Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.
Let’s get naked about mental health!
In this episode, I go deeper and into the background of a topic I’ve spoken about, boundaries. Healthy boundaries. It was a few years back that I realized that I had none. Learning about them and starting to build them is perhaps the healthiest thing I have done for myself. I’ve learned how to say, “No.” I’m not very good about it, but I’m working on it.
Before getting into the episode, the important stuff: I just want to remind everybody that I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or any kind of professional with an –ist at the end of their title. I am just a guy who has been there.
If you are in crisis, or know somebody who is, I implore you to reach out to a professional. There is now a national hotline you can call or text. 988.
I’ll repeat that because it bears repeating. If you or someone you know is in crisis, I implore you to reach out to a professional. Dialing or texting 988 will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.
Now, let’s get into the episode.
I just had one of those revelations that occur from time to time. Eh, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.
I have spoken about it a few times. When I am in a depression, everybody offers me advice which can boil down to, “Just get over it.” And then they wonder why I can’t just get over it and get stuff done.
I talked about how one time in particular, I was in tears because I could not put on a sock. There were no physical impediments to me doing it, but the depression made it impossible at that moment.
But what is it like? What is that kind of depression like?
Well, it is kind of like now: I can’t put a sock on my right foot. I have a broken ankle and there is a cast preventing me from doing it.
The cast is preventing me from doing a lot of things. I wrote something to somebody that this is probably one of the worst situations I have ever been in.
The sock thing, with the cast, is laughable. When it gets cold, I cover it up with a towel or a blanket, but I am unable to do anything. I have to depend on other people for everything, mostly strangers, because it happened in Tijuana. I’m stranded.
I even complicated it by bruising ribs in a fall so even short trips to the store were out as the use of the crutches aggravated the bruised ribs. One day, I got tired of not doing anything and went around to the grocery store on my crutches. I got to ride the electric cart, filled up my backpack, and then crutched my way home.
About an hour after I got home, every breath was painful. I had to stay completely immobile for a week while my ribs healed, just rolling around in my office chair to make it from the bed to the sofa, to outside my front door to smoke.
I was helpless. Still am, although after a week of immobility I resumed my use of the crutches to make it to some stores and get upstairs to the roof. I’m under doctor’s orders to not do anything else.
People are being extremely helpful and kind. Neighbors pass me and offer to do anything I need done. Staff are cleaning my apartment and doing my laundry–and refusing to accept tips. Friends are buying me the big things I can’t carry in my backpack like the jugs of water.
I have been looking for somebody to help me take a shower, but I am still on my own with that. Every lady I have asked thinks I have an angle. You try taking a shower in a stand-up shower stall while trying not to get the cast wet. –my doctor mentioned to this blind squirrel to put a dining room chair in there and that helps.
With my background, there is a certain irony to it. When I do make my way around to the store or wheel my way down through the apartment complex to do my laundry, people get angry with me for doing anything. They see me with my laundry basket in my lap and snatch it off of me, shooing me back home. My laundry appears at my door later on, folded. My trash bags I leave outside disappear before I can crutch them down to the cans.
My doctor told me he wants me doing nothing. I am not even allowed to do the exercises I read about online. He said I can start exercising once the cast comes off in four more weeks. The only thing he wants me doing is taking my supplements and sunbathing for at least an hour a day–no shit. So, I am doing as little as possible.
The ironic thing is that the cast and a broken ankle is considered an acceptable reason.
Nobody is telling me to just shake it off and get things done.
I did have to shake it off once and do what may have been one of the most physically excruciating things I have ever done in my life. When it first happened, I was a few blocks away from my apartment complex walking my dog before the heavy rains came. I tried calling a few people, but it was too early, and nobody answered their phone.
My dog, Dani, kept would be helpers away from me so they finally just tossed me a walking stick. It took me over an hour to get home. I almost passed out a few times from the pain. Almost gave up a few times. A broken ankle and a half-trained dog were almost too much for me, but I made it.
I did what I had to do, but at least I could do it. When I am in a depression, I can’t.
I’ve been through a lot in my life. I would just get stubborn, put on my Philly attitude, and make it through physically difficult situations. The walk three blocks were the worst, but it was just the top of a long list. There was bootcamp, working seven days a week for years while visiting friends and family in the hospital– making it happen on little or no sleep. I wrenched my knee deep in Arches National Park and made my way back to my car.
You get the picture.
There was that one time, deep in the depression, when I was unable to put on a sock. There is an equally long list there as well.
I can’t just “shake it off.” I try to put on the Philly and do what needs to be done and I can’t. I slump back into the bed or a chair and just wait it out.
With the cast, I am hobbled, disabled. Without the cast, I am being lazy and a piece of shit. With the cast, I am not expected to “shake it off.” Without the cast, I am.
They are really the same thing…
Instead of being depressed about the entire situation, I find myself…happy? Maybe happy is not the best word. I’m excited in the morning to wake up and get to work. Well, I am excited to get to the coffee maker to start that. After the coffee is done, I am excited to roll outside…and sip my coffee in peace. Then, after a little while, a cup or two, I am excited about getting to work.
What’s the difference? As I mentioned, this is one of the worst situations I have been in: almost completely helpless, stranded in Tijuana, and depending on the kindness of others. Everything from my experience screams that I should be falling into a deep depression. But I’m not.
Hell, I’m even having fun with it. I graduated from Instagram stories to TikTok videos. I think I’m funny. If you need a laugh, or maybe just to laugh at me, check out my other YouTube channel, The Chris Chronicles.
So, what is different? One thing is connection, something I finally picked up as I traveled. I write about disconnecting in my book. It’s called “Disconnected: An Odyssey Through Covid America.”
–the latest, and final, professionally edited edition should be out before Christmas.
While I was disconnected, I was reconnecting again. Then, I disconnected again to fall deeper into the depression in Texas. I even removed all of my social media accounts for a long time. People noticed and reached out to me.
At the time, I was still struggling with the suicide thing. A titanic struggle that would occur every night as I sat in my garage, fighting the urge to turn on the car and allow to carbon monoxide to carry me away.
I never fully disconnected though. I was living about a mile away from close friends and made it a point to see them every week and spend time with their family. I talked to them a few times about the struggle. Mostly though, I just spent time with them. We would go out to a restaurant on Thursdays, Margaritas, where I would sip my coke, and then every other Friday was pizza night at their house where I would buy pizza for everybody.
Then, I began further reconnecting again. But differently.
At some point in time, I ran across this on Facebook, that I just ran across again. It is about addiction, but I apply it to mental health. I do not know who the original people are, but the latest post I read is credited to Johann Hari:
“Put a rat in a cage and give it 2 water bottles. One is just water, and one is water laced with heroin or cocaine. The rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and almost always kill itself in a couple of weeks. That is our theory of addiction.
Bruce comes along in the ’70s and said, “Well, hang on. We’re putting the rat in an empty cage. It has nothing to do. Let’s try this a bit differently.”
So, he built Rat Park, and Rat Park is like heaven for rats. Everything a rat could want is in Rat Park. Lovely food. Lots of sex. Other rats to befriend. Colored balls. Plus, both water bottles, one with water and one with drugged water.
But here’s what’s fascinating: In Rat Park, they don’t like the drugged water. They hardly use it. None of them overdose. None of them use in a way that looks like compulsion or addiction.
What Bruce did shows that both the right-wing and left-wing theories of addiction are wrong. The right-wing theory is that it’s a moral failing, you’re a hedonist, you party too hard. The left-wing theory is that it takes you over, your brain is hijacked.
Bruce says it’s not your morality, it’s not your brain; it’s your cage. Addiction is largely an adaptation to your environment.
Now, we created a society where significant numbers of us can’t bear to be present in our lives without being on something, drink, drugs, sex, shopping… We’ve created a hyper consumerist, hyper individualist, isolated world that is, for many of us, more like the first cage than the bonded, connected cages we need.
The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.
And our whole society, the engine of it, is geared toward making us connect with things not people. You are not a good consumer citizen if you spend your time bonding with the people around you and not stuff. In fact, we are trained from a young age to focus our hopes, dreams, and ambitions on things to buy and consume. Drug addiction is a subset of that.”
I don’t know who this Bruce character is. I’ll look it up.
Okay: Bruce K. Alexander, a psychologist and professor emeritus from Vancouver, British Colombia in Canada. He retired from active teaching in 2005 from Simon Fraser University. I included the link to his “Rat Park” study in the transcript.
As I said, I apply connection to mental health. I’ve also mentioned in the past that I think we can become addicted to our depression. But I add another level to Bruce’s experiment. It is not only about connections, but about healthy connections.
In the experiment, and for the sake of this podcast, let’s put a “Rat House” into the setting. The rat is alone in the house. They have to leave it to get to the “Rat Park.” There are two paths to take.
The first path, the easiest route, is passing through the original box, where there is nothing but the two bottles and bunch of addicted rats. The other route, harder, is a roundabout way that bypasses the addiction box to bring them to the Rat Park.
The depression makes us go the easiest route. Eh, it is hard putting on socks. For decades, I took any kind of connection I could find. My dating history shows that. I took the path of least resistance and ended up in places and relationships that fed the depression or the co-dependency. It was only recently that I began to connect the dots and stumbled into Rat Park. Then, I began leaving my front door to take the long route to Rat Park, bypassing the empty place.
I am vastly oversimplifying this. I did have very healthy connections and relationships my entire life. For the most part, they never knew about my secret world, the depression. They never knew that when I did connect with them it is because I was stumbling through the empty box to get to them. When they did not see me for a long time, they had no idea I was spending time in that empty box.
It was really when I began examining (and overthinking) the healthy connections, comparing them to the questionable ones, that I discovered the alternate route to Rat Park.
It was hard taking that alternate route at first. So damn hard. The more I took it, though, the easier the way became. After a while, I started waking up eager for the day to begin. And the coffee is pretty damn good too.
Yes, I do trip coming out of my door at times and fall into the empty box. And that brings us to the next part of the episode: the Universe being tired of me ignoring her and taking direct action.
There is an untold part of the story about breaking my ankle. It just isn’t really important, except as a part of this episode.
Everything I have related in my videos and posts about fracturing my ankle is absolutely true. There is not even a lie of omission.
I was NOT drunk. I was taking my dog out for a very early morning walk in a misty rain. The heavy rains were supposed to hit, and I wanted to get her walk in so I left about 5 AM. It was a Friday.
I talk about it in the latest video I posted on the SOMA Chronicles (The Sitting on my Ass Chronicles). You might think I am nuts, but I do believe the Universe broke my ankle on purpose. She got tired of my shit.
For decades, She had been giving me subtle hints to learn some patience and humility. I ignored her. She made it so I couldn’t ignore Her anymore, so now I am learning patience and humility. Struggling with both.
I also think She placed Dani, my rescue dog, in my path. All that Dani is teaching me is to puppy proof my house. I now have all my shoes in drawers and everything that she can gnaw on hidden away. She comes up with something new from time to time, and I have to figure out ways to keep her from that. The latest was toilet paper rolls. She ate half of my last roll!
But Dani cramped my style.
Maybe as a rescue, or maybe just as a puppy (she is 18 months old), she does not like being left alone. Since adopting her, I had been staying very close to home, not even heading to the bar on occasion.
She had gotten better, though. Not going completely nuts when I left. I felt I could start venturing out for short periods of time.
That Friday? When I broke my ankle? I had every intention of going out. I wasn’t going to stumble and trip out my door into the emptiness; I was going to walk boldly into it. I was heading to the strip club that night. Eh, it’s an addiction.
Then, I broke my ankle. I wasn’t going anywhere. Instead, I had to start reexploring the longer route to the Rat Park, the healthier route. The Universe didn’t give me much of a choice.
Fracturing my ankle, being stranded in my apartment complex, and running out of money turned out to be all good things. It’s funny how things work out.
It has even brought me more revelations. Aye, I’m bored. I can’t work all the time. I page through social media. I’m stumbling across things left and right, shiny things, things that tickle my brain and lead me down paths I might not have discovered otherwise.
I ended a few unhealthy relationships and started to explore new, healthier ones. I really started exploring the word “no” and how others were applying it to me.
Things catch my eye that leads to thoughts and then columns and then podcasts.
At first, I did think about taking the easy way to be honest. Eh, I just broke my ankle. I was in pain. I have been against drugs and pain killers all of my life. When I have gotten a script for them for something or another, I always stopped taking them before I ran out.
My thoughts strayed to a very unhealthy path. There was the case of beer I have in my fridge and offers of more. I knew, or at least thought I knew, I could get a script for pain killers from my doctor.
Dr. Sibaja, my specialist, disabused me of that notion. “Have some beers,” he said. “I’ll even take you out for one or two. But no pain killers.”
Healthcare is very different here in Mexico. They don’t have an opioid epidemic. They are against prescribing pain killers.
Pain is good for the healing, he explained. He prescribed me a heavy dose of Motrin, that I am now off of. He also prescribed me this medication that made no sense to me and some of the doctors I spoke to in the US.
Prikul, or Pregabalin in English, has nothing to do with broken ankles. It is prescribed for nerve damage, which I didn’t have. According to Medline Plus, “[It is] used to relieve neuropathic pain (pain from damaged nerves) that can occur in arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet or toes if you have diabetes and postherpetic neuralgia…” It didn’t make sense to me, or my docs in the US, so I didn’t fill the prescription. I was counting my pesos.
Dr. Sibaja gave me samples to take. My doctor friends in the US said they wouldn’t harm me so take them.
A neighbor I have seen a few times in the complex passed me and asked about my ankle. He turned out to be a semi-retired ankle and foot specialist from the US. He explained the Pregabalin is ideal for my situation. It would relieve pain without the narcotic effects.
But that’s not the only reason I wanted the drugs. I wanted to escape. Eh, I’m in Tijuana. It’s not like I need a doctor’s prescription. My friend took me out to a restaurant, dropped me off across the street while he went to park, and I crutched my way over to the place. On the short hop there, a minute, three different people approached me and offered me the best Percocet cheap.
I went and had my two beers.
Aside from a beer here and there, I’m sticking with my caffeine and nicotine.
So how did I create healthy connections? Well, first, I ran away from home. I was too embedded in unhealthy ones. You can’t run from your problems, they always stay with you, but sometimes I think you need to get some distance from them. –though I did find you don’t really need to.
Out on the road, I started to find out about boundaries and how I didn’t have any. That creates very unhealthy relationships with the wrong people, either people who are users or people who have no boundaries themselves. I found myself pouring everything that I had into everything, which left me with nothing.
The basic idea of a boundary is the ability to say, “No.” I suck at it. A few thousand miles between me and the people I could not say “no” to helped me establish the once nonexistent boundaries.
I’m getting there. I found some incredible teachers along the way. I think by learning about boundaries is what has helped me maintain a healthier mental state. I’m not pouring myself out into everything. I’m saving something for myself while exploring balance and other tools.
Not that I have much of myself left, but I am finally rebuilding the reserves as well.
I am a natural giver. It even says so in all of the personality tests I’ve taken. When I was interviewed by Leo Flowers, he asked me an interesting question. I had spoken about both the unhealthy giving of myself and dedicating my life to helping others. He asked if they were a contradiction.
It made me think. No, I replied. It’s not a contradiction because of boundaries.
Let’s go back to the rat box and Rat Park. Co-dependency, and unhealthy giving, is exactly like sipping on that heroin infused bottle. It’s an addiction. Healthy boundaries are the walls you form to create the tunnel to take you to that Rat Park.
You are avoiding the takers, and the other addicts, while making your way to mutually beneficial relationships. Giving, in a healthy way, like doing this podcast, doesn’t deplete me. It revives me, gives me something back, connects my spirit with an inexhaustible supply of…pardon the pop psychology or new age ishness…energy and good vibes.
I did take things a bit too far. An addiction to being healthy? It made me forget things like being financially healthy. I started working on the whole balance thing, made plans to return to Philly to start working…and then the Universe broke my ankle.
I was hesitant about returning to Philly. Okay, okay: I was scared shitless. It was taking me far too close to that empty box. I had done well with things here but could I continue it with the empty box so close and integrating work into the work life balance?
With some more time, and some more lessons, I know now that I can.
And that is a wrap for this episode.
I meant to dive deeper into the science and psychology of boundaries, but shiny things took me other places. Maybe next episode? Or maybe shiny things will take me even further stray.
I should be talking about balance. Maybe balance and boundaries?
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