This guest blog post comes from Jason Miller and Matt Pappas from Surviving My Past, who shares his incredible story of survival and living a bipolar life. As you read and feel the struggles that Jason shares, please be kind to yourself. His is a story, like so many survivors, is one of enduring tremendous hardship and finding a way to keep going even when things were at their very worst and there was no way out.
Thank you so much Jason for sharing so openly and vulnerably, I’m honored to help spread your message of hope and encouragement.
Every one of us has the capacity to make a fundamental choice that has a huge impact on the quality of our time here on Earth: Whether we going to settle for survival or we are going to thrive. And If there is one truth I have learned over the years, it’s that human beings can thrive spiritually, regardless of material conditions and circumstances. Pain is inevitable. But existential suffering is an option.
One of my favorite theologians, CS Lewis, may have said it best:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. Like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
I spent many years making mud pies in a slum. And I am happy to share the story with you, as well as the way in which I made my way to the holiday by the sea. It is my fervent prayer that this testimony of a God-rendered miracle of a Phoenix rising from the ashes will provide hope and inspiration to fellow sufferers who read it.
Born in 1966 to a lower middle class American family, I grew up with all my necessities and many of my creature comforts met. Blessed and privileged, right? Most definitely.
Health care, food, clothes, roof over my head, good education at a suburban school, Scouts, football, pets, friends, sleepovers, camp-outs, dances, some dating. All that “good stuff.”
Yet despite all this, AND despite my father’s frequent reminders that I “had the world by the ass,” I was absolutely miserable. Haunted by the belief that I “should have been happy,” there was a heaping, stinking pile of shame that came with that emotional pain.
For as long as I can remember, I had insomnia. Often, I would lie awake in bed until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, feeling 100% certain that I was the only human being on the planet still awake. Bed-time arrived with a dose of anxiety that I would never get to sleep that night. This went on until I got into middle school.
Coupled with that, I had depression, pretty serious OCD, and some hypomania, though I hadn’t a clue what these maladies were. Much less that I even “had” them. Much like a fish doesn’t know he is swimming in water, I thought these were “normal” states of being for everyone. I just thought that everyone else was strong enough to handle them without flinching or sweating and that I was a weakling. I had no idea the water was even surrounding me, and “normal” people were on dry land.
Making things even more interesting, my dysfunctional family of origin, each member of whom had their own issues, had no more of an idea what to do with me than had I been a three-headed giraffe.
My father had narcissistic, verbally and emotionally abusive tendencies. He was a bully who was very athletic, intelligent, and quite successful in business. Any time we played a game, he delighted in beating me into the ground and rubbing my nose in it, whether it was intellectual, like chess, or physical, like one-on-one basketball. This created my deeply held false core beliefs that I was incompetent and that I was weak and cowardly. One thing about my father though, in a somewhat warped way, he made me feel loved and protected. He also endowed me with a relentless persistence because no matter how many times he “beat me,” he never beat me down.
My mother has an undiagnosed personality disorder that involves empathy-deficiency, withholding love and affection, extreme self-righteousness and judging, and perfectionism. My father referred to her as the “drill sergeant” because of her rigid and demanding demeanor and way of running the house. Looking back now, I am pretty certain she was in a great deal of emotional pain from her own obsessive-compulsive thinking, the demands of perfection she placed upon herself, and from enduring the verbal abuse of my father, though I rarely, if ever, recall her standing up for my brother or me when his wraith was focused upon us. Mom did instill a love of reading and learning in me and gave me a solid moral foundation (that I abandoned but later came back to) by sending me to church and Sunday school weekly with my beloved grandparents. Fortunately, it was a United Methodist Church, so I was afforded a high degree of intellectual freedom and spared the “fire and brimstone” of more conservative “evangelical” churches.
To be fair, both of my parents did the best they could with what they had, and through much spiritual effort and the power of God, I have forgiven them both. They were “hurt people hurting people who hurt.” I shudder to think what had happened to them in their youth, irregardless of who may have inflicted it upon them. They treated me as they had been treated, I am sure. And God knows I gave them plenty of Hell as I got older.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and it filled my empty and sick mind and soul with maladaptive “survival” tactics and self-medication, including checking (door locks, windows, appliances, etc.), sneaking food and over-eating (my mother put me on a 1,000 calorie a day diet when I was 10 because I was 20 pounds overweight), masturbating to pornography (starting at age 11), and running excessively while seriously restricting my food intake (taking my weight from 155 to 119 with 3% body fat in 6 months). And that was just the “warm-up” before I hit 19.
I took an abnormal psychology course my sophomore year at the University of MO Kansas City and began diagnosing myself with every mental illness in our textbook. That meant, of course, that my world was coming to an end. Because having a mental illness, in my worldview, meant that I was weak, vulnerable, weird, a loser, a pariah, a failure, and destined to a life of misery, poverty, homelessness, and isolation. One particularly disturbing belief that had been espoused in my home growing up that fed my terror of “becoming mentally ill” was that war was good-because it got rid of the undesirables of society. Nothing like a doctrine of Social Darwinism to boost your sense of self-worth when you have a mental illness!
Like a fungus in a damp, dark environment, this particular obsession only grew worse. Excruciating and relentless, these intrusive thoughts plagued me and crippled me psychologically for over a year. Nasty and unstoppable ruminations of this Eagle/Valedictorian becoming an “undesirable’ were too shameful to verbalize to anyone and eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Further fueling the power of this relentless barrage of unbidden, unwanted, tortuous thoughts was the reality that because I had striven so hard to please my parents by becoming Valedictorian of my HS class and an Eagle Scout by age 14, I had neglected my social life, save for a few friends who were also academic over-achievers. By age 21, I was still a virgin and had never smoked or drank. Social anxiety and limited social skills left me paralyzed with fear at the mere thought of going to a party or any type of social event. Yup. An “undesirable” in the making. Detritus of society. Might as well have used me for cannon fodder right then and there.
Somehow, between sheer willpower, the notion that I was “supposed to live up to the only artificial standard I knew,” the best support my parents could give, and a tad bit of very weak mental health therapy, I managed to muddle through 3 miserable years of undergrad liberal arts classes at UMKC.
It was during that time that I met my first wife. And one of my big fears–that I was not equipped to take risks and leave my secure little world–began to be unmasked for the lie that it was.
My first “adventure” was getting into a physical fight with my very intimidating and much stronger father, who had always dominated me psychologically. For several months I had been standing up to him and yelling back at him. It all came to a head one Friday night as he prepared to leave for the weekend, Things got physical and we came to blows. He shouted, “you and all your shit better be out of the house by the time I get back in town.” Our fight was a draw and I moved out.
Ironically, or perhaps co-dependently, once settled into my own apartment, I wound up going to work for my father as a forklift driver and order packer. I bought a motorcycle, got a tattoo (my first of 13), started smoking, and made a “friend” who introduced me to the best’ medicines’ of my young life: alcohol and marijuana. Addiction to both were almost immediate. We drank straight, hard liquor (including Everclear) right out of the bottle and spent entire weekends hanging out and getting drunk and high. But he didn’t take me anywhere I didn’t want to go.
With all of these “social achievements” under my belt and my virginity history, I “proved” to my wicked obsession that there WAS somewhere in society that I could function. I now felt that I had found “my people.” Others with low feelings of self-worth, likely mental health issues, and a very freeing lack of giving a fuck about much of anything. And while all of this was true, and to this day those are “my people,” (though I spend the most time with those in recovery), I was still an “undesirable.”
And then I did something monumentally detrimental to the Marine Corps and to me. I enlisted. There was no war going on, so there was no need for me to enlist and no noble cause to pursue. In retrospect, I was looking to further my “social achievements” and continue to prove my demons of self-doubt “wrong.” But it was one of many decisions that became powerful opportunities for growth. (An AA euphemism for a tribulation that is often self-inflicted).
By the time I left for MCRD in San Diego, I had been smoking and drinking alcoholically for about a year. And my untreated Bipolar Disorder was in “full bloom.” Plus, my significant authority defiance issues had become very overt as my “string of conquests” grew. Though in my manic state, of which I was unaware, I gave none of these crippling conditions a moment’s thought. A. Recipe. For. Disaster.
That debacle lasted for about six months. The drill instructors could do nothing with me. Other than lame efforts at the exercises and demeaning tasks they assigned me when I defied them, their real or feigned rage and yelling motivated me to do nothing. I managed to smuggle cigarettes into the barracks, and I found that I could satisfy my alcohol cravings by buying bottles of Listerine at the PX. Imagine choking down a turpentine and using every ounce of your willpower to hold keep from retching. I sweated, choked, gagged, turned green, and ignored the aching protestations of my angry stomach, but I got my buzz.
After a few months of futile efforts to intimidate, cajole, and shame me into cooperation, the drill instructors gave up and moved me to a barracks with other miscreants for about a month. We sat on the barracks floor in front of our bunks all day with nothing to do but read the New Testament or meditate in silence. Communication was not allowed except at chow time. Two weeks later, they sent me home with a bus ticket and a Convenience of Government Discharge. That was a happy ending. An active alcoholic with untreated Bipolar Disorder would have been nothing but a burden to them. And at that point in my life, I lacked the tools to navigate the realities of day to day civilian life, much less the rigors of the Marines.
Not long after I returned from the Marines, my future wife and I moved in together. After a year, I had quit school and started a very under-employed “career” working in machine shops. We flew to Vegas to get married, which contradicted all her family’s beliefs and defied all their wishes. I ended up staying extremely drunk most of the time we were there and met a fellow discharged miscreant from the MCRD who supplied me with cocaine. My new wife was, to say the least, “displeased.”
Ultimately, I got a job making more money, but it was still hard, hot, dirty, dangerous work that involved a lot of heavy lifting in a sweatshop, production environment with a group of older men hardened by years of this type of labor and environment. I lasted a year and a half at this metal plating facility. (Years later, my grandfather, whom I admired greatly for his moral fortitude and unwavering perseverance in the face of tribulations told me, “Good job.” which was HIGH praise from that quiet man who was not easily impressed by people enduring in difficult circumstances). My drinking progressed to the extent that I was completely absent from our marriage and finishing off a fifth of whiskey a night when my shift ended–drinking until I passed out or blacked out. And I saw to it that the liquor supply never ran out because I drank the cheap stuff right out of the bottle. No bar tabs or $5 shots for me. $5 fifths were my vehicles to inebriation. I just wanted my medicine. No matter how bad it tasted or how isolated I was.
One day I went into work still slightly drunk/hung over and managed to fall into the 1600-gallon tank filled with 200-degree concentrated sodium hydroxide. The “cleaner” was used to strip the grease off metal parts that we plated with zinc and was the type of a solution that the Mafia could use to make a dead body disintegrate. By a miracle of God, when I slipped on the edge of the tank, I went in feet first rather than head first and somehow emerged alive. As I desperately grabbed the lip of the tank, hoisted myself out, and flipped myself out of the near boiling lye soap and onto solid ground, the only other employee was working that night happened to be coming down the stairs. He got the hose and started dowsing me with fresh water to rinse away the chemicals that were still eating my flesh. When I removed my socks, layers of skin peeled off my heals and ankles. My co-worker rushed me to Trinity Lutheran Hospital where they immediately threw me into a cold shower in the ER to wash away the rest of the chemical. That was one of the most unbearable 15 minutes of my life, as it felt like someone was running a blow torch up and down the chemical burns and scalding on my legs.
I had 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree burns on 20% of my body. Hospitalized for two weeks due to the risk of infection, the pain was in excruciating, as every day they put me in a whirlpool and scrubbed the scar tissue off that would have prevented the burns from healing properly. I still cringe when I see burn victims. And both of my legs bear significant scarring to remind me of this near-death experience.
After I was released from the hospital, I had to be on bed rest at home for 3 weeks. My wife (if you are reading this, thank you) put me through a forced withdrawal of alcohol by getting rid of all the bottles in the house and refusing to supply me with a single drop. That was 1992 and I haven’t had a drink since, by God’s grace. Thanks to white-knuckling dry drunkdom and replacing alcohol with other addictions for many years. And thanks to AA since 2010. One day at a time.
Also, if you are reading this, former wife, thank you for the time that you saved our lives when I was driving drunk AND for stopping me from shooting those people in the parking lot of our apartment complex.
Without my “medicine,” all I had was Ativan and some conventional therapy that was of little help. I went back to working as a machine operator making $8/hour, performing tasks a monkey could be trained to do. Anxiety-ridden, hiding my knowledge and ability to articulate (so as to fit in with my poorly educated co-workers), and tortured to my mental and emotional limits by my obsessions, compulsions, and ruminations fed by my repetitive, solitary work, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, I was so immiserated that I began slipping down the rabbit hole of clinical depression.
Once ruminations and unwanted, unbidden thoughts take a foothold, if one has no tools to cope with them (i.e. exposure therapy or cognitive behavioral), they bedevil a person like the steady drip of Chinese water torture. They become all-consuming. They chase all other thoughts away. They wear a person out as one battles to drive them away, only to discover that the harder one fights, the stronger they become. For instance, the harder I tried not to fixate on whether I was going to spill the can of lubricant I used on each of the machined parts into which I was drilling the same pattern of holes for days on end was going to spill or not, the more my mind fixated on it. As if that was of tantamount importance and was the only thing that mattered in the universe These vicious ruminations became so mentally agonizing that I took to putting cigarettes out on the backs of my hands to distract myself from the mental pain and to feel the release of endorphins that comes with self-harm. The OCD component of my illness literally sucked the very marrow out of the joy of life, leaving me mentally exhausted, psychologically vulnerable, and more and more depressed. It came close to bringing me to my knees with depression and misery. Yet I fought on.
Somehow, I managed to keep going, we got pregnant, and bought a house. My wife had had a kidney transplant about two years prior, so about halfway through the pregnancy, she had to go on complete bed-rest. That left us with one income. My $8 per hour. And I had re-enrolled in school in an ill-fated attempt to complete my college degree.
I will give myself credit for making a valiant effort to continue being the “hero” I had fancied myself to be when she went through her kidney transplant, but eventually, my psyche’s capacity to continue functioning with a facade of normalcy gave way and I lapsed into a severe depression. At my ex-mother-in-law’s insistence, I was hospitalized for psychiatric care. If you are reading this, thank you.
That was a nice facility covered by insurance, so there were many kind professional people and opportunities to get various types of help, with the exception of my psychiatrist. After several days (in what later would seem like a 5-star hotel), he rendered his “brilliant, highly professional and incredibly ethical opinion.” He said that I “had a had a shitty personality” and wasn’t mentally ill. While my illness probably manifested itself in shitty ways, telling a mentally ill person they are defective rather than sick serves to starve their already anemic sense of self-worth and snuffs out nearly all hope. “Doctor,” if you are reading this, I confirmed that you bugged out to Minnesota shortly after you treated me. I pray you never got the opportunity to continue as a charlatan and harm anyone else.
Around the time of my stint in the psychiatric hospital, our beautiful twin sons had been born and were about 6 months old. The pressures of work, impending fatherhood (for which I was about as well-equipped as a school bus is to fly to the moon), school, marriage, and home-ownership converged to throw me into my first manic episode, though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time.
While in the hospital, I met a woman who had been admitted after a suicide attempt. Sick people attract sick people and we went from zero to 60 in a romance faster than the new Tesla. “Naturally” we both decided to abandon our families (she had four children) and run off together since our spouses “didn’t understand us.” An Alcoholic with Bipolar Disorder 2 and a Bulimic with Dis-associative Disorder. A match made in Hell.
And we were hellions for most of the couple of years that we were together. We spent the first several months homeless, living with family, couch surfing with friends, and living in a weekly/hourly rate motel in a particularly rough part of the East Side of KC. Everywhere we went we managed to wear out our welcome very quickly, as we were verbally abusive vandals who stole from individuals, didn’t work, didn’t lift a finger to help others, shop-lifted, stole gas, dined and dashed (those became compulsions for me), smoked pot, carried a gun, lied constantly, and psychiatrist-hopped to get prescription self-medication.
We ended up “settling down,” getting an apartment, and getting married. And I went to work. She filed for disability for her back problems and her psychiatric diagnoses. It was a struggle, as I was under-employed and got fired frequently. We shared one beater of a car that we were fortunate to keep running. Unemployment, food stamps, thrift stores (before they were socially acceptable places to shop), Aldi (when it was the “poor store”), selling our plasma, and robbing Peter to pay Paul were all staples, as we barely scraped by.
One day I returned home and found her passed out face down on our mattress that was on the floor. I found her suicide note and an empty bottle of about 100 Clonazepam. At first, I thought she was dead, but she was still breathing. This shit was real. I called 911. They sent cops, fire personnel and paramedics. There were enough emergency personnel in our little apartment to handle a three-car collision. And I had a stash of pot big enough to warrant a felony shoved under a desk right next to where they were working on my wife! Doubly scary. Thank God they were able to get her to the hospital and get her stomach pumped in time to save her. And they didn’t notice the marijuana.
Everyone who was still talking to me at that time told me to leave her, but I went and saw here in the hospital anyway. We were so enmeshed that it would have been like cream trying to separate itself from coffee. And I still had that “hero” complex. We stayed together, but only lasted a few more months. Then the laugh was on me, as she moved all her belongings out of our place while I was at work one day and I never saw here again! I was CRUSHED, but as my therapist predicted, one day I would want to thank her. If you are reading this, thank you!
Not long after her suicide attempt, I sunk into the deepest depression of my life, before or since. My mood and thoughts grew so dark that I lost all hope of ever ascending from the pit of misery. My distorted conclusion was that the shaming, negative, obsessive nature of my thought patterns doomed me to life-long suffering. AND that my parents were the root cause since they had planted the seeds during my childhood. I had grown so hopeless that the only way out, according to my twisted thinking, was to kill them and then to kill myself. I remember laying on my back in my bedroom, eyes closed, Megadeath blaring on my stereo, as I laid out my simple plan. I would go to their house that evening after Dad was home from work, get them to let me in the house on the pretext that I wanted to talk and work things out, shoot them with the gun that I had stolen from them, and then shoot myself.
Again, Divine intervention. I was seeing a therapist at the time. I had an appointment with her that afternoon. Instead of keeping my plan a secret as I had intended, I kept my appointment and ratted myself out. And she promptly had me committed to Western Missouri Mental Health.
That was three weeks of sheer misery. But it was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It saved three lives immediately and countless others since, as I have been blessed over the last ten years to help many fellow sufferers now that I am in recovery, have had another son, and was/am a father to my twins again. God had a plan. God had a plan.
How does one describe Western Missouri? It was the state run psychiatric facility for the indigent and homeless -a Hell hole in its own right. The ONLY treatment, activity, or therapy was a 5 minute a day visit from your treating psychiatrist-who was typically an intern who spoke very broken English. The other 23 hours 55 minutes when we weren’t sleeping, those of us who were semi-rational huddled together in the day room smoking and playing cards. We were afraid. AND we were avoiding the patients who were hallucinating, strapped to their beds screaming, zombied out with Thorazine, psychotic, or, in rare cases, violent. Yes, we stigmatized our brothers and sisters I am ashamed to admit. It felt like a necessity for survival at the time though. In my prejudiced, ignorant, sheltered mind, some of the people there were quite scary.
Once I was released from Western Missouri, with my “Scared Straight” certificate, “earned” by living with and witnessing some poor souls whose mental illnesses had become so severe and chronic that they appeared to be past the point of no return, my life started to arc upward. I realized that I still had a chance and a choice.
My mother (and if you are reading this, God bless you and thank you for this and many other things) got me connected with a young therapist who SAVED MY LIFE. She believed in me as a good person who could function in society AND she introduced me to and taught me to use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For the first time in my life, I was not at the mercy of my rapacious shaming, negative, self-defeating, and obsessive thinking. A way out. And I took it, practicing it as hard as an Olympic hopeful. I had that powerful tool, group therapy, a diagnosis, someone who loved and believed in me, and stabilizing medication. Happiness, joy, and freedom were in sight!
That was 1994 and I was finally on a path of recovery.
Yet, that was just a beginning. And in some ways, the worst was yet to come.
In working with this wonderful woman, I used the tools and direction she gave me to become a reasonably stable, productive member of society again. I faced one of my biggest fears. I was terrified of trying to get a job that offered reasonable compensation in exchange for responsibility and intellectual challenge. And I had almost zero faith that I could articulate, problem solve, and think on my feet. So, what did I do? I got a job at a collection agency as an account manager. My social anxiety, newly minted skill of asserting myself, introversion, and low self-esteem were sorely tested by the rigors and stresses of dealing with people who owed money they didn’t want to pay. Yet the pain birthed a sense of confidence AND a career for me.
At that time, I was seeing my twin boys under supervised visitation at their mother’s house, but I ensured that I didn’t miss any visits. I remained single for a year and a half and continued to grow in my recovery. Yet my spirituality remained pretty stunted. I had no fellowship with others in recovery and most of my “spiritual reading” consisted of recovery authors like John Bradshaw and existentialist philosophers. With only a handful of friends and partying buddies (the ‘marijuana maintenance plan’), I was still very nihilistic and often mildly to moderately depressed.
I held that first job for a year and a half (a miracle, considering my past), started paying my child support, and began catching up on past due child support. I had a position with another collection agency within a day of losing my first job. By that time, I was quite comfortable with the work and was actually ready to look for something better paying and more challenging. Yet I was still a dry drunk with all the underlying character defects. AND my Bipolar Disorder was not yet properly diagnosed or properly medicated. Marijuana, pornography, and work filled the spiritual void. My soul was still starving.
Several months into my second job with a collection agency, I met my third wife. She was over 10 years younger than me and had a two-year-old son. In hindsight, she was looking for a father for her son and I was looking for someone for me to rescue and to save me from my demons that still haunted me. Since there was mutual attraction, we wound up dating for a short time and then moving in together. I was a reluctant father, mostly because I lacked the confidence that I could be one. But since her son’s father was not in the picture, and due to some troubling circumstances never would be, I had no choice. A fact driven home to me by my wonderful therapist.
Initially we were poor as church mice, but as time passed, that changed. She and I both found better jobs. A commercial collections job for me and an office manager job for her. I grew into my role as a father and when our son turned seven, we had his biological father’s parental rights terminated and I adopted him. One of the best things I have ever done. Praise God.
Our relationship was good for several years. I remained stable, we co-parented well together, and she helped me in what became a protracted and bellicose custody battle over the twins from my first marriage. Unfortunately, it was long and ugly, as many of them are. It took a significant financial and emotional toll on all parties involved, including the boys. In the end, I wound up with joint legal custody and unsupervised visitation every other weekend with two weeks during the summer. My wife was an immense help in getting to that point and then carrying out the visitation. If you are reading this, thank you.
Our marriage went on for several years. The twins came over on a regular basis. We moved to a nicer area, so our son could be in a good school district. I changed jobs again, landing the one where I am still working as I scribble this testimony. (Today, it’s 17 years on this job. Two promotions. One into a supervisory role. One into mid-level management that involves marketing and operations instead of collections. With God, all things are possible).
Things were going well. On the surface.
But my porn addiction became the “termites that ceaselessly devoured the foundations of the life we had built” (AA 12 Steps & 12 Traditions, Pg. 49). Without going into details, suffice it to say that my obsession and compulsion became so consuming that it destroyed my relationship with my third wife. By the time I acknowledged the problem and tried to do something about it, it was too late. She had given up. And I don’t blame her a bit. If you are reading this, I am sorry.
Another broken marriage to add to the pile of wreckage in my wake.
That left me on my own again, with one pre-teen son spending every other week with me, and the pre-teen twins every other weekend. I had become cocky and complacent in my recovery-grossly underestimating the severity of my Bipolar Disorder and the effort that I needed to put forth to manage it. All this despite my porn addiction wiping out my third marriage. Continuing to feed my porn addiction was also akin to pouring gasoline on the smoldering fire of my Bipolar Disorder, which by this time was properly medicated. But as I later learned, medication alone won’t keep Bipolar in check.
This was about 2006, I had gotten involved in Leftist politics, mostly as a Blogger, and I had become a vegetarian. These sound like insignificant details but come into play heavily later.
Another very significant thing happened around this time. I started seeing my current therapist and she finally gave me an accurate diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder 2. Previously, I had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Major Depression, and a couple other entries from the DSM-IV. My meds stayed the same, but we attacked it with some additional and new therapeutic tools.
Losing the stability of that long-term relationship-the healthiest relationship I had ever had-sent me into a slow but momentum-gathering downward spiral with my mental health. I acted ugly in the divorce, just as I had in my first. Fortunately for all of us, there were no custody wars to leave deep emotional wounds and scars. We weren’t friendly, but the co-parenting was civil. Much credit to her. Some credit to me for learning my lesson in round one with the twins.
For the first few months, I was severely depressed. I never told anyone, but I contemplated suicide and even came close to sticking my .38 revolver in my mouth and blowing my brains out. But God had plans for me and somehow carried me through the pain. Pretty sure God was working through my therapist, a wonderful woman whom I still see regularly today. However, I still wasn’t being honest enough with her at that time for her to do much more than keep me somewhat in check and functional.
My depressive episode ran its course. And that was the start of what I later learned to be a prolonged hypo-manic episode that eventually morphed into full blown mania, followed by the inevitable horrifying train crash.
By 2008, my mania and grandiosity were hitting on all cylinders. I complied without objection when the twins told me they didn’t want to see me anymore (they were 15) and stopped exercising visitation. I did continue paying their child support, co-parenting my other son, and managed to keep my job. God only knows how. Looking back, it was those three aspects of my life that kept me from going off the rails completely.
Over the course of the next few years, I set up profiles on numerous dating sites and was constantly in a desperate and obsessive search for someone to replace wife number 4. I became a serial monogamist, jumping from one short intense relationship to another. The common theme was that, as my son would later tell me, and pardon the stigmatizing language, I was “shopping in the crazy aisle.” Which made perfect sense since I was “crazy” at that time.
Eventually I wound up with a woman who had a 14-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. We lived together for a few months, but it turns out she was a sex addict. That coupled with my porn addiction and Bipolar Disorder made the relationship, shall we say, “untenable.” It ended on a very nasty note with wicked verbal exchanges and a sucker punch from her as a lovely, parting gift.
Distanced from my parents, I developed a mentee relationship with an older gentleman who ran a far-Left website out of Connecticut and who had noticed my writings on my Blog. We struck up a relationship and he schooled me in Leftist ideology, politics, history, and causes to pursue. He also gave me life advice, which kept me relatively in-check for a time. If you are reading this, thank you for the endless hours of phone conversations, for making me your assistant editor, for your hospitality when I visited you, and for encouraging me to reconcile with my father before he died. (I did).
Unfortunately, my mania, distorted thinking, grandiosity, and vegetarianism/love of animals led me to become connected with some of the ideological leaders of the radical element of the Animal Rights Movement. My increasing radicalism and focus on Animal Rights (to the exclusion of other issues) led to the dissolution of my relationship with my mentor. Besides my job, paying child support, my therapist, and co-parenting one of my sons, my connection with him had been one of the last remnants of stability in my life.
As I was becoming more and more embedded in the Animal Rights Movement, I met a young woman on a dating site who was also a vegetarian, a huge animal lover, and an admirer of the Animal Liberation Front, the decentralized, anarchist group that uses violence as a tactic against the buildings and equipment of any industry or business that harms animals (though they have never killed anyone). We started dating. Since I had become aligned with the university professor of philosophy who underpinned and justified ALF actions through his philosophical writings and teachings AND I was a press officer for the ALF”s above-ground website that published anonymous, untraceable, encrypted communiques from ALF members who had committed an illegal action, it seemed to be a match made in heaven.
Not surprisingly, no. Turns out, she had her own mental health struggles. We ended up buying a house together and getting in way over our head financially. I had good credit and began using credit cards to pay the bills. I also began spending recklessly. Our relationship grew sour over time and she moved out for a time. She came back, but it was never quite the same.
I continued down the path of increasing mania, part of which included striking up a relationship with an Animal Rights activist in another state through Facebook. After only a few weeks, I flew to where she lived, and we were married within 3 days.
That didn’t go over very well with my girlfriend with whom I had bought the home. When I got home with my new wife, we went by the house to get some of my things and my dog. We barely made it out of the house with Chico, my amazing companion rescue pit bull. Came up empty handed on the things. Before we could pull away from the curb, my girlfriend managed to get into the car and to start attacking my new wife. (She should have been attacking ME, but I understand her blind rage). The police had already been called by a neighbor, arrived, and broke things up before anyone got hurt. Miraculously, they let me leave with my beloved pit bull.
My wife flew back home with Chico and I moved in with my father, with whom I had had an on again, off again relationship for years. The move was necessitated by my girlfriend getting a Temporary Restraining Order against me based on false statements that I had threatened and harmed her, which barred me from entering our house. If you are reading this, I completely understand why you did it, I forgive you, and I am sorry for hurting you so deeply.
I lived with Dad for about three weeks. Despite my manic state, we were able to spend quality time together and reconcile our differences-to the extent that either of us was emotionally capable at the time. A blessing.
A good attorney was able to get the Temporary Restraining Order thrown out, as there was no factual basis for it. At the same time, that judge ordered my girlfriend to vacate the premises of our house permanently.
Meanwhile, my three-week-old marriage was imploding (bear in mind that I was manic-things were devolving VERY quickly). She had returned to Idaho and had Chico with her. If you are reading this, I am sorry that I hurt you deeply.
The day that I drove to St Louis to pick Chico up from the airport (my soon-to-be ex-wife flew him back to me), my father died of a massive heart attack. As much acrimony as there had been between us over the years, I didn’t think I would be that upset when he passed, but when I got the news, I bawled like a baby. A call came through on my cell phone that ID’ed as him, but when I answered, it was a police officer informing me of his death. The deeply visceral and almost primal sounds that I made were somewhere between a scream and a sob. But they shot way up the Decibel scale. God rest Dad’s soul.
In the interim, I had managed to rack up $200,000 in credit card debt; had gotten arrested for above ground non-violent Animal Rights activism; was working full time, was maintaining a widely-read Blog, was acting in my capacity as a press officer for the ALF, was co-raising my son, and was leading two major activist campaigns for an above ground Animal Rights group that I had formed in Kansas City. On top of all that, the FBI had opened a file on me to determine whether I was a terrorist threat (they consider the ALF to be a terrorist group) and had interviewed quite a number of people in my life, including me. 2-3 hours of sleep a night and, according to my therapist, who I still see today, I was very near a psychotic break. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that would be a real-life example of full-blown mania
My life was a runaway locomotive, driven by an engineer intoxicated by the speed. Like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, it was certain to end badly. But I was blind to the impending disaster.
Then suddenly, without warning, the train crashed. My feelings of invincibility, elation, and grandiosity were pulverized on impact. My mania dissipated, ebbed, burst, went away, or whatever it does. I was left feeling like a person with “normal capacity” facing the Herculean tasks that I had created for myself. I felt like the Earth had crumbled beneath my feet and I was in free-fall into a dark and bottomless abyss. I was terrified. And at the same time tormented by the chaos, turmoil, and intense pressure I had inflicted upon others and myself.
Once the mania train came to a screeching, bone-jarring halt, its nefarious twin demon, depression, reared its ugly head. It was like nothing I had experienced in my life. For a couple of agonizing months, I had a ball of anxiety-fed fire in my belly, but my overall state of being was one of complete and utter deflation with a depressed undertone. My “indomitable” will had met its match. My drive to get back up and keep fighting was gone. I wasn’t suicidal. I just didn’t feel that I had the inner strength to keep going. And to top it all off, I had isolated myself to the point that work was my only socialization and the only three people with whom I was truly connected were my therapist, my son, and my 96-year-old grandfather, whom I called every night. Dark night of the soul. Rock bottom. Spiritual wilderness. Call it what you will. I was there.
These words penned by Bill Wilson on pages 7 and 8 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous could easily have been written about my state of being at that time:
“They did not need to tell me. I knew, and almost welcomed the idea. It was a devastating blow to my pride. I, who had thought so well of myself and my abilities, of my capacity to surmount obstacles, was cornered at last. No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I found in that bitter morass of self-pity. Quicksand stretched around me in all directions.”
I felt spiritually dead and utterly defeated. Not knowing where to turn, I heeded the advice of an older and wiser woman with whom I had become Facebook friends through our mutual animal activism. She told me to go to AA “because those old men have a lot of wisdom and will help you.”
So, I, who had been too proud to darken the doors of an AA hall since I “quit drinking on my own” in 1992 swallowed what “pride” I had left and metaphorically crawled on my hands and knees into an AA meeting on 9/6/2010. About 10 of the most loving, understanding, FORMER spiritual derelicts (whom AA had redeemed) welcomed me into their midst and gave me a First Step meeting. I was home. These were my people.
And so began my new life. Within a year of good sponsorship, lots of meetings, and diligently working each of the Twelve Steps of spiritual recovery (which if done in a serious manner is far from easy), I learned the meaning of the line in the Big Book, “We were reborn” as I matriculated “AA’s rugged school of life.”
Just as the Big Book so wisely discerns in “How It Works,” like all alcoholics and addicts, my life was dominated by resentment, fear, and problems related to sex. Through reading, listening, putting forth effort, practicing, and letting God do his part, I was able to begin the life-long process of rooting out these spiritual blights, identifying my character defects, praying for God to remove them, practicing their opposites, making amends to those I had harmed, forgiving those who had harmed me, engaging in daily practices that foster spiritual maintenance and growth, practicing filial love towards my fellow humans, and devoting my life to service of God and others rather than self.
All of these are happening to varying degrees at varying times in varying ways over the course of my spiritual journey. Usually I am moving forward, but sometimes I regress or get way off track, but the Higher Power of My Understanding always seems to send me a reminder, whether it be by painful consequence, through “God in Skin” (another person giving me spiritual advice), or some other means. Not wanting to return to the Hell of untreated Bipolar Disorder and/or addictions, I am typically fairly quick to respond and do what needs to be done. Healthy fear is a great motivator.
AA provided a spiritual component to my overall recovery that had been the missing piece of the puzzle for nearly two decades. For that I am eternally grateful. Had it not been for AA and the countless people in the Fellowship of AA who have helped me, I would not be alive today. Of that I am convinced. And I certainly wouldn’t have a life, as opposed to an existence of chaos, drama, self-inflicted pain, and scratching to survive
Instead, I have been blessed to be able to thrive in my job (now having held onto it for 17 years). I met an exotically beautiful, intelligent, passionate, educated woman with a strong, vibrant, and positive personality that enables her to take over a room like a force of nature. We have been happily married for several years and she has been a wonderful as a step-mother to my sons. Yup. I married up.
I have healthy friendships, in and out of the AA Fellowship, for the first time in years. I attend church (went from a raging agnostic to a believer in Jesus over 9 years) and serve others in recovery at church.
I feel comfortable in my own skin and have a good relationship with God and myself for the first time in my life. I often have an inner peace and serenity, which I RARELY had for many years.
I have been able to make amends to many whom I had harmed, and in some instances, broken relationships have been restored. And as for those to whom I have been unable to make amends yet, my spiritual way of living serves as a living amends. When and if the opportunity presents itself, I pray to be ready to make direct amends to those folks.
For the most part, I lead a sober, stable, sane, and clean life. I have more coping and recovery tools in my life today than ever before. I often help others and sometimes actually think of God and other people before I think of myself!
Today I often act rather than react. Many of the promises on Page 83 of AA’s Big Book have materialized for me. And through my personal relationship with God and efforts to live His way rather than mine, I get to reap the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) at times. All these things are on a spectrum and ebb and flow of course, but the bottom line is that I have had the “Spiritual Awakening as a result of these steps.”
One last anecdote, which probably represents one of the biggest miracles of my recovery. I had been estranged from my twin sons for about ten years (from ages 15-25). It was indescribably painful, but I had recognized and taken responsibility for my part and worked through it spiritually, accepting that I might never have contact with them again. Then in July, 2016, I found out that one of my sons needed a kidney, as both of his were failing. He had been on the transplant recipient list since February. Applying my new spiritual way of life, I offered him mine via a very brief Facebook message, making it very clear that there were no strings attached and there was no expectation of a relationship or forgiveness. He accepted. I was a match. After a very extensive medical and psycho-social vetting that involved many appointments, lab tests, CT scans and the like, we went into surgery on 1/11/17. It was a success for both of us! The surgeon who extracted my kidney said it was one of the healthiest he had ever seen. Now THAT is a miracle, given how I treated my body over the years.
Today I have a strong, healthy relationship with all three of the young men with whom God blessed me as sons. In fact, the twins and I are going to see the Avengers this afternoon and to dinner tonight. The blessings in my life today are infinitely greater than any I could have imagined. And way beyond any that I “earned.” God’s grace flows abundantly. And doing His will instead of mine (through progress, not perfection) certainly doesn’t hurt.
I spent a good many years suffering with untreated, inadequately treated, and self-neglected Bipolar Disorder, Alcoholism, various Addictions, and maladaptive coping mechanisms. If sharing my experience, strength, and hope can spare one person even one hour of the mental and emotional Hell that I endured over the years, then I will have accomplished something very meaningful. Helping to alleviate suffering or simply comforting and offering my love and time to the suffering, particularly the mentally ill and addicts, is my life’s purpose. As forged in the crucible of my own trials and tribulations and handed to me by God. From my daily interactions with people in which I strive to be kind and helpful, to sponsorship in a 12 Step program, to serving at my church, to my vegetarianism, to giving blood and donating my kidney, to my advocacy for the mentally ill, service to others is a fundamental element of my life’s purpose and is essential to my recovery, as it gets me out of my default selfishness and self-centeredness.
Besides continuing to participate in AA and my church to maintain my spiritual fitness and growth and to be of service, I also stay mentally healthy by continuing in therapy, taking my prescribed medication, working my Cognitive Behavioral, working exposure therapy, practicing the 12 Steps and the Sermon on the Mount to the extent that I am able, building and maintaining relationships, talking to others in recovery when I am struggling, reading, praying, eating healthy, taking responsibility for my actions, seeking to practice rigorous honesty and true humility, admitting when I am wrong and making amends, and exercising. If all of that sounds like it would get tiring and difficult, it does. But what choice do I have?
You can follow Jason on Twitter @costlylovewins