A Walk in My Shoes

It’s official! For Mental Health Awareness Month, I renamed, expanded, and republished my book. It is now available on Amazon and through my websites.

It is the collected transcripts of the podcast to date, with a Foreword, Introduction and some editing. A hardcover will be available soon. An audio book will be coming along. Yes, an audio book of the transcripts of a podcast. 🙂

I just wanted to have everything collected somewhere. I run into a lot of questions and posts online. “That’s episode 2. That’s episode 25. Hell, that’s episode 1. Read the damn book.”

I’d like my $2, but the eBook will be available free for the last five days of the month. It is some kind of special that they run on Amazon. Really, I am trying to find a way to make it available for free here on the website. It may not be the best business decision, but that’s not really the point. The point is the same as the website, the podcast, and this blog: to spread awareness and help others who may be struggling or help those with loved ones understand them better.

I’ll be hard at work on the audio version of the book. That is going to take at least a month I think. The other book will take about a month after that. But, then, I’ll be getting back fully into this website.

Be kind to yourself.

Aloha.

Episode 33: A Wishy Washy Pause

Welcome back to the podcast! Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s unmask mental illness!

Well, I missed the scheduled Episode 33. Which is telling me something. I know I was saying in the last episode that I wanted and needed to continue to do the podcast, and I do want to, but it’s time to pause for a while.

I know, I know: I was just saying…

But, as a friend mentioned, sometimes you need to unplug from things to concentrate on other things. This is something that I really enjoy, but I need to unplug for a while to plug back into life, a healthy life. Getting off this damn rollercoaster is proving to be more difficult than I thought.

Before getting into this final episode for a while, 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. In the United States, 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 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

I really am doing okay. I am also not doing okay. It is hard to explain but I am going to give it a shot.

Physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, I am feeling great. I am feeling better than I probably ever have. I feel good about moving back here, starting up a new kind of orthodontic lab, and the wealth of joy I get from spending time with my nephew is enormous.

As I just wrote a friend, and spoke about in the past few podcasts, I had to take some steps back. I was expecting it. As positive as I am feeling about my new business venture, I knew I was facing a Herculean task. I was up for it. I wanted the challenge.

Everybody says that startups do not make money in the first year, maybe even the first two. I knew I could do it in six months. Maybe even four. Had to do it in four to six months. To get there, I’d need to dive into “workaholism,” as a therapist put it–love that word. I dove in, played in the waves, got swept out by the undertow, and laughed the entire time.

I’m back on the beach now, staring at the roller coaster.

Beach to a roller coaster? Like I said, I am going to try and explain this.

I am not doing okay because of the overpowering shadow of that roller coaster, the pull to jump back on. I want to jump back on, need to. It is the easy and comfortable, and the path to it is the path of least resistance. I know if I just allow myself, I’ll be swept up on to it, enjoying every second of the movement. I’ll enjoy riding it again.

Until I don’t.

The roller coaster was my life up until a few years back. You should be able to talk to anybody in a 12-step program and they’ll be able to explain the roller coaster to you. I’ve spoken about it before.

Any kind of addict, from booze to drugs to workaholism, knows the roller coaster well. Even if they kick the habit, they tend to still live the life of an addict. For people with an addiction to booze, it’s called being a dry drunk. For me, it’s called being Christopher Gajewski.

Somewhere along the way, many, many years ago, I got my wires crossed. The workaholism, escapism, co-dependency and all manner of unhealthy coping mechanisms became ingrained into my life and my daily routines. So, though I think that I have kicked the habits, I am still acting like I haven’t.

Case in point: my gym membership. I got one. I’m paying for it. But I haven’t used it a single time yet. I just don’t have time–or at least that is what I tell myself.

I’m pretty sure I am standing in the shadow of the roller coaster now, and not actually on it. My daily habits have improved, I take “me” time, I’m building better boundaries…

But I know I need to do better, need to do more, to put the roller coaster firmly behind me and get out from underneath its shadow. I need to take the path of greater resistance away from it. That takes time and effort. It takes time commitments to healthier things like the gym and yoga. I need to search out and find healthier social activities.

It’s not enough to avoid the unhealthy activities. I need to be actively pursuing the healthier ones.

This podcast is a healthy activity for me, but it is also time consuming. I feel a pull towards it that it is something I MUST be doing. With my limited time now, even backing away from the workaholism to a certain degree, I feel it pulling me away from the things I should be doing to gain more self-actualization.

How did I do about explaining it?

So, I think it is best if I unplug for a while. A month, maybe two, maybe three. I need to put this firmly on a back burner, fully unplug, so I can pursue other things that will make this a healthier pursuit.

Does that make any sense?

I suck at time management. I always have. Because of it, and everything else, even when I do have free time, I get stuck. I look and think through my “to do” list and end up not doing anything. Or I get pulled towards something that does not have to be done immediately to avoid doing something that should have been done a long time ago.

So, what will I be up to? When will the podcast be back?

The second question is easier to answer. The podcast will be back when it is time to start doing it again. It will be back after I move away from the shadow of that roller coaster and can commit the time and resources to do it right.

What will I be up to? That’s my to-do list.

First, I am finishing my book. It’s been on the back burner for too long. I spent the day on it yesterday and am now ready to get it published. Self-publishing can be a pain the ass, so I’ll have to work through it.

I screwed up the first time I published it. I just got it done, without doing it right. This time, I need to put in the time and effort to do it right, exercise patience to really go over the first copy, and then I need to market and sell it right.

I want to do an expanded copy of this book and do that right this time.

Then, I need to make audio versions of both of the books, something that I really want to do that will take a major time commitment.

I want to practice what I have been preaching and get into the foundational stuff I talked about in this podcast, in the mental health triangle. The self-care. Did I mention I need to start going to the gym and yoga class?

I want to catch a couple Phillies games.

I need to go for a long drive to Austin before work makes it impossible.

I have all of the pieces in place. Now, I need to start putting them together.

The demons aren’t even outside of my apartment anymore. They got bored and wandered off. Maybe there is one or two still hanging around for the right opportunity. But I’m just sitting in my apartment that I feel safe in, on the floor, with all of the puzzle pieces spread out before me.

How do they fit together?

Some pieces of the puzzle are still a mystery to me. They are there, but are they a part of the old puzzle or the new one?

I have some clicking and figuring to do.

When I get the puzzle finished and framed, and can comfortably fit this podcast back into it, I will.

Until then, be kind to each other. More importantly, be kind to yourself. Be merciful to yourself.

Aloha

Episode 31: The Illusion of Absence

Why do people stay in bad relationships? I dive into myself, and into some songs, to look for possible answers.

Bad relationships is a spectrum, not a black or white thing. They can abusive marriages, empty marriages, unhealthy workplaces, or even something as mundane as my continued following of the University of Miami football program. I remember better times.

There is something about comfortableness, something about the fear of the unknown, something about being seen.

Rob Thomas helps with this one. Anybody know how I can get in touch with him? Anyway…

Welcome back to the podcast! Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s unmask mental illness!

Rob Thomas did it again. I really need to talk to him about that. Anybody know how I can get in touch with him? I like his solo work and his album, “The Great Unknown,” has been something I have been playing a lot recently.

Certain lyrics just come out and grab me. If they have the right music behind them, it creates a theme in my mind, a starting point for me to wander down my own paths. Some of Rob’s songs have created guard rails and direction signs on those paths.

With other conversations I have been having, and things I have been thinking about, that’s been happening again. A song and the lyrics create the structure to an answer to a very basic question: why do we stay in bad relationships?

The relationships can be with people or things. “Bad relationships” is a spectrum, not a black or white thing. It can be an extreme, like staying in an abusive relationship, or it can be a not so abusive relationship, like why I still follow the University of Miami football program.

We have choices. But Rob gives me a hint at the answer in, “Absence of Affection.”

In the absence of affection, we’ll take anything and call it love.

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. In the United States, 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 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

It’s the absence of affection that drew me to many places that I shouldn’t have gone throughout my life. It was absence of affection that kept me in places and situations I should not have stayed.

I’ve heard the horror stories. The physical and mental abuse. I don’t have any of them. I did brush up against one a long time ago, but it was only a faint brush. No, my people, places and situations were more mild, more mundane. They were unhealthy all the same. Places I should not have stayed. So why did I?

Rob hints at the answer in his song, “In the absence of affection, we’ll take anything and call it love.”

The Great Unknown is the album title and that points at the answer as well. I got comfortable in the known, set up house and set up shop. I settled in and bought myself a nice, comfy chair and set up my coffee maker. It got to the point where I would not even look out the windows into the great unknown.

The unknown can be a scary place. It so much safer to stay in the known, so much easier, comfortable. I can fully understand and appreciate why a person will stay in a relationship where they are being beaten and abused.

I know the other side as well, the frustration and anger with a friend or loved one who stays there. I know my friends and family know the frustration. But I have also learned that the known can be such a powerful force to hold a person in place.

Someone pointed out to me that I very rarely talk about my marriage in these podcasts. I guess that it is time to do it. I will not bash her or the marriage, or even the institution of marriage. It was just a situation where I should not have stayed in, simple as that. I stayed and I own that.

I still feel the pull towards something like that, as I sit in my home at night, alone, there is the pull to be together with somebody. There is the pull to be a part of something. It is about the absence of affection. It is about the illusion of the absence of affection, but I’ll be getting into that later.

To my friends and family: stop it! Seriously. Stop it.

With my ex-wife or others, they hate it when I sound apologetic for people they perceive treated me badly. They can get pretty vicious about it. That alone can circle back into the “illusion” of the “the illusion of the absence of affection.”

But just stop it. She was not a bad person; she was just the way she was and I was the way I was. I accepted it and I own it. The ending of our marriage was one of the most amicable splits that I have ever had. Hell, it was more friendly than when I asked my business partner for a divorce about the same time. He stopped talking to me. Tracy and I, after a few days, still slept in the same bed for months while we tried to sell the house.

But our marriage ended long before I asked her for a divorce. Years before. We both knew it. It wasn’t healthy for either of us. Why did she stay in it? Why did I stay in it? It was probably something that should never have been. I’m not going to go back that far though. I think I already covered it in other episodes, about the red flags that I saw and ignored, the orange cones I drove through until I ended up in a ditch.

But I remember specifically driving over railroad tracks. We’re in the car going to the last and final home that we would eventually buy, after looking at about 80-90 of them. I remember the pressures inside of my head. Maybe it was the railroad tracks on Route 1 going to Chadds Ford that shook the thoughts loose and made them rise up to the top of my head.

“What the hell are you doing? You are going to look at a house that you cannot afford, in an area where the taxes are insane, for a “turnkey” house that may be turnkey for her but is not for you. You don’t need to buy a new house. You need to get a divorce.”

But I looked at my lovely, beautiful wife, smiling, thoughts of vows I had spoken about forever and for better or for worse, smothered the thoughts, and went and bought the house.

Friends and family: stop it. Just stop it. I know. But aye, the co-dependency was in full swing, there was the illusion of the absence of affection beyond in the great unknown, and I was comfortable.

“Okay,” I said to her before we signed the final papers, “we really can’t afford the house. To be able to afford it, we need to live house poor for at least a few years while we catch up on our bills. Then, we’ll be okay.”

She agreed.

Then, we bought the house, poured tons of money into the turnkey home, and went on a few very expensive vacations.

The pressures began to build. The patch I had put on the emptiness inside of me began to tatter and fray. Everything began forcing me to look out into the great unknown from my nice comfy chair. The depression began to build and pull me further into the emptiness.

I didn’t know what the hell to do so I grabbed on to the known and comfortable. The terror of falling into that vast emptiness made me grab onto any lifeline that I could find.

We all know the story of the guy hanging on the crumbling cliff face, so he grabs at a tuft of grass or a slight branch that would never support his weight for long. But he grabs anyway. I grabbed. Then, I fell into the emptiness.

What I did not see at the time were the strong heavy ropes, the ladders and slings, hell, the hammocks and life vests that were all around me with the rescue helicopters circling overhead.

I fell deeper into the depression, into an unhealthy marriage, and an unhealthy business partnership.

A soundtrack entered the emptiness. No, not Rob Thomas, though his older album, his first solo work, Something to Be, was somewhere in the background.

This is where irony really comes into play. It truly breaks my heart, but my daughter does not speak to me. He birthday just passed. I was around for quite a few of them and she was my daughter, and I was her father. For one of my birthdays, or maybe Christmas, she bought me tickets to see a band that I had started listening to. The X Ambassadors.

As I have mentioned in past episodes, I hate being that kid with the mix tape. The scene from the movie, Almost Famous, where Kate gives her brother the album and says, “listen to the words,” makes me squirm.

But it is what it is.

I went to the concert with my wife, with the tickets my daughter had bought me, and the X Ambassadors slammed into my mind. They shattered the illusion of being comfortable. They made me look at my beautiful wife, with the soundtrack and theme of their concert enveloping me, and I knew the marriage was over and I had to ask her for a divorce.

It would still take a couple years.

Aye, I had made vows. I had built a life. Things were not terrible. There was no abuse, no cheating that I know of, and there were not even any arguments. That was part of the problem. There should have been a lot of arguments. But there was…nothing. I conditioned myself to be comfortable with that.

In the absence of affection, we’ll take anything and call it love.

I would still mouth the words, peck her on the cheek before I left for work, kiss her when I got home with her shying away from me because I stank of cigarette smoke, but did I still mean them? Yes, I did.

And that was a part of the problem. I got the feeling that she didn’t. I got the feeling that I was beyond invisible, that I was an annoyance.

Then, the depression really started to hammer me, and it hammered my thoughts and feelings into those weird shapes that only have one end.

What the hell was I sticking around for? We had gone to counseling a few times and that was pointless. Neither of us were going to change into the person we had hoped for when we got married and were just drifting further and further apart. I tell people that it might have been easier if there had been abuse, cheating or throw down fights. But it just…was.

In the absence of affection, we’ll take anything and make ourselves comfortable there. I became invisible, even to myself. I did not exist. Other people existed in my place. The masks I wore, the costumes, became my identity. I was a husband, father, son-in-law, brother-in-law, business partner, son, uncle, brother, cousin and a few other things. I wasn’t Chris anymore. It all took effort and exhausted me. With no Chris, no identity, there was nothing to recharge my batteries or refill the tank.

By not being seen, I was disappearing.

Is that one of the reasons why people stay in unhealthy relationships? There is the great unknown and, even if there is something awful going on, at least you are being seen? At least there is the tuft of grass.

But then there was the X Ambassadors with their song Renegade. They were not yelling at me or screaming at me, even though the concert was pretty loud. It was just a simple statement. Let go.

I finally did.

My wife made it easier. I was struggling, battling the depression and the exhaustion. My identities were becoming heavier and heavier. I started to do something about it. I set things in motion to sell my business. I knew it was going to be hard, though. A tough year. I kept grasping at new tufts of grass as the ones I was hanging by pulled free.

I found a buyer for my half of the business I had built, the baby I had cared for and grown that had so much potential and so many possibilities. I told my business partner I was divorcing him. He stopped talking to me. I had to tighten my belt.

I went to Tracy. A final tuft of grass. The slimmest of branches. I didn’t want to. I was already invisible. It would mean becoming visible again, vulnerable. But hadn’t I been there for her when she quit her job and switched careers? Didn’t I offer to pay all the bills while she rebuilt something? So, I asked.

“It’s going to be a tough year. Very little money. I’m going to need your help with my share of bills.” I didn’t add that the 50/50 split of the bills had been absurd for years.

She looked at me, saw me, and quickly replied. “Why should I help a failing business?”

Then, she went on vacation. Two of them. I went and wiped out my 401k.

I not only let go, but I also configured myself for maximum velocity towards the bottom. Straight as an arrow, arms tucked to my side, eyes wide with the wind ripping tears from my face. I was not only headed towards the bottom, but I also welcomed it. Wanted it to hit faster and harder.

The X Ambassadors would create the soundtrack, or theme, of the descent. A descent into the void, into darkness and depression. I didn’t care. A lot of their songs became interwoven in the darkness. They released many singles and I just kept adding them to my playlist. Many of them meant something to me.

If “Renegades” was the opening song to the soundtrack of my fall, then their song “Hold Me Down” was the closing theme.

It was on their second full album. After I asked for a divorce, I started taking vacations because I didn’t give a shit about money or anything else anymore. I was in Chicago to see them again, alone this time. There is a story about the entire experience in my book that should be out in a month or so. Disconnected: An Odyssey Through Covid America.

“Hold Me Down” is a song about a guy who sees someone. The person is invisible, but he sees her, and he’ll be there for her to help hold her down, help keep her from flying apart. I had been that guy for a long time, holding everybody else down. Now, I was that person who needed holding down. I was standing alone in the middle of a crowd of people, listening to the band that had crafted the soundtrack to my descent, my crisis.

Tears welled up inside of me. I crushed them out and had another drink. After the song was over, I was able to get back to enjoying the show.

It was not only the X Ambassadors that were telling me to let go, but it was also friends and family. They were all relived when I asked Tracy for a divorce, but, like I said, that took time. In between the concert and the actual asking, I started looking around me at their relationships, at my friendships that I had built over a lifetime. I even began looking at my daughter’s relationship with her new boyfriend that she would eventually move in with and then marry.

I began seeing something that was so very different than what I had with Tracy. I saw friendships and connections. I saw healthy boundaries. I saw balanced relationships. What really struck me was the friendships that I had ignored since marrying Tracy, that I began exploring again. I was welcomed back.

That is when it really hit me. My life partner was not my friend. Maybe we began that way, or maybe it was just that first flush of the relationship and getting to know each other. But after that first flush, after the usual acceptance of everything that is overshadowed by that first flush, the honeymoon period, I realized there was no sustainability.

I knew it. I saw it. But I was so damn comfortable. It was nice and safe going home to somebody every night. There were also the other unhealthy situations in my life that compounded the problem and forced me into a very tightly, focused world. I was a co-dependent and a workaholic. It gave me a tunnel vision to see, and only see, a very beautiful and lovely wife, who was accomplished and extraordinary.

Were we ever truly friends?

I don’t think so. Looking back, I began asking very simple questions of myself and others: “why is water wet?” What is friendship? What is love? What is balance and mutually beneficial relationships? What are healthy boundaries?

But it was so damn safe and comfortable, and there was the age thing. I had built a life. My relationship with my business partner and my wife spanned my 30’s and 40’s.

I had started my life over a few times. As I talk about, it was easy when I was young but grew harder as I got older. Now, I was looking at the end of my 40’s, with 50 around the corner. I was also looking at an exhaustion that seeped deep inside of my core, into everything that I had and was. There was nothing left, nothing to pour into a rebuilding or reshaping.

So, I let go, not with the intent to fly, but with every intent of hitting bottom. I welcomed it, welcomed a passing into the next world, into the end of exhaustion. Yes, the plan was to commit suicide after one last adventure.

There was nobody to hold me down. That was okay now. It would be okay until there was nothing left to hold down for.

I had the best time of my life. That free fall was glorious. Rob Thomas, the X Ambassadors, and a hundred other artists created a playlist for me as I reveled in the open road and freedom, at the absence of masks and identities.

And that is about when all of you people that love and care about me, my friends and family, really began to piss me off. Even chance, wonderful encounters began to intrude and piss me off. Justine, this fantastic lady I met when I first got separated, really annoyed the living hell out of me.

I had a plan! It was a good plan! I was finally free of the unhealthy relationships. The exhaustion was not replaced by anything like hope, but the contact and interactions I had with people began to point towards other things beyond “The End.” They started to point towards the next chapter. They started to point towards things I could learn, things that could help me establish boundaries and healthy relationships.

They started to point towards the wider field. They started to point towards what was wrong about the line from the Rob Thomas song. “In the absence of affection, we’ll take anything and call it love.”

That’s about when Sara entered my life. She taught me the idea of being intimate with myself and caused me to look without tunnel vision towards the bottom, and to open my damn eyes to the wider field, the wider world.

I’m gloriously free falling, reveling in it, and then I see a net below me. Not the rocky bottom I wanted.

Shit.

You may have seen it at the beginning of the podcast. I know it now but did not know it then.

The tunnel vision and the depression caused me to see only one thing while making me miss the wider truth. There was never, ever, an absence of affection. There was never, ever, a time where I was not seen, when I was invisible. There was never, ever, a lack of options.

Now that I think about it, as I type this, it is like the old joke.

Floodwaters came and a man was trapped inside of his house. A boat came by, to rescue the man, and the man replied, “I’m staying. God will save me.”

The flood waters continued to rise, and another boat came by. The man replied, “I’m staying. God will save me.”

The flood waters rose even more, and the man climbed onto the roof of his house. A helicopter came by. The man called out, “I’m fine. God will save me.”

The flood waters continued to rise, the man was swept away, and he drowned. He appeared before God and prostrated himself.

“God,” he said, “I do not understand. I am a good and pious man. I lived a good life in your service. Why didn’t you save me?”

God replied, “I sent you two boats and helicopter. What else did you want Me to do?”

Yes, God speaks with a Philly accent.

But that is what I missed, and what I think a lot of people miss. I was holding onto the tufts of grass and the slimmest branches. They pull free and I grab onto another. Did I mention there is another X Ambassadors song about Indiana Jones?

The depression, and all of my other issues, created this tunnel vision. I wanted to be seen and loved by this one person. I needed this one person to complete me and validate me. So, I held on, exhausting myself reaching for tufts of grass and the slimmest of branches.

What I failed to notice were the helicopters circling. It is so damn hard to see them at times. I needed help to open my damn eyes. Friends, family, loved ones and acquaintances were all there, probably facepalming. There are support groups and associations just like the one I created.

Probably the biggest thing in the air, dangling a nice comfy hammock with a cup of coffee in a holder, was the Goodyear Blimp. It was being piloted by me, with a cup of coffee and a cigarette hanging out my mouth, shaking my head and facepalming. Probably saying my favorite Scottish expression.

The blimp was all lit up. Sparkling, blinking colors with the word “SELF” rolling across it.

There was never any reason to fall.

I forgot. I couldn’t see.

But I guess that is sadly the way of things. It is so much like addiction. You need to hit rock bottom. Some of us need to find the cellars beneath the bottom. I’ve been there as well, waiting, my heart breaking, for a loved one to find that bottom.

It’s a scary proposition. I know what the bottom means. You need to let them hit it, and the impact means one of two things. Either they will start getting the help they need, or they will die. The death, though, can be a lingering thing.

When I was stranded in Mexico, I received a phone call. It was from a young lady I had met and had not spoken to in a couple years. I was surprised she still had my phone number. I didn’t have hers anymore.

She was in tears. It turned out that she had gotten married, and the guy had become physically, mentally and emotionally abusive. She told me of her terror, her broken nose and broken arm. She needed help. Just a little money, enough to get her home, away from him.

I couldn’t help. I didn’t have anything. I would have sent her a bus ticket if I did. I was down to nothing myself, was begging myself. The only thing I could do was tell her, beg her, to go to a shelter. I had no idea where she was, but I knew that help, a helicopter, a rope ladder, was only a phone call away. She hung up on me.

I hope she found something and did not return to her husband.

Why do we stay in unhealthy relationships? There are a lot of reasons. As I said many times, we can justify anything. It’s usually bullshit.

For me, it was a lack of a sense of self, and a fear of the great unknown. It was all of my issues and insecurities creating tunnel vision. It was a lack of view of the field and the net of people that surround me and care for me. It was the depression, the anxiety disorder, the PTSD, the co-dependency.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

It was forgetting the people that had my back. It was not thinking I was worthy for people to have my back. It was a lack of aloha.

With that, the episode is a wrap.

Be kind to yourself. Be merciful to yourself. If you are struggling, stop squinting your eyes, open them, and see the net of relationships all around you. Start there.

Aloha.   

Episode 29: Let’s Have a Chat

Episode 29: Let’s Have a Chat

The return to Philadelphia was as expected: hectic, crazy but exciting. I’m sticking with Plan A and reposting Episode 17: The Tangled Path to Communication, with a special introduction.

It’s appropriate. And, I found, necessary. I’ll be answering the same questions many, many times. I don’t mind, but it would really help if you read the damn book. Or listened to the podcast.

The answers to many questions can be summed up as, “That’s episode 14. That’s 7. Hell, that’s episode 1.”

Like I said, I understand you not understanding. For many, it is very difficult to wrap your mind around such a distortion of reality that is mental illness. But the simple fact is that when I left home in July of 2020, it was for a grand adventure. The ultimate goal was to finish the journey and then find a nice quiet place to kill myself.

I was in the midst of a massive depressive episode that I hid very, very well. I was, and maybe still am, a highly functioning depressive–there is an entire episode about that.

I’m working on things. Things are going well. I hope to never be where I was emotionally and mentally ever again and I am doing the things I need to ensure that.

But that is where I was. Where my head was. The place where I was influenced everything that I did. It is why I gave everything away, spent all my money, ruined my credit, and really had a damn good time. Without having to worry about tomorrow, I had a freedom and sanity that I had never experienced.

Then, tomorrow became a possibility and that’s when things got very difficult. I struggled and then crashed in Texas and then made my way to Tijuana where I really began healing. Then, I broke my ankle.

I’m in a good spot now. A great spot, though you may not know by looking at it. I’ll share where I am typing this and recording this another time.

But I do want to get back to talking about it, and listening, communicating with someone struggling. As I talk about in episode 17, the path to a person’s personal hell may be paved with the best of intentions. Sometimes, the best you can do for a person is not to try to help.

I also wanted to talk about the other side of things, of the people struggling who are reaching out. Just as we need to understand that people may not understand us and may have no idea or understanding of where we are at, we cannot possibly know where the people are at that we are reaching out to.

Maybe we have found someone who does understand. Maybe we have found that net of people who love and care about us that we can reach out to. Maybe we reach out…and they are not there. Or it seems like they are not there.

They are. It must come down to faith.

Our struggle puts us into a very vulnerable and perhaps selfish place, a place that is super focused on us and where we are at. We reach out to no reply, or not the reply that we have come to expect.

The cascade of thoughts is bound to occur. That we are a burden, became too much of a burden, that they have discarded us, that our net lost strands and knots and some of the safety.

It may not be the case.

Perhaps, the people we are reaching out to are struggling as well. We need to push beyond our tiny space, expand into the wider net, and have trust and faith.

It is all about communicating.

And with that, Episode 17. I’ll be back next week with a new episode, Three Incredible Women who helped turn my journey from one towards self-destruction to one possible tomorrows.

Episode 17: The Tangled Path to Listening

Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s unmask mental illness!

In this episode, it got complicated. I started writing the transcript and then fell down a rabbit hole. If you have ever seen someone finish a bottle of tequila and then try walking home, that’s kind of what it was like. Aye, I made it home, sobered up, and then retraced my steps to find a more direct route.

When I post, I always use the hashtag #keeptalking. A couple episodes back, I started posting with a new hashtag, #startlistening. I first discussed it in the interview I did with Leo Flowers on his podcast that inspired me to do this one. I do talk, but then I stop because people aren’t listening. They hear what I say but aren’t communicating with me.

Last week, a few things came together, like conversations, realizations, my sense of humor, being in a cast for eight weeks and a couple songs. Jake and Elwood Blues and Pink Floyd will be joining us for this episode.

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. In the United States, 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 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

I now understand Robin William’s quote better, about how he always felt being alone was the worst possible thing and then realized that being made to feel alone while being surrounded by people was worse.

I’ve spoken about it before in podcasts, that an issue that I have is people not listening, not comprehending what I am saying. Aye, I get it. I understand. Clinical depression can be very difficult to wrap your head around unless you have been there.

As humans, we try to understand things by comparing it with our own experiences, the known. Most understand depression as a bad day, the feelings associated with bad moments. Clinical depression is not that. Talking about the desire to commit suicide can be like talking about an alternate universe where our laws of physics don’t work.

Especially during Suicidal Awareness Month, I saw a ton of posts about reaching out to people to check on them. It is a good start. But there was something off about the message for me and I didn’t understand why.

I spoke about it in previous episodes, about how when I was suicidal, or even just in a depression, everybody and anybody could have reached out to me, and they all would have gotten the same answer: “I’m fine.” Hell, people could have stopped by for pizza and beer, and they would have found somebody that was fine, a-okay, laughing and joining in the conversation. They would never have known I was not okay, not fine, and planning to kill myself.

Why?

Both times I stood on that doorstep to suicide with my hand on the knob, about to pass through, there was a long, long list of people I could have called. I come from a huge family, and they care about me and love me. I have an even larger group of friends. Both times, 20 years apart, I called one person, Rachel.

I can remember going through the list of people in my mind the first time. In 2000, I called Rachel, though we had really only known each other for a handful of years. In the second instance, in 2021, I remember going through my contact list on my phone. I called Rachel again.

Why her? Out of the hundreds of contacts? The simple fact is that I know that I am truly blessed. Those hundreds of contacts are not merely acquaintances. A large, close-knit family makes up a large portion of them and even larger group of close friends ring them.

Other conversations, about other situations, began to intrude on to my thoughts on communicating about depression and suicide. A web of understanding began to form. Large pieces were missing, but the framework began to appear in my mind. I started following the paths open to me.

There was a conversation I had with a friend of mine on another topic. He was upset with me. I would talk to everybody at work except him. I would also stutter more when I spoke to him. He took it personally and finally told me so.

I told him he should take it personally.

I explained that we had had a few conversations about it. Half a dozen? He’s one of those fast talkers that cut people off. He explained that he does that to everybody. I countered that I wasn’t everybody; I was a person who stuttered. Him cutting me off and talking over me made me stutter more and just not want to talk to him.

He finally understood, stopped cutting me off, I stopped stuttering, and we had good conversations. We still do.

It was a lesson I learned a long time ago as a PWS, a person who stutters. I consider my stutter a superpower. For 50 years now, I have called it my asshole meter. It saves me a lot of time.

It works like this. I begin or enter a conversation. Immediately, how they respond to the stutter tells me if it is worth investing anymore time in the conversation and the person. If they don’t listen to me, cut me off, or talk over me, I move on.

Yeah, it might sound harsh, but after 50 years you pick up on things. I do give people the benefit of the doubt, try again, but that is about it. It is just something that I know. I don’t take it personally.

Aye, it is a lot like dating. I am not everybody’s cup of tea, and they are not mine. I don’t take rejection personally. I see rejection as an opportunity to meet someone else that is more compatible, for the both of us. The sooner we break up the better.

But what happens when I am left as the only person in the room not talking? When I don’t have a date for the prom? I take a break. I step back. Leave to collect myself.

Mix in the depression and I isolate.

Leo Flowers and I spoke about it when he interviewed me on his podcast, “Before You Kill Yourself.”

I forget exactly what we were talking about, but it comes in at about 18 minutes into the interview that can be found on my website.

“Your friends,” Leo said, “don’t really know how to be supportive when you share your suicidal idealizations, and they believe they and their friendship should be enough to keep you around…and I think people miss out on the opportunity to be curious as to why [you] might have these suicidal idealizations. And try to understand where it is coming from as opposed to saying, “don’t kill yourself because I’ll miss you.”

“To me,” Leo continued, “that response is selfish because [they] haven’t taken the time to hear [you] and listen to [you] articulate where these emotions are coming from.”

Then, this framework in my mind, this web of thoughts and ideas, began to have a soundtrack. Or at least my favorite line to a Blues Brothers song.

In the song, “I Don’t Know,” Jake says, “Baby! What did I do to piss you off this time?”

–sorry, it’s the way my mind works and, when I’m following ideas, I’ve learned to just allow it to wander down any path that presents itself. This particular path led me to Jake and Elwood Blues and then a book I read a long time ago.

Aye, just go with me on this one.

Deborah Tannin taught me what possibly could have pissed off Jake’s “Baby.”

In her book, “You Just Don’t Understand; Women and Men in Conversation,” first published in 1990, Tannin talks about how men and women hear differently, approach conversations differently, have different conversation styles. If you have ever had a relationship, I am sure you have encountered this.

The book, a NY Times Best Seller, was published before sexual roles got complicated, so generalizations are made. For the sake of the podcast, I’m going to use the generalizations, but keep in mind that I have realized that my approach is much more “feminine” in nature though I can also be very masculine in my approach.

A woman comes home from work and tells her husband that she had a bad day. The conversation quickly makes the day even worse for the wife and for the husband.

The man approaches the conversation from the masculine, “how can I fix this?”

The woman approaches the conversation from the feminine, “I don’t need anything fixed, I just want to be heard.”

The man gets frustrated because his attempts at fixing things are being rebuffed and he feels ignored. The woman gets pissed off because her attempts at being heard are being ignored.

The wife stalks away and the husband starts hearing the line of from the song: “Baby! What did I do to piss you off this time?”

As I said, I am very much in touch with my feminine side. When I talk to people about my depression, and particularly about my suicidal thoughts, I don’t need things fixed. I know how to fix them. I want to be understood. I want to be heard. I want to connect.

Rachel heard me, both times.

If I don’t think I am being heard, I walk away.

“Baby! What did I do to piss you off this time?”

Jake, I now have an answer for you: “You pissed me off by not hearing me and I just wasted a lot of time and emotional effort for nothing.”

Maybe that is why I withdraw and isolate when I’m in a depression? Why I hide it. It is the path of least resistance, and the path of least resistance is the best I can do at times. If I am in a depression, it means my emotional reserves are gone. When the depression becomes severe, I barely have the energy to function let alone explain myself again, try to talk over the noise and the people talking over me. Talk over the rejection.

It is much like when I broke my ankle. I had to walk home three blocks. The best I could absolutely do was the most direct route, and I almost didn’t make it. Talking to people when I am in a deep depression would have been like if someone had asked me to go out of way and pick them something up at the store. It ain’t happening. 

…and that does not ring true to me. Parts of it. Where the hell has the path led me now?

It’s led me to SW Philly and my Coci Carol?

My Coci Carol is popping into my head, so I am going with it. Bear with me here. There is a whole other twist that is coming into play. Rejection and abandonment. Follow along as best as you can. I think it’s important.

Coci means “aunt” in Polish. I grew up calling her Aunt Coci. I finally learned better but she was still Aunt Coci to me. Some of my earliest memories of childhood revolve around her and her home, a block up the street from my house.

My own home was, well, not safe. Not stable. My mother was bipolar, so things were always interesting and a surprise. Coci’s house was my safe place, my comfort place. Her and her own children, all older than me, were my home. When my mother would have an episode and go into the hospital, my father would eventually drop me and my brother off at Coci’s house.

This is where there is a dichotomy, a story of polar opposites–no pun intended. One of my earliest detailed memories is being at the shore with Coci in North Cape May, NJ. I was laughing and playing in the bay. I was probably about four or five? I stepped on something slimy, and it came up to stare at me with one eye. I went screaming to my Coci on the beach. She laughed and said I should have grabbed it, that it was a flounder and was dinner.

Another of my earliest childhood memories is bolting out of my Coci’s house in SW Philly. I was six or so and running away from home. My safe place was being ripped from me. I forget why, but my father had stopped by to bring me home to my mom, even though she was still sick. I ran.

I got about a block before my very huge cousin caught up to me. He was crying and apologizing but scooped me up anyway. I fought. It was like, well, a scrawny six-year-old against a giant. He carried me back to my Coci’s house where my father brought me back to my mother. I was taken from safety to a place where I was not safe.

So, I run from the unsafe place, where people are not listening, to the safe place, the depression? Where the battle is not with other people, only with myself. Alone, I have been taught, is where I feel safest. Me against everybody. Me against the world. Me against the universe. I might fail, but at least I do not have to count on anybody.

–there is really something important there you can find in the movie, Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams talking to the math guy about Will’s friends.   

There is still that inner child, that scrawny kid with the skinned knees and bad haircut, that felt rejected and abandoned often, most often by the family that loved him. I was abandoned by the people who were supposed to take care of me. I started taking care of myself. Maybe not well, but somebody had to do it.

It was another part of the interview with Leo: adultification. I was forced into the role of an adult, independent, when I should not have been, when I was too young to handle it. Without ever having really come to grips with it, I brought those survival coping mechanisms into adulthood where they became unhealthy behaviors.

When things get bad, I count on me because I am the only one who I can count on. There is no safe and stable place for me unless I create it.

And now another song is starting to play, the opening of Pink Floyd’s “Keep Talking.”

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. And something happened that unleashed the power of imagination. We learned to talk.”

After those millions of years of not talking, partners were finally able to communicate, and I’d guess it was about three days after that Jake and Elwood Blues appeared on the scene singing, “Baby! What did I do to piss you off this time?”

So, I stalk into the other room to be alone, where I might not be okay, might not be fine, but it is where I feel safest. The other room might be a path to self-destruction, but at least I walk it alone where I am not reaching for someone’s hand for help, and it is not there or torn away when I need it most.

Why Rachel? I imagine there was a gut feeling that she would not pull her hand away.

As with many things, I don’t really know.

This has been a tough transcript to write. Imagine what it would have been like without the script. 

But let’s get away from Leo, Jake & Elwood, Coci, and Pink Floyd. Let’s find our way back to the main path, communication. What can you do to #start listening to a person who is struggling? If you are struggling, what can you do to #keep talking? 

On International Stuttering Awareness Day, I repost a piece I did on how to talk to a person who stutters that has simple rules. 1) Don’t finish their sentences, 2) Don’t tell them to relax and 3) Don’t talk over them. You have to keep in mind that you are having a conversation with someone that is different and different rules apply. I write that all that we want is to be heard.

Their reality, my reality, is different than yours. Fluency is natural for you where as it is a battleground for people who stutter.

The same goes for someone suffering from depression or other mental health issues. For some reason or another, we are pushed into isolation, and we should not do that and should not be there; it is the unhealthiest place for us. How do we end up there?

The first thing you need to think about is should you reach out? Seriously. The best of intentions can go wrong. What’s the saying? “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I understand. I really do. I have a family member who has told me they have the emotional intelligence of a shrub. They are just going to try and fix things. If they reached out to me? And I was desperate enough to respond with something beyond, “I’m fine, a-okay”? That would end up being a step along the path deeper into my personal hell.

Another thing to think about before you reach out is do you have the time and the emotional strength to hear what the person has to say? Again, I do understand if you don’t, and I do not hold it against you if you don’t.

I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been in a place where I knew a close friend, a loved one, was going through a bad time but I just couldn’t do anymore. It really took me about 40 years to stop being pissed off at my mom’s family and to start understanding that they have lives and issues as well.

You have to put yourself first.

If you are ready to make the investment to reach out, be prepared. You will not be having a conversation with someone who’s reality is the same as yours. It may be completely beyond anything you might know or have experienced.

The absolute worst thing you can do is point out to them that their reality is wrong. You can’t just tell them to suck it up. You need to be prepared to approach them from different angles as opposed to head on.

That’s what Rachel did with me the first time. I remember the conversation from 2000 vividly. Not once did she say, “don’t do this because I love you.” She came at me from a different angle. Remember: suicide made perfect sense to me. It does not make sense now, it did not make sense to her, but that was my reality at the time. So, Rachel approached it from, “just give me more time. Hold my hand and just give it more time. You’ve been through so much. You can give me another week, another month, another year.”

That made absolutely no sense to me. I was in so much pain and my reality was so altered that I could not see beyond that moment. But Rachel was right. I had been through a lot. I knew I could make it through anything. I could give her the year that she requested. In that year, I got help. Rachel helped give me perspective. She allowed me to have more time to regain a better reality.

Another thing you can do if you do reach out is don’t be a guy. Don’t try to fix things.

When I get calls like that, it just pisses me off.

“You should get counseling. You should get meds. You should do yoga. You should walk two miles every day. You should…”

Yeah, no shit Sherlock. I’m not stupid! Is that what you are trying to tell me, that I’m stupid? That I am just being lazy and a piece of shit? That’s how I interpret it in the depression. Which doesn’t help. It makes me more depressed, reinforces the depression and makes me isolate even more.

I’m actually a very intelligent person. A hell of a researcher as well. Mental illness smothers that intelligence. You need to figure out a way to reveal it. How?

I don’t know.

I’ve been there too, on the other side–with no answers. My mother had an IQ that well surpassed genius level. Her mental illness had her focused on a fact that was not true. Every expert in the world would agree. There was no shaking her from that reality.

I wrote a long time ago about an experience where my intelligence was smothered. Long story short, I was hammered by a depressive attack while at work.

“Do you know what it is like,” I texted my wife, “to be a failure in every aspect of your life?”

In that moment that I texted her, that was my reality, my truth. I started getting a flurry of texts from her. This was just a depressive attack, much like an anxiety attack that comes and goes, not a long drawn out episode. Reality reasserted itself much faster.

“What the hell did I just text” I thought to myself. I’m a failed business owner, husband, father, uncle, son, nephew, etc.? Am I nuts? I’m not perfect, I’ve made mistakes, but a total failure? No. And then I began to resurface from the depths, the attack passing, and I made it to the surface where my real truth existed.

But apply that to an episode that is lasting weeks or months.

The second time I reached out to Rachel was much different than the first and her response was different. It was a long conversation we had, with me in tears for most of it. The pain was more awful than what I encountered walking three blocks on a broken ankle. The agony was real, physical.

I think it was a depressive attack while in the depressive episode.

From a couple thousand miles away, Rachel hugged me. That’s it. That’s what I needed. She knew. She just had to be there to understand and to hug me. She didn’t try to fix anything, didn’t try to approach it from another angle like the first time, she just instinctively knew that all I needed to hear was “I understand” and to hug me.

Maybe it has to do with the inner child thing? I just had the same thing happen under different circumstances a few months back. It was not about depression or suicide. I had been triggered by something.

The friend I texted understood immediately and called. As a child of trauma herself, she talked to me from experience. “I’m right there with you, we’re standing there with your inner child and hugging him and telling him that he is safe. We won’t let go.”

She didn’t let go until the attack had passed. Rachel didn’t either. And that is really all that it took.

Within me, a part of me, is a very accomplished adult, 51 years old with a hell of a resume. Also within me is a scrawny kid with skinned knees and a bad haircut. I think a lot of this is coming down to that. If and when you reach out to me, you are reaching out to that child, not to the adult. The approach is very different. The adult needs to be coaxed out while keeping the child safe.

How do you keep talking? I think the same rules apply but just reversed. You have to be aware of who you are talking to and what their limitations are, understand where they are coming from talking to you. It’s about communication styles. Different people are going to give you different things, approach you different ways.

I say often that when I am in bad shape, before I completely withdraw, I throw out lifelines. I just start tossing them out. I’ve been amazed at who has picked one up and surprised by who has not.

The people who have not picked one up, or let go before I was safely ashore, I am not angry at or disappointed in. I now understand.

But I am going to keep talking. And I am going to start listening better.

And that is a wrap for this episode.

Except for one last part. I have not been communicating something very well. I have an inhibition I am attempting to overcome.

I typically resort to humor. That hasn’t been working.

If you are finding value in this podcast, I ask you to show your support for my efforts. It is going to be a long road before it is self-sustaining with sponsors or advertisements.

The easiest way to support the podcast is by liking, clicking, subscribing and sharing, especially on YouTube, where subscribers are king and can open up revenue sources.

If you can help out financially, that would be greatly appreciated. There is a link on my website to a Patreon page where you can become a patron of the podcast for as little as $5 per month.

I also just started a Kickstarter campaign. The link is on my website. I explain that I am trying to put in the time to make this a full-time job that pays a little instead of a part time job that doesn’t pay anything. I’m not really expecting that to work out but thought I’d give it a shot as a way to potentially spread awareness for the podcast.

This was all exhausting. I need a nap. A siesta is definitely in order before I come back around and see if the path is still too tangled.

I hope you were all able to follow along.

Aloha.   

The Problem with Absolutes

Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s unmask mental illness!

Yep, still in Tijuana as I write this. Welcome to a special Saturday edition of the podcast as I will be on the road during my normal uploading day and time.

My last podcast had me thinking about things, breaking down the subtle signs of depression. A column that I just wrote, “Lessons Learned from a Bar Fight,” was a mixture of the podcast and reactions to posts I am seeing. That led me to Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting.

All that led to this podcast. It is about something I have been saying for years in various forums and various lectures on many different topics. “Don’t screw up like I did.”

Learn from my mistakes. Please. If you do, it makes my mistakes more bearable, gives them purpose. I wish I had learned more from other’s mistakes but that has not been my way.

I also want to introduce you to this incredible woman that I met, though I do not know her real name. You’ll need to keep an open mind. 

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. In the United States, 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 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

First, before sitting down with Mr. Williams, this is the column I wrote with a few tweaks.

Lessons Learned from a Bar Fight

From posts I am seeing, I imagine that many people were disappointed by other people in 2022. I am reading a knee jerk reaction, about how if we don’t have expectations, we will never be disappointed. All of the memes and posts are making me facepalm. Often.

Umm, no. Don’t do that. It is all about a bar fight in SW Philly.

A very long time ago, probably when I was in high-school, I had been disappointed by a close friend and was going to cut them from my life. I was talking about it with my stepfather, and he told me of a story of a bar fight he was involved in during his younger years.

He was at a bar with two of his friends and they got into it with four other guys. At the start of the fight, his one friend ran and a 3 on 4 turned into a 2 on 4. –he never did tell me who won as it wasn’t the point, but he smiled that cocky smile of his.

Rich explained that he remained friends with the guy who ran, completely surprising me. He said that the guy that ran was a nice guy, had good qualities, but Rich learned that he would not trust him in a bar fight. He just accepted it.

It is not a black and white situation. There is a lot of gray involved.

Each person that we meet brings something into our lives and takes away, positives and negatives. We have to evaluate each relationship and see if the positives outweigh the negatives. This determines if the person should be in our lives and how far we let them in.

It confused me. It was so at odds with something I learned before. I attribute the story to my grandfather, but I don’t think it could have been him as I was more of a baby when he died but…

“If you can count your friends on one hand when you die,” he said to me, holding up a hand missing two and a half fingers from a work accident, “consider yourself lucky.”

My life became either/or, black or white, friend or enemy. Absolutes. That’s what you get for taking life lessons from a violent alcoholic.

I am a child of trauma. There is an article here based upon the effects of childhood trauma on an adult. It can really be summed up, though, by a scene in Good Will Hunting.

Robin Williams is talking to the math professor about Will’s friends. The math professor is saying something to the extent that they are gorillas and holding Will back. Williams yells back that any one of those friends would take a baseball bat to someone’s head for Will and that is what Will needed.

I remember cheering during that scene. I remember reflecting on that scene for years to come. I remember thinking about that scene from the perspective of my stepfather’s story.

My best friend in high school was Dave Pearce, may he rest in peace. From 8th grade to 11th grade, he was the Ben Affleck to my Matt Damon. Dave would, and did, do anything to protect me. He was all that you could ask for from a best friend and saw me through many difficult situations. He had my back, we’d wrestle and throw parties (sorry Mrs. Pearce), and he held me when I cried.

It was sometime in 11th or 12th grade that he found a new best friend, though. Drugs. We battled, fought, I had a few interventions, but his new best friend was far too powerful.

We got an apartment together after high school. Things went from bad to worse. What had been all positives, the ultimate best friend, went to being mostly negatives. For my safety, I had to cut him from my life and move back in with my parents. I would eventually move to Miami. It was one of the most difficult things I had ever done.

We were both screwed up kids in our own ways. I could just have easily found myself on his path but found other ways to screw up my life. He was such an incredible person, though, filled with love and loyalty, and I mourned his passing long, long before he passed away from an overdose. I never hated Dave. I hated the disease that stole him away from me.

But I was alone. I had also read the wrong books, learned the wrong lessons.

Dave epitomized that black and white scenario of friendship. It was us against the world. He was also the one who introduced me to a new world of heroes and villains, with the gift of the book, “The White Dragon,” by Anne McCaffery.

Long before I met Dave in eighth grade, that black and white world got technicolor thrown onto it when I started reading fantasy books. Everything I read was about ultimate things: ultimate good versus ultimate evil. Heroes and villains. It all lacks, well, the gray of being human.

I still remember a book I read in 4th or 5th grade that I had to get special permission as it was in the older student section of the school library. The Wolf King, by Joseph Wharton Lippincott. –yes, that Mr. Wharton. He was not only an author but he had a business school named after him. Out of print, I’m still looking for a copy of it that I can afford. Any help?

The book is much like Jack London’s Call of the Wild. A wolf cub had to grow up by himself. In this one scene, almost into adulthood, he is being harassed and harried by a group of hounds. He gets cornered in a cabin. Triggered, tired of running, he turns on the pack of hounds. The wolf arises and he tears them apart.

Not too long after reading it, I turned on the pack that was harassing and harrying me. I got tired of being tortured and teased because of my stutter. I took them all on.

No wolf king arose.

I got my ass kicked.

That became my world, though, influenced by fantasy books and stories like that attributed to my grandfather. It really screwed me up and destroyed every relationship I formed. People couldn’t be my friend, they had to be my best friend willing to take a baseball bat to someone’s head for me. Girlfriends had to love me unconditionally or else I did not recognize it as love, but as someone I was better off without. There was no such thing as acquaintances or casual relationships.

I would pour all of myself into everything I did, offer people everything that I was and had, and if that was not returned, then they were cut out of my life.

That’s not healthy. It’s unhealthy. A bad way to live. It led to a very lonely existence. It was about a total lack of boundaries. It is about that gray spectrum. Casual can lead to closer bonds. May or may not, but the potential is there. I never looked at it that way. It had to be all in or nothing. Immediately.

Then my stepfather told me his story.

Aye, I get it. 2022 was one of the most difficult years of my life, if not the most. Even now, writing this, I struggle. Do I go with my grandfather’s story or my stepfather’s? Do I go back to the old me, standing alone so no one is able to disappoint me? Me against the world? Or do I look upon it with soft eyes and accept people as people with imperfections? Do I look upon myself and make myself harder to make myself better, or do I look upon myself with soft eyes and forgive myself for being human with human imperfections and frailties?

I’ve learned in my most difficult times, when I’m struggling with what to do and how to react, to reach out to my better angel, Mike, Papa Bear. I’ve pretty much learned to just do what he says when I can’t let go of the anger. There are quite a few people and organizations I’d like to blast in a public forum, but Mike wouldn’t approve.

But isn’t 2022 the point? I’d say we all had a string of bad years. We have been traumatized and beat up. People aren’t doing well. Mental health is deteriorating. The way people act and react may be completely out of character. Them disappointing us may be the best they can do.

I understand that as well. For a long time, I was the caregiver. At my lowest point in 2022, when I was begging for money, old friends reached out to me, not knowing my situation, and asked for help. They were in awful situations. Ugly. The old me would have helped. The current me was unable to do anything except wish them the best of luck and offer advice. One would reached back out to me. The other I never heard from again.

Never have expectations and you will never be disappointed.

That’s an answer, but the wrong answer, I think. I think we need to be understanding and compassionate to others–and ourselves, not judge without knowing more. Then, if the negatives truly outweigh the positives, wish them the best and be on our way. We still need to remain open to possibilities though.

Aye, ya know, I’m still Philly. This isn’t about rainbows shooting out of my ass, turning the other cheek, and putting on a robe and flip flops to follow the Dali Lama. There’s still that one prick where one month said I saved his lab and the next month said I was too much of a risk for 60-day terms. Him, I wouldn’t…

Okay, Papa Bear, I know.

I’ve been disappointed by many, both those I know and those I don’t know. Hell, I was stood up on New Year’s Eve without a word. That hurt. When I am already hurting. But I don’t know her situation. I don’t know how she interpreted what I may have said or done. No, I don’t think I’ll let her in any further, even if she does ever text me back, but I also know it cannot allow me to continue reaching out for opportunities. As I have said, I have met some truly wonderful people here who have enriched my life.

2022 was also the year I disappointed others. I don’t want you to walk in my shoes to understand me. I would not want to put anybody through that. I’ve had a lot going on and have done the best I can.

It is really not about the others. It is about offering aloha to ourselves. Loving ourselves, being compassionate to ourselves, being merciful to ourselves. It is about not closing the door on opportunities.

It is about learning lessons from the right places and looking upon things with soft eyes. In this instance, it is about looking with soft eyes on a bar fight in Philadelphia.

Aloha.

###

I wonder what Mr. Williams, aka Sean Maguire, would say about this? In the movie, in his South Boston way, much like the Philly way, he talks about, and yells to the math professor, that it is a defense mechanism.

We isolate and make out group of friends small –if any– to protect ourselves. I’ve done this all my life.

Now that I think about it, it really hit me when I was planning for my wedding. Who do I ask to be my best man? Who do I ask to be a part of my wedding party?

Think about it. It’s the time to think about it. If you are unmarried, who is the best friend that will stand at your side? Who is the small circle of closest friends that will be in your wedding party?

At the time, it was my cat. Pretty. But that would have been kind of ridiculous. I had not been in touch with Dave in a long, long time and had not reconnected with Papa Bear yet.

My situation was simple because I think my soon to be wife was in the same situation as I was. We kept it simple because it had to be. Her maids of honor were her sister and daughter. My best men were by brother and brother-by-law–as he put it.

But then look upon the wedding. Who is invited? We decided to keep things small. Who do you invite to share in your joy? For me, it was mostly family and co-workers. For her, it was mostly co-workers and their plus ones.

I think it was about that time that I began to change, began listening to my stepfather’s advice. I had been taught love and acceptance by my girlfriend/fiancĂ©/wife/ex-wife. I reached out to Mike, Papa Bear, and renewed our relationship. Through Facebook, I reached out to many people from the old days.

I began to open myself again. I began being open to possibilities and potential, getting away from absolutes. I began being accepting of other people and began accepting myself. I learned not everybody is ideal for every situation. I learned that I am not ideal for every situation.

I still screwed up. By that time, I had made work my addiction, and made my family, old and new, my addiction. It left very little time to cultivate new possibilities.

I made a little bit of time. I cultivated and found relationships with my neighbors in Springfield and found an awesome group of loving and caring people. I had the incredible pleasure and pride of meeting their children and watching them grow into adults.

I reached out, and despite my mind screaming at me not to do it, I joined my high school reunion committee. Again, I found this amazing group of people, this amazing group of humans. Not perfect, but wonderful.

Reconnection was the theme of the new century.

Then, I went out and formed a national association for my industry and met many people. That is really when the unhealthy coping mechanisms began to show themselves, the lack of boundaries. I was already living the co-dependent’s dream and the manageable addiction became unmanageable and I was swept into a deep ocean where I drowned. I think I understood Dave better.

It is about a bar fight, and it is also about setting healthy boundaries.

It is not about having no expectations.

It is about learning how to say, “no,” and being accepting of when others say, “no” to you. It was not until the last few years that I am learning that particular lesson. It is about learning how to be disappointed and not falling into the absolute paradigm. It is about a balance sheet.

I have been talking about this for a long time, as taught to me by my stepfather. I’ve altered and adapted what he taught me and explained it to others. It’s funny, but it is talking about being human by taking the humanity of it.

Rich was, and is, a big one for making lists. I think it is a main component of counseling as well. When faced with a tough decision, make a list. Pros and cons. I am sure you have all heard of this. Personally, I’ve never done a written list as I did it, though I should have.

Should I move to Philadelphia or Minnesota?

The same, I found, can be done for people. You can even assign values. Seriously. “Makes me smile” is plus 50. Bad drug habit is a negative 1,000. Being a perfectionist–which annoys the hell out of me, though I have been accused of it as well–is a negative 100. Standing me up with no explanation is a negative 200. Being a family member is automatic plus 200 whether I want it to be or not.

The number you come up with puts the person on a spectrum, a chart if you will. Where do they fall? Except in rare, rare cases, it will not always be on the positive or negative extreme. It will be somewhere in the middle.

Pick your “acceptance.” It can be anywhere along the spectrum, though I would suggest it not be too close to the extremes. Where the person falls, to use the wedding example, will determine whether they are your best man, part of the wedding party, part of the guest list, part of the “almost list if I could afford it,” or part of the “not worth a stamp” list.

Mental illness, depression and defense mechanisms, want to force us into extremes for our own protection.

Thinking about it now, and remembering what I spoke about in a previous podcast, makes me realize something ironic. Deciding to end my life gave me the freedom to save my life.

I spoke about it before in regard to anxiety. When you truly make the commitment to commit suicide, as I did, the anxiety vanishes. What the hell is there to be anxious about?

When I truly made the commitment to commit suicide, what the hell is the point of having defense mechanisms.

The Suicide Therapy to prevent suicide? I very strongly do not recommend this. Learn from my mistakes and accomplishments instead. But seriously. When you truly make the commitment to take your life, there is no longer any need for anything.

2020 was my journey towards self-destruction. It really started in 2019, but let’s just jump ahead. One last hurrah, I told myself, aka Scent of a Woman, before I ended my life.

The path I meant to go down was completely at odds with the path I went. I am not quite sure what happened. I was alone and isolating, on purpose. As I traveled, there would be debauchery involved. But then this interesting thing happened. I began connecting.

There was still some debauchery, but even that led me to meet some incredible people that I connected with and am still in contact with. I found teachers. Absolutes were gone, out the window, and meaningless. Instead of hardening myself to what I was about to do, I opened myself to what could happen. Just as I opened myself to the United States and any road that presented itself as I drove close to 40,000 miles, I opened myself to the humans who populate it.

Okay, okay. It was a secret but now, for this episode, I am revealing the secret. Many might find the secret not to their liking, even repulsive, but it is what I did. It is also the natural evolution of this podcast. Keep an open mind.

I am not making excuses as I still find the idea attractive, and it bears a lot of weight into my current mode of thinking and this podcast. I will not apologize.

As my marriage and business partnership were crumbling, and with the simple fact that I had not had simple human intimate contact in years, I stumbled across certain websites.

Yes, this is difficult to write, to reveal. And there is a part of me that demands I state the simple truth, that I never once cheated on my wife. I never even thought about it. I simply closed myself off to those types of feelings and buried them. In isolating myself, I closed myself off to one of the things that could help heal me: touch. Not sex, as that didn’t really work all that well anyway, but touch.

When I separated, I started going to the strip clubs again where I met a wonderful young woman who gave me the idea to explore what is called “alternative dating” websites.

I checked them out and became a member.

Mutually beneficial relationships.

Did I mention it is hard writing about this? It is not that I am embarrassed. It is more that the people who know me might not approve or understand. But it is time to open up about it because the idea of mutually beneficial relationships changed my life and potentially saved my life.

…I almost just deleted all of this, but I am going to keep going because it is important.

I would go on to use the idea in business lectures, cajoling businesses into sponsoring my nonprofit association. Mutually beneficial relationships. I just never explained where the concept came from. The concept pops up often now in my personal philosophy and ideas about mental wellness. Are you in mutually beneficial relationships? It is not about sex. It is about everything from your business relationships to your friendships to your intimate relationships.

Yes, the websites can be exactly what you think. In fact, I’d guess that 90% of the woman on there are exactly what you think. Escorts. There is a deeper level, though.

When my friend introduced me to the website, she knew me. Knew who I was and what I needed. She knew it was not just about sex for me. She explained that a close friend of hers had been involved in a relationship from the site for years. I dove deeper in looking for that 10%. It turned out to be a lot like dating.

I learned a lot from another person I met on another site, an escort site. Kate was an incredible teacher. I included a podcast that she did, below, when she was invited to be a guest on the podcast and discuss her role as an escort/companion.

One little lie, she explained, leads to a whole bunch of truth. The money exchanged create a boundary and expectations, which was really ideal for someone like myself, who had no idea what boundaries were and had very little experience in communicating my expectations and needs. It was baby steps, first grade, towards educating myself.

Kate was one of the college professors I met.

Companions like Kate offer, and prefer, longer dates. Our initial meet surprised the hell out of me. No money. Just a meet for breakfast and coffee, and she was in her gym clothes. She was very particular in who she met, and she wanted to get to know me more before we went out on our date, which included dinner and some really great conversation.

A little lie for a lot of truth.

The lie is the money. The truth is real. Because of the boundaries and up-front expectations we had set, I could tell her anything. She explained that many of her clients just want to talk. I did not believe her either, but it made sense and why would she lie?

When I began my journey across America, I had planned on taking my profile down from the website. Someone I had met, though, suggested I keep it up and just change the location. Meet women for coffee. I did.

It was expensive cups of coffee, but I did meet some exceptional women, along with some duds. Like I said, it really is just like dating. I even met some women that had far more money that I did, who were on the site just because of the boundaries and expectations. They were tired of meeting the duds on the regular dating sites.

Yeah, I am still shying away from a lot of it. I think that is enough truth for today. I will, however, be listening to Kate’s interview again. You should listen to it. There is so much relationship wisdom in it. Maybe that is my next podcast?

Aloha

Kate Interview:  http://itsjustbanter.com/2020/06/09/episode-678-2/     

Episode 26: Breaking Down Reactions

I delve deeper into some columns that I wrote this past week to try and untangle depression from my life.

Dedicated Regina and Vivian, the first who asked the question that set me on the path to the answer and the second who provided a billboard to the answer.

I use Writer’s Block as an example. I realized that my life had unknowingly become writer’s block and show how the depression infiltrated every facet of my life. I know now and can begin the path to healing.

Freedom is still a journey ahead of me, healing, but I am taking the steps I need to take.

Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s unmask mental illness!

The first podcast of 2023 and, hopefully, the last from Tijuana.

Yep, still stranded in Mexico. Long story. But I’ll be getting on the road before this podcast is actually posted. I hope. As you get this, I’ll be somewhere in the United States. It’s all about weather patterns now and sneaking into Minnesota behind the latest storm later in the week.

I’m still scattered. I did finally unpack my car but am about to repack it from the pile I have in my living room. I still have no idea what the hell I am doing or what to do–part of that longer story.

Since my belongings are still scattered, my thoughts are still scattered. I thought to myself, the hell with this episode, the hell with my streak, nobody would blame me if I skipped one or two weeks with everything going on. I decided, though, to keep talking, though, keep writing. Break down some of the columns I wrote and react to some things that I ran across.

For now, following the path from the reactions seems to be the best way to get on the path to my authentic self, but I’ll be getting into that later.

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. In the United States, 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 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

Things tug at me. Thoughts and ideas push and pull at me. Some slap me on the back of the head. I’m reacting to the slaps. One thought just slapped me on the back of the head with the city of Chicago, wielded by an old, dear friend, Regina.

It was on a rooftop bar in Chicago in 2019 that I met with an old friend of mine from the University of Miami. It had been years since I had seen Regina, decades, but we quickly fell into our easy, comfortable relationship.

Regina has always asked me the best questions.

“Why,” she asked me at one point as we discussed life, “do you call yourself a PWS (person who stutters) but also a depressive?”

I think she knew the answer when she asked the question. I didn’t. I figured it out, though it took me a couple of years. It was not a matter of semantics, of wording, it was something deeper that I needed to figure out to really get on with my life. I think she knew this as well, and also knew I needed to figure it out on my own for it to cause an authentic change. She even gave me a hint, using both the stuttering and the depression.

A couple years later, I finally stumbled across the answer.

As identifying as a person who stutters, as opposed to a stutterer, it meant that I did not allow my stutter to control my life. It was something in my life, but just something that I dealt with like a bum knee or a broken ankle. Adjust and adapt.

There is no adjustments or adaptation identifying as a depressive, as opposed to a person with depression. By identifying as a depressive, I give it control over me, power. I think Regina knew this and was nudging me along.

I first wrote the following in 2014 in a piece I wrote about the death of Robin Williams when he lost the battle to depression. He did not commit suicide. He died from a disease, depression.

Depression is a disease.
Depression is real.
Depression can be treated.
You are not alone.
There is hope.

I wrote it many times. I think it was only in 2022 that it really started to sink in. Aye, what can I say? Some of the more unflattering adjectives that can be ascribed to me at times are stubborn, dense and resistant to change.

In 2022, though, my dear Regina, I think I finally shrugged free of the mantle of “depressive” and became a person who suffers from depression. I still have a long road ahead of me though. Now that I realize and understand, and accept, that I have an illness, I can begin untangling it from my authentic self.

It’s a start.

The first question of many to answer is “am I suffering from depression now?” I can say with absolute honesty that I have no friggin’ idea. None. I don’t know.

I talk about it in previous episodes (and write about in my book, hint hint), just as it is difficult for our loved ones to see the effects of the illness, it is just as difficult for us.

It is not a broken ankle with a cast wrapped around it. That is simple. The cast a visible sign. The swelling and pain I see and feel now a visible and tangible sign that something is wrong, and I need to work on things. The ankle is healed, but I spent a long time in a cast, a long time doing nothing but sit on my ass.

I did the doctor recommended exercise bike a few times. I wore shorts–a bad idea. My legs, side by side, look ridiculous. My left one is a monster if I do say so myself. It was what I used to hobble and roll around for a few months, doing the work of two legs. My right one is scrawny, like I had not eaten for those three months.

That’s depression.

I need rehab. There are parts of my psyche that are monsters. There are other parts that have not been fed and nurtured for decades. I need to balance the two.

This is where it get’s confusing. Where does the depression leave off and the need for rehab begin? Has the cast come off or is still on? The feelings and thoughts I have now? Are they the illness or are they the side effects of the illness? Am I still laid up with a broken ankle or am I stumbling through the swelling and pain of healing?

I really don’t know.

I’m guessing it is a measure of both.

See, that is the thing that so many people get wrong about depression and so many other mental illnesses. There’s a pill for that! Yes, I take mine regularly. Many people think since you are taking medication, it is like magic, or like aspirin for pain. Take the pill and everything is okay.

Doesn’t work like that.

I talk about it in a piece I wrote a long time ago, a hint that I gave myself back in college that was published internationally. Dysthymia: The Thief of Happiness. You can find the article by following the link if you are reading the transcript or you can find it on my website under “articles.”

Dysthymia is a low-grade chronic depression. You need to have it for two years before you can even be diagnosed with it. What does that mean? Yes, after diagnosis, you can begin treatment that will heal the damage, take a pill, but there is still the scaring of living that way for a minimum of two years. Imagine if you have a cast on your ankle for two years. My legs look ridiculous after three months. Imagine what my psyche looks like now.

Even if the depression is gone, I still need to figure out what to do about it, how to live that way. I still find myself hopping now when I don’t need to, still find myself favoring my left ankle. I was told that the swelling and aches could last for a year. I need to rebuild muscle and tendons. Imagine if I had had that cast on for decades?

I guess this is where a psychologist would come in handy, the mental health version of a physical therapist.

Depression is like cancer. Long term, untreated, it is like a cancer that metastasized, sending numerous tendrils to infiltrate, wrap, and choke parts of my psyche. It is going to take a while to treat.

The important thing, though, is realizing it is there, realizing and accepting what I have been writing all these years. The important thing is taking those first steps: admitting I was powerless over depression, the Universe could restore me to sanity and help me find my authentic self, and then decide to turn my will and my life over to the care of the Universe.

Aye, I can’t do this alone. I understand that. It is where the column that I wrote this week came from.

Perspective: Use it or Lose it

2022 was one of the toughest years of my life. It got downright ugly. I’ll make the jokes and share the memes on Facebook because they are funny, but I’ll also look back on 2022 fondly.

It was the year I was fired—twice. Completely ran out money—a few times and dipped far below the poverty level. Broke my ankle. Walked three blocks on the broken ankle with a half-trained dog in the most excruciating pain of my life. I was stranded in Mexico. Completely helpless. Had to beg. Totally fruitless six-month job search. And I’ve spent the end of the year waiting for management to come through on their word to return my deposit, so I have traveling money. My car has been packed since the 13th, all my life’s belongings with room to spare.

And those are just the things that are at the top of the list. I could go on.

If all goes well, I’ll be starting out 2023 on the roads in a snowstorm. 

What a great, awesome year!

I really began to find myself this year, after 51 trips around the sun. I started a podcast and found my passion for writing again. I met some truly wonderful people that have further blessed my life. I renewed contact with old friends and severed contact with unhealthy ones. I have purpose again, and within that purpose, I have found a measure of peace and happiness that I never knew existed.

It’s not a contradiction. 

It’s about perspective. 

Yeah, the depression kicked my ass on many occasions, and still is, but I have learned so much about it, myself and how it has influenced me. By learning about it, I have shrugged free from the hold it had on me. Well, I’m getting there. I now know the paths I need to travel. 

In 51 years, I have never had such an awful one, emotionally, financially and physically. In 51 years, I have never had a better one.

No, I am not one of those hippie type people. I’m definitely not the “turn the other cheek” type of person. The memes about appreciating what you have make me gag.

Through the lens of perspective, though, I find myself smiling at 2022. I really don’t understand it myself.

The only thing that truly bothers me about 2022 is the way I broke my ankle. After walking away from train wrecks, car accidents, hurricanes and other natural disasters, and many disasters of my own choosing, I broke my ankle walking my dog. It is just…boring. It is prosaic, completely in contrast to everything that I am.

There are some lessons in that as well.

But I am sipping my coffee, greeting another morning. No, it is not my Hawaiian Kona, but it is not all that bad. I am looking at another day of waiting, sitting in my chair.

Live aloha. Be aloha. Be excellent to each other. Be excellent to yourself.

###

My mission now, that I do choose to accept (Mission not so Impossible), is to learn depression, learn how it has infiltrated and altered me. I don’t need to fix what is broken (another episode–thank you Dr. Rani Bora), but I need to learn where those tendrils exist, dig beneath them, and find my authentic self. It is a journey, but perspective will keep me on the path, going in the right direction.

###

A lightbulb went off inside my head the other day. Things clicked. I’m seeing many “end of year” things. In my writers’ groups, there is a lot of talk about writer’s block and how to overcome it.

A very long time ago, I wrote about it.

In the short piece, “Foreword,” this is the opening paragraph:

“The concept of writer’s block doesn’t hold much weight with me; I know that there are ways beyond that wall if I but choose to take them. Music lifts me over it, sex allows me to seep through it, letters to friends gets me around the sides, and simple determination makes me hammer myself against it until it shatters and crumbles. And yet I have not written anything for over two years.”

Thinking about depression and writer’s block, and looking back on my life, I realized that what I wrote was a lie. Due to the depression, my life had become writer’s block. I did not write that particular piece for two years, but my attempts to write for the next couple decades were sporadic, disjointed, and never focused.

I’m still doing it, I realized. It is where a very short column came from that I posted in my writer’s groups.

5 Subtle Hints of Depression for Writers

Writer’s Block can be a sign of depression in and of itself.

When many think of mental illness, they think of the extreme forms. I am on a journey through my mental health in my podcast, “Let’s Unmask Mental Illness,” and I am learning about the subtle signs of depression. It is teaching me that depression has had a grip on me most of my life. It is teaching me about writer’s block.

On the Real Depression Project on Instagram, I ran across a series of slides about the subtle signs of depression.

1)  Rewatching reruns of old TV shows you used to enjoy to feel a sense of comfort and safety.

2) Neglecting chores/habits because you have no energy–all of it is used up fighting depression/faking a smile when you’re with others.

3) Spending long periods of times distracting yourself/finding an escape from your inner turmoil.

4) Planning out how you’d explain your struggle to others (and even typing it out via text) but then not following through with it because you fear being a burden (or that you won’t be accepted).

5) Getting lost in / fantasizing about a memory you cherish.

I delve into all of them and how they influenced me as a writer in Episode 22: Are We Okay?

At 51, I know what it takes to be a professional writer. I knew at 16. I went into orthodontics and had a very successful–but unfulfilling–career. I am realizing now that my life has been writer’s block.

In short, I can react to things very well. The life of an orthodontic laboratory owner is all about reaction and daily gratification. A pile of molds come in and then a pile of retainers go out that night.

Writing is a very different animal. It is an act of creation that takes will and purpose. There is no instant, daily or maybe even yearly gratification beyond that of the act of creation.

I delve deeper into everything on my website: http://www.friendsofgina.com 

###

But let’s break it down. (Yes, the various 80’s songs are playing in my head.) Let’s dive deeper into it. I think by using that as an example, I can learn more about depression and myself.

The first one is the easiest and jumped out and smacked me. Not the back of the head slap, but a full frontal one.

“Rewatching reruns of old TV shows you used to enjoy to feel a sense of comfort and safety.”

It changed in my mind, transformed into an answer to a question I have been asking myself all of my life, “what the hell is wrong with me?”

You see, all of my life, I have wanted to be a writer. I’m serious when I say, “all of my life.” My first article was published when I was about eight in a Philadelphia newspaper kid’s section. It was about an older man who always had a jar of candy to give out to the neighborhood kids when they came up and asked politely.

In high-school, I learned what it really meant to be a writer, what it took. The top two rules were 1) write every day and 2) read voraciously.

I did, but I am finding out now that my depression nudged me into the wrong directions. The “read voraciously” part troubled me. I did. I write about it often, asking, “what the hell was wrong with me?”

It is a necessity to read what you want to write. I always knew I wanted to be a novelist, contemporary fiction, and support that with articles on mental health. I even worked with my college advisor to alter my requirements so I could focus on that.

I never did. Oh, I read. I could have a read a library by now. Maybe a small one, but a library all the same. All the greatest works, all the newest works, every article appearing on health and mental health, and even the scientific periodicals. I didn’t. I kept returning to the same fantasy fiction books that I read over and over again, a genre that I enjoyed reading but had no intention of writing.

Over and over throughout my life, especially as I picked up an old, tattered book to reread again or replace with a shiny new one, I’d ask myself, “what the hell is wrong with me?!? I know better!” And then I would dive into Pern, or Middle Earth, or some other fantasy world.

The guilt built over the years. A few years back, maybe four, I couldn’t read anything anymore. There was no escape for me. Every time I reached for a fantasy book, I felt the lashes of “should have.” Every time I finally reached for something that would help me with my journey to be a writer, I felt the lashes of “could have.”

It was the depression. “Rewatching reruns of old TV shows you used to enjoy to feel a sense of comfort and safety.” I found safety, security and escape in those old fantasy books. I never put it together until I read that quote on the Real Depression Project. It was a subtle sign of depression I never realized until a month ago.

The next slide from the Real Depression Project was just as revealing to me. “Neglecting chores/habits because you have no energy–all of it is used up fighting depression/faking a smile when you’re with others.”

Exhaustion I could understand. It was the extreme exhaustion that eventually led me to want to take my life. I was just so damn tired, soul wearied and aged far beyond my 49 years. It still bothers me in a way when I hear, “50 is still young.”

No, it wasn’t. You don’t understand. 50 felt like 250 and I could feel every single one of those 250 years, like I was stretched far beyond a human lifespan.

Yes, I understood the extreme exhaustion of major depression very well, but what about simple weariness? The tiredness of coming home from work and not being able to or not wanting to do anything? I never put that together with the depression.

Writing is a chore, a habit that you must get into if you want to be a writer. I wrote about it often. Yes, “should have, could have and would have” are no-no’s in therapy, but if you have a goal, they become essential. If you want to be an Olympic Athlete, you can’t just sit on the sofa and eat Oreo’s all day. You need to train. Writing is the same way.

Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, I was just weary. Not that soul weary exhaustion. Just tired. So, I wouldn’t write. I’d read my fantasy fiction, play computer games, watch tv and hated myself for it. I had the time! I just never did anything with it. I neglected my chores and habits that I knew would make me feel more fulfilled.

The third slide, “Spending long periods of times distracting yourself/finding an escape from your inner turmoil,” goes with the second. No, I was too tired to write, to think, but I had the time. Even when I was buried in work, which I am pretty sure I did on purpose, I still had time. I could have made that time.

It was only six years ago that I finally started sleeping well, and that was with pharmaceutical help. The turmoil of the day began intruding into night. When I was not doing anything, when my mind was at rest, that’s when it would really get going.

I had started having panic attacks. The panic attacks intruded into my sleep. I would wake up heaving, on the floor, panting and gasping. It got so I couldn’t sleep, was afraid to fall asleep. I was completely defenseless when I was asleep.

Awake, I could escape. I could read into all hours of the night. I could work until I was exhausted. I conquered the world, demons, and old gods thousands of times with computer games. I watched all of the old movies so many times I got sick of them.

When my mom was dying, when I was told that there was no way she would survive this time (another long story as she was dying for 10 years), I couldn’t even find peace in sleep. I would later be told by my wife that she was afraid to touch me in my sleep, that I always jerked and spasmed. Then, there were the panic attacks.

Down in Florida for my mom’s final days, I rented a house with my brother. When he saw me afraid to fall asleep, he gave me a quarter of a pill. .25 milligrams of Clonazepam did what nothing else had ever been able to do. It doesn’t knock me out. It’s not that kind of pill. It allows me to turn off my mind and sleep peacefully.

After my mom passed, and I returned home, my doctor gave me a prescription. I was amazed at the difference it made. My wife was amazed. I began to sleep peacefully every night.

Clonazepam is addictive–I want to add that because it is important. I’ve been on it ever since. I peaked at 1.5 milligrams and never had to go beyond it. Am I addicted? Damn right I am. I don’t care.

I did wean myself off of it once. After the multi-billion-dollar settlement against the drug companies, Clonazepam was getting harder and harder to get. I used the step-down method, a half milligram at a time for a week. Each step was mildly awful. Withdrawal. I managed it. The doctor then tried me on just about everything else. Nothing else worked. I finally convinced him to put me back on the Clonazepam.

A peaceful night sleep–now–is well worth the potential side effects of long-term use. I’ll try again when I get other things figured out.

One of my routes around writer’s block was letters to friends which brings us to the next slide from the Real Depression Project. “Planning out how you’d explain your struggle to others (and even typing it out via text) but then not following through with it because you fear being a burden (or that you won’t be accepted).”

Want to see my computer file on it? Aye, I’m a writer. Emails, no texts. I have an entire file filled with emails to friends, family and people who I do not even know anymore. All unsent.

I attempted to write a book about everything a few times. I could make a book of the “introductions” to the book. I never actually got very far into the actual book. There are dozens of them. I have written plainly and clothed it in metaphors. I tried from very angle imaginable. Nothing I wrote ever gave me something solid to hold onto and write the rest of the book.

To a writer, that translates to about a year or two of concentrated effort on books and articles. The attempt to explain the struggle became the struggle. It also drove me into a very informal style of writing. Emails are easy, less formal even than columns. My writing skills deteriorated to the point where I didn’t think I could write anymore, not anything formal like an article or a book.

I would make feeble attempts through my website, but even my Coffee Chronicles got lost somewhere in the digital universe and I lost the rights to it. I did finally revive it as The Chris Chronicles.

It was only on my journey to self-destruction that I really started writing again. Facebook posts became columns that became a book. It’s not ironic at all. Think about the last part of the slide: “… but then not following through with it because you fear being a burden (or that you won’t be accepted).”

Who really gives a shit about being a burden or not being accepted when you are planning on ending your life? Hell, I even lost all my anxiety. All. Nada. Nothing. I have a phobia when it comes to flying. It has never stopped me, but I am gripped by terror during take-off and landing. I flew to both Alaska and Hawai’i with no issues at all. I was at peace. If the plane went down? I didn’t care.

Trying to explain my struggle has now become my purpose. Hence, this podcast.  

Then, the final slide, “Getting lost in / fantasizing about a memory you cherish.” This was my specialty. It is still how I spend time, particularly during the ten minutes or so that it takes me to fall asleep at night or for a siesta.

I have rebuilt my life from the ground up paying attention to every detail. It is in the details where I lose myself and fall asleep. A memory becomes a “what could have been if.” I wrap myself in these illusions and fall asleep.

Fantasies become my reality when I close my eyes. I have a lot of material. I am also extremely creative with an imagination that may be unmatched.

Nowadays, I am trying to retrain my mind and thoughts. I try to move away from fantasies, though I do indulge in them from time to time. I step away from “what could have been if” and towards something scarier for me, “what could be.”

I now fantasize about balance and hope, about this podcast and books I am working on. I fantasize about a new life in Minnesota these days. I push towards a path where fantasies can become dreams that can become realities.

It’s hard, so damn hard. It really is. Depression, unknowingly, became engrained into every facet of my life, even my dreams and fantasies. The need to escape has to be pushed aside for the desire to live, to find my authentic self.

Small steps, baby steps, maybe even falling backwards at times. One day at a time.

One episode at a time?

And that is a wrap. Be kind to yourself. Realize and learn that your struggles may have more to do with deeper issues than you imagine. Take steps forward. You may be standing in place like I did and not even know it.

Aloha.

Episode 25: The Non-Episode Episode, in Three Parts

Welcome to the podcast! I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s unmask mental illness!

That is the new title I am going with for the podcast. My book is now available online and globally: the transcripts for the first 22 episodes with a little bit of editing. Let’s Get Naked About Mental Health!

Due to technical difficulties, I had to publish a second copy of my book with a different title. It’s all explained on my website, with the webpage titled appropriately enough, “The Book.” The new title I came up with was “Let’s Unmask Depression.”

The new title felt better. As I discuss my journey through depression more than anything else, it seemed right to give that book that title.

I do struggle, however, with titles.

A few people reached out to me and loved the new title. The old title evoked the wrong things. “Getting naked” was a metaphorical allusion to unmasking. I take off the mask that I showed the world to show the real me, with the depression and all the rest. The word “naked,” though, I found, made people shy away, whether it was triggering something or something else. Unmasking is more comfortable for a lot of people, and I think can do away with metaphors now.

It is still not quite there as the new title rattles around in my mind. Any help?

But the book! That is what I wanted to talk about in this the episode. I’m still stranded here in Tijuana so still trying to work and function in between breaths. I’ve had my car packed since the 13th and just unpacked it so I could drive and do some things. So, now I have a pile of stuff in my living room instead of in my car.

Why the book?

There are a bunch of reasons, but I can’t help but laughing as I think about lecturing my sister, daughter and many other younger people. It got so that I was repeating myself often. I got to the point where I wanted a book of lectures.

Let’s open our hymnals and turn to lecture #182…

As I plug myself into the mental health network on LinkedIn, I found myself not wanting, but needing, the same thing. I wrote it often. In response to one post or another, I found myself writing, “that is episode so and so” and then posting a link to that episode on my website. Now, I can just post “that’s in the book.”

I also wanted to get something out there to spread awareness. Is print dead? I don’t think so. I was able to edit the transcripts to hopefully draw in more people and spread the word. As I say, I really do repost, “that is episode so and so” very often. With the physical book that I will have in my hand, which I will get once I am in Minnesota, I can start having fun with videos. Annoy the living hell out of people?

The book can also help me spread awareness by mailing it to various groups and associations.

I also hope to earn some income. It is not the best business decision, but the eBook version is available free to anyone that requests it. Making money is not really the point. Spreading awareness is.

I know. Now, due to my situation, I completely understand the power of a few dollars. $7 here in Tijuana, the price of the eBook on retail sites, is food for two days. I just don’t want anybody having to decide between potentially getting help with my book and not buying it because they could use the $7 somewhere else.

More information can be found on my website.

When I get to somewhere that is more quiet, I’ll make an audio version of the book. My apartment here has too many sounds that intrude and the audio publishers are very strict when it comes to that.

I am already loading the new episodes into a part two.

That has been my last week. Waiting. Holding my breath. Thinking. Writing.

I’ll be adding two new features to my website this week, columns and articles. I wrote one of each. The columns will be shorter pieces that I actually always used to write and post on my other website, The Chris Chronicles. These will feature more of a “Let’s Unmask Mental Illness” slant and may contribute to podcasts.

The articles will be researched based. I’m breaking out the old journalism cap.

As I write about, but don’t really advertise because I am so bad about it, I am hoping to make this a full-time job. I have a Patreon account that has been well hidden. In my page, “Supporting the Podcast,” I now write about it a bit more openly.

Patreon allows people to become patrons of the podcast and website for as little as $4.95 a month. Unlike other Patreon accounts however–again, maybe not the best lure or business decision–there is no extra content for patrons. There are a few perks, however. Again, I just want to make the information available.

Patronage will allow me to expand the podcast into something that I have in mind now for a very long time. Even before I graduated college in 1997, I envisioned a magazine and non-profit to disseminate news and information about mental health.

I need your help, though. This isn’t easy and I really have no idea what I am doing. I have done it before though. Life, and the depression I am learning, took me along other paths and into the orthodontic laboratory industry.

It was not a bad life, but not really fulfilling. I felt fulfilled when the industry and many of my friends were threatened by the new technology that was changing everything. A new paradigm was unfolding. We had been so used to an industry that had not really changed since the mid 1970’s. The shift threatened to kill labs and may have contributed to the deaths of people I knew.

Two people I knew took their lives.

I was overwhelmed myself but had started a Facebook group to help others learn what I was learning, really staying just one step ahead of them–and a few steps behind the big labs that could afford to invest the money and time that us small labs could not. Aye, I had always been at my best when I was overwhelmed. Long story. That’s a past episode.

I believe I was one of the first small labs in the country, if not the first, to be 100% digital capable. I began speaking, spent hours and hours on the phone with other lab owners, went to a conference for dental labs where I gave a two-hour clinic, and then I formed a non-profit and started our own orthodontic lab annual conference, the first of its kind in the world.

I did it once. I can do it again. But I’ll do it right this time.

The second part of this non episode is the first column I wrote for the website, inspired by events on Christmas day.

Chance Encounters

This might be for my Coffee Chronicles or this might be a part of Let’s Unmask Mental Illness! Anyway…

I firmly decided not to have a Christmas. It was not a choice to be miserable, but just make it another day. There’s a podcast about it, The Holiday Special. In the podcast, I talk about my aversion to Christmas and how I need to work on it.

The Universe (God if you will) works in mysterious ways. Sometimes, it’s not so mysterious. It gives you a smack across the back of the head.

I’m still stranded in Tijuana. Long story. Tijuana celebrates Christmas differently. They ignore the song “Silent Night” and start setting off fireworks on Christmas Eve. In the US, think 4th of July on steroids.

The fireworks made me think of something and I reached out to Dani’s original owner who I had met on a few occasions.

Alyssa had come looking for Dani, whose first name was Soledad, about a month after I adopted her. With me not speaking Spanish, and her not speaking English, I never got the entire story. It was a sad one, though, with Dani placed with her brother, then escaping, living on the streets, rescued by someone who could not take care of her, and then adopted by me.

As soon as Dani saw her, she went crazy. The bond between Dani and Alyssa was apparent. Instantly. Love. I invited her to stop by any time. She did, then with her boyfriend, Allan, a few times. A fine young lady and a fine young man. It was supervised visits at first because, well, I am from Philly, and I have been around the block a few times. But there was something about Alyssa and the way that Dani reacted to her that made me trust her, want to trust her. The supervised visits went to unsupervised, and they took her for walks and Dani even spent the night once in the house they had rented.

Alyssa has been following me on Facebook and I mentioned in the text I sent her on Christmas Eve that I would be leaving any day and that she was more than welcome to stop by any time.

She replied to come over and enjoy Christmas Eve with her and her family. I had the urge, but the car was still packed, it was late, and I had just taken my nightly pills. There was also the push/pull of my feelings about Christmas. It’s just another day. Nothing to celebrate. Only something to endure.

I replied that I couldn’t possibly, but thank you.

She replied, “then tomorrow.” I received the text after I was in bed.

Christmas Day. Sipping my coffee. Just another day. Alyssa texted me again. That’s about when the Universe slapped me across the back of the head again. Harder this time.

As I have mentioned in my podcasts, and seem to have forgotten, each morning we are given a choice: to continue on in our rut or take a chance to be happy. It is so much easier to continue on in our rut, follow the path of least resistance. It can be extremely difficult to take a chance. There was the packed car I would have to unpack, the altering of my routine, the trouble of getting Dani into the car, the fear of how she would react to a house full of people, and, really, the fear of bumping and mingling with my aversion to Christmas that I talk about in my podcast.

I’m slowly learning to ignore the baggage that surrounds me, layers me, and follow my gut…and the slaps by the Universe.

I finally texted a reply to Alyssa: “Okay, let me empty my car and take a shower.” Dani and I made the 15-minute drive.

Alyssa and Allan were waiting for us as we pulled up. Dani went crazy and it took the three of us to unhook her from inside the car–I keep her leashed inside to keep her from jumping into the front seat and into my lap.

The family adopted me as soon as I walked in the door. Before I was even there. Alyssa had texted me I was family.

I was home. There was Alyssa and Allan, parents, an uncle, young kids and even a grandmother that reminded me of my own–I received a hug and a kiss. Dani was excited and happy: the vicious beast was climbing into people’s laps to give kisses and get pet. She can be very overprotective, but she loves to be loved. She knew she did not have to protect me from these people. She knew that she was safe and that I was safe.

Lessons from the Universe? Lessons from a dog. Who rescued who?

I had a fantastic Christmas with people that I barely know, that are family. I struggled against the embarrassment at times as they would not allow me to do anything, getting my drinks and food. I laughed with the family, and especially the uncle and father. There was a discussion at one point about hairy chests.

Hairy chests is just one example. They were having fun. Allan was translating. They started showing off their hairy or non-hairy chests. The layers of baggage that I had wrapped around me screamed at me to smile but not join in. I told it to “piss off” and lifted my shirt to reveal the hairiest chest to a round of laughter.

At one point, I had to leave. I was exhausted. I have not been doing much and the food, exercise, and two drinks were getting to me. I needed a nap. I made my goodbyes, with them insisting I return after my nap. They did not believe me, I think, when I said I would.

I did.

It was much, much easier to shrug off the baggage and hesitation after my nap and coffee. I went prepared with a cup of coffee for after the drink and the food to stay a bit longer. Everybody, including Dani, was starting to nod off so I said my goodbyes again. I was offered a place to sleep, a ride home, anything. I was good. I wanted to return home and just be happy.

It really does come down to choice, acceptance, and learning lessons. That was my Christmas present from the Universe: a lesson.

It’s not the pony I still want, but a damn good present all the same.

Aloha.

PS. I do not have another place where I post stuff and write columns. You can find it in the link below.

Home Page

And now the final part of the non-episode that seems to becoming a bit of an episode. It is the first draft of an article I am writing based upon some work I did for the founder of Simply Mental Health. It is about…well, that’s the point of writing an article.

Speak Up! And Turn off the Video in Video Conferencing!

I personally love video conferencing. With the pandemic, it has become a part of the way we do business. I also realize that many people do not love it. It can cause stress and anxiety and add to deteriorating mental wellness. Research supports me.

Speak up! Tell your boss. Ask to be able to turn off the video. Send them this article if you have trouble articulating how you feel.

Studies suggest that one in four to one in five people suffer from conditions that could make forced video conferencing from uncomfortable to traumatizing. It can negatively impact employees and their contributions.

Adam Nemer, former CFO of a 3+ billion-dollar health care company and current founder of Simply Mental Health was one of those people and now campaigns for the ability to turn off video.

“I had always struggled,” he said, “with meeting people in the eye. It was even brought up once during a performance review, where my boss feared that it may make me seem untrustworthy. I struggled with the feedback.”

He continued, “It has only been since the advent of video conferencing that I put two and two together. The feelings that I experience on a video call are the same as when I’m in a room looking in someone’s eyes: anxiety and panic.  It was not that I couldn’t look people in the eye, it was that it brought on anxiety and panic that made me less effective in meetings, so I avoided it.”

I understand. Though I like video conferencing, I encountered similar issues when I first graduated and started interviewing for positions. I was very qualified and had much to contribute, but I have a speech impediment, a stutter, and the first interview was always over the phone–a situation that made my stutter even worse. I did not get any second interviews for a long time.

There is an old school thought that does not consider reality, being human. It is how I was taught. When you meet someone, you give them a firm handshake and meet their eye. If you do not, you are thought of as less.

A weak handshake can mean a weak person. Not meeting someone in the eye can mean they are lying or untrustworthy. Imagine meeting Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds of our lifetime, who suffered from a physical disease that made a firm handshake and meeting the eye impossible. You would not think less of him. The same is true for 20-25% of people on video calls.

From autism to PTSD, researchers have found many reasons why turning on video and making eye contact is difficult for many.

Sustained eye contact overstimulates a certain area of the brain for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), causing extreme stress and discomfort. Eye contact for people with PTSD can cause responses like fear, pain and anxiety. There are many other examples. Some have to do with mental health issues, some with invisible physical disorders, others with a person’s personality. 

“I struggled daily with making and maintaining eye contact and had no idea why,” said Nemer. “It would make me panic and lose my train of thought. I was actually at my best when I looked out of windows in conference rooms. Staring off into space allowed me to collect my thoughts and be more effective as both a leader and a contributor.

Nemer finally brought the idea up to allow everybody to shut off video during conference calls and explained why. When allowed, many people sent him private messages of thanks.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and University of California found that, despite contrary thought, video conferencing can reduce the effectiveness of employees at meetings.

In an article, “Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence,” they explain how verbal cues, as opposed to visual ones, increase the collective contribution of the team.

Employers benefit by taking Nemer’s advice.

  1. Don’t require video for conference calls
  2. Don’t assume a 1:1 conference call is okay before learning the person’s preference
  3. Don’t use negative verbal cues
    1. “We paid a lot of money for video so let everyone turn on the camera.”
    1. “Let’s see all of the brave people turn the camera on.”

Speak up and let your boss know. The benefits of allowing people to turn off the video after a quick introduction are both for you and for them, along with the company. With communication and understanding comes better mental wellbeing as well as a healthier work environment.

###

And that is a wrap for this non episode, finishing it just before it is time to record it.

Check out the book and the website. Remember, if you would like a copy of the book but cannot pay for any reason, just email me and I will email you a copy of the book.

If you would like, check out the “Support the Podcast” webpage. Help me help others.

I hope everybody is having a wonderful holiday season. With the way things are going here in Tijuana, I am both preparing for a new, regularly scheduled podcast. Simply, I am waiting for the deposit returned to me that the GM said I would receive on the 13th.

Aloha

Episode 24: Understanding Depression and Suicide

Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s get naked about mental health!

In my last episode, The Space Between Breaths, I mentioned tWitch, but I stayed away from the topic. What can I add to the conversation? As I say in my podcast, I am not a mental health care professional with letters at the end of my name. I am just a guy who has been there. What the hell do I know?

An article/post got me typing. It featured a smiling picture of tWitch and was, “I Still Don’t Think We Understand Depression” by Dr. Jen Welter.

I read the questions and advice the post posed and realized that I do have something to add, that I may even be able to make an impact. No, I am not a mental health professional, but I am a guy who has been there. I understand what I do know about depression, and I understand what I don’t know about depression. Most importantly, I am learning what I need to learn about depression.

Who am I? I’m Chris, nice to meet you. Have you checked out my podcast? A lot of the answers are here if you care to check it out. I suffer from depression, among other things, and have almost taken my life twice. I was a leader and educator in my industry for 35 years. I am a storyteller/journalist, and I have answered many questions in the first 23 episodes of my podcast from a personal point of view, with what others are saying is insightful.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

First, let’s break down Dr. Welter’s article.

[Side note: Dr. Welter, I am not trying to attack you. I am merely answering questions you pose and adding my thoughts.]

Dr. Welter wrote, “Mental Health: just because someone seems funny or healthy or strong (or all of the above) does not mean he/she does not struggle with depression/ mental health.”

True, but what does that mean? She gives general examples about comedians and being the life of the party, how we use that to divert people from our center, our core.

One of my earliest podcast episodes was about my secret world. Nobody ever knew about it. I am a master of disguise, putting a façade on to face the world, the other world. Whether I was a high-school student, infantryman, chef, college student, business owner, husband, brother, son, educator or what have you, these were the identities I allowed others to see. The depressive, my secret world, was what I did not allow anybody to see until it became apparent in crisis.

I talk about how there is a part of me that wishes I was like my mother, who was bipolar with schizophrenic tendencies. When she was not doing well, it was like a neon sign, the size of a stadium, lighting up with an arrow pointing to her saying, “there is something really, really wrong here.” There were even massive fireworks displays.

Me? My bad times can be interpreted as me being a piece of shit, lazy, having a bad day, when the internal secret world would slop over beyond the facade.

“Strong people,” she writes, “those who claim strong shoulders, often feel like they are burdening others by sharing with others.” 

“Read that again,” she wrote.

Yes and no is my response. There is a lot of truth to it. I often felt that way, that I was burdening others. I was the strongest of the strong, trying to help everybody–which was a sign of my depression. So yes, I talk about how not being a burden to others was one of the reasons why I hid it.

There was another reason though. I hid it because the lessons I learned inspired utter terror to keep it hidden.

Back to my mom. I was taught to hide it by people’s reactions to her, and the system’s reaction to her. She came from a huge family, the youngest of nine. When I was born, I was grandchild number #35 or so on her side alone. I was one of three children. There were so many times throughout her life where I was –and this is the reality and not a perception– the only child of an only child.

On her deathbed, one of her surviving brothers came to see her who she had not seen in 35 years. It made her happy, so I just kept my mouth shut, but it made me angry as he gushed about how much he loved her.

My brother was there, the first time he had seen her in 25 years.

During my first time that I almost committed suicide, I lost close, close friends. They did not see “crisis.” They saw me burdening them and living off of them because I could not do anything else. It was much like when I broke my ankle, but there was no physical cast for people to see and associate with me not being able to do anything.

I also believe that this is a problem with the system in general, a failure to move beyond “crisis intervention” and to “illness management.” I don’t blame my mother’s family or my brother. I finally dealt with the anger.

Imagine, I talk about, living in Miami. I was there for Hurricane Andrew. But imagine that a Class 5 hurricane will hit every year, maybe twice a year, guaranteed, destroying everything. What do you do? You move. Stay away.

I don’t blame them. It was hard, though, being the only child of an only child of a very sick parent. I never wanted to put somebody in that position. It would end up costing me everything during my next suicide plan.  

“With that being said,” she writes, “the next question is often, how do I know if someone is actually ok? Well, honestly, it’s hard… but also, honestly no one is good all the time, no one laughs at their own jokes all the time, sometimes sunglasses are to cover tears & give the illusion of a sunny day…. 

Realize that one-word answers actually tell you nothing. So, ask questions that encourage sentences, thoughts, activities, actual updates.

 
– if at first you don’t succeed, try again… and again… in another way on another day.”

Again, yes and no. That’s another episode.

The answer is: first, you will never know. You can ask, check in, even stop by, and you will never know. If you had stopped by with pizza and beer while I was suicidal, you would never have known. I would have laughed with you, telling stories, and everything with me was fine, A-okay.

Second, and this is an interesting thing I came across in my self-reflection, checking in on me can do more harm than good. My question in an episode is “should you check in?” The path to hell is paved with good intentions. The path deeper into my personal hell is paved with the wrong people checking in on me.

A great example is my brother. He loves me. I have no doubt about that. He is a good big brother and has always been. He also shared with me one time that he has the emotional intelligence of a shrub. He a guy’s guy, characterized by Deborah Tannen’s book, “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.” He wants to fix everything.

If you are not ready to invest the time and emotional energy necessary in communicating with me, please don’t check in. Please don’t try to help. Really. You do more harm than good.  

“Close the distance,” she writes, “a text is better than nothing, a call is better than a text, a FaceTime is better than a call, and in person is best… it’s easy to hide behind an emoji, words, a voice, much harder to look into the eyes of someone you care about and lie. 

Don’t be so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing that you do nothing… what you don’t want to live with is the wish that you had made the call, given the hug, asked the question, or held the hand… the past is past, can’t change it, so instead, let’s be a little better, kinder, more proactive in the future… especially during the holidays (which some people really struggle with).”

Eh. The first thing that jumps out at me here is, “the past is past, can’t be changed.” I disagree. The past can be changed. There’s an episode about that as well.

I’m learning a lot about changing the past these days as I do my podcast and educate myself on depression, PTSD, trauma and other mental health issues. Simply, we cannot change events of the past, but we can change our perception of those events. By changing our perception, we change the past.

I am a child of trauma. I need to nurture and allow that inner child to grow where that growth was stunted. How do I do that? First, by recognizing the signs. I read an article recently, a meme really, about the signs of unresolved childhood trauma in an adult. Each point was something I was not expecting, and each point was like a hammer blow between the eyes. Yes, there is a podcast about it.

Then, what are the more subtle signs of depression? I read this in an Instagram post from the Real Depression Project. The one that jumped out at me the most was, “rewatching old reruns of tv shows to feel comfortable and safe.” When I read that, everything clicked. I won’t get into the clicks here, but it had a profound effect on the way that I view my past, the way I perceive it, and the perception is helping me to change it.

The second thing that jumped out at me about what Dr. Welter wrote was, “…much harder to look into the eyes of someone you care about [and] lie.”

No, it’s pretty easy. Eh, I’ve been doing it for the better part of 51 years now. It may have been hard at first, but now? I am the master of disguise. I’ve worn the facade for so long, it is second nature to me.

Another thing she wrote that jumps out at me goes back to my brother and communication styles and what has helped me. If you have the emotional intelligence of a shrub, please don’t speak. Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t offer advice and try to fix things. Just hug me. That could be all that I need. It could be enough.

But also understand that that is me. That’s my communication style, as revealed by multiple tests. I love, and am loved, through touch. It is what grounds me and centers me. It is what keeps me connected.

Communication, like therapy, is a two-way street. Just as there has to be a healthy therapeutic relationship established, understanding the communication style of the person you are reaching out to is of utmost importance.

The final thing that jumps out at me about that section is, “…what you don’t want to live with is the wish that you had made the call…”

Something about that bothers me and I do not know what. An interview I did with Leo Flowers, host of the podcast, “Before You Kill Yourself,” comes to mind (found on my website). We spoke about how it can be selfish of a person to say something like, “don’t kill yourself because I love you.” They miss the opportunity really understand you by placing themselves first.

Second, it’s not about you. That’s another podcast. No, I didn’t want anybody to live with the wish, and possibly the trauma and mental issues, of not calling. Have a ceremony, spread my ashes at South Point in Hawai’i, talk about the tragedy of a life cut short by an illness, and then get on with your friggin’ life. My will allows for that. Have a party. Celebrate my life.

And know, whether you made the call, didn’t make the call, stopped by and hugged me or didn’t stop by to hug me, at a point, there is absolutely nothing you could do. There is a point of no return. I passed that point now twice. I can tell you with absolute certainty that there was nothing that could have stopped me except myself.

How I stopped myself is another episode, but both times had to do with me reaching out. Once to a friend and a second time to the Universe.     

   
“And… get professional help,” Dr. Welter writes. Remember, if you fear someone is a danger to themselves or others, get help.”

I agree, but how? I’ll be getting into that next. Most people who need it can’t afford it. When they are at that point of needing intervention, when it is seen and known, they are typically in crisis. We need to do a better job of being proactive and helping people before they are in crisis.

Just as an example, I’m there now. Not suicidal, not in crisis, but the depression is kicking my ass. I’ve learned enough that I have not crossed into crisis mode, and won’t, but I could really use help, therapy. I can’t afford it. I’ve been out of work for months, broke my ankle, and am stranded in a foreign country. What can I do?

And what happens if I cross the border (I’m in Tijuana) and check myself into a hospital? At my nonexistent income level, that thought terrifies me far more than the depression. I know what those places are like. I knew what they were like in the 70’s and 80’s visiting my mother and I know they have gotten worse.

I did visit a very nice one once, but the person was paying out of pocket.

One of my mother’s suicide attempts in 1999 was because she would rather die than go into the hospital again. I really can’t blame her. It was during her previous hospitalization that an event occurred that brought on the madness that made the choice between hospitalization and suicide a reality.  

“Getting help,” she finishes up with, “is a sign of true bravery.”

I completely agree. But that is not the perception. It’s getting there, but it needs a lot of work. More so for men, I think.

I saw this video and wish I could remember where I saw it, but it was about being a man in America, particularly a black man. We are taught at the youngest of ages to be strong, shake it off. That is our job and our identity. That is who we are. Add in “black man” on top of it, and you add an entire level of complexity to the situation.

Then, how do we reach people? How do we explain this to them? How do we change perception and culture?

I’m seeing a lot of great stuff online. The Real Depression Project is doing fantastic things on educating people about depression and trauma. Do you follow or support them? Have you checked them out? Did you even know about them before reading or hearing it here. It really is an incredible resource.

There is a project to reduce suicide by 20% by 2025 by The America Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I think we can do 50%, if we do it right.

How do we do it right?

Well, first, let me in!

Aye, I need a job. Don’t make me go back into orthodontics. Yes, I can make a lot of money there but I’d really rather not. I’d rather continue my journey as a mental health advocate. I might not be a mental health professional, but I have a hell of a resume and a background (though rusty) in communications.

Second, watch movies. I have a list of “must watch” movies for, well, everybody. Some of them are even entertaining.

1) Mindwalk. Free on YouTube. It was a movie that I was forced to watch in a science writing class in college a long time ago and it changed how I look at everything. It is an introduction into systems theory, which must be applied to everything we do. It basically says, but not in so many words, that the mental health care system really got screwed up with the invention of the first clock.

With the invention of the clock, society moved from a “prevent” mentality to a “fix what is broken” mentality. Watch it. Please.

2) The Legend of Bagger Vance. A more entertaining version of Mindwalk, watered down a bit, but just as powerful in some of the scenes.

3) No Cure for Cancer. Denis Leary’s very non-PC comedy routine from 1993. It has some amazing pearls in it to take away and addresses the comedian aspect Dr. Welter spoke about.

Other notables are Good Will Hunting, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Scent of a Woman, and Patch Adams. They look at mental from a first person perspective, real and uncensored.

Next, check out this response I received from Antony Malmo on LinkedIn when we were discussing the mental health care crisis and what to do about it, what’s wrong with it. It resonated with me and should resonate with everybody. It might seem like common sense to many, but I have found that things we think of as common sense may not be as common as we think.

“Here’s a back of a napkin summary of what I know,” he wrote to me. 

1. Human threat perception is very sensitive to fast moving, physical emergencies. (AKA predators). We did not evolve to perceive intangible, creeping calamity. (AKA climate change, societal mental health trends)

2. Science (and business) demand measurability of impact preferably delivered ASAP. The catch, measuring the effectiveness of Upstream preventative interventions in complex systems require massive data sets, serious statisticians, money and time. Downstream reactive measures are cheaper, easier and faster (albeit less effective).

3. When it comes to budget time, critical care gets priority over prevention [because] we have an emotional response to helping someone in critical need, whereas “non-urgent/non-critical” issues don’t trip our amygdala. That’s fine if it’s a 1:1 ratio. However, in practice, [population] level prevention saves far more lives. E.g. Modern plumbing (clean drinking water + hand washing) has saved more lives than all the doctors of history. And to take it to a more cynical level, disasters make better photo ops for politicians.

Solution: Change minds. Story telling is crucial.”

My initial response is he’s right. I see all of the pictures of tWitch, just as I remember seeing all of the pictures of Robin Williams and other smiling celebrities who lost their lives to depression, and I see all of the calls for action.

The cynical side of me, and the infantryman, sees it all like the flag waving and praise for veterans on certain holidays and during election time: lip service while the veteran population has continued to have a suicide rate 6x more than the non-vet population. They also have a 7% jump on the non-vet population on homelessness.

Next, it reminds me of an episode of The West Wing. A very wealthy man went to the press secretary and asked how he could really, really help. What could he do? Her answer surprised him. “Build roads in Africa.”

It’s not sexy, she explained, but necessary. The foundation of roads makes everything else possible. I think we need to get away from the poster children of suicide prevention (no disrespect intended to tWitch or others) and start building roads. It’s not sexy. It costs a lot of money. But it makes everything else easier. 

Next, Antony Molin asked for a storyteller. Well, here is a storyteller, just waiting for an audience. Trying to reach one. Let me in? Follow my podcast? Support my podcast? Share my podcast. I’ll keep talking.

This next thing may make people choke so make sure you are not drinking or eating anything while reading or listening to it. I’ll give you a second to finish swallowing.

Okay, here goes: Give me a lot of money and leave me alone to get it done.

I’m serious! I did it before, but with no money. That’s how I burned out and was part of what almost brought me to kill myself. I did help save an entire industry though. Long story.

Then, when the industry people were asking me what to do next, I told them to give me a lot of money and leave me alone. Nobody took me seriously. Not that I can blame them, but I was serious. I’m a pretty smart guy, already accomplished a lot, saved many in my industry, but I saw many still struggling, wading through new technology and new concepts. Over and over, I said they were trying to jam square pegs into round holes. They were adapting, but not well.

Many finally figured it out, after 5-6 years, but it would have been a hell of a lot quicker and more efficient if they had just all chipped in, given me a lot of money, and left me alone. –and the association that turned its back on me still owes me $1,000. That’s what you get for electing a board instead of keeping a dictator.

A very simple thing to do, that doesn’t require any money, is break down my book.

Oh, I have a book coming out. Next Tuesday, December 27th. Let’s Get Naked About Mental Health! It is the transcripts from episodes 1-22. I already saw it on Amazon, but I clicked the wrong button in IngramSpark, so it is not available until the 27th. I struggle with technology at times.

As I said, I am a storyteller, not a mental health professional. I would love to have a second version of the book where, essentially, a mental health professional breaks down my stories into counseling sessions. Just tears them apart with the precision of a surgeon–or like the editor who is currently making me cry editing my first book. She is making me a better writer. You can make me a better advocate. Any takers?

This is some difficult stuff. I have many instances in the book and podcast where I say, “I don’t know.” Places where I am trying to figure things out. I’m stumbling a lot. Lend me your arm. I’ll be Dante, you be Virgil. [Just in case, that is a reference to the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno. Which is an apt metaphor if you think about it.] Let’s share my struggles and screw ups with everybody. I’m game. Lead me through my personal levels of hell and show me how I got there.

Which leads me to my next point: share my book. Aye, I’d love to make my $2 per copy on it, but I am making it available to anybody who wants it. The eBook and print version will be available. Anybody who signs up for my website, or requests it, though, gets the eBook free. –I should be able to figure out the “how” by the 27th. IngramSpark is not like Lulu.

Giving my book away is probably not the best business decision I have ever made but that is not the point. I want to get my story out there, help people to get help. Start talking and keep talking so we don’t suffer anymore tragedies like with tWitch.

Look, I’m not saying I have all of the answers. I’m not that arrogant. But I do have some. And I have directions to other answers. We cannot possibly understand tWitch unless we walk in his shoes. Or if he had a podcast about that journey.

I talk and write about my journey to break it down and dissect it. My two times almost committing suicide were very different but shared many similarities. The more I understand about depression, the more I understand that the doorway to suicide was somewhere I was going to end up eventually, and somewhere I am trying like hell not to return to.

Was tWitch like my first time, where time compressed into a single moment filled with unbearable pain? When the depression altered time and reality so the question “how can I do this to my loved ones” is manipulated to become “how can I NOT do this FOR my loved ones”?

I have a podcast about that.

An extreme example is what happened to my mother during a psychotic state. Her reality was that she was an instrument of Satan sent to spread disease on the earth and had infected me and her grandson. What would you do in that situation to protect the people you love? If that was your reality?

Or was it like my second time for tWitch? Was the exhaustion, over such a long period of time, so that every breath was a burden, made me feel like what I saw in friends and family who finally passed from cancer? Where I was angry at the people who loved me and wanted me to continue?

I compared that depression, that experience, to a cancer of the soul. I justified suicide by saying it was just like my loved ones who died. Time compressed and distorted reality again, so that the 5% of my life that had been depression became 100%.

I had sat with others. For a month, I sat with my best friend, my dear, sweet girl, while she battled cancer, and the end finally came after 14 years. That final month was excruciating to watch. She was in so much pain. Just let go, I wished. And she finally did, finding peace. To me, my cancer of the soul and spirit was no different. Just let me go so I can find peace.

Or was it completely different for tWitch? Is there another reason, another altered reality that allows us to override that basic instinct to survive.

I think that that is a way in, something to be talking about, something to research to better battle suicide. What are the stories? What are the stories of non-depressed people who choose doctor assisted suicide? The stories where that basic instinct for survival for any organism is overridden by something more powerful? What is that “more powerful” and how do we address it?

For me, the answer is in Mindwalk and systems theory. We have to move upstream from the “crisis” period and prevent the crisis from occurring. Some of the answers are simple, yet difficult to implement, like minimum basic mental health care and preventative care as I discuss in my Mental Health Triangle–another episode. Building the roads.

There are many stories and examples from outside of the mental health space that directly correspond to mental health care. I knew a woman who died from a cavity. Seriously. She got a cavity in her tooth and was terrified of going to the dentist. There were other issues involved, but it abscessed, the abscess spread throughout her body, and she died.

Then there is the story of a person I know closely, the biggest pain in the ass who ever lived, who is still alive and living well. He taught me everything I know about being a pain in the ass.

He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and almost died when he finally received his liver transplant. He was down to under 5% liver function. When the treatment came out that cured Hepatitis C, he started writing his insurance company about it because the treatment was $100,000 and not covered.

The illness was still at work on his liver, he was coming to the end of the new liver’s life, and he started to write to the insurance company with a very simple question. “You will pay the 2 million dollars plus for another transplant. Why not pay for the treatment that has a 95% effective rate and save all that money?”

Denied.

He kept writing. On a fixed income, he laughed off the offers of 20% off, 50% off, etc. and kept writing. When the price came down to $10,000, I jumped in. I said I would pay for it. He replied, “No, I got this.” And he kept writing.

They eventually paid for the treatment and cured him. His liver regenerated as it is meant to do when not being attacked by the illness.

That story, though so common in health care, boggles my mind. It makes no logical sense. A company is more than willing to pay over two million dollars in reactionary care but not $100,000 in preventative care.

This absurdity must change. How do you fix it though? –the first thing I wrote was “how do you fix stupid” but that was a bit harsh. But it is stupid!

My final point brings me back to Mindwalk and terminology. Yes, we use mental health care and have different rules for mental health insurance. It is just like dental insurance. That’s absurd.

We are not pieces. We are not a clock that needs to be fixed. We are more than the sum of our parts. The mouth, and dental care–though my example is an extreme one–is a doorway to our general health, so proper dental care is essential for proper health care.

Mental health care is the same. There are studies, tons of them, that show a direct correlation between mental health and physical health.

We need to redefine things. We need to change attitudes and perceptions. We need to stop the crisis before it becomes a crisis. We need to add our collective knowledge and attack these issues and educate others.

We need to do more.

We need to not only start talking and keep talking, but we also need to change the landscape to make the conversations more accessible and relatable.

Y’all need to watch Mindwalk.

Aloha.

A special PS. I brought her up. My dear, sweet girl, Maureen, diagnosed with stage four metastatic breast cancer at 29. Who still makes me smile. Who is a poster child for early intervention. I learned that early detection of breast cancer leads to a 99% survival rate.

But as I sat in that hospital room, night after night, a poem began to reverberate in my mind. It did not make sense. Until it did. It seems to fit here, though I do not know why, so I am adding it.

For Maureen Kalix Smith

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I grasp at the hope that her rage inspired in others. 14 years ago, in the noon of her life, the light threatened to be eclipsed with the diagnosis of stage IV cancer. But she raged against the eclipse, fought and battled, endured through pain that most of us cannot comprehend, and saw her young son grown into a man, cousins and a Goddaughter born, and celebrated life with her family, friends and parish.

I grasp at the hope, but it slips through my fingers as the refrain from the poem reverberates in my mind. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. So apt for my friend, and yet so terribly, cruelly wrong.

My dear, sweet girl: the poem was never meant for you. “Do not go gentle into that good night” was written for an old man, at the end of his days. The only rage you were supposed to experience, at 29, when you were first diagnosed, was at catching your son smoking. You were supposed to rage against higher gas prices and skyrocketing tuition costs. As the world moved onward, and our bodies followed, you were supposed to rage against the passing of that first blush of youth, at a cheating boyfriend, or at yet another stupid ass thing that your friend did. The dying of the light was never something that you were supposed to have to rage against.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. And as your rage falters, slowly dims with the light of your life, the rage builds within me. You set yourself against the evil that is cancer, at the dying of the light. I can only set myself against my own impotent anger, at the coming of darkness.

I push at the darkness, with thoughts of you, mingling my own selfish memories with those others who gather around your bed. Yes, I was Batman, beating that flying rodent senseless with a pizza box. There were the notes we passed back and forth in geometry class to entertain each other. A friendship that spanned 29 years as I tumbled through one mess after another, and being so happy that your mother never changed her phone number because, to this day, I still cannot find your house, only wander through your neighborhood until I stumble across it.

I continued to show up, even after you’d rather I not, because you continued to show up, when I was not sure if you could. I embrace the fact that you saw me finally get my head out of my ass. You were there when I got married—betcha’ you didn’t see that one coming? You were there for the jewelry parties and the surprise party. You were with me for a long time now, and that is why I am here with you.

Oh my dear, sweet girl. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Maybe that is why the refrain has become a mantra in my mind. It is not for you anymore to rage, rage against the dying of the light. It is time for you to put your burden down, and let go. The pain has been terrible. The sickness unbearable. The endurance required incalculable. It is time, honey, though I selfishly resist the truth. It is time for you to go gentle into that good night.

Gently, my dear one, ever so gently. Just open your hand and let go. Slip from the pain, knowing that our memories will catch you and hold you tight.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The refrain is not for you anymore, but for us. And it is such an easy thing to do, for you have made it easy for us. The light of your life fades, but the light of your existence burns as bright as the sun. Your smile is engraved on our minds, your laughter rings in our hearts, and your warmth and kindness have become pieces of our souls. The laughter you have inspired will ease the tears of your passing. You will live as long as we do.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

How can the light die when it is a part of who we are?

Episode 23: The Space Between Breaths

Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s get naked about mental health!

I wasn’t planning on doing another episode this year as I was supposed to be on my way to or settling in Rochester, Minnesota, but I am still stranded in Tijuana. As I was sitting here, waiting, a title popped into my mind. Things typically start with that. Things are a bit scattered with everything packed, but I’m going to try and plow my way through and maybe make some sense.

The space between breaths brought a memory of a stupid little kid. Everybody told me I couldn’t breathe under water, but how do you know if you don’t try?

It didn’t work out well to say the least, but, in retrospect, it wasn’t nearly as bad as when I stuck my finger into the empty lightbulb socket to see how that worked.

We really don’t know anything until we try. Until we start talking. Until we start listening. Until we understand. A lot of the time, and the most difficult thing I think, is knowing what we don’t know.

In business, I say it is important to know what we do know but more important to know what we don’t. I think life is the same. Mental wellness especially so.

I’m stuck in the space between breaths, still stranded, with everything packed. My lungs burn at times. And that is what it was like when I wanted to commit suicide. The first time, I didn’t know to come up for air. The second time, I didn’t want to come up for air.

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. In the United States, 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 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

Yeah, that was stupid. I sucked in as much water as I possibly could. Aye, I was young and Aquaman was my favorite cartoon character. If he could do it, maybe I could? I sputtered to the surface coughing and choking where I was scooped out by an adult who knew better.

I was stuck in the space between breaths the first time I wanted to commit suicide. A timeless moment that I discuss in previous episodes, with my lungs burning, my skin on fire, my brain ablaze with pain, and I did not know to come up for air and just breathe.

The second time, I knew to come out for air, but I didn’t want to. The effort was too much. I was too exhausted and just wanted to drift into nothingness.

Both time share similarities. A major one is loss of perspective. My world compressed into a timeless moment of pain and agony. Another similarity was loneliness, a deep, dark loneliness that could not be touched by the huge circle of friends and family who surrounded me.

One of my favorite personal quotes is: “Perspective: use it or lose it.”

It connects directly with another quote I ran across recently by Irish author Brendan Behan. “At the innermost core of loneliness is a deep and powerful yearning for one’s lost self.”

They both connect with a post I recently saw on LinkedIn by Mark Carolan. He posted about a book he recommends, Man’s Search for Reason by Viktor Frankl. Frankl relates his experience of his time in Auschwitz. It is about finding meaning.

Meaning is what I lost. It is what I found again. It is what makes this experience in Tijuana so different than all of my other experiences.

My situation still sucks. It sucks a little bit more each day I am stranded here. It is probably the worst one I have been in. I thought I had been in bad situations before, but then I broke my ankle in a foreign country with no money. The experience really forces perspective on you, whether you want it or not. Instead of being pushed deeper and sucking in water, I was pushed to the surface of a different kind of reality. I sucked in air and knew that I had to learn patience to get through this. It became about that space between breaths.

I have been pulled back under constantly the last few months. I guess that the stories of “why” are unimportant. The direct “whys” lead to bitterness and anger, and the last thing I want to do is start sounding like Yoda.

Depression, anger leads to.

I am trying to get at the “whys” behind the “whys” and that is a tougher proposition.

Imagine you are struggling, drowning, breaking the surface to gasp in a lungful of air. Standing just beyond reach is a yoga instructor saying, “now remember to breathe with the belly, in through the nose…”

Yeah, screw you.

But that’s what it can be like. In that space between breaths, you need to remember how to breathe, the mechanics of breathing.

“Like a leaf on the wind,” keeps popping into my mind for some reason so I am writing it down. That’s an awesome scene in the movie Firefly.

That’s something else that just struck me today from Facebook. Dori Holt, author and group moderator of Voices Unearthed, for parents of children who stutter, wrote something about how talking for a person who stutters can be like driving an icy road. The more you try to force it, the harder it becomes.

It is what I was taught and taught my daughter. If you start going into a slide, you never fight the slide, as counterintuitive as it may be. You go with the slide, thereby regaining control.

I really have no idea what any of this has to do with anything. It almost makes sense in my head. Aye, like I said, I’m just waiting. It is the space between breaths.

I do know that I felt at my absolute best when I was on the road to suicide. I had a plan in place, a great plan, and was having one last hurrah before finding a nice, quiet place to end my life. Check out the movie Scent of a Woman if you haven’t seen it already.

I felt great. Wonderful! I was free. It was not the space between breaths. I was breathing. I felt utterly calm and relaxed. The anxiety that I had felt? Gone. I’ve always been afraid of flying and the dentist. Phobias. Gone. In the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado, I think I felt silence for the first time in my life.

There is something so damn important in there, something beyond and deeper than not having to worry about anything because I am about to die. The 500lb weight I had carried on my shoulders all of my life was gone. I was lighter and could breathe.

I was no longer living in between breaths.

I had purpose. I had direction. A destination. I was also living a life of service. Without telling anybody my final destination, I took everybody along with me on my journey through social media. All 50 states, close to 40,000 miles, and 152 days, I posted to help others to shake free of the hibernation and trauma caused by Covid.

When the journey was over, and I decided to live, that’s when things got really ugly. I knew it was about to happen though. I was expecting it. I knew that I was not going to kill myself. Wave after wave of depression slammed into me. I just continued to breathe through it, knowing it would pass.

Knowing I had purpose again?

There was no happiness or joy in the decision. I was not expecting either. There was no hope. I wrote that I did not find hope in my journey, but I found pieces to start putting my life back together. An authentic life? A direction to find my lost self?

Just breathe.

There is a lesson to be learned in breaking my ankle. –I really have no idea where that came from.

I was told I did not actually break my ankle in the initial fall. I really did not need to be told that, but I was told anyway. I just sprained it very badly. I broke it doing what I did next.

I had adopted a dog who had been abused, neglected and never been on a leash. I slipped and fell while walking her in an early morning rain. People rushed to help me, but the dog kept all my would-be helpers at bay. They finally tossed me a walking stick.

The pain was excruciating, unlike anything I had ever felt. Add in a terrified puppy who was savagely attacking anything that came close to me, and my thoughts left me. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t process anything resembling logical options. I had one thought in my head. Get home.

I had a walking stick. I had three blocks to go. I had a puppy I needed to get home safely. I got home. It took me over an hour. I was living in between breaths because each breath brought pain.

That’s where I broke my ankle. Somewhere along that three-block walk, hop, crawl, my ankle went from bad sprain to fractured.

Various things in life have taught me to breathe through the pain, endure by keep breathing. By concentrating on the mechanisms of breathing, we can endure and keep going. There is a disconnect with that in the space between breaths. There was a disconnect with that during that walk, hop, crawl. I endured, but I stopped thinking.

I think of tWitch, another seemingly happy person, who had everything, who took their life. We will never know his story, and I would never want to intrude on the family to better understand it. Like with Robin Williams. I can only understand my story, and try to understand it better, try to figure out the things I need to know, and pass on that knowledge to others.

It all makes me think of the space between breaths. Of what it takes to bypass the most basic instinct of any organism to survive. Of either a loneliness that goes so deep that it cannot be touched by all those around us or a greater need to end the burden that we think we are placing on those around us.

I am trying to breathe right now, breathe through this podcast, breathe through the space between breaths.

I am scarred shitless of what comes next. When I can stop breathing in Tijuana and begin breathing on a long road trip that will bring me to Minnesota. I am afraid of those frigid breaths in Rochester where the high next week is 11 degrees. As much as I need to continue my journey, as much as I am desperate to start breathing again at a job and with an ankle that works, I am afraid of that next breath.

Yes, in the space between breaths, I have considered suicide again. There is a painfulness in the space between breaths, but there is also a comfort in it. Opening the door to opportunity also opens the door to stress and anxiety.

They are just passing thoughts, the gnats on a summer evening that I write about. The ones that have no purchase on my reality. They are the thoughts of the path of least resistance.

The last few months, the last couple years, have taught me I need the resistance in my life. There is something about coming up for that lungful of air and the surface of the water has a tension to it. I would use the metaphor of a layer of ice, but I am trying to avoid thoughts of cold. There is purpose breaking through it. There is a step towards an authentic self. That my lost self lies beyond the tension, along the path of more resistance.

It is so easy to get caught up in the comfortable and known, too easy. I watched years and decades pass. Was that the feeling that I got over time, that I moved further and further away from my true self? The path of least resistance led to the most resistance until every day was a struggle.

In the space between breaths, what I did not know makes me ache.

In the space between breaths, I grow more and more tired.

In the space between breaths, I have choices to make.

In the space between breaths, I know that I need to learn more to make better choices.  

In the space between breaths, I struggle, my thoughts scattered, but I choose to move forward with another podcast. Whether I’m walking, hopping, limping or crawling, I’m still moving forward.

Maybe I should have called a cab or an ambulance. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to breathe water. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to figure out what makes the lightbulb go on. Maybe I shouldn’t have given away everything. Maybe I shouldn’t have done a lot of things.

But I am figuring things out. And you have to admit that some of the more stupid stories are entertaining.

And that is the best I have for this episode. I hate writing or saying that. I always hated the John Cougar Mellencamp greatest hits album name, “The Best That I Can Do.” Maybe there is a lesson in that? Let me think about it and get back to you, hopefully, from Minnesota.

Aloha.

Episode 22: Are We Okay?

Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s get naked about mental health!

I forget what famous author said it, but they said, “an amateur writer borrows; a professional one steals.”

In this week’s episode, I’m stealing. A friend sent me a link on Instagram to a group about a month ago, Real Depression Project. I am in awe by what they are doing on Instagram. I highly recommend checking them out. There is also a website.

Everything they post hits me in some way, makes me feel better. I know that I am not alone, and not being alone is a message I preach. Real Depression Project are the choir, singing the hymns.

I thought I would share some of the things that have struck me the most. As I said, if you are struggling, or trying to understand someone who is struggling, I highly recommend following them.

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. In the United States, 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 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

I follow the Real Depression Project on Instagram. It is sometimes hard reading their posts. They are educating me on things I needed to know decades ago. They are also educating loved ones of people struggling and even helping to validate many of the feelings I have inside of me.

As I have mentioned, depression, anxiety and PTSD are not what many people think, the caricatures we come across in everyday life. They can be, but most often are not. It is like how I explained PTSD once.

I took all of the online tests for ADHD and passed with flying colors. Finally, I thought, something I could grab onto and address. I went to see a specialist. After a battery of tests, I was told I did not have ADHD. When telling a friend of mine about it, a psychiatrist and expert on PTSD, he asked me if anybody had ever told me that PTSD can present itself as ADHD.

Mental health struggles can be insidious. From the Real Depression Project and other resources, I am learning that depression and childhood trauma really did have complete control of my life and I just did not know it. I was looking for the caricature, not the reality; I was looking for the dragon to slay instead of looking upon it with soft eyes.

After five decades, it is hard coming to that realization.

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for an addict to walk into that meeting for the first time, admit they were powerless over their addiction and that their lives had become unmanageable. But what if they really had no idea their lives were unmanageable and could have been managed? I don’t know enough about addiction but what if they really, truly believed not only were in control but they did not even know they were using? As if someone close to them was slipping something to them when they did not know about it? (That’s an episode of NCIS.)

When my last major depressive episode hit, I was pissed. I was angry at the depression, God, the Universe and everything else. I was doing well! I was taken my meds religiously! My depression was managed!

Only, it wasn’t.

Memes, conversations, and posts by the Real Depression Project are teaching me that according to my Mental Health Triangle, I flatlined a long time ago. Signs of it are scattered throughout my life. It was never a question of if the episode would hit again, but when.

It is so damn hard to come to that realization, and then look back and see the evolution of a life controlled by the depression.

The caricatures can be easy to spot. I learned that a long time ago. The onset of my mother’s manic episodes were marked by music, candles and religion. It was episodic, hence the word episodes. The gentler insanities, as I call them, the less pronounced versions, are much different.

Hints and allegations. I’ve always said I am a man. We don’t do well with hints. We need to be hit with something heavy. Those light brushes, though, have been touching me all my life and I didn’t realize it. I just thought of many things as character flaws. I never put together the pieces that they were all a part of something larger, something looming over my life.

One post by the Real Depression Project last week hit me right between the eyes, with something heavy. Think 5 lb. masonry hammer.

Right before I was about to record the episode, I read their post on “Things Those with Depression Secretly Do Alone.” The first slide after the title got me.

“Rewatching reruns of old TV shows you used to enjoy to feel a sense of comfort and safety.”

Though not old TV shows, I’ve written about this and spoke about it often. I’ve been writing about it since I first launched my website in 2001. I wanted to be a writer. I know what it takes. I am a voracious reader. I could have read all of the classics by now, the top 1,000 books of all time. Hell, I could have read an entire library by now. A smaller library, but a library.

I didn’t.

Throughout my podcast, I write about my addiction to fantasy books. It was not new fantasy books, though. It was the old ones. The ones I have been reading for decades. I first read Tolkien when I was about 8. I have now read the series 20-30 times.

I remember when I went to Scotland for a semester abroad. I was broke. I was beyond broke, counting every penny. Due to various issues, I had to get by for a month and a half with very little money. I went on January 4th and my student loans would not hit until mid-February.

Meals were one piece of meat on two pieces of toasted bread. Sometimes, I would splurge and add a second piece of meat. I had an entire country though! Things that cost nothing! Just explore. Meet people. Be a part of things. Hell, I could have been going to class.

Instead, I found my way to a bookstore. I bought books I owned at home in the States, spending money that I did not have, and sat in my flat and read them.

I never put 2 and 2 together until I read that post, though I switched it around a little bit inside of my head, [Rereading old books you used to enjoy to feel a sense of comfort and safety.]

All of the other slides in the post hit just as hard.

2) Neglecting chores/habits because you have no energy–all of it is used up fighting depression/faking a smile when you’re with others.

3) Spending long periods of times distracting yourself/finding an escape from your inner turmoil.

4) Planning out how you’d explain your struggle to others (and even typing it out via text) but then not following through with it because you fear being a burden (or that you won’t be accepted).

5) Getting lost in / fantasizing about a memory you cherish.

I can hit all of these. Or all of these can hit me. That is just one of many posts by the Real Depression Project. Each one educates me a little more. When I can handle being educated.

Like I said, when my last depressive episode hit, I was pissed. It seemed to come out of left field. It didn’t. It was a pitch right down the middle of the plate and my psyche hit it out of the ballpark. I was primed and ready for my depressive episode, with the exhaustion from two nonexistent partnerships triggering it all.

I have a lot of work to do. A lot of homework. A lot of healing.

This is what this journey is all about though: the work, the homework and, most especially, the healing.

…and this is the part where I get stuck. This is the part where I want to swim out deeper into the posts by the Real Depression Project, but I can feel the demon circling underneath me. It reaches out a claw to my foot and I kick it away. It reaches again.

And I am drug down to the depths, through 51 years. Many things carry me down, helping the demon along. How my friend said that PTSD can present itself as ADHD. Episode 18, where I talk about what childhood trauma looks like in adults. This episode where I am learning these hints and signs of a life controlled by depression. They all combine into answers to the question I have always asked myself, “What the hell is wrong with me?”

It goes back to a rooftop in Chicago in 2019, when my friend Regina asked me why I refer to myself as a person who stutters and yet as a depressive.

The demon drags me down through decades of me writing, pushing at the boundaries of who and what I am, of what was wrong with me. Though I began publishing my Coffee Chronicles online in 2001, I was journaling since I was about 14 in 1985.

In the silence of the depths, the roar is overpowering. I wasn’t writing journal entries. I was writing self-prophecy. I was answering the question of, “what the hell is wrong with me,” but never putting the pieces together.

It brings me to a flat in Scotland where I was rereading The Belgariad by David Eddings. It brings me to Miami in a dorm room where I read and reread Tolkien, Eddings, McCaffrey, and Jordan. It brings me to so many places where I stand with my back revealed and hear the rustling of whips being unrolled, the steel tips scritchity schritching against each other, the could have beens, should have beens and would have beens.

It brings me to the present, where I ask myself a simpler question. “At this point in my life, do I really want to know any more?”

The answer, of course, is, “yes.” But there is the strong undertow, and the demon is carrying me along. Perhaps it is the current depression whispering to me. Aye, you would be depressed as well after 90 days in a chair. There’s a lot going on. The flu is not helping.

It can be overwhelming. So, I’m just going to do what I do and keep talking and see if I can’t make it past that overwhelming feeling. But it is hard. So damn hard. I can’t help but feel as if I have been going through life with one arm tied behind my back. I did not even know it was tied behind my back. But now to see the entire field, see the great expanse of a life lived, a full life…

Even the tiny glimpses in the slide have the ability to both make me feel more comfortable and repel me at the same time.

“Hide, Chris,” my mind screams. “Stop! Halt! Cease! Desist!”

It just all wants to make me find a nice orthodontic lab to get back to the day-to-day work, the satisfaction of seeing a mountain of casts become appliances. Collect a check at the end of each week. Watch my movies, read my books, play with my dog, and really say the hell with this self-actualization bullshit.

The overwhelming feeling is so strong, so terribly powerful.

I also know, through the experience of that long lived and full life, that I can only hide for so long. Weeks. Maybe even months. But then two things will happen.

First, the depression will catch up to me again. Second, the desire, the need, to learn more and push out more will return.

I’ve said it in previous episodes. All my life, I just wanted to be like others, my friends and people that I love. People that I respect. To come home from a day’s work and put on the ball game and open a beer. To be satisfied and comfortable in a smaller world. I’ve tried it. It does not work.

I’ve also said I wish I was like my mother, with explosive and devastating depressive and manic episodes, with huge billboards in my life that scream, “There is something very, very wrong here! I need help!”

But I am me. That means continuing to write, continuing to talk, continuing to learn and explore. It means standing in the face of that overwhelming feeling and waiting for it to pass so I can continue my journey outward and beyond what I am, into what I can be. Even at 51.

But as I have been taught, let’s try things from a different angle. I’m stuck here. So, let’s look at another portion of the Real Depression Project that I love.

Affirmation.

Self-doubt can be such a powerful tool we use against ourselves. It can be especially hard when we see or perceive it reflected in those we love. Again, there is the caricature we can recognize for what it is but then there are the subtilities that we may miss.

The caricature is when I wrote about how I texted my wife one night at work. I was slammed by a depressive attack, not even knowing depressive attacks existed at the time. “Do you know what it is like to be a failure in every facet of your life?”

It’s become easier for me to shrug them off, laugh at them even. No matter how bad the attack, the lightning strike of self-doubt, even when my shoes get blown off, it is easy for me to pick myself up, dust myself off, and get my swagger back. Aye, ya know, I’m from Philly. Infantry. And I’ve done a lot with my life. Even helped out an entire profession. The swagger can even push itself into arrogance and all is okay again.

With the depression pushing and nudging me, I begin to doubt the small victories, the everyday ones. I even begin to question if the major victories were victories at all.

And then I come across a post by the Real Depression Project.

“Mental Health Achievements that Deserve More Recognition.”

The first one is the biggie for me: “Not acting on suicidal thoughts.” I think of it as an achievement, a huge achievement, but I get the feeling that not everybody does. I mean, they are happy I did not, but many of the reactions I have received from the people closest to me fall far from the recognition I think it deserves.

It was a battle not to do it. After the battle, the war began. It was like the D-Day Invasion. I got past that day, but there were so many nights afterwards that were just nasty, ugly, street fights. I knew I wasn’t going to do it but sat night after night in my garage wondering if I should start up the car and drift off in the carbon monoxide fumes. Where the pain was so intense I could just rock back and forth and wait for it to pass.

It is so hard to explain to other people, hard to get them to comprehend the scope of what I accomplished. Many never will. I understand that. Some days, though, the understanding is harder than others.

I talked about it previous episodes, about how I felt like I just climbed Mt. Everest or hiked Death Valley in the middle of the summer. Or maybe did both. And family members responded, “yeah, but you were wearing the wrong shoes.”

And then I run across the Real Depression Project. They understand it. They get it.

I question this podcast at times. Am I really doing anything? Am I helping? Or am I just talking to hear myself speak? The depression whispers to me that I am harming myself, wasting time, that nothing really matters. I particularly worry that I post these episodes and advertise on them on LinkedIn, the same place where my unsuccessful job search has been. Then, I come across the second slide in the post of “Mental Health Achievements that Deserve More Recognition.”

2) Opening up about a mental health issue that you may be judged / stigmatized for.

I also receive messages and notes here and there. No, I am not looking for daily outside affirmation, but I do like to hear it once in a while, need to hear it once in a while.

It is the difference between knowing someone loves you and hearing them say it.

Maybe I’ll get to the point where I will just know. Where the results of what I am doing do not matter. Just doing it should be enough. I am a huge proponent of “the means must justify the ends” as opposed to the “the ends justify the means,” but it is nice to hear and read the affirmation once in a while, the support, the held arm to steady my steps.

The other slides were just as meaningful to me:

3) Putting in boundaries because you no longer tolerate toxic behavior.

4) Allowing yourself to be vulnerable after you’ve been hurt (e.g betrayal, abuse, heartbreak.

5) Moving away from what is familiar and towards what you are worthy and deserving of.

They wrap up the post with the slide, “Be proud of yourself–All of these achievements take so much strength, courage, and hard work.”

But I’m still struggling with one. I’m struggling in general. The flu pushed back more than this episode. It pushed back my departure. I’ll be leaving soon to start a new chapter someplace else. Minnesota this time.

My friend is worried about how I will handle winter. I haven’t been in one in a long time, and I have never been in a winter like they have in Minnesota. I am not worried about winter at all. The cold and heat don’t bother me. I have a home waiting for me and my dog. That’s all that matters. It looks…perfect, white stuff on the ground and everything.

I can feel that certain tingling all throughout my body, though, the too-long pause between breaths. I’ve been caught here for a long time.

I did go for a walk today, though. It my first walk in a long time. A long walk to the pharmacy to stock up on meds it is tough to get in the United States. Today, as I write this, marks exactly three months since I broke my ankle. Today was my first long walk. It felt good.

Yeah, I still have a lot of work to do. A lot of homework. It all reminds me of a song by the Grateful Dead, Just a Little Light. It is a song that acknowledges the darkness within while looking for a little light.

It is just a little light that illuminates my path somedays. That’s all I need to know that I am moving forward. The light can come from the oddest of places. The darkness can as well. The interesting blending of the two creates shadows that must be explored to discern their reality.

But that is going to be a wrap for this episode. I need to start packing. Or maybe just lay down for a little bit and acknowledge that I could use a little bit of extra rest today.

Be kind to yourself. Educate yourself. If something feels “off,” look into it. Our mind plays tricks on us–something else that the Real Depression Project reinforces. Our senses can be lying to us. It is the nature of depression. We need to trust our gut and go with it.

I highly recommend the Real Depression Project if you are struggling or someone you know is struggling.

Aloha.