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.


“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).

Great Writers (and me) on Writing

Tony - Writing

I have some great news for which I am very thankful.  I have accepted a position as a writing instructor at a local community college.  The course is called “Introduction to Academic Writing” and it is primarily designed to teach beginning students to construct well written, persuasive essays.

To make the most of this educational opportunity, however, I want to share my passion for writing as well as the mechanics of how to do it well.  To prepare, I have pulled out part of a post (below) I wrote on writing.

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. ― Maya Angelou

The primary purpose of good writing is not to fix a problem, but to make it more meaningful and beautiful to live in a world filled with problems.  This is one reason I don’t read more Charles Dickens and why I haven’t even started Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  I’m thinking more of fiction here, but even good non-fiction should steer clear of one-dimensional moralism if it is to be effective.  The song must be sung, not explained or advocated or shouted out.  Which leads to my next quote –

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov

Again, while this is true for any writing, I find it especially true for songs and poems.  Don’t say you’re depressed because your girlfriend broke up with you and then go on for 500 words telling me the symptoms of your depression.  Pay a therapist to do that.  Instead,  paint a picture of your sadness, like John Prine in the chorus of  “The Blue Umbrella” –

Blue umbrella
rest upon my shoulder
hide the pain
while the rain
makes up my mind
well, my feet are wet
from thinking this thing over
and it’s been so long
since I felt the warm sunshine
just give me one good reason
and I promise I won’t ask you any more
just give me one extra season
so I can figure out the other four.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. ― Mark TwainThe Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

Here is where I’m going to put in a plug for self-editing. I read a lot of blogs about writing and I notice that many writers mark their progress by their word count.  Some even set goals of writing 1,000 or 2,000 words a day (or some such amount).  I believe if your goal is good writing, you should lo0k instead at how many words you delete.  I knew of a college professor who set page limits to essays.  If you exceeded the number, he would rip off the extra pages, throw them away and write across the paper, “It seemed a little incomplete.  Try again.”  One right word yields far greater power than two (or three, or one hundred) wrong ones.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. ― Jack KerouacThe Dharma Bums

I like this quote both for its humility and wisdom.  The truth is, we never really get it “right” in this writing life.  Becoming better writers should always be our goal for some distant “one day.”  The direction we should be headed to get there, however, clearly should not involve complex formulas but simple methods of telling it like it is better than we told it the last time, possibly even better than anyone has told it before

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. ― Flannery O’Connor

In terms of writing material, we have a lot within us into which we often fail to tap.  It’s true if you are writing on any subject, you should do good research and not just sit back in your writing chair (mine is a recliner) and write what is on your mind.  Still, if we just pay enough attention to our lives (and the world around us), we will have plenty to start writing every time.

In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody. ― Oscar Wilde

What may have been witty hyperbole in Wilde’s day has become almost literal truth today.  I visit many blogs that have few (if any hits).  E-books are being published that sell almost no copies.  You can’t even give them away.  We could debate what is worthy to be read, but I believe three of my primary obligations as a writer are to read, read, read.  Read what others are writing on their blogs.  Read new books being published by known and unknown authors.  And then, to relax before bed, read (or listen to) the classics (including the Bible) to let my mind be refreshed by the gifted wordsmiths of days gone by.

What are your thoughts on writing?  What quote sums up what you believe most true for you as a writer?

Coming Up From my Bipolar Basement

I’ve been lingering in the basement of my bipolar mind for some time, waiting for some storms to pass before rising to the surface. I’ve taken some risks. Due to a transition in prescription drug coverage and a financial shortfall, I tried to conserve on a couple of my medications to make them last through the end of the year (when the expensive one goes generic). I’m struggling to be productive in a new work environment.  I’ve veered from much creative writing to spend time promoting the indiegogo campaign for my mission. Not surprisingly – with fewer corrective chemicals in my blood, added external stressors, and less therapeutic releases, I’ve experienced a low-grade depression. To cope, I go into the basement.

Some people look negatively on those who escape to the basement.  They picture n’er-do-well not-so-young adults who still live in their parent’s basement, smoke weed, sleep away the day and watch television through the night. The basement becomes more a tomb than a womb.

For me, the basement of my bipolar mind is where I go when the warning sirens are sounding. I think.  I pray. I read and write, though not as much.  I stay connected to the world around me through social media. When the clouds lift and the “all clear” sounds, I take the steps upward one at a time.

As I write this, I’m noticing the sky is much clearer.

God has provided the resources for my medication for the remainder of the year and I am back on my prescribed dosages. My body chemistry is approaching equilibrium.

Thanks to the generous support of people around the world, we have exceeded our mission goal to publish Delight in Disorder.  Now, every dollar donated in the time remaining for the campaign will be used to promote the book on-line and provide seed money for a book tour. 

My responsibilities at work have shifted so I can better use my writing skills and my boss has shown a great deal of grace in accommodating my schedule to optimize my mental health.

I received an e-mail tonight which may be an indication that God is opening doors for me to discuss mental illness within faith communities throughout the state.

Yes, I believe the basement door has opened a crack and some light is shining in. It’s time for me to climb the steps.


Finding Divine Delight in Eight Disordered Days

It’s been some kind of week — full of peaks and valleys.  I feel like I’ve been “rode hard and put up wet.”

Last Saturday, we had a fall family gathering. 41 people showed up to eat chili and coney dogs, bounce in the bouncy house, discuss personality types around the fire and debate gun control around the living room.  A great time was had by all.  My dad was particularly in hog heaven, as he was presented with various hardware valves (including a spigot) and flexible tubes (including one with a light on the end) for his upcoming heart surgery.  I managed to respond well to the crowd (I usually hide in my room), and felt very energized by the event.

Sunday I crashed.  I missed church, and spent most of the day with my head buried in the television.  This is one of my coping strategies when I feel a depression coming on, but it’s not a very good one. Basically, I become numb and rather than face my feelings as they arise, I suppress them for later and they come out more aggravated, often attached to physical symptoms.

Dad went in for surgery early Monday morning.  A friendly chaplain (a nun, I think), was one of the first on the scene and she offered a lovely prayer.  Dad’s friend and pastor Marvin arrived with a deacon from his church, so he was well prayed for.  The procedure lasted about four hours.   They implanted a pig valve and transplanted a vein from his leg.  I wrote to Dad’s Facebook friends that, when he felt better, he would be “dancing on the inside and be happier than a pig in slop.”

My mood imbalanced started to come out as “mixed states.” These are like having porcupine quills all over your body, with nerve endings on the tips.  When people try to relate to you, you both get hurt.  I laid down in the family waiting room with my ear buds on, listening to soothing story songs and simply apologized for not being responsive.

I slept fitfully Monday and Tuesday nights, experiencing what some people call “night terrors.”  Mine come in the form of regrets over past decisions and images of a lonely, hopeless future.

Dad likewise had a tough row to hoe.  His heart went into “A-fib” and they put him on  an IV drip.  It took nearly 24 hours before it was back to a regular beat. He said it felt like he had run a marathon. To add insult to injury, they had to put him on an IV-drip of Lasix, so he could only sleep in 15-20 minute intervals before having to pee.

By Thursday, dad was again making progress.  So was I.  I finished a project at work. I did an update video for our Delight in Disorder indiegogo campaign, and had a very positive meeting with my pastor about membership.  He had read and enjoyed my manuscript.  My mood had leveled off by week’s end and I was looking forward to enjoying some Sabbath rest  on Saturday and worship on Sunday.

Unfortunately, it didn’t come to pass.  Again, I slept fitfully and wallowed in bed nearly all of Saturday and Sunday morning.  Dad made progress, though, and we brought him home Sunday afternoon.  This (and the smell of apple crisp my sister was baking) boosted my spirits some and I was able to write this thank you note (below) to those who had attended our party last weekend –

Dear family members,

We want to sincerely thank each of you for coming to our family gathering last weekend. 

As you may well know, Dad is a man who enjoys the simple pleasures of life –

… the taste of a fried bologna sandwich.

… the sound of George Jones singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today”.

… the sight of a hummingbird feeding on Connie’s homemade elixir.

Nothing pleases Dad more than the taste of a family feast, the sound of children playing in the bouncy house, and the sight of loved ones surrounding him.

As a token of our gratitude for your participation in this special day, we are including a CD of the great photos taken by Andrea.  We hope they might bring a smile to your face as they have to ours.

Dad has a big heart, and now, thanks to his new pig valve and transplanted leg vein, it should work as good as ever.  If not, thanks to your generous gifts of valves and hoses, he’ll have plenty of spare parts.

Thanks again and God bless,

Now, after downing a delicious dinner of jambalaya and fresh salad, I feel almost human again.  God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.  Or right enough for the time being.

Van Gogh

“Van Gogh” from Harry527

Motherhood, Music, Memories, and Other Musings: Mental Health Monday

For our round-up of readings about mental illness this week, I’ve decided to adhere to the time-honored principle for writers – “Show, don’t tell.”  Below are some of the best mental health postings around the blogosphere this week, with excerpts and links to read more.

Confusing Motherhood” (psychosisrus)

I can’t help but sit here in immense pain, wondering how the hell it got to this? I am stuck! I never really had the motherhood 101 course. No real mentors in this area. All fly by the seat of my pants – make it up as I go, bullshit. I guess I have been doing okay, I just want to be better. More effective. Will you say “That is just PROOF that you are a good mom. You always want to give more – be more for them.” Okay, I get this, to a degree. But here I am, stacking all my insufficiencies one on top of the other. I’m stacking my deck. No one else is! Why do I keep going back here? Why? Because I am so worn out, in pain, tired, frustrated, and COMPLETELY overwhelmed.

Daile’s Mix Tape – Waltz #2 (XO)” (kissmeoutofdesire)

 It is a simple song in terms of composition, not needing an orchestra of instruments and relying on a guitar and Smith’s husky voice. My heart breaks to listen to this song knowing that the musical genius who produced it, suffered from mental health and addiction issues and ended his life through self inflicted stab wounds – if that doesn’t tell you he was a tortured soul, I don’t know what would.

Faith and Sight” (The Consolations of Writing)

“Am I okay?” the question asks itself.
The mind retreats within to make reply
And eyes forever dart towards the shelf
(The cupboard open, fruit left out to dry).
Unsettled souls put back the oil of joy
And rifle through supplies to find the seed.
The memory bank’s a plastic, moulding joy,
Responsive to the anxious way we knead,
New lies put in for truth, new fears for peace.
For we transform the past each time we check,
And, moulding former years, these years can’t cease.
There’ll always be new jokers in the deck,
New ways to stop ourselves from singing praise
And counting blessings in these blessed days.

Depression” (Le Chatelier’s Principle)

Because my grades were dropping, my parents started to put more pressure on me to pull myself together, and my friends started to wonder why I was pulling away from everyone, and finally, finally they got me to realise that something was wrong.  I went to see the school counsellor and she said she thought I might have depression.  I suppose I should have realised sooner, especially since my father had been going through pretty much the same thing, but it was still hard to accept this.  To realise that there was really something wrong.  That was kind of scary.  But it was also a relief to realise that I was not alone, that what I faced had a name.  And to realise that there was hope.

Triggers, Triggers, Everywhere” (Nodus Tollens)

I recently had to attend a family gathering, which thankfully was at my own house so I actually had a bit of a chance of getting away to my own space. As we all know, family gatherings are just full of questions such as:

“Are you losing weight?”

“Did you gain weight?”

“Why aren’t you eating?”

“Are you on a diet?”

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“What are you doing now?”

“Do you have a job?”

And etc etc etc.

Chaos Storm Thoughts” (Documenting Descent)

I feel like there are people keeping me in the unknown. There is a storm brewing in my minds full of egotistical delusional thought. Do I really think that I am important enough for people to conspire against?  People come and go, people hide, and when they are hidden, I can not help but think it is so they can strike against me. People disappear from the online world, people that once liked me in real life, but due to the tides of fate, may not hate me, but want nothing to do with me, even though I care enough to check up on them occasionally and smile with their happiness and jokes.  But one day they are just gone? without mention, rhyme or reason, they just… :poof: and it bothers me, I do not know why it strikes me so to my core. Perhaps it is due to my time in foster care, where people would come out of nowhere and side strike you, or perhaps I really do, in someway believe myself to be important enough to conspire against, I don’t know, all I know, is last year I didn’t feel like this, or well maybe it is better to say I didn’t feel this strongly. But it least I can count the number of people who really dislike me on my hands, so it is not over ten yet?

On Mental Issues and Joking About Them” (kojitmal)

It`s hard, when everything`s in your own head. It`s not like a broken arm where you have the cast. It`s not like crutches, or  a band aid, or even like the telltale signs of chemotherapy in case of cancer. These are at least somewhat more socially accepted. It`s okay to call in sick to work when you can`t get out of bed thanks to a flu. It`s not socially accepted to call in sick to work when you can`t get out of bed thanks to depression.


Support Mental Health Awareness

image from Angelica Cambridge

Posts to Prevent Suicide

Tomorrow (September 10, 2013) is World Suicide Prevention Day.  Rather than simply support the greeting card industry, I encourage you to read these deeply personal posts from suicide survivors and, as you are led, leave encouraging, life-affirming comments.

To read more, click on the title –

Posts to Prevent Suicide: Mental Health Monday

For more information about suicide prevention, see “Suicide Prevention (SUPRE)” at the World Health Organization site.

Charatee Buzz - WORLD SUICIDE PREVENTION DAY - September 10, 2013 - Charity Gift Box™

Finding Life Within and Beyond the Clouds: Mental Health Monday

Happy Mental Health Monday!  This week, we offer a plethora of first-hand accounts of mental illness: depression, PTSD, psychosis, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and suicide.  We end with some comic relief about psychotropics.

To find Mental Health Monday posts, click on the title below —

“Life Within and Beyond the Clouds”

Blue above and below

“Blue above and below” from Adrasteia in Nightmares and Dreamscapes

Riding on a Roller-Coaster : A Week of Rejections

I had crashed.  I know myself well enough to know I’m at risk for sliding into a depressive episode, so rather than give into the temptation to go back to bed, I heated up a cup of coffee and sat down at the computer.  In my e-mail, I found a reply to one of my job queries that simply made my day.

Hi Tony,

You are a superman with words!

The good part: Impressive, both your proposal, your profile and all the other information. Icing of the cake — your slogan.

The bad part: Just that, by the time we did all this, we had exchanged about half a dozen of messages with some other writer.

To read more, click on the title below —

“My Roller-Coaster Week: From a Traumatic Rejection to a Terrific One”

Rollercoaster monks

“Rollercoaster monks” from Raeanne Nickerson in Love People

My Road to Recovery: Beginning with Boone’s Farm and Beer (the cheapest kind)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, if we are going help friends and family members who are addicts choose the road of recovery, the best way to do this is through confessional confrontation.  This is my first step toward doing this.

My name is Tony and I am a recovering addict.  My drugs of choice included alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, Percocet (pain reliever) and Demerol (muscle relaxant).  I have been free of these substances since November of 1988 – but I do not count myself completely sober.  Since January of 1991, I have been prescribed psychotropics (first for depression, then Bipolar).  I have taken these as prescribed, except for one attempted overdose in March of 2008, when I took a handful of Clonazepam and a handful of Clozaril.  I would now say I have almost 25 years of recovery and just over 5 years of “supervised pseudo-sobriety”.

My road to recovery begins with the history of my drug use – which begins early.  When I was a toddler (I’m told), my parents’ friend would often put beer in my bottle and laughed as I tipped and tumbled.  When I was a pre-teen, I hung out with an older crowd who encouraged me to steal cigarettes from my parents and I tried them a few times.  For the most part, however, I didn’t begin to use drugs until New Year’s Eve of 1981 (when I was a senior in high school).  My mom bought me and a friend a bottle of Boone’s Farm thinking it would keep us from drinking and driving.  That was the first time I remember feeling a little giddy from alcohol and I found it a very pleasurable release.

Since I was a serious athlete, I didn’t start drinking again until after basketball season – in late March or April.  After that, it was “katie bar the door” (as we used to say).  I had a major case of senior-itis.  My G.P.A. was locked in, as were my college acceptance and scholarships.  I could abandon myself in the “freedom” I felt I had earned through self-discipline and hard work.

I started staying out all night drinking beer and playing cards.   I was getting drunk most every weekend (on cheap beer – anybody remember “Red, White, and Blue”?) and occasionally would smoke a cigar (again, the cheapest kind).  I continued drinking the summer before my freshman year of college, sometimes during the week as well as on the weekends.  At parties, I sampled mixed drinks, but nothing hit home quite like a cold beer.

I wasn’t a deadbeat drunk, though.  I was working 10-12 hour days as a director of the Parks and Recreation tennis program.  But when I wasn’t working (or playing tennis), I was drinking.  I guess you could call me a successful alcohol, in the early stages of my addiction.

“I don’t always drink beer…” from Nicole Pappas in Hilarity!