October 30, 2013

A little Halloween fun is good for all of us

Happy Halloween, blog friends!

For the first time in a long time, I'm looking forward to this zany holiday.

Something about being somebody I'm not for a day appeals to me. Maybe others can relate. I'm still learning to be happy with who I am.

I think that's why Halloween is so popular: We can all dress up and act silly while we celebrate our differences.

[caption id="attachment_147" align="alignleft" width="300"]Candy bomb kids "Candy bombed" by some awesome friends of the family.[/caption]


A big part of recovery is learning to have sober fun, which I've never been great at doing. I did it tonight though, if only for a little bit.

The local CrossFit gym where I'm the newest newbie had a "Halloween WOD (Workout of the Day." I almost did what I often do during sober social situations and punted. But I went for it on fourth and short anyway. And I had a great time with good friends. I even made some new ones who I will always remember by the super hero names instead of their real ones.

You followers who aren't crazy in Alabama might have a more difficult time guessing my costume...so check out the photos  and leave your reply!


My hope is those who are struggling who might read this will have fun on Halloween Day.

If it's a full day, an evening or even a good hour, I hope you find a way to have some fun.

War Damn Halloween!



October 29, 2013

I'm not the man she married, but she loves me anyway

b on wedding dayA lot of things have been hard in my up and down battle with mental illness the past two decades.

I've been misunderstood and  misdiagnosed.  I've stayed in hospitals for what I hoped and prayed would be the last time. For years, I've taken meds that had no chance of helping.

I've been so down I forgot what I feels like to be up. I've been on top and even over the top only to come crashing down in a heaping mess.

I've had my faith tested, and I've tested my faith.

My mood has seldom been stable for years, but something far more  important has: My marriage.

I've heard stories you wouldn't believe and seen statistics that are sad and sobering about mental illness and how it can wreck families.

The most troubling one? Ninety percent of marriages in which one person suffers from bipolar disorder end in divorce. That's a staggering, heart-breaking number.

Most marriages just don't survive mania or the depression that is the disorder's evil twin.  I do not judge any who haven't made it.

My heart aches for all of them, like the lady who recently sent me a direct message after reading this blog. She couldn't keep her vows because the man she had married became someone she no longer knew and could no longer love.

I met another woman in treatment who never made it to the altar with the love of her life. She had debilitating depression and seizures that required brain surgery. When she woke up, everything she learned in pre-med and her feelings for her fiancee were gone.

It's not my place to cast judgment, but it is my obligation to thank God for blessing our marriage. We've tried to live out our vows...and we've been tested on all of them. Richer. Poorer. Sickness. Health. We've been far from perfect and we have work to do yet, but we've endured, loved, prayed and hoped. It takes all of that—and more.

My wife is pretty awesome all the way around, and I'm not just talking about her hotness.

She is supportive but not enabling. She is patient but not a pushover. She has endured my antics and addictions, my foibles and  fallacies.

Never once has she threatened to leave me. Well, other than that one time—but that's another blog.

Barclay, I'm writing this post because you need to know how much I love you. You need to know much I appreciate your love and devotion, your endurance and your understanding. I regret that you, too have had to suffer in your own way, ways I probably don't even know about or understand.

You don't always give me what I want or tell me what I need to hear.  That's a good thing. If you did, we'd be broke and I might be dead.

It's not easy being married to a bipolar man who isn't what you really signed up for at all. It's even harder, I can imagine, to love them like you did the day you said "I do."

You do both, and that has made  mine a life worth living.



October 27, 2013

Anxiety attack like jumping out of plane without parachute

By Jack Smith

I felt it coming like a freight train barreling down on me and  I was hopelessly strapped to the tracks.

My mouth dried out within seconds. My pulse quickened.  My hands started to tremble. Even my legs shook as though it were the dead of winter and I were standing naked in the snow.

My wife realized what was happening, so she looked me in the eye and said go where you need to go. I scanned the area looking for an escape, which I usually plan out in advance for times like these.

[caption id="attachment_132" align="alignleft" width="300"]Anxiety attacks can feel like freefalling. Hard to stop once they start. Anxiety attacks can feel like free falling. Hard to stop once they start.[/caption]

You would have thought I were in a war and the enemy was after me.

I was really just attending a football game with 80-something thousands of my closest friends, as the t-shirt goes, when I had an anxiety attack.

I did what my wife and my instincts told me to do when it got out of hand. I got as far away from that huge mass of people as I could.

The best way I can describe a panic attack is that it feels like jumping out of an airplane...and then realizing you aren't wearing a parachute. I feel fine one minute. Then all of a sudden I'm in free fall, the ground getting bigger and bigger by the second.

When panic attacks hit, I'm suddenly overcome with angst. It leaves me with  two choices: fight or flight. Sometimes I stay and fight. Other times I get the hell out of there to gather myself.

When it happened yesterday, I walked away from the crowd to the safety of open space and a lonely bench. I tried a mindfulness exercise that I learned in treatment. It worked more or less.

I closed my eyes for a moment, took some deep breaths and focused on my senses. I listened to the roll of drums from the band playing in the distance. I felt the weight and the coolness of the wrought iron bench on my thighs and back. I drank in the smell of meat sizzling on the grill.  I inhaled deep breaths through my nose and exhaled them through my mouth.

I soon felt sane again, relaxed enough to enjoy the game and the time with my family.

I'm not sure if what I experienced Saturday afternoon was a full-blown panic attack or just social anxiety I sometimes get when I'm surrounded by too many people.

I once coped with these episodes by working or drinking. Neither was an option on Saturday, so I had to fight through it.

My guess is a lot of you reading this blog have had similar meltdowns. I've been having them for years.

I remember another time maybe 10 years ago when I bailed on a newspaper banquet before it even started. It was one of those times when I had quit drinking cold turkey with no support group. I didn't know how to handle being sober and being one of only a handful of people not drinking.

I was holding a glass of water when my usual hand tremor turned into the full-blown shakes. It was like Ted Striker's "drinking problem." I couldn't raise the glass to my mouth without spilling water everywhere. So I just got the hell out of there.

I jumped in my car and drove over two hours to my home without telling anyone I was leaving, including the hotel. I avoided phone calls from my mother because I was too embarrassed to admit the truth.

I have it easy compared to others. Some have unrelenting anxiety so severe it makes daily living a nightmare. God bless them.

Instead of asking why in the hell a grown man can't just suck it up and deal with it, my wife is usually patient and compassionate.

I'm harder on myself than she or anyone else is. I  get mad at myself and wonder why I can't just be normal.

I don't have many answers, except that I was born with an anxious disposition. That's what one one anxiety specialist told me anyway. He said I've developed some maladaptive coping mechanisms over 40 years-plus years, and I won't be able to fix them overnight.

I'm sure going to try, though. Life isn't supposed to be lived this way. 



October 24, 2013

The right words offer hope in battle with depression

By Jack Smith

Bridgette never has a bad day. Her sweet and soothing voice is well known to customers at the Chick-fil-A drive thru in my hometown.  Bridgette always makes me feel better—even when I feel guilty for ordering yet another chocolate milkshake.

Her secret? Bridgette adjusts her emotional level based on her customers' first words into the drive thru microphone. If they sound grumpy, she dials down the sunshine. If they sound perky, she matches their emotions.


It works. I've never once had a bad experience in the Chick-fil-A drive thru thanks to Bridgette's sweet voice.

I think we can all take a cue from Chick-fil-A when it comes to saying the right thing in the right way to those suffering from depression and other mental illness.

Words can help or they can hurt. They can heal or they can harm..

I've found almost all people have good intentions, but I've also had some tell me they didn't know what to say to me or someone else struggling with mental illness. Maybe this list will help.

5 good things to say to those with mental illness

October 21, 2013

Ambien makes for strange bedfellow


By Jack Smith

I got lost at about 3:00 a.m. on Saturday, and I don't remember any of it.

It wasn't a relapse or anxiety that prompted me to get out of bed and wander around aimlessly. It was another foggy moment sponsored by Ambien.

We were staying at a friend's house out of town, and I took an Ambien to help me fall asleep. I've taken an Ambien most nights for probably 10 years for insomnia.

Like some football teams, I don't play well on the road when it comes to sleep. Been that way as long as I can remember.

Apparently, my poor sense of direction didn't help the matter either. My wife, startled by the empty warm spot in our bed, had to get up, find me and point me toward the bathroom. I'm told I ran into the sofa on the way back, but  I don't remember one bit of it.

The good news is  I didn't go in the closet. I actually did that once or twice in college, but I can't blame those episodes on  Ambien. Anheuser-Busch was likely the culprit.

October 17, 2013

It's a war on bipolar now, too

By Jack Smith

If someone had just told me about Starburst jellybeans, this whole thing might've been avoided.

At some point during my stay at The Menninger Clinic in Houston, my wife bought a sack of the colorful confections. That really isn't a good idea—not when an addict's around. I've eaten about 327 since lunch.

Other than too many Starbursts and a few sporadic squirelly moments, things have gone swimmingly since I got home Wednesday.

That was the day of my so-called "Diagnostic Conference" at Menninger. It's sort of like that moment in a trial when the jury foreman stands up and reads out the verdict.

The verdict for me?

Bipolar Disorder (Type I), Generalized Anxiety Disorder and alcohol dependency. None of it was a big s
urprise,as my Menninger team and I worked through most of the issues before the big reveal. The only item the jury was still deliberating the last week was whether the diagnosis was Type I (one percent of the population suffers from it) or Type II.

October 11, 2013

A Love Letter to Depression

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week, I'm grateful to share my new friend's "Love Letter to Depression." I know many others can relate to her pain.


Dear Depression,

I hate it when you push me into my darkest waters and hold me there until I’m crying for three hours on my bathroom floor -- or worse. I hate it when you take feelings from me, and I am left enjoying nothing. I sit and stare at the TV or the computer screen checking Facebook over and over for distractions -- news, updates, whatever. Fake reality. Fake friendships. I can’t even respond to the messages on my phone or meet up with people because I am so empty and stuck in you like a pit of tar.

I don’t like it when your presence causes me to dwell on extreme ways to escape the pain. Nothing really works. TV distracts for a time, puts me in another life that is unreal, but sucks more time away from I don’t know what. The days pass by and I’m in a dark room, TV on, staring.

I finally got to the point where I could sit at my desk, still in the dark. I stopped trying to cook on the hotplate because I have no desire to clean after. I order food and stress that my neighbors will see me doing it again.

October 5, 2013

Genetic markers show his fight against depression uphill battle

By Jack Smith

Part of me was stoic. Part of me was sad. Part of me wanted to cry.

And part of me wanted to go all Eminem, untuck my shirt with a snatch, pull my denim jeans down to my hips and yell, “I told ya’ll somethin’ ain't right!”

That’s how I felt when the doctor reviewed the results of my genetic profile, a “personalized medicine” test from Genomind.

The test looks at 10 genes related to psychiatric conditions. The results can give the doctors an idea of what’s going on with the patient’s brain chemistry and metabolism. It also tells doctors what drugs will and won’t work.

My results weren’t pretty. The average patient at this renowned clinic has 1 or 2 genetic mutations picked up by the test. I had five.

October 3, 2013

Father, wrap your arms around those who hurt

By Jack Smith

Heavenly Father,

Tonight my heart is heavy. It is heavy with pain and angst for many who are hurting.

I pray you will comfort those who are suffering in silence from an insidious sickness, an invisible illness that turns the brightest of your days into the dark night of the soul.

Wrap your loving arms around the millions of mentally ill men who sit hopelessly in our jails, not because they are criminals but because they are homeless, because they are sick with mental illness and because they can’t find treatment anywhere else.

Bring peace to confused children who don’t understand why their father can’t get out of bed.

Shower serenity on the devoted wife who wonders if the man she married will ever come home.

Shine your light on the heart of the 19-year-old loner who tonight is planning his suicide, his bipolar disorder unknown even to him.

Comfort the mother who feels like a failure for feeling nothing but pain and emptiness when holding her newborn baby.

Quiet the fears of the elderly man whose failing health has brought on the black cloud of depression.

Bring hope to the teenage girl so desperate for the pain to go away that she cuts her arm again and again.

Strengthen and revive the families torn apart by the demons of addiction and illness.

Hearten and encourage the exhausted mother and father whose child has lost hope in her darkest hour of need.

Hear my prayer, Great Physician. Help me get stronger, Lord, so I might shed this selfish cloak and help others who suffer as I do.



October 1, 2013

Houston, we have a problem

By Jack Smith

I suffered the indignity of having my bags searched without a peep. I turned the other cheek when my electric razor was confiscated.  I said nothing when my laptop was pulled from my bag and stored in a vault halfway across the clinic’s campus…as if it possesses the United States military’s nuclear codes.

But now I have a serious problem. And it comes just as my recovery was taking shape. It was announced today that Auburn will play Ole Miss on ESPNU. Only we don’t get ESPNU on the unit.

Houston, we have a very serious problem. And if you really want me to learn to live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and whatever else you diagnose me with, you damn well better fix it. Like today.

The game might be six days away, but I can’t wait that long to resolve this crisis. A crisis management truism I’ve learned in my job the past three or four years is it’s best to address the crisis right away. So what gives?

I can’t for the life of me understand the lack of urgency here. I’m trying to figure out when I can hack into the common area computer, which has more restrictions on it than ipads in Beijing, so I can at least watch the game online.

In the process, I’m learning to relate to all sorts of people I have nothing in common with except my illness. But all these people who don’t watch or care about college football confuse me more than six rounds of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) did in 2012. I don’t get it.

The good news is I’m on the verge of getting pissed. Getting pissed is good. It’s good because it means I care again. Anyone who has suffered from Major Depressive Disorder can tell you that at its worst, severe depression sucks so much life and energy out of you that you lose the capacity to get angry about anything.

You feel nothing and care about nothing. I don’t ever want to feel that way again.

I’m learning to feel all sorts of emotions again, too. I cried during “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off,” our “therapeutic movie” this evening.

I shared a belly laugh with a fraternity brother who came to see me today and even laughed out loud during a group “Catchphrase” session. It’s a game where you get participants to guess the word on the card by describing it in any way except saying it. The word was medicine. “You take this to feel better...” said the lady whose turn it was. “Heroin!” shouted a young skateboarder who talks just like Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Heroin use isn’t funny, but the whole room busted up. People with mental illness like to laugh just like anybody else. Only they don’t much feel like laughing a lot of the time. I think we need to learn to talk about mental illness the same way we can talk about cancer or heart disease or any other illness. It wouldn’t hurt to be a little less uptight about it, too.

Laughter may not be the best medicine for mental illness, but it’s better than most.