Category Archives: Mental

Deep grief

A photo. Happy, smiling faces.

Suddenly I am plunged into water that blinds and deafens me, wrapped in a cocoon of memory. A wave has crashed over my head, bearing me down, down, to a dark cave where lurks a brooding presence. This presence embraces me, not unkindly, as the anguish pours and surges.

My children. Happy, smiling. Full of life and promise.

The silent deafening roar of the wave peaks as I spin and tumble, insensate.

I don’t even remember these moments. I missed so much.

The tears flow, mixing with the salty embrace. Mute inchoate wails echo amidst the rush of water. I am wrapped in unseen arms until the wave passes.

I gently float to the surface, coming back to the world.

The photo is still here. I wish so hard to run back and gather them into my arms. I want to say I’m sorry, that I did the best I could, that — what? Their happy eyes and smiles seem to offer ready forgiveness — as do they, here and now, I remember.

Mournfulness and gratitude war gently within me until I am spent. The wave has passed, receded to its deep cavern.

I breathe and put away the photo. Somehow a bit of the pain has transmuted — into what? Acceptance, perhaps. Thankfulness, perhaps. It may be that I will never empty this cave of its reservoir of grief, but perhaps I will be less fearful of its power.

Fighting the machine

After watching “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, I began to think more about how AI is impacting our lives and communities. While I don’t think it’s as simple as saying “Big Tech is evil,” I believe we are seeing the fruit of a laissez-faire policy around AI.

Digital technologies — and especially the internet — have given large companies the tools to deploy AI as a tool of psychological warfare. Unlike typical warfare, however, the goal is not destruction, but profit. This confuses our pro-business society, because profit is generally considered good.

Besides, in the past (we tell ourselves), people have been able to adapt and learn defenses against disinformation and seductive advertising — the solution is education, not regulation. (Because obviously “regulation” is a dirty word.)

Many years ago, everyone assumed that computers would never be able to beat humans at chess — a game that requires strategic thinking, and intuition. Computers with insight and creativity? Ridiculous.

Yet it turns out it’s possible to simulate some aspects of organic brains, and hone them to a peak of capability unmatched by messy biology. As a result, the number of people in the world who can beat a modern computer at chess is vanishingly small — perhaps only the top 10 in the world. The average person has zero chance.

The folk song “John Henry” tells the legend of a railroad construction worker — presumably the best of the best — who raced against a new-fangled steam-powered drill. In the end, John won the content — and then died of exhaustion and stress.

It’s the perfect metaphor for this unequal battle we find ourselves in. For that machine was not self-existing; there was a human wielding it — and an entire team of humans who designed and manufactured it. John Henry may have won a pyrrhic victory for humanity (huzzah!) but the next day, that team got busy designing the next generation of drills — and the next, and the next.

The idea of a rematch today — a human with a sledgehammer going toe-to-toe with a modern pneumatic jackhammer is quaint — perhaps good for a few laughs and a middling viral video on YouTube.

So why do we think we can match wits with the machines and win? Because in this contest, we won’t even know when we’ve lost.

The Flood: a depression journey

Before the flood, my valley was beautiful.
Then the rains began, harder than they ever had before.
The waters rose quickly, and I could barely hold my own against the rush.
The flood raged and swept me away. I flailed to keep my head above the surface and began to despair of life.
Miraculously, I was swept against a staircase that rose from the flood. I had just enough strength to climb the slippery steps.
Somehow I reached the top — and the rain had stopped. The sun just began to show through the clouds, and I felt that I could rest. Surely the worst was over.
As the floodwaters receded, I descended the stairs. I was grieved to find that everything beautiful in my valley was dead and decaying.
Worse, everywhere lay jagged piles of debris that scratched and poked me if I got too close. I grieved the valley I had once known, realizing that it was gone forever.
After I wept, I began to look around me and see that life was starting to return. Even in the wreckage and rot, there was beauty to be found. I began to accept the new normal of my valley, and accepted the task of tending and nurturing it for the next season.

Undone by undone

This is a series of thoughts about Season One of the TV series undone. Rating: TV-MA. Content warnings: Language, car accidents, suicide. It assumes you have already watched the series, and contains spoilers for Season One.

Alma knows her life is a mess, and is hoping for a quick fix. They never happen.

She ends up learning to connect to the world.

This is the true journey, not the magical poof! that solves all problems and erases a painful past. In the final scene, she hopes to see her father emerge, but — I believe — instead sees a glorious sunrise over the ancient temple. Her father will not appear, but now she is is on a new journey toward wholeness.

Jacob, her father — at least the one in her head — has a different journey. At first, as in life, he’s very driven, single-minded, and driven to accomplish his objective. He feels fully justified in lying and unethical behavior for the greater good. He has no doubt that he is (and was) the “good guy.”

In one moment, he realizes that he was not the hero he thought he was. His response is despair; to give up.

Despite all of his research — and even some practice of — spiritual connection, he remains a typical Western detached thinker. Untouched and unmoved, he sees all as a means to an end.

Since he is physically dead, Jacob’s journey becomes Alma’s. She, too, begins to see that she was not “the good guy.” But she now has an opportunity to grow and move toward wholeness.

In her mind, her father’s trajectory has changed; he has now made the choice to stay rather than leave. She is beginning to make the same choice.

She is at peace with the end of her father’s journey, because it means closure — like two streams merging to create a third, more rich and robust.

She had been living under the burden of her father’s absence (betrayal? neglect?) and it was a convenient excuse for her failing life.

She has had these two journeys going on in her head for 17 years, both denying and trying to integrate them. It took the crisis of the car accident to show her that this journey was not healthy or sustainable — if she didn’t deal with these two broken streams, she would continue in this pattern forever.

Was all this “just” schizophrenia? Probably. But as we watch Alma we see how the inner landscape is a real part of us. Does it happen in her head? Yes, but so does everything, for all of us. Our somatic, subjective interpretation of the past and present is reality.

The presence of mental illness doesn’t mean we can just discard and disregard everything we experience. Our lived experience is our journey. Like a human trying to ride an elephant, we don’t have control so much as influence over the journey.

Jacob trains Alma for his own goals, and Alma learns. But Alma integrates the training in a way that Jacob never could. She uses it intuitively to train the elephant, to guide her inner self.

So while she is outwardly still hoping for a magical fix, inwardly she knows that it’s the long journey that counts. She ends at peace with the messiness to come.

Once the world seemed new

Once the world seemed new
full of promise

I was knighted, sent
to derring-do
without fail.

But I found that I failed
and hurt
and feared
and did not heal.

The fault must be in me
I thought
I felt
I feared.

I redoubled the beknighted deeds
to prove them wrong
or prove them right
I could not tell.

But hurt without heal cannot last
I fell
seemingly for good.

Long I wandered shadowy lands
no faith
no hope
but not bereft of love.

For love descended
and stayed
and hurt
and healed.

Shattered, yet reknit
to light.

I brought with me a part
of that shadow
yet inseparable.

Now the world seems old
full of promise
yet sadder and wiser than before.

Mental illness is not like a cold (mostly)

After a very long time, I have recently come to a painful realization: For a long time, I thought of my mental illness like a cold. Like a temporary inconvenience, something to be shrugged off.

When I have a cold, I usually feel better after a day or two, and I am tempted to jump back into action. That’s when the relapse happens — when I am feeling strong and proud, like I have vanquished my foe. Fortunately, despite my occasional bouts of foolishness, my body is healthy enough to still be able to fight off a cold.

I made the mistake of taking this mindset into my fight with depression. When I began to feel better, I figured I was healed! I don’t need this dumb diet, this lame meditation! I’m ready to post something controversial on Facebook! I’m ready to keep up with the latest news! Ready to confront someone on the Internet who is wrong! I can power through this stress!

It took me years to recognize that anxiety is not the same as worry. Christians aren’t supposed to have anxiety, after all, so I must not be trusting God enough. This just added guilt to the burden I was carrying. When people tell you to “shake it off,” or “snap out of it,” it just adds to the feeling of failure.

When symptoms are external, other people usually step in. They say: You’re sick — go home and take care of yourself! When symptoms are inside your head, however, it’s far more difficult for a friend, community, or even a spouse to “be there” for you. It’s hard to know what to say. It takes knowledge and wisdom, it takes transparency and vulnerability. A relationship or community like this is rare.

So I kept trying to power through my depression, never realizing that this regular exposure to fight-or-flight hormones was doing massive damage to my mind and brain. If untreated, the flu can turn into pneumonia and then into sepsis. This has killed very healthy people — and one of my heroes, Jim Henson.

Finally I have some to the point where I am able to form better habits and be open with enough people with my struggles. It’s humbling and painful. It still carries a stigma. Often I simply have to put up a front whenever I’m around people that really don’t understand. This is exhausting, and carries the danger of falling back into the old “I-can-do-this-alone” mentality.

There is no silver bullet solution to all this, just hard work. Medication can help, but it’s not a panacea.

If you are struggling with mental illness, find a community who understands. Humble yourself enough to do what you need to stay healthy and trust others with your struggle.

If you know someone with mental illness, learn about it. Be part of a community who understands and supports.


I watched Click (the Adam Sandler movie) a few years ago and it immediately struck me as a powerful picture  of depression. I’m going from memory, so I may have a few things wrong. SEMI-ACCURATE SPOILERS AHEAD!

The basic story line is that Michael (Adam’s character) wishes for a way to skip through the boring bits of life and get on to the next exciting thing. This being a fantasy, he encounters a magic salesman who provides him with a remote control that he can use to fast-forward real life whenever he likes. What he doesn’t expect is that he would lose control of it and suddenly end up 20 years in the future at his daughter’s wedding. Stunned, he tries to reconnect with his family and finds that they are all estranged from him.

He finds the salesman who sold him the remote and demands an explanation. The magical salesman explains that during the fast-forward process, you are sort of running on “automatic.” He shows Michael how to “flashback” to the last time he spoke to his daughter. Michael watches as she visits him at work; she clearly wants to speak with him about something important.  His “automatic” self just mutters and keeps working. She leaves, crying.

“Talk to her!” Michael tells his auto-self.

“I don’t remember any of this!” he tells the magical salesman, who just shakes his head and says, “Of course you don’t.”

Sometime around 2009, I was on the road to recovery, and I started feeling normal again. I was happy (or happier) and ready to get on with life. My wife was pleased that I was better, but had been suffering as much — or more — as I, and wanted to talk about what had happened.

But every time she brought up a time where I had responded roughly or had said something hurtful — I simply did not remember it. It was difficult to get closure, and it took some time for us to work through the pain and rebuild the trust that had been lost.

One thing I will never forget: How she stood by me.

10% Happier

Last week I started reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris. It’s a good read, and I find myself identifying with his thought process and journey. I also have no interest in becoming a Buddhist (though he doesn’t either, at least at this point in the book). It’s giving me hope that a “normal person” can quiet the voices and find peace. I also am finding it frustrating that I have never heard such practical advice in mainstream Christian churches. It’s always, “Just pray and read your Bible more.”

Peace in the shower

During the “long dark” of my severe depression, one of the only ways I could find a measure of peace was to sit (literally sit) in the shower. I would let the water pour straight down on my head and plug my ears. It sounded like rain on a wooden roof. I would sit like this for 10+ minutes until the panic and fear subsided enough to face the day.