To Rise Above The Stigma

First, I must explain that while I hope everyone in the world will read this letter, my target audience is small: you may be someone I’ve never met or someone I know who is battling internal demons and, for fear of embarrassment, disapproval, or repercussions you sublimate your feelings instead of expressing them. At some point in life, we all experience something in our lives that leaves us feeling anything but pride. We all make mistakes, errors in our thinking or execution of tasks, and sometime misguided judgments about other people and even ourselves. In the latter case, we can find ourselves with low self-esteem perhaps leading to anxiety and/or depression. What we most need at that time is to feel like we are not alone. Unfortunately, sublimating and not sharing can lead to serious mental health issues.

Now, I’m neither expecting nor will I engage in a debate here and I’m not sure I even have the courage to discuss this matter further, but I am open to the possibility. I also do not wish to elicit sympathy for myself as I share those events in my life which have prompted me to write this letter. I merely wish to reach out to those people in particular who definitely need to hear (or in this case read) that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people in my community and the world at large who can and do understand what you are going through. There is a critical point at which you have to embrace yourself and love yourself totally by letting go of fear. This is such an instance for me and I am going to be vulnerable in public.

In any given day I have worn many masks to obscure reality. But, why hide the truth? As Alan Watts once said, if you are a real person you are a genuine fake. The word person is derived from the Latin word, persona, meaning “an actor’s mask”. I’ve just about reached the end of my rope trying to be a genuine fake (except when I have acted on stage in dramatic plays). My mind is weary and my heart aches. It is time to be wholeheartedly and unapologetically me. And that means I must be willing to be vulnerable and make sure that every choice I make is done out of love and not fear – out of love for myself and not out of fear of what anyone will think.

Fear is natural. However, it is only an indicator and should not serve as fuel for action. A balance of rational thinking and intuition is what fear calls for. Fear is part of a battle cry, not part of the battle.

In almost every relationship, I feel like a skinless watermelon trying to retain the shape and integrity of my delicate structure. With this article I’m opening Pandora’s Box and fearlessly embracing whatever emerges. I want to feel the freedom that comes with openness and hope to dismiss any complications and repercussions that result. This is a challenge for me as I am facing what I perceive to be the most threatening social anxieties as I attempt to find my place in the community, this country and within the sphere of humanity when the zeitgeist of living on Earth now causes me the most outstanding angst and unhappiness I’ve ever experienced. I do have purpose, passion and direction. Yet, at the same time I just don’t fit with the society of which I’ve been raised. The most prevalent feeling is that I don’t belong in this world at this time. It feels surreal. This is not my life. Ah! But, it is my life. We are not defined by what happens to us. We are defined by our reactions to the events that befall us. No one controls another person’s perceptions and feelings. And as Benjamin Disraeli so apply put it, “Never apologize for showing feeling, my friend. Remember that when you do so, you apologize for the truth.”

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who I met about seven years ago committed suicide. Close in age, we had a lot in common from our university major to the passions of activities in our later life such as music and studying the Latin language. Unfortunately, in recent years my social skills have been stifled by anxiety and shyness resulting in passive-aggressive attempts at friendship. Thus, my friend and I never engaged in the kind of heart-to-heart dialogues that serve to nurture a trusting and growing relationship. I’m still in shock and I don’t understand the reason for his death. I do know, however, that many of us go through such pain at times such that our rationality may be blurred by the emotional furor of a single moment. Anyone can lose it at any time. Did my friend see this coming? I also wonder whether or not people who take their own lives feel that they are unique in their seemingly unbearable pain. What if there was more support from family, friends, the community, and health service providers – the kind of support that demolishes any stigma associated with mental illness? Sometimes it seems that people brag about their bouts with the flu, whilst keeping their manic-depression in the closet or not talking about a family member’s schizophrenia, for random examples. These unresolved issues festering privately can be debilitating and destructive.

I’ve been very cognizant of my mental states of late and this is the worst month of the worst year of my life. As much as I want to be left alone and aloof from society, it is neither practical nor possible. What I am realizing is that this also may not be in my best interest.

When I moved to Orcas Island with my wife and son in 2010, we lived in a tent for three months. At first, neither my wife nor I were employed. Moving here was a deliberate choice to start living intentionally. During our third week here I had a bowel obstruction which is not unusual for me since being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 1999. And as I lay there enduring intense abdominal pain one day on the park grass in Friday Harbor while my wife and son explored the town for the first time, I was utterly happy. Frankly, I was content to die then and there if that was meant to be. There’s no better place on Earth to suffer than in the San Juan Islands. We’ve come a long way since then.

Having been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder some time ago, I have been taking medication daily for 15 years with great stability. But, a fear of heart disease in 2016 from seriously high triglycerides and cholesterol brought about some panic attacks and subsequently some feelings of depression. But, my heart health turned around for the better and the depression I had experienced seemed to subside as the year 2017 progressed.

Having survived a horrid case of the flu that lasted between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I rang in the New Year with a second bout of it, the worst of it manifesting on the eighth day. Amidst recovering we learned that the house we had been living in for six years – the longest I had ever lived in one house – would be put on the market soon. We would be given the first right of refusal to purchase the home, but we knew there was no way we could afford it. Our rent was very reasonable and lower than average, so, this was going to seriously challenge our already strained financial situation.

While we were living in limbo not knowing how much longer we would be living in the house, I received news that my mother passed away on February 19th. She had been in hospice for some time and it wasn’t a surprise, but my mom had such tenacity that I didn’t really expect her end to be near. Notice of our lease termination followed in less than two weeks. Originally we had 60 days to vacate; however, we were able to get an additional two-week reprieve at a cost of half-rent to completely move out and clean before May 15th.

A few weeks after this notice and giving the confluence of several unlikely factors which for brevity I will not elaborate, I was stopped on the evening of March 9th by a deputy for speeding only to result in my arrest for DUI. I cannot express the surreal state of being handcuffed in front my son and taken away from him. I felt that I had let him down completely by not exercising judgement at any time that evening. I let my son down. I let my wife down. I wondered what my sister would think when I tell her? Her son, my only nephew, was killed at age 23 in an alcohol and speed-related, single-car crash in 2011. I just wanted to die. I could not believe that I was such a dead-beat father. What have I done? I thought, “This is not happening to me.” And shortly after midnight, I found myself signing documents at the Sheriff’s office in the wee hours of March 10th which happens to be my birthday. A happy birthday it was not! As a result of my action, I will be serving one day in jail this month with 363 days suspended provided successful completion of my obligations during the five-year probation period. I must get a court-ordered alcohol and drug assessment by a counseling agency and submit to any recommended treatment. Anyone who knows me knows that I do not have a substance abuse problem. And, while I cannot legally consume alcohol or any non-prescription drugs for five years while on probation, I cannot even fathom drinking alcohol ever again for how much this has soured my taste for the once enchanting bitterness of Bombay Sapphire gin. Of course, I have also incurred fines, a suspended license, and I must wait some time, perhaps another year, to drive when I can afford an ignition interlock device and the required liability insurance imposed by the Department of Motor Vehicles for at least one year. There can be no bars, pubs, or taverns for me during probation either. I never frequented those places anyway. But, this is my future- the minimum mandatory sentence for a first offence in Washington State. No sentence, however, could be a tortuous as I have been to myself for the last two months in the purgatory between arraignment and plea.

Now we are in the throes of the final week’s tasks, moving out of our house and renovating the leak-damaged 16-foot travel trailer we will be living in for several months until affordable housing is available. (For those non-local readers, our island is amidst a growing housing crisis.) I find myself still reeling over my friend’s death, wishing I could turn back the clock for this entire year. I hold back tears constantly, not because I am afraid to show emotion, but because it makes my eyes swell and I can’t get anything done in the moment. Ultimately, that is all we every really have, isn’t it – the moment?

I’m not alone. A lot of people are suffering from the various slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – battles with cancer, the deaths of loved ones, financial woes, etc. How can we help each other? I would not be surprised if there were support groups for anxiety and depression on Orcas Island. However, this much is not readily apparent and that, my friends, is the problem. Whether the matter is a mental illness, a criminal record or some other shame, how do we rise above the stigmas, not as individuals, but as a community? How can we help each other in dropping the persona that portrays everything as being peachy and provide safety for those who need to be vulnerable to survive?

The world – our country – is not peachy. It’s in a sad state. Everything is not OK.

How am I at the moment? I am alive and that is enough for now.

Earth is a beautiful planet and I still find amazement in human potential. But ignorance and lack of compassion for our fellow humans flourishes. If it isn’t blatant to you, look to humorous and satirical treatments of life today in the arts. You really don’t have to scour between the lines. Sadly, fear seems to be a prevalent driving force.

Now more than ever I want to run away to wander with animals and wonder with awe at nature. But, instead I am dropping my masks. Consider this letter a lifeline to my remaining a part of society. I challenge anyone of you who wants to join me, whether you are suffering or not, to drop your masks. Please don’t just tell me that I am not alone. Show me! Be vulnerable and unapologetically you while acting out of love instead of fear. I dare you to put the humanity back in the human species: we must be inclusive, not exclusive and that requires an open heart (again, this requires vulnerability.) Stop striving to be a genuine fake. Help me overcome my social anxiety and perhaps one day I will gladly step back on stage at the Orcas Center and proudly wear a persona as it should be worn. Let’s rise above the stigma. And if you see me around, please do not hesitate to hug me! I sure as hell need it. And I bet, so do some of you!