks forever unsaid. One of the double-edged benefits of an extended period of dying is the ability to make peace for all time, and that was a courtesy never granted my father-in-law, sister-in-law, and wife. My wife was not as close to her mother as she was to her father and I’m sure mother and daughter would have benefited for some heartfelt confession time, but this was not how fate played out, for better or for worse.

This Christmas will be difficult, as any first Christmas without a loved one. As an in-law, I am present for moral support, but there’s a limit to my effectiveness as counselor. My wife has turned inwards as a way of coping, inwardly detaching herself in ways that I find perplexing and sometimes alienating. I implore her to vocalize her suffering and the thought process that goes into it. Sometimes my verbal prompting provides results. Sometimes she retreats again into her head, which I find maddening, though I am not unsympathetic to the reasons why she has adopted such a system of grieving.

As she was not my mother, it still has not quite set in that she will not be present for the traditional unwrapping of presents on Christmas morning. In fact, I find it hard to believe that she is not still alive. I half expect her to be perched in her familiar alcove just outside the kitchen, welcoming us in from a long journey. Naturally, it is a million times worse for my wife, who was raised by the very person she has now lost and no amount of mental energy and good intentions will ever make me fully understand. I recognize that.

But if there is any redeeming value to Christmas, to the gathering together of family, I want to be part of it. I want to be a good husband, for whatever that means. I’m willing to grant her infinite patience, love, and understanding, even if it’s challenging. I come from a family of talkers and infinite verbosity. She regularly retreats inside her head, especially now, leaving me frustrated at a lack of feedback.

Christmas has multiple meanings, and I want to fit as best I can into what will be a likely sad and melancholy holiday. But surely there is joy in being together. What makes this particular gathering especially unfortunate is that under most circumstances this would be a day of great celebration. Instead it has been a reminder of a person no longer present and the ghosts and remnants of her that remain. I admit I’m not sure how to keep away these truly sad associations, or if that is even feasible.

But I have resolved that I will do the best I can the best way I can. As a family, it has been a tradition to watch together the time-honored film A Christmas Carol, the 1980’s made-for-television version with George C. Scott as Scrooge. I must admit I am reminded of the scene where Scrooge is confronted with the Ghost of Christmas Future, a future where Tiny Tim has passed on, leaving behind only his crutch. It is the metaphorical crutch of my mother-in-law that remains, still present somehow in our memories and in a few trinkets scattered here and there but also very much gone. This is the grief that does not recede easily and no doubt has lasting power.