Monday, September 28, 2009

Strange Weekend: Michael Jackson – Ken Burns – John Muir and a Motorcycle Church.

Item 1 - Michael

I certainly appreciated Michael Jackson’s talent, but I have not been who has followed the tabloids since (or before his death). I stumbled onto the interview with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (the friend and taper of Michael . . . and author) on Dateline Friday night. It was somewhat by accident. There wasn’t much else on the tube and I do, usually enjoy Dateline. So I sat and watched the whole thing. I could write a lot about my impressions but I just wanted to say a couple of things.

First, about Michael in general, I find it odd how those who support him (family, fans, etc.) say that he did nothing wrong. However, I’ve heard at least two Evangelical friends say, with great confidence, that certainly Michael did molest children and should only be remembered as a pervert.

The odd thing about that is that I personally could imagine a scenario where Michael was being totally honest and one where he did molest kids. But the bottom line, it is none of my business because I wasn’t there. So the real question that pops into my mind is how are Evangelicals so confident that he was guilty? I think it comes back to the pattern where I see Evangelicals always assigning the worse possible motives to things that non-Christians do, while assigning the greatest motives to their own. So the same Evangelicals, who are confident that Michael is guilty as sin, would watch an episode of Benny Hinn, shrug their shoulders and say, “Who am I to judge one of God’s children?”

Moving on with a bit more about Michael. As I listen to his very personal tapes I feel some compassion towards the man. Being a celebrity, and such a mega celebrity as he was, I think it gives one the liberty to live raw . . . making your own mores as you go (not talking at all about molesting children). So he was abused as a child, and he spent his entire adulthood trying to recreate that lost childhood.

I can relate to the desire to live in a virtual Neverland. I’ve had this conversation with my kids before. I’ve asked them (and they are all late teens or early twenties) what would be the age they would love to be . . . perpetually? If I remember right their answer was (as was mine) almost unanimously about 6 years old. The reason is, at that age, all of life is about having fun . . . allowing your imagination the freedom to recreate your universe. You have no responsibilities and someone else (namely your parents) are your great protectors.

I’ve spent many of hours meditating—trying to imagine what the new heaven and earth will be like. I’ve always believed that when God recreates my body, my new body, that it will be in the idealized form . . . say, 21 years old and having the physique of a Michelangelo David. Was my notion of the ideal based on some Greek influence? Now I’m wondering about that. Maybe the child is the ideal. Maybe God will recreate all of us children . . . here to enjoy his garden for all of eternity.

Item 2 - Ken

I love Ken Burns . . . especially his series about the Civil War. I never watched his film about baseball, simply because I’m not a baseball fan. But the Civil War is personal to me. I grew in Tennessee and in my own neighborhood still carry scars from that conflict . . .like the cannonball above the door of the old Presbyterian Church down in Greenville. Besides that, I can remember being a small boy and seeing old men sitting around the general store and them talking about their Pas or grandpas who had fought the damn Yankees. The most moving part of that movie, in my humble opinion, was the reading of the letter from the Yankee solider Sullivan Ballou. The words are below but I will also try to embed the link to the video the Burns film.

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861

Item 3 - John

Because of my admiration of Ken Burns, I was greatly looking forward to his new series about the National Parks. I oddly caught the last hour earlier on Sunday afternoon and then the first hour later that night. Most of that first episode was focused on John Muir. I thought I knew the man . . . but I really didn’t. As the founder of the Serra Club and the father of our National Park movement, he has always been held up the bigger-than-life architech of the environmental movement. It is interesting that in recent decades the Serra Club has been viewed by through the eyes of the Evangelical Church as part of the “left wing, anti-Christian, evolutionists, tree-hugging ” establishment. But Ken Burns showed me a side of John that I never knew . . . is devotion to Christ. He was the son of a strict (probably abusive) Presbyterian pastor. He had memorized most the Bible by his early teens. Throughout his life, he saw the grandeur of the created world as the handiwork of the almighty. I now want to go back and explore his writings and I want to know the man’s heart . . . who knew how to love this earth, God’s earth, in ways that I could never imagine.

Item 4 - Motorcycle Church

Ken Burns second episode just came on so I have to go and watch it . . . I will finish this later, but I will mention that I went to a Harley church this Sunday. It's a long story that will have to wait.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Writer's Block"

Yeah, I know that I haven't blogged much recently but that's not the kind of block I'm talking about. I'm looking down the barrel of the kind of "block" that stands in the path of anyone who wants to write . . . to be heard . . . but can never achieve their writing dream.

I've been here before . . . starting the long process of trying to get something in the hands of a publisher.

It is a little like my dreams at age 14 of playing in the NBA. There's an innocence at first where you really think that goal is within your reach . . . if you cross your t's, and dot your i's and work hard. But then, as you mature, you realize that about a million of other young boys share the same basketball dream and only a handful make it.

Writing is no different. There's a lot of great writers out there and even more qualified writer-wannabes. I can't count how many English profs I've known, who (like Mr. Holland and is Opus) had dreams of writing that great novel . . . but never realizing it. I know that there are many great writers lurking even here. So it makes me think, why do I even try?

People enjoy writing for a variety of reason. I can honestly say that there is nothing that I enjoy more than sitting in a coffee shop and writing on a manuscript. I do love being out doors. Today I've biked and climbed a small mountain. Last night I went for a wonderful sunset kayak with Denise in Puget Sound (the Olympics were purple in the wake of the sinking sun). I really do like being outside . . . but I have an actual passion for putting my thoughts into words.

I think my pleasure in wrapped up in the fact that I am a deep thinker, but not that articulate in the spoken word. I don't know if that bottleneck of the spoken is a function of social anxiety or just a lack in the gift of gab.

I feel this great pent up desire to communicate the ideas that are constantly circulating inside this thin skull. But even writing does not come easily for me, at least not the mechanics of it. I do have a form of dyslexia plus I'm the product of the Appalachian school system of the 60s and 70s (where double negatives were taught as proper forms of the King's English). I'm trying to make excuses but just stating facts. For these reasons blatant typos can slip right past me . . . even though I know better.

I have had the opportunity to publish about 30 journal articles over the years. Those came with minimal effort and it was rewarding to have thousands reading what you were thinking inside your head just a few weeks before.

I have published a couple of books, but those were self-published. The first one I self-published when I gave up on this form of "Writer's Block." That book made it to about 23,000 on Amazon's list for about a week. . . and that might be the best I ever do. The last one I chose to self-publish from the start. But my dog could self-publish a book if she had a credit card in her name.

I was hoping that this time would be easier. I carefully chose the best literary agent that I could find for my manuscript. I've read two books on how to present you work . . . starting with a simple query letter to the agent. I've read an entire book devoted to how to write that one page query letter, upon which the agent will give you a thumbs up . . . or a thumb to the throat. This is where it seems unfair . . . but it's not. What would the NBA be if it had two million mediocre players?

The last time I tried to get published was back in the mid nineties. That time I went straight to the publishers. It was so frustrating because those who were so generous to actually write back said things across the spectrum. "Your manuscript is too long," "Your manuscript is too short," yada yada yada.

I just got my first rejection letter, the first of many more to come. I have to be humble, a learner . . . constantly tweaking the query letter until someone lets me in the door long enough to hear my song and watch me dance.

I do wish that real life played out like the big screen . . . at least sometimes. Where you write your book and someone, without asking, sneaks it into the mail and the next thing you know, the owner of some great publishing house is knocking on your door with a big check.

I have no desire to write to get rich, but to have enough income from writing that I could sit in that coffee shop all day (between bike rides and mountain climbs) and think . . . think and write. But maybe that's what God has stored for me in the new world to come. Sitting above Lake Como (in Italy) in a cafe writing and thinking and dreaming.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Something Funny Happened on the Way to the . . . Well, Home from Work

Although we are in the grips of Fall, the skies were perfectly blue and the temps near 80 yesterday. To top it off, I was getting off early (finished my last patient at 4 PM, where as the previous night I had a hospital consult after work that gave me a 12 hour day).

I took the tops off my Jeep doors and I would have put the top back down (I leave it down for the entire summer) but I've been having some trouble with a window zipper.

I took off my glasses, laid them on the dash and put on my prescription sunglasses and headed for home.

As I approached a very busy intersection, on this glorious day, something strange happened.

It is such a crazy intersection because all the traffic for about 8 islands must go through this bottle-neck. It is where two four lanes meet at a red light. I moved over to the left turn lane and I had a green turn arrow so I gunned it.

As I made my sharp turn to the left I could feel the "g's" pulling my clumsy top heavy four wheeler to the right. Then something caught my eye, as in slow motion. My $300 flexible tungsten eye glasses slowly floating and then moving in the opposite direction, from my dash through the air and out the open side of the door without making contact with anything.

I pulled over to the shoulder about a 100 yards up the hill, as soon as I could get out of traffic. Then I made my way back on foot, dodging cars left and right until I made it to this tiny concrete triangle with cars zooming around me in all directions.

I spotted a woman's make up compact in the road, all crushed. I keep looking. There, directly under the stop light I saw my glasses, still intact. I danced between the cars and grabbed them. People passing by thought I was a lunatic trying to commit suicide.

It was still a glorious day and it ended with a wonderful bike ride after I got home. From now on, I'll keep my glasses in the glove compartment when I'm not wearing them.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hodgepodge and Even Other Stuff

(The painting at the right is titled "Hodgepodge" but I can't find the artist's name)

It always takes me a week or so to recover when I've been out of town and this week is no exception. I've had many thoughts of things that I wanted to write about but then, a form of writers' block ensues. I think when your mind is racing it is hard to let it sit long enough for the clutter to settle out.

I do want to try and steer away from all the psychological talk I've done recently. Just that it starts to become redundant.

But maybe if I can clear out a bit of clutter, the more important topics will rise to the surface.

Unrelated Item 1) Besides work, I've been consumed lately because the Nepalese Embassy has lost my passport. I sent it there in August for a Visa, but they don't know where it is. I had to cancel my old passport yesterday and order a new one. To add some drama, it should arrive a couple of days before my departure for Nepal. I did have one Evangelical friend say, when I told of my ordeal, that this is probably God saying, "Don't go." But that again is typical Evangelical tea-leaf reading. How can we ever get through life if we believed that every event has a purpose? I would put a twist on this, maybe it is God's test to see how faithful I am to go. But then, just maybe, it was an accident, where the guy at the embassy stuffed my passport into the wrong envelop . . . hmm?

Unrelated Item 2) More Lenard Cohen. I spoke about him a few postings ago and he was really new to me. Since then, I ordered concert of his on DVD (netflix) and watched it. It was a great concert with not only him, his great lyrics and baritone voice, but great musicians and back-up singers. They had the longest encore that I've ever seen . . . almost as long as the concert proper. The next day I read a synopsis of his biography. I learned that he was born into a Jewish family in Canada. I also learned that he suffered from some severe years of depression and that he had a hard time making into the music word because of his dark lyrics. His novels succeeded first. Then I learned that he eventually became a Buddhist monk. But in his concert he seemed to joke that both treatment for depression and the Buddhist experience was a waste of time.

But it got me to think again about the dark-artist figure. There's many of them. I think the reason is that artists tend to feel deeply. When you feel deeply, you feel all things deeply, including sadness. I relate to that. I was voted senior class "clown" (actually wittiest) in high school. I did (and sometimes still do) have a sense of humor, but I feel the grief of life too.

Unrelated Item 3) More on the church front, but that too I want to lay to rest. It is becoming more and more of a paradox. We had dinner with the pastor a few weeks ago and my wife was happy to agree to become much more involved with this church. This again makes any idea of mine of leaving even more difficult. Sometimes I do wonder what's the use in all of this. I've always had the option of becoming an evangelical again, smiling all the time, seeing God working in each event of life (supernaturally), hating the Muslims and seeing all world events heading to the second coming, any day. I could fake it and if I did I think life would be so much easier again for me and my family.

More to come.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Adventures in Nerviousness

The trail at the right is not in Nepal, but China. However, it is how the trails look in my anxious mind's eyes :>)

I would not even be talking about this, outside of the privacy of my own head, except for the fact that I have already posted a series about my struggles with anxiety. Four weeks from today I leave for the bowels of the Himalayas. Recently, as always in these situations, the fog of fear started sifting in. I’ve found myself sequestering more and more of my energy and thoughts to fight this great and enduring battle.

The fist tidal wave appeared in the middle of the night last week as I was sleeping, ironically, in my childhood bed (on a visit to my mother’s house). I always feel unease at mom’s. I can’t put a finger on it (maybe Freud could), but I think it is the sense of decay of the old place and the markers of the passing of time. The house has aged more with each visit, as has my mom (and myself of course). After all of these years, the house still looks small to me, noting that somewhere in the shadows of my mind are stored the memories from the childhood perspective.

I get the same type of shock when I look into my mom’s bathroom mirror. I’ve heard of Alzheimer’s patients who don’t recognize the old person in their reflection. But I see myself every morning in my own mirror and don’t think anything of it. But in mom’s I look old and I could easily confuse myself for my father . . . who had shaved in front of that same medicine cabinet for fifty years . . . until his death.

I think the real catalyst for my night terror was reading a Lonely Planet book about trekking in Nepal just before going to sleep. One chapter listed many of the natural dangers, not to mention the unnatural ones such as Maoist rebels. The worse danger (in my perspective) was the fact that some trails were so precarious (a foot wide hanging along a long 1,000 foot cliff) that the author said, he had seen experienced mountaineers trembling in their boots.

As part of my general anxiety disorder, I do have a few specific phobias, such as acrophobia. But I think this fear is more of a social one. What I mean is that my fear is not that I will fall to my death, but that I would fall apart (emotionally) on one of those trails and freeze in front of the rest of the team. Then I would look like a nut-case. Yeah, that’s my worst nightmare. I’ve never gone wacko yet . . . but the fear is that there will be a first time.

I spent the rest of that sleepless night praying and imagining myself wrapped in Jesus’ safe arms. I quoted verses like, Phil 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” inside my head. So I followed the verses’ instructions word by word. Then I thought of an old hymn.

This hymn, by Francis Havergal, is Like a River Glorious and the lyrics are (as if you don’t know them):

Like a river glorious, is God's perfect peace,
Over all victorious, in its bright increase;
Perfect, yet it floweth, fuller every day,
Perfect, yet it groweth, deeper all the way.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest
Finding, as He promised, perfect peace and rest.

Hidden in the hollow of His blessed hand,
Never foe can follow, never traitor stand;
Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,
Not a blast of hurry touch the spirit there.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest
Finding, as He promised, perfect peace and rest.

Every joy or trial falleth from above,
Traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love;
We may trust Him fully all for us to do.
They who trust Him wholly find Him wholly true.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest
Finding, as He promised, perfect peace and rest.
This song has a special place in my armament of anti-anxiety defenses. It was 28 years ago and I was a young man traveling in Pakistan alone. While I was up in the mountains, a military coup had taken place . . . of which I was totally unaware. I caught a ride in a van (with a group that did not speak a word of English) into Rawalpindi. As we approached the city limits, there were tanks and solders everywhere. The van dropped me off and turned away. I stood in the streets with my backpack and there was total confusion. I could not find an English speaker anywhere. I was able to walk to the airport, which was heavily guarded. I was searched several times at gun point by non-English speakers (or if they were . . . they didn’t speak English to me).

To make a long story short, my flight had been canceled and it was four days before I could find a flight out of Pakistan and that flight only took me as far as Frankfort, Germany. But during that time of waiting and not knowing, I started to sing this old hymn over and over and immersing myself, psychologically within the song’s word pictures.

Since that night of terror a week ago, things have been better. Today was the first day I picked up my Nepali books again.

But it got me thinking again about us Christians who are engaged in this perpetual fight . . . with those dragons who lurk within. I falter as I try to put this into words.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that the battle is intense. Over the years I’ve spent many of nights laying in these literal cold sweats of fear . . . but none the less I’ve made many of these overseas trips, which were pregnant with dangerous of all sorts.

I have a very strong fear of heights, yet I own rock climbing equipment and I use it . . . with terror each time. I am terrified of speaking to large groups, but I have forced myself to do it over and over. The battle is intense each time.

I’ve spent hours and hours in prayer, fasting . . . pleading with God to deliver me. Yet, despite the effort why is there still shame attached to this battle? The part of me that does not struggle with anything, the calm confident Mike is just the tip of the iceberg . . . but the vast body of the iceberg can not be known to others without feeling threatened.

But the frustration is the feeling (and that feeling itself may be part of the social anxiety and not based on reality) that if I ever share this huge part of my life within the Christian context that it would not go over well. It would be a red-flag to someone that I have failed somewhere in my Christian life. I haven’t prayed right, or believed right yada yada yada. Usually that view comes from someone who has never struggled with these things . . . or if they have, they have struggled in the deep private places. I bet though, that the same people who might be critical have never traveled alone in the unstable Third World, or leaned backwards and jumped off a 150 foot cliff.

But, without digressing any more into my own problem (of anxiety) I raise this to a more general question. I honestly wonder how many of us (both Christians or just people in general) deal with these issues in their private world. Things like anxiety, depression, addictions and etc.) Some days I think it must be very common, if not universal. But then other times I’m not so sure. It certainly seems like everyone else has their lives together.

My wife Denise is the one other human being I’ve known the best. Honestly . . . she has no vices. She would be the first to admit that there are no dragons in her cellar and it seems the same with her entire family. The calm person on the tip of her iceberg is the same all the way down. On the other hand, my (growing up) family put the “fun” in dysfunctional. I will continue this thought later but this is getting too long.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Christian Heroes and Dante’s Shit-List

I took a trip, with my son, first to visit my 88 year old mother and my 84 year old aunt who share my childhood home (in Tennessee). Then we went on to Philly where I was attending the International Headache Congress.

On the trip I started reading one of Headless Unicorn Guy’s science fiction manuscripts and enjoying it. In Tennessee my son, an avid book reader, wanted to check out “Books a Million,” the big box bookstore. While watching him shop, I made my way to the classical section.

It has been about nine months since I started my project of reading through the top 100 English novels. I had never read fiction before because in my Evangelical-Dualistic frame of mind, I considered fiction a waste of time.

Before I got to the classical section, I passed the spirituality aisle and made a right turn. I always like to see what the Evangelical mainstream is reading these days. The first thing I noticed was the rather large Christian fiction section. With my new-found love of fiction my initial impressions was that this was a very positive thing . . . where Christians can now express and enjoy the art of writing for the sake of writing without any great spiritual purpose. Rght away I noticed a remarkable trend. I would guess that 80% of the books had people (usually a woman) on the cover dressed in either a prairie dress (including head covering) or a Victorian high collar gown. I was puzzled. Then I start to figure out that these ages, plus maybe the 1950s, are considered the “gilded age” by many Evangelicals. All of life was black and white and those were Christian societies . . . with plenty of virtue . . . or so it seems. But I really wonder about that. I simply suggest that those sod prairie houses had some closets. I’m not an Igor, but I think I see life as more realistic than I did before. After all, our hope is in God’s grace after all, not some idealized human existence.

Speaking of which, I turned around 180 degrees to the best-selling Christian section. There on top was The Shack. I was glad about that. While the book had endured its theological criticism, I do think it has exposed a more realistic side of Grace . . . which is a good thing. Then, just above The Shack was a book that really caught my attention. It was about Jon and Kate called “Multiple Blessings,” which was published by Zondervan. I’m proud to say that I’ve never seen an episode of Jon and Kate Plus Eight . . . not because of my good taste, but that we don’t get the channel it comes on.

I wouldn’t know much about the couple except that my mom and aunt are celebrity junkies. There coffee table is literally buried in gossip magazines. I was just skimming them the day before. Okay, I carried a couple into the john with me and actually read the articles. Certainly the Jon and Kate break up was on almost every cover. He said this and she said that. His unfaithfulness and her nasty domination (thus says the reporters). So I just had to look through this Christian version of the couple . . . before the messy separation. I never knew that they had claimed to be Christians. The book was sweet and precious (like a Precious Moments figurine). Each chapter began with either Jon’s or Kate’s favorite verse. The chapters described how they were able to keep Christ at the center of their marriage in the midst of the chaos (and buckets of money coming in).

My point here (and later about Dante) is not about my shock of how bad Christians are . . . but my shock of how good we claim to be. Our boasting of greatness seems always to come back and bite us. I hope God will forbid that I would ever publish a book about how great I am or my marriage is. I put the book back and moved on.

I finally found the classics. As I looked for a top 100 books, I could only find hard backs with high price tags. I’m sure they had cheaper versions somewhere in the huge box store. Before I could venture on my eyes stumbled upon a copy of Dante’s Inferno. I’ve never read it. It was only five bucks. So, even though it is not on the “Top 100 English Novels of All Time” list, I bought it.

The translator-commentator (I’ll call T-C) made a very good point in the books’ forward. He said there is no way you can translate Dante’s (fourteenth century) Latin pose into modern English and still appreciate the beauty of it. T-C says that there is so much depth to his writing, so many wonderful narrative tricks he deploys, play on words and rhymes that are frankly lost in translation. But T-C does a wonderful job taking you through his translation cannon by cannon. So, maybe I, a twenty-first century English speaker, can get 40 or 50% of the message and beauty of the original. I do wish that I was fluent in late-Medieval Latin . . .and the Greco-Roman culture.

I approached the book thinking I would get some philosophical or metaphysical insights to how Christians of Florence thought during the early Renaissance.

It has been fun reading. But, I can’t help but deconstruct Dante from a bigger than life, talented poet, into a mortal like myself.

Warning Side Bar: When I was a staunch Evangelical, I was critical of others but it was the perspective of “looking down your nose.” We applied this all the time to non-Christians. They were the pits. But also (especially when I was a Navigator) we had the habit of looking down at the little “church people.” Those were the non-committed Christians unlike ourselves. Those little church people dated, and listened to worldly music. We were the true disciples.

But now, when I criticize, I am actually trying to put pants on the people who are presenting as bigger-that-life. Okay, like Jon and Kate.

Dante does a very intensive word picture of his decent into the bowels of hell. I can see how imagines, such as expressed in What Dreams May Come (staring Robin Williams), had some bases in Dante’s work. But soon I started to see a pattern. On each level Dante was meeting his contemporaries . . . and naming them by name. TC was quick to point out who these people were in Dante’s real life. Arch-enemies, family adversaries, rival poets and people who had done him wrong. Hey, the Inferno is populated with Dante’s master shit-list.

I found it almost humorous that on the eight level of hell, where the homosexuals are condemned to live forever, he names several of his Florentine associates. TC points out that none of them were known as being gay . . . of course in those days such admission might get you executed. But it seems like Dante was basically doing the adolescent antic of name-calling (equivalent of saying “hey fag.”)

So, maybe I’m the last to know that this was the nature of Dante’s great work . . . a beautifully versed . . . shit list. Actually, his word pictures had many of his enemies covered in shit . . . literally.

So once again it is a question of motives. None of us are above reproach, where our actions don’t have at least some primal intentions. Hey, I mean that there are days that the carnal Mike wouldn’t love to write a long poetic epic, where I could list all the people whom had harmed me (at least in my broken imagination) and then do things to them like cover them in feces, or put their heads on backwards, or put then into tombs of fire. But Dante, as talented as he was, was a mortal.

I will say that Dante and I end up at the same place. He (and I alike) would put in the anti-apogee of hell the so-called Christian deceivers. In his case it was the popes who were liars and greedy, making money out of their faith. I’ve always favored the TV Evangelists, those who have built financial empires on the backs of the little ole ladies (like my mother and my aunt) giving the pennies form their social security checks.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Thanks for the Comments, and We're Together on This

I'm traveling and am making a brief coffee shop Internet stop so I don't have the time to go back and comment on the comments.

I do think that there is a lot of this type of minor-league (doesn't feel minor looking out from the inside) mental health issues within the believing family. It only makes sense. We are fallen afterall . . . forgiven . . . but not well yet. I do wish that we could come clean about it more easily. I know that someone shared that they feel very comfortable sharing at their church about their issues because they are in a Sunday school class with a lot of young people who are also, so "messed up." Count yourself blessed.

I don't think I could tell a soul at my church that I suffer from a chronic anxiety disorder without them seeing it as a spiritual flaw (by my own sinful choices or lack of discipline). However, Denise thinks that I underestimate them.

I did read all your comments. I also skimmed my postings and once again, I saw many typos. Sorry. When I'm in a hurry I type fast and don't have time to proof-read. I hope that you could fill in the gaps over the typos to make sense out of it.

I also did not want to give the impression that after a few visits with the right counselor that I'm cured. I'm not cured, but better. This may be my thorn in the flesh for the rest of my life (like Paul's). After all, I would not be surprised that Paul's thorn in the flesh was not a physical ailment (as most suggest) or a dis-obedient wife (as I heard one pastor suggest) but could have been his own mental health problems.

But having a thorn makes one so very thankful for God's enduring mercy. It is the sick that needs the great physician the most.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Fall Within - Last Posting About My Anxiety Story Part VI

Counseling Experience 4: (and Last . . . yeah!)

Finally I decided to go mainstream and forget the Christian psychologists’ approach for getting help. This was a huge paradigm shift for me at the time. I always had considered “secular” psychology or psychiatrist as the bogyman.

As an employee of Mayo Clinic, I made an appointment with one of their Psychiatrists. I have to say that was very difficult with the stigma attached to mental health problems. I was sure that I would be sitting in the lobby with some of my own patients, whom I had referred. So I sat with a Yachting magazine held so high that you could only see the top of my head.

I was called back and went into the oak-paneled office of a nice, but formal man whom I will call him (as I can't remember his real name) Dr. Sevengali. He was polite and formal, looking the spitting image of Elaine's (from Seinfield) psychiatrist. He simply asked me what was going on. I spilled my guts. I told him in graphic detail about, what I considered, my serious state of mental health. To my surprise, and somewhat . . . to my delight, he smiled and said, "You really don't need to see a psychiatrist. You have a very garden variety anxiety disorder. These are very common and are usually easy to get a handle on. Do you mind if I refer you to one of our junior, master's level, psychologists?"

"Do you mean I'm not crazy!!!!!!" I asked.

He chuckled, "Of course not. I see far worse cases than yours every day."

I had told him about all my failures . . . the details of every one. "Don't you think I'm a jerk?"

He chuckled again. "I have no idea if you are a jerk or not as I don't know you that well. But based on what you've told me today, you seem to be a decent man."

"I'm not a wife abuser or bad father?"

He laughed one more time but answered more emphatically, "Of course not!"

I left that day thinking, and feeling God's grace for the first time in a year and . . . oddly . . . it seemed to becoming from the bogyman.

He did set me up to meet with a young lady, about 28 or 30 years old. We met about 5-6 times. I felt very comfortable talking with her about everything that had been haunting me. The most pleasant thing that she understood very well, and, like Dr. Sevengali, she squeezed my problems back down to a manageable size. Then we worked through a book called, Mind over Mood. She took an approach, I guess you would call cognitive restructuring. It seemed to make a lot of sense, and I started to do much better within weeks. I'm not cured as I still struggle with the same issues. I wish I still lived in Rochester and I would return now and then for a "tune up." I also wish I had gone on medications during that horrible year. There is certainly a place for them, where they can help you get your bearings.

This cognitive restructuring approach seems far more Biblical than demon and angels (unless there really were demons and angels causing the problem, which I think is an extreme rarity). It seems far more Biblical than just reading some passages and expecting a zapo . . . you're better. Certainly it is more Biblical than repressed memories or trying to get to know the devil inside you (when you are already suffering from horrible feelings of guilt).

Satan is the father of lies. Cognitive restructuring looks at the lies that you tell your self (they looked at me funny, that means they hate me. If they hate me, that means I'm a horrible person . . . on and on) and replace it with truth. The only thing missing from the sessions with the secular psychologist was focusing on the work of Christ on the cross, taking away the bad stuff . . . once and for all. I had to do that on my own.

Sorry about the typos. I had to type fast as I have to go to bed, get up in just 3 hours (at 1 AM) and catch a plane to Tennessee to see dear ole Mom, then on to Phily for the International Headache Congress (sounds boring doesn't it . . . but it is a joy).

Jaime . . . are you happy now!? You're the one that talked me into this. :>)

The Fall Within - More About My Anxiety Story Part V

I’m trying to finish up this thread quickly, as I am leaving town tonight for 10 days. I am also uncomfortable talking so candidly about these things. I realized that my last points of my story will have to be divided up into two more posts.

Counseling Experience 4:

Peter was a PhD psychologist, in his late 50s and had the physical appearance and extreme confidence of the character House, MD on the drama by the same name. By the time I got to him, I was at my worse. With the extreme anxiety and panic attacks, my greatest fear was I was going completely insane (and would spend the rest of my life locked up in a psychiatric warehouse). He had gotten to know my wife, Denise, very well by that time and knew of my problems from her angle.

On the first visit I completed a couple of personality questionnaires. On the second visit, we reviewed them. I had scored very high on the anxiety scale and less than I expected on the depression scale. Then Peter told me, in his very confident way, that this type of anxiety is usually caused by deep feelings of guilt (which I certainly could believe) . . . but guilt brought on by events in childhood. He suggested that we spend several sessions exploring my childhood.

The next session he tried his darndest to get me to admit that my parents had sexually abused me. It simply never happened. I was determined to resist his pressure to admit to such. Then he started getting into the concept of repressed memories. Again I didn’t buy it. Lastly he attempted to hypnotize so he could dig out those suppressed memories. The hypnosis didn’t work, although I did lay there with my eyes closed breathing deeply but still, no repressed memories. I could see why people do start to invent repressed memories under such pressure. I felt like I was in Gutomino Bay, I was the bad guy and Peter was some CIA contractor.

In the next session he moved on to a new therapy technique called EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing). This is simply where you think of some bad memory and then follow his finger back and forth rapidly with your eyes. This was supposed to have erased bad emotions associated with traumatic events. After about 4 sessions, and him claiming it was working, I felt no better.

Next, he had a complete turn around. It caught me by surprise when he announced that we were going to take a new approach. It was based on a book, which in turn, was based on a Christian interpretation of Carl Jung. (I was going to link the book but I can’t find it now, as it must be out of print.) The concept was simply, if we have depression, anxiety etc. then we must have some dark, evil secrets . . . or what Jung would call the “shadow.” In the book, and Peter’s opinion, I needed to get to know my dark side, repent, then we can get better. Peter explained that I was feeling anxious and guilty because I really was guilty and he was convinced of that.

Trying to keep this short, I will summarize that I met with him weekly for a few months. Each time I came out of his office feeling worse than when I went in. I know it sounds odd, but, each session was him trying to expose more and more my “evil side.”

Each session began with me telling him, "If your point is get me to feel more guilty or ashamed, then their is nothing you can do that would make me feel more this way than I already do. I wish I could die just to rid this world of my pathetic self." To which he would reply, "That's only a smoke screen. You have no clue how much evil lurks within you."

The reason I stayed with him was frankly because I was so desperate. I felt like my psyche was coming unglued at the seams and I was actually going insane. My wife, who was having a totally different experience with the man, also encouraged me to continue with him.

Peter was also starting to drive a wedge between Denise and me (looking back). He was persuading her too that I had a very dark side and that she only knew the tip of the iceberg and that I was not as good man as I had pretended to be, or that she had thought I was.

As a sidebar, I know about the abusive husbands who their wives drag to counseling only to have them storm out as soon as the counselor starts putting his finger on the abuse. I truly believe that this was not our situation. I honestly believe that I had been a very good father and husband for 15 years, and I think Denise would be the first to agree.

However, as we entered these three years of great misfortunate (I’ve only alluded to the circumstances), which led up to my emotional breakdown, she was under a great deal of stress. As I started to emotionally unravel, I became a desperate drowning man—drowning in a stew of guilt, shame, depression all within a strong broth of terror. I really thought that I was loosing my mind. Denise had jumped into the soup to save me, like someone would try to save any drowning victim. And like those rescuers, I was starting to pull her under with me. This was the only abuse I was guilty of.

It wasn’t until a few months later and we had a group family vacation (12 people in an RV for crying out loud) that I spent some quality time with my older sister. She was one of the few people who knew what was going on with me personally. She loves me unconditionally, and I have great confidence in that. As she looked over the material that Peter was asking me to work through, she became very alarm and thought it was damaging. I think it was at that point that I saw the light. Things had only worsened for me during the 6 months I had been seeing Peter.

When I returned to Rochester, MN, I canceled my follow up appointment with Peter. Yet, I had to find help. This will lead me to my final, and most rewarding counseling experience.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Fall Within - More About My Anxiety Story Part IV

(This painting is called "shrink" and can be found at the artist's web page by clicking on the title above)

When things deteriorated quickly, I knew that I needed help. This was about14 years ago and was a time of transition for myself, theologically. I was still an Evangelical. Being an Evangelical, I really thought that counseling must come from a declared Christian. I had the feeling back then, that a non-believing psychologist (with their “humanistic views” ) would lead me astray, maybe to satanic rituals and human sacrifices (this is tongue –n- cheek in case you don’t get it). So I did seek out help from the only Christian psychologist in town.

Counseling Experience 1:

The first psychologist was a lady in her fifties and I will call her Beth. She advertised as a faith-based Psychological service. I found her to be quite eccentric if not frankly odd. Her office was like a Christian bookstore with incense burning (she believed that it had a spiritual reason that burning frankincense keeping demonic influences away). She also had soft Christian music playing in the background, rather loudly, throughout the sessions, making it hard to hear each other. She even had a place, just like a Christian bookstore, where she would perch her CDs upright over a “Playing Now” sign.

She wore a mink coat, and often didn’t take it off during the sessions and she had a poodle sitting on her lap. The dog only left her lap when he came across to me (we sat on facing couches) to hump my ankle. Beth seemed to be oblivious to her dog’s extracurricular activities.

The positive thing I have to say about Beth was I really had the feeling that she did care . . . and cared a lot. She also listened well. Both traits would be missing from future counselors. She was also quickly to put the right label on what I was experiencing at the time, depression and anxiety. However, looking back, I think her downfall was the Dualistic-Evangelical approach. She believed that most mental illnesses were caused by demonic influences and cured by angelic help. We spent sessions praying and meditating and asking for deliverance from the demonic influences.

We moved and I didn’t continue with Beth for very long. I stayed with her as long as I did because she did listen, and I was desperate.

Counseling Experience 2:

My second attempt at counseling was with our new pastor, John. He was a good man, the senior pastor of a very large and growing church. He has some great gifts as being one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard and also a great organizer. His downfall, and his board of elders would be the first to admit, is that he does not have good people skills. I can never remember him returning a phone call or e-mail, even though I have sent him many over the years.

After one of our board meetings I approached him about me needing help. He scheduled me a few weeks away for his counseling “program.” He said he did a four-step program in pastoral counseling based on the book of some mega church pastor (can’t remember which one). I think the four steps were; 1) Session 1-identify the problem, 2) Session 2-discuss the solution and make assignments, 3) Session 3-grade the assignment and 4) Session 4 – wrap up and final evaluation.

I still think that John is a good man and I respect him very much. However, the counseling sessions were so sterile that I really think they were superficial. We met in his office, him behind this huge oak desk and me sitting in front on a folding chair (like a kid being called down to the principle’s office). He told me that the sessions would last one hour. He took his watch off and laid in on the desk in front of him . . . keeping the sessions to exactly one hour . . . even if I were in the middle of a sentence.

To make a long story short, we didn’t get very far. His assignment was memorized some passages and reading certain books of the Bible. I did the assignments, but we never even discussed the anxiety in the tightly scheduled sessions.

Counseling Experience 3:

During my “wrap up” session with Pastor John I voiced that I thought I needed more help (this was the time I was having terrible panic attacks, but I had even told John about them). He said that he was done, but if I needed more help to see a psychologist. He gave me the business card of a man who had the only Christian Psychological service in the city. He didn’t know much about the man, named Peter, except for one family in the church had seen him and liked him.

I hemmed and hawed for several weeks, because I had not gotten far with previous attempts. My wife Denise decided to see him first. I think the reason was, while I was going down the tubes emotionally, I was dragging her with me. She is not a depressed person but was becoming depressed for the first time in her life. She actually looked up this psychologist and met with him weekly for a month before I went. I had mixed feelings. I was hoping that I would just hit by a bus and solve the problem for Denise and myself once for all (in my mind’s eyes).

We met together with Peter for the first visit, then he wanted to continue meeting separately with Denise and myself.

This post is getting too long so I will have to continue. I will have to say, as a preview, that my meetings with Peter because very destructive on my end. However, there is a small rainbow, when I found a really good counselor in the end.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Fall Within - More About My Anxiety Story Part III

As my generalized anxiety disorder became more severe, it also became more focused as social anxiety. It is very hard to explain this phenomenon to someone who has never suffered from it in the same way it is impossible for me to understand what an anorexic or a cutter thinks or does. It’s also like trying to “explain” the Grand Canyon to someone who has never seen it or even seen a picture of it. You can talk about it dimensionally, as in feet deep, miles across . . . but you just can’t explain it.

Social anxiety is, as Jamie said a long time ago, an irrational fear. You can not explicate it rationally. It is wired deeply within the brain and is very primal. In social anxiety it is the illogical and intense fear of being judged. But worse than that, it is an absurd fear that that judgment carries infinite weight. It is not just someone’s opinion that you are a bad person but their “opinion” actually declares you to be a bad person. I still may not be conveying the depth and the width of this fear. When social (or any) anxiety is at its prime, it is worse than a fear of death. This is why it is hard for someone who doesn’t suffer from it to understand. They would just think, “I don’t care what the hell they think about me.” In the same why I would ask an anorexic person, who is near death . . . but really wants to live . . . “Just eat, damn-it EAT!” I can’t grasp why they can’t.

I mentioned once before that four years ago I was sleeping in a pup-tent alone, beside the road in Northwest Pakistan. It was a tense time (as it always is there) where the anti-Islamic Dutch cartoons had just been published and George W. Bush was visiting Pakistan the following week. The day before a crowd had been circling our encampment shouting, in English btw, “Death to the Americans!”

After I had been sleeping for a while, one of the team’s Pakistani body guards awaken me and said, almost in a shout, “You’re going to die sleeping here! These Taliban are going to come in here while you’re asleep and cut your throat from ear to ear and there is nothing my men or I can do about it.”

I was sleeping alone because the rest of our team was sleeping in a shipping container under the watch of the guards. I could not sleep lying side by side, like sardines in a tin can, with a bunch of snoring doctors and medics.

But even after that warning, I was calm enough to go back to sleep . . . waiting until the next day to move my tent to a safer place.

However, the night before I have to do a public speaking event, I don’t sleep at all but lie in a pool of cold sweat. That is social anxiety and that is how the fear is worse than the fear of death itself. It is totally irrational.

After my acute anxiety experience twelve or so years ago, I started this pattern of having panic attacks in virtually every social situation (parties, seeing patients, Sunday school classes). I continued to do public speaking but it was extremely hard. I actually had a panic attack once when I was suddenly asked to read scripture in front of our church over several hundred people. My voice was shaking so hard that people couldn’t understand me.

I want to say something about panic attacks before I close this posting. I will also say in summary that while my horrible anxiety improved over the subsequent years, it has never returned to the mild level of 15 years ago. In my next posting (and last I hope) I will describe my experiences seeking help from two different Christian psychologists and one secular.

The Panic Attack:

A panic attack is very physical. For the specifics, go back to two posts ago and click on the title. It takes you to a very detailed description of what goes on in the brain, adrenals and heart during anxiety and panic.

But in simpler terms, it is initiated subconsciously. So you don’t have a panic attack on purpose or by “talking yourself into it,” as someone might say who has never had one. Once it starts (in my case) it takes off automatically. Eventually, a large dose of adrenalin is dumped into your bloodstream. Adrenalin (and the other complex processes) speed up the heart rate to about 150, start a hypoxia (starving of air) response, create generalized shaking and often causes the muscles to literally lock up.

These responses in themselves have a very healthy purpose, and originally were good and designed by God. To have a dose of adrenalin helps you to escape real danger. You can outrun a robber if you have this effect. Even the freezing up has a purpose, like that of an opossum (by avoiding attracting attention to yourself when you lie very still).

But in the social context of having anxiety and then a panic attack, this physiological response can seem devastating and unstoppable. The problem is that panic attacks associated with anxiety disorders are self-perpetuating. For example, if you have an irrational fear of being judged (as being bad, loopy or stupid) then you have a fear of a panic attack because if you do have one, then you will (at least in your mind) convince people that you really are nuts.

It goes like this. You are terrified if you speak in front of a group that they might think you are goofy. So you get up in front of the people, then you lock up or start shaking so badly you actually DO look goofy. Then the next time you will be more afraid.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my biggest anxiety is anxiety itself and panic attacks. If I already have social phobias, then my greatest phobia is that I will have a panic attack and thus prove that I am stupid . . . or a nutcase, or unspiritual.

Panic attacks do not make me feel like I’m sick or dying (because I work in medicine and I know better), however, for many sufferers it does. Some people with anxiety disorders have a fear of being sick (heart attacks, MS, seizures, dementia, etc). So when they get the adrenalin rush, it convinces them they are having one of those diseases.

It takes a huge amount of energy to physical fight anxiety and to keep a panic attack from coming.

A Final Statement

Guilt is a big part of social anxiety (and depression and a host of other metal ailments). If your fear is being judged, and that judgment (like the judgment of God) carries eternal weight, then you feel perpetually guilty. This is where people with anxiety disorders can be manipulated by the Christians (pastors, Christian psychologists, etc) who have other mental health issues (narcissistic) or personality disorders. They will say things like, “Why weren’t you at the meeting? I was really counting on your.” The meeting was usually some waste of time to boost that Christian's ego, but he or she wraps it up in the “Jesus blanket” so they can use guilt manipulation to make you come.

It is also, in my opinion, why we need to hear about, meditate on and experience the Grace of God, the mercy of Christ, the total redemption and absolute justification that comes via the cross. It is counterproductive, in my opinion, to preach to us about discipline, being in the hands of an “angry God,” etc . . . because we have this constant feeling of being in the sweaty, trembling, angry hands of God almighty. That is one reason I think nut cases who practice Nouthic counseling will have to answer to God someday for the damage they have done (okay, they have the mercy too, but it is my emotions speaking).

I will end next time with my experiences, good and bad, of trying to get better.