Birthing My Book: Bringing Delight in Disorder to Life

Having conceived and nurtured a memoir for almost a year, only to have it soundly rejected, it felt much like a miscarriage. I went a year without writing a word. It was only when I enrolled in an intensive discipleship training program that I again started to bring words to life, or, more accurately, let the Word come to life by cultivating the soil of stories.

Still, I wasn’t ready to come back to my memoir. It was too personal, too painful, too raw. Instead, I moved onto fiction – drafting a trilogy of short stories – “Life,” “Liberty,” and “The Pursuit of Happiness.”  More than the quality of the narrative (which is still quite unfinished), the discipline of daily writing as I created characters, developed dialogue, and polished plot, gave me increasing confidence that I had a “way with words.”

Then a very tragic thing happened. A young man I had never met committed suicide. He was playing family board games one minute and the next he was in his room shooting himself. The young man’s name was Matthew, son of Rick Warren renowned pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the best-selling Purpose-Driven Life.

My initial reaction was to take to my bed. I didn’t get up for three days. I read what people within the church and outside of it were saying. Some of it trying to be nice and compassion. Some of it downright ugly and mean. Nearly all of it lacking a clear Biblical understanding of mental illness that would drive a person to suicide.

I decided I needed to re-write my memoir. I also knew I couldn’t do it alone. I shared the idea with Leanne Sype, a blogging friend and editor, to whom I had pitched my trilogy. Very soon, she became as passionate about the project as I did. With Leanne’s help, I worked through a second draft, and a third (and in some cases fourth and fifth). With Leanne’s guidance, I pitched it to an agent and went to a writer’s conference to see about pursuing conventional publishing.

We prayed for a clear sign and got it almost immediately. A resounding no. Undeterred, Leanne encouraged me to pursue self-publishing, helped me navigate around some shark-invested waters of vanity publishers. She introduced me to graphic artist Nicole Miller who also has a heart for the Lord and a distinct eye for graphic design. Soon, we had a book cover. Nicole then moved on to a video for our indiegogo campaign where we exceeded our goal.

Along came another young faithful servant, Christina Tarabochia, who took the text and shaped it into various formats uploaded at Smashwords (and soon, for Amazon and Barnes & Noble). Christina helped explain some of the technical aspects of getting our book in the hands of the readers and has been an invaluable resource.

Now that we have a downloadable e-book (soon to be in print), we are only entering another season of the larger “Delight in Disorder” mission. Over the past few days I have been contacted mental health and church leaders from across the country to help us spread the word — to bridge the distance between faith and mental illness. I’ve already received two speaking invitations and am building some very fruitful relationships.

Much has been done — Facebook author page, Twitter account (indy_tony), media kit, business card design, e-mail and phone contact) and much remains to be done (website upgrade, speaking engagements, reviews). I have no idea where God will lead now that the book has been birthed. I only pray I’ll do my part to be a faithful stewardship of the Word calling me to share divine delight in the disorder of the world.

Write your favorite scripture on a canvas for your dorm room. It fills up wall space and it will be a good encouragement.

Birthing My Book: Cultivating the Soil

The years 2009-2011 are pretty much a blur for me. I was on a high dose of psychotropics. I was still recuperating from the effects of E.C.T.. I was dealing with deep depression due in large part to a lack of purpose since going on disability.

After my first attempt to write a spiritual memoir was rejected by publishers, I stuffed it in a dresser drawer and quit writing altogether. I tried some gardening, wheeling aging veterans to worship, painting dairy barns, cleaning furnaces — anything to be somewhat productive and stay out of the pit.

Nothing helped. At least not much. In December of 2010 I enrolled in a partial hospitalization treatment program and was introduced to a relatively new therapeutic approach that was proving successful among bipolar patients. It was called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

I was less than impressed.  I found DBT to be a rather basic blend of pop psychology and generic eastern philosophy.  While I benefited from the support of group therapy and met many compassionate caregivers, I left the program feeling it had fallen short, eager for something more in-depth and, if possible, rooted in my own Christian tradition.

Thanks to the advocacy of a family minister, we discovered a program called Shepherd’s Fold. Originally designed as a re-integration program for prisoners adjusting back to family life, it had become more a discipleship center where men could study deeply the Scriptures, receive Christian counsel, and develop work and personal habits that might carry over for them to become better husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers in Christ.

I enrolled at Shepherd’s Fold in September of 2011 and immediately began to adopt the schedule, the tasks, and habits they had carefully designed to promote spiritual well-being. While I struggled with the structure, and my pace at work and in chores was particularly slow, I found my overall mental health improved. Most importantly, I was able to read and reflect on God’s Word for hours each day.

I began to write again.  My letters home to my wife were often 30 pages and up (and sometimes I wrote 2 or 3 a week). I began a correspondence with a former colleague in ministry who sent me his sermons and I would respond with lengthy replies. In addition to daily journal entries from Scripture readings, I did a number of research papers on issues with which I had been dealing. After eight months in treatment, I was asked to write a “spiritual autobiography” and I filled over 125 hand-written pages. My writer’s voice was returning.

Sadly, my time at Shepherd’s Fold came to an end in August, 2012 as I left the program early.  God only knows the complete story of why it didn’t work out as we had hoped — to promote family reconciliation.  But it is clear that though the soil seemed barren, there was much cultivation.

Cultivating

Birthing My Book: From Conception to Miscarriage

Finger  Lakes Country. An hour or two from Rochester.

On June 13, 2009, I was driving along the scenic shores of the Finger Lakes region of New York wondering what I was going to do with my life.  I was 45.  I had spent most of the last two decades serving as a pastor while battling bipolar disorder. At my best, I had time and energy left to enjoy family life with my wonderful wife and four beautiful children.  At my worst, I either laid under the covers in a dark bedroom or frantically pursued plans ill-conceived and left undone.  I looked out the window and prayed for vision.

Suddenly, it came to me. I would write a book about bipolar and the faith that either fuels us to distraction or saves us from self-destruction.  In less than 20 miles, I conceived of a collection of devotions, inspired by the Psalms and a title — from Sheol to the Highest Heavens: 101 Devotions for Persons with Bipolar (and those who love them).  By the time I pulled into the driveway, I had most of the introduction in mind (which has remained largely the same), and some thoughts on one devotion (which is now the “Epilogue”).

Over the course of the next six months, I poured through the Psalms and wrote 1-3 devotions a day.  Some days as I felt like working more, I would re-write earlier devotions.  By early 2010, I had a manuscript I just knew would be embraced by countless publishers.  I bought a copy of the Christian Writer’s Market Guide, found 15 publishers I felt were appropriate and sent out quickly composed queries.

I waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Out of the 15 queries I sent out, I received a total of one response – a two sentence form e-mail.

It was as if I had a miscarriage.

I stuffed the manuscript in my chest-of-drawers under a pile of junk mail, unfolded underwear and mis-matched socks.

I didn’t write another word for over a year.

The Bible says, “Without vision, people perish.”  I was dying on the vine.  My mind was consumed with grief which actually felt a lot like nothingness.  Each day, I sat in my recliner and stared at the ceiling.  At night, I slept fitfully, listening to BBC radio through my pillow speaker — a reminder at least that life went on — somewhere.

Meanwhile, my wife was fed up.  Understandably.  Here we were, living on a fruitful homestead, financially secure, with four adorable children and nothing to do but delight in the Lord and love one another.  What was wrong with me?

I tried many things – counseling, gardening, volunteering, working with men from the church.  Something was still not right.  We searched our minds for an answer. Was I over-medicated? Did my overdose damage my brain? Or the E.C.T.? Was it my illness? Or just me?

Only God knew.  And for some reason, God was not giving us the answer.

(image above from Jenny Russo)

“It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I feel fine)” by R.E.M. in Delight in Disorder (the soundtrack)

We married and moved to a three-room row house in South St. Louis.  Steam rising from asphalt. We passionately loved and more passionately fought. Out of our conjugal clash a child was conceived.

Seeking safety, we moved to the countryside and I became shepherd of a frozen flock. We welcomed our baby home to a Noah’s Ark nursery. I turned her first week into a music video – “God’s Masterpiece.” After a week, I was spent (or thought I was) and retreated to ancient texts and tired truths.

In the disorder, there were moments of delight and we conceived again.  Our graceful pilgrim. We followed a call to a church looking for an infusion of youth.

The delight became dangerously disordered.  It was the end of the world and I was bouncing off the walls. A light fixture fell and I was convinced it was a sign from God.

The next day, I found myself in the seclusion room of a psychiatric hospital.

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake
Birds and snakes, an aeroplane, and Lenny Bruce is not afraid

Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs, don’t misserve your own needs
Feed it up a knock, speed, grunt, no, strength
The ladder starts to clatter with a fear of height, down, height
Wire in a fire, represent the seven games
And a government for hire and a combat site
Left her, wasn’t coming in a hurry with the Furies breathing down your neck

Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped
Look at that low plane, fine, then
Uh-oh, overflow, population, common group
But it’ll do, save yourself, serve yourself
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed
Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam fight, bright light
Feeling pretty psyched

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

Six o’clock, TV hour, don’t get caught in foreign tower
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn
Lock him in uniform, book burning, bloodletting
Every motive escalate, automotive incinerate
Light a candle, light a motive, step down, step down
Watch your heel crush, crush, uh-oh
This means no fear, cavalier, renegade and steering clear
A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies
Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline

It’s the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine (It’s time I had some time alone)
I feel fine (I feel fine)

It’s the end of the world as we know it (It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine (It’s time I had some time alone)

The other night I dreamt a nice continental drift divide
Mountains sit in a line, Leonard Bernstein
Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs
Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom
You symbiotic, patriotic, slam but neck, right? Right

It’s the end of the world as we know it (It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine (It’s time I had some time alone)

It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine (It’s time I had some time alone)

It’s the end of the world as we know it (It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine (It’s time I had some time alone)

It’s the end of the world as we know it (It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine (It’s time I had some time alone)

(It’s time I had some time alone)

(“It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I feel fine)” is the ninth song on my autobiographical Spotify playlist Delight in Disorder)

“Dancing in the Minefields” by Andrew Peterson in Delight in Disorder (the soundtrack)

With all the hope of a man desperate to not be alone in life and eager to find what he’d never been looking for, I bought you a ring at a mall kiosk. I placed it in Eeyore’s lap and wrapped it up as a Christmas gift.

We set a date then set about debating all the details of navigating life together in faith, clinging to the promise we would one day be One, bonded in a holy union that would somehow keep us together and prevent us from falling apart.

At our wedding, the minister fed me vows but I was too choked up to repeat them. I was crying. Amazed at the grace that the brokenness in me might finally be mended. At the prospect that what God was joining together no one could possibly separate.

It’s been over twenty years and the promise remains true, though we are miles apart. We’re still in the minefields, waiting for our song to play.

Well I was 19, you were 21
The year we got engaged
Everyone said we were much too young
But we did it anyway
We got the rings for 40 each from a pawnshop down the road
We said our vows and took the leap now 15 years ago

We went dancing in the minefields
We went sailing in the storms
And it was harder than we dreamed
But I believe that’s what the promise is for

Well “I do” are the two most famous last words
The beginning of the end
But to lose your life for another I’ve heard is a good place to begin
‘Cause the only way to find your life is to lay your own life down
And I believe it’s an easy price for the life that we have found

And we’re dancing in the minefields
We’re sailing in the storms
And it was harder than we dreamed
But I believe that’s what the promise is for
That’s what the promise is for

So when I lose my way, find me
When I lose loves chains, bind me
At the end of all my faith to the end of all my days
when I forget my name, remind me

‘Cause we bear the light of the Son of man
So there’s nothing left to fear
So I’ll walk with you in the shadow lands
Till the shadows disappear
‘Cause He promised not to leave us
And his promises are true
So in the face of this chaos baby,
I can dance with you

So lets go dancing in the minefields
Lets go sailing in the storms
Oh, lets go dancing in the minefields
And kicking down the doors
Oh, lets go dancing in the minefields
And sailing in the storms
Oh, this is harder than we dreamed
But I believe that’s what the promise is for
That’s what the promise is for

(“Dancing in the Minefields” is the eighth song on my autobiographical Spotify playlist Delight in Disorder)

“February Seven” by The Avett Brothers in Delight in Disorder (the soundtrack)

July, 1989 in “The Office of Friends.”  You were on the phone with South Central Bell, debating a deposit.

A spark from your words deflected off the receiver and landed in my heart.  I was slain in the Spirit.

You won the battle with the phone company and I determined, “I need this woman on my side.”

From “Shakespeare in the Park” to shopping at the mall, losing at hangman and going dutch on dates. I crushed your spirit then blended it together with sour milk and sugar, serving it back to you as Friendship bread. Complete with nuts and blueberries.

When you wrote “I love you,” on my back in Hebrew, was it God’s Word or just something people don’t speak anymore?

I went on the search for something true
I was almost there when I found you
Sooner than my fate was wrote
A perfect blade, it slit my throat
And beads of lust released into the air
When I awoke you were standing there

I was on the mend when I fell through
The sky around was anything but blue
I found as I regained my feet, a wound across my memory
That no amount of stitches would repair
But I awoke and you were standing there

There’s no fortune at the end of the road
That has no end
There’s no returning to the spoils
Once you’ve spoiled the thought of them
There’s no falling back asleep
Once you’ve wakened from the dream
Now I’m rested and I’m ready and I’m ready to begin

I went on the search for something real
Traded what I know for how I feel
But the ceiling and the walls collapsed
Upon the darkness I was trapped
And as the last of breath was drawn from me
Light broke in and brought me to my feet

There’s no fortune at the end of the road
That has no end
There’s no returning to the spoils
Once you’ve spoiled the thought of them
There’s no falling back asleep
Once you’ve wakened from the dream
Now I’m rested and I’m ready and I’m ready to begin

I’m rested and I’m ready to begin

(“February Seven” is the seventh song on my autobiographical Spotify playlist Delight in Disorder)

“Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls in Delight in Disorder (the soundtrack)

I went to graduate school with the hope of finding my calling in ministry and growing closer to God. My faith was broken down in class. I was taught how not to talk about God. But through positions “in the field,” I found God in the smile of a boy who would never talk, in the songs of prisoners longing to be free, in the prayers of a man at the bedside of his dying wife.

I say I found God, but God really found me. I just didn’t run away.

I’m trying to tell you something about my life

Maybe give me insight between black and white

The best thing you’ve ever done for me

Is to help me take my life less seriously,

it’s only life after all

Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable

And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear

I wrap my fear around me like a blanket

I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it,

I’m crawling on your shore.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains

I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain

There’s more than one answer to these questions

pointing me in crooked line

The less I seek my source for some definitive

The closer I am to fine.

I went to see the doctor of philosophy

With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee

He never did marry or see a B-grade movie

He graded my performance, he said he could see through me

I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind,

got my paper And I was free.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains

I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain

There’s more than one answer to these questions

pointing me in crooked line

The less I seek my source for some definitive

The closer I am to fine.

I stopped by the bar at 3 a.m.

To seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend

I woke up with a headache like my head against a board

Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before

I went in seeking clarity.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains

I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain

There’s more than one answer to these questions

pointing me in crooked line

The less I seek my source for some definitive

The closer I am to fine.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains

I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain

There’s more than one answer to these questions

pointing me in crooked line

The less I seek my source for some definitive

The closer I am to fine.

We go to the bible, we go through the workout

We read up on revival and we stand up for the lookout

There’s more than one answer to these questions

pointing me in a crooked line

The less I seek my source for some definitive

The closer I am to fine

The closer I am to fine

The closer I am to fine

(“Closer to Fine” is the sixth song on my autobiographical playlist Delight in Disorder)

“Get Rhythm” by Johnny Cash in Delight in Disorder (the soundtrack)

They say misery loves company. Mostly misery makes company miserable. As I was sliding into a post-college depression, I had many friends who were good listeners and showed me great understanding compassion.  I was stuck — living in an unfurnished apartment, working in a plastics factory, aspiring to be a writer but writing crap and going nowhere. People without vision perish. I was dying on the vine.

Then a friend of mine met someone who turned his life around. She made someone who was maybe even more miserable than I was happy. I began to believe such a blessing might indeed come even to such as the likes of me. If life wasn’t simply taking the shape of a song for me, I would hum along just the same, like the shoeshine boy in Johnny Cash‘s “Get Rhythm.”

Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
Come on, get rhythm when you get the blues
Get a rock ‘n’ roll feelin’ in your bones
Put taps on your toes and get gone
Get rhythm when you get the blues

A Little shoeshine boy never gets low down
But he’s got the dirtiest job in town
Bendin’ low at the peoples’ feet
On the windy corner of the dirty street
Well, I asked him while he shined my shoes
How’d he keep from gettin’ the blues
He grinned as he raised his little head
Popped a shoeshine rag and then he said

Get rhythm when you get the blues
Come on, get rhythm when you get the blues
A jumpy rhythm makes you feel so fine
It’ll shake all the trouble from your worried mind
Get rhythm when you get the blues

Get rhythm when you get the blues
Come on , get rhythm when you get the blues
Get a rock ‘n’ roll feelin’ in your bones
Put taps on your toes and get gone
Get rhythm when you get the blues

Well, I sat down to listen to the shoeshine boy
And I thought I was gonna jump for joy
Slapped on the shoe polish left and right
He took a shoeshine rag and he held it tight
He stopped once to wipe the sweat away
I said you’re a mighty little boy to be-a workin’ that way
He said I like it with a big wide grin
Kept on a poppin’ and he said again

Get rhythm when you get the blues
Come on, get rhythm when you get the blues
It only costs a dime, just a nickel a shoe
Does a million dollars worth of good for you
Get rhythm when you get the blues

(“Get Rhythm” is the fifth song on my autobiographical Spotify playlist Delight in Disorder)

“Blue” by Joni Mitchell in Delight in Disorder (the soundtrack)

In November of 1986, I began to process of leaving behind the pot and pills and Pabst that was keeping my peculiar brain chemistry from driving me crazy, but causing all kinds of other insanity. Coming clean caused me to sink into a pit of despair, expressed eloquently in Joni Mitchell‘s “Blue.”

Blue songs are like tattoos
You know I’ve been to sea before
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away
Hey Blue, here is a song for you
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in
Well there’re so many sinking now
You’ve got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves
Acid, booze, and ass
Needles, guns, and grass
Lots of laughs lots of laughs
Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go
Well I don’t think so
But I’m gonna take a look around it though
Blue I love you

Blue here is a shell for you
Inside you’ll hear a sigh
A foggy lullaby
There is your song from me

© 1970; Joni Mitchell

(“Blue” is the fourth song in my autobiographical playlist Delight in Disorder (the soundtrack).

“Crazy” by Gnarles Barkley (Violent Femmes cover) in Delight in Disorder (the soundtrack)

Gnarls Barkley‘s song “Crazy” (covered by The Violent Femmes) is third on my autobiographical Spotify playlist Delight in Disorder (the soundtrack).  The lyrics describe the familiar misery of going insane.

I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind
There was something so pleasant about that place.
Even your emotions had an echo
In so much space

And when you’re out there
Without care,
Yeah, I was out of touch
But it wasn’t because I didn’t know enough
I just knew too much

Does that make me crazy
Does that make me crazy
Does that make me crazy
Possibly
And I hope that you are having the time of your life
But think twice, that’s my only advice

Come on now, who do you, who do you, who do you, who do you think you are,
Ha ha ha bless your soul
You really think you’re in control

Well, I think you’re crazy
I think you’re crazy
I think you’re crazy
Just like me

My heroes had the heart to lose their lives out on a limb
And all I remember is thinking, I want to be like them
Ever since I was little, ever since I was little it looked like fun
And it’s no coincidence I’ve come
And I can die when I’m done

Maybe I’m crazy
Maybe you’re crazy
Maybe we’re crazy
Possibly

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 30, my doctors told me being a conditioned athlete through my teen years likely kept symptoms at bay. Then, I chose to self-medicate with drugs like alcohol, amphetamines, nicotine, and marijuana. It was like manufactured insanity, considered “cool” within the sub-culture of aspiring artists at college who took pride in their cock-sure craziness.