February 20

Enter Autism

I’ve posted in the past (here and here) about my struggles with mental health. During my adult life, I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar, and psychotic episodes. All of these conditions “required” medication, which in every case made the problem worse. (Not to mention ten years of self-medication with alcohol, cocaine, and opiates, which nearly killed me.)

A year ago, our toddler (then 18 months old) was diagnosed with autism. It was too early then to assign a severity; he’s now been diagnosed Level 2 & 3– pretty severe. At the time, neither my wife nor I knew anything about autism.

My wife is quite the researcher, so she went to work. She would come back with these “revelations.”

Her: “Did you know that people with autism often can’t see faces?”

Me: “Wait, I can’t see faces.”

Her: “No, I mean they can’t read nonverbal cues, like even body language.”

Me: “Yeah, I can’t read body language.”

Her: “Did you know that people with autism often see the world in patterns or pictures?”

Me: “Um, that’s not normal?”

The more she learned the more I realized that there was something going on with me that I had never realized. In fact, I have most of the symptoms of autism (though some of them I’ve learned to manage fairly well).

For example, I’m face-blind. I recognize people by their voices, shapes, contexts, and hairstyles. I don’t read nonverbal cues. I have trouble identifying and expressing my emotions. I don’t read emotions well in others. I’m extremely sensitive to audio and visual chaos. (My wife says that what I call “chaos,” most people call normal sensory input.) I struggle with being aware of social appropriateness– I have a tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and have no idea why it’s inappropriate. I tend to understand verbal expressions literally. (“Look at my face!” “OK, I did.”) I have no idea how to navigate a conversation with more than one person at a time.

It’s better now than it was when I was a child. I’ve learned to compensate in basic social situations. Still, when I read the DSM-V description of communications difficulties, I felt like they were writing about me:

A.      Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive, see text):

1.       Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

2.       Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

3.       Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

I remember, when I was in elementary school, planning out conversations before I approached someone. I would think, “I’ll say this, and they’ll say that, and I’ll respond like this…” and so forth. I could never understand why conversations went off the rails or what to do about it. And I couldn’t understand why, in the middle of a softball game, the other kids didn’t want to hear about dinosaurs or math.

And yes, I do have repetitive behaviors, but they’re subtle. I didn’t even realize I was doing them until I learned what “stimming” was. I fidget with my fingers, play computer solitaire, and pace.

My mind sees the world in processes, so I strive to understand why something is true. That makes it difficult for me to learn disconnected facts, like vocabulary or names, but easy to learn grammar and dates. If I can fit it into a “system,” I can learn it. Abstract ideas tend to make my head hurt.

I often look at a situation and see patterns that are not obvious to other people. The most obvious example of this was my response to the civil war in Sri Lanka. It was the most written-abut war since World War II, and yet no one ever seemed to ask what made it tick. To me, that was the obvious question. I spent a year studying, interviewing, and analyzing, and came up with a paradigm that explained the political relationships that drove the war. This became the basis for the Peace Initiative that started in 1999, and eventually led to a Cease Fire Agreement in 2002 that lasted for six years.

I think this helps me be a good writer. I “see” the story that I’m writing before I begin. I may not have all the pieces yet, but I know where it needs to go. And I can see how the plot elements contribute to the whole (and what’s missing).

As I’m learning, autism offers challenges that have greatly affected my life. My adolescence was an extremely painful experience of isolation and feeling different from everyone else.

But it also offers some unusual benefits. I see the world differently than most other people, and that means I have something unique to offer.

August 25

Why Domino Theory?

Cover Preview1

Most of my books explore in some way the topics of spirituality and peace work. Domino Theory is different. It tells the story of a drug addict named Danny McCabe who’s been framed for murder. And it explores the workings of the brain of an addict in frightening, first-person honesty. I know this, because I was there.

I don’t want to use.  I really don’t.  For one thing, heroin and alcohol is a bad mix.  You never know when you’ve done too much.  You’d suddenly pass out and quit breathing, and if there isn’t someone around to wake you up again, you’re dead.

I remember the first time it happened.  I came to and my buddy Pete was slapping me in the face.  I was like, “What the f***?”

“You weren’t breathing,” he said.

I thought about that for a sec.  Then I told him the truth.

“So what?  I don’t care.”

I think that’s what scared me the most when I woke up the next day.  I almost died and I didn’t care.

What does it matter if I do some while I’m drinking?  Even if I died, it would just end the misery.

But the misery isn’t as bad now as it was when I kicked.  I’ve been off the sh*t for three weeks.  Well, almost three weeks.  Two and a half, anyway.  My body doesn’t ache any more.  I’m starting to be able to sleep at night, if I drink enough.  Yeah, I drink more, but I’m off the dope.  I’m clean, and that’s something to be proud of.

So what am I doing with a bag full of dope in my room?  I don’t want to use it.  Really, I don’t.  It was too hard to get off of it.

But the sh*t is calling to me.  That goddamn heroin is calling my name.

I drain the third Moosehead and reach for the fourth.  Two thirds gone now.  I’m pretty drunk, but not drunk enough to ignore the dope calling me.  I suck down half the bottle in one swallow.

Damn it, I hate that shit!  F***ing heroin.  For months I couldn’t not do it.  Now I’m clean, and it still wants me back.  It’s like an evil woman that won’t let go of me, and I can’t say no. 

That’s the thing.  I know I can’t say no.  I always go back to it.  I always have, and I always will.  Yeah, I’m clean right now, but that’s temporary.  I know it.  You know it.  The dope knows it.  It’s calling my name.  It knows that sooner or later I’m going to give in.

I drain the fourth bottle and reach for the fifth.  Only one left after this, and I’m still not drunk enough.  I light another cig.

The heroin calls.  I hate being dope sick.  I f***ing hate it.  I don’t want to go back.

But we all know I’m going to.  I can’t say no.

I chug the fifth beer and open the last one, desperate to block out the Siren’s call.  That’s exactly what it is, calling me to jump back in the dark, cold water.  Calling me to die. 

I can’t say no.

I reach under the mattress and pull out my works.  I thought about throwing it out, but I couldn’t.  I knew, even then, that I would come back.  The dope is too strong.

I could throw it away now.  I could open the window and throw the spoon and the syringe out into the alley with the rats.

But I won’t.  I can’t.  No matter how much I try to deny it, I’m a junkie.  Once you cross that line, there’s no going back.

I drain the last beer, slide the empty back into the six-pack, and reach for my knapsack.  I pull out the zip lock bag and look at it.  I feel my soul drain out of me.  Once again I am hooked.  I haven’t even opened that bag yet, but I’m going to. 

I don’t have a choice.

Why did I write such a seemingly uncharacteristic novel? The answer is simple. All my books seek to overcome misunderstanding. They seek to reconcile. For many people, a drug addict is unpredictable, incomprehensible, and not worth spending time on. I sought to show the interior workings of the addict mind in the hope of helping people understand why we do what we do.

I tried to do this without glorifying the addict lifestyle. Danny’s life is miserable. He has nothing to live for but his next fix, and the vague hope that someday things will be different. But, at least in his mind, he has no choice. Regardless of the consequences, and even though he knows it will make him more miserable, he continues to use. The lies addiction tells him are so deeply ingrained that he believes them without question.

Despite Danny’s hopelessness, I also tried to write a novel that provides hope, because there is hope. I’ve been clean over thirty years. There are millions of people like me who finally got clean and sober, and who are now productive members of society. A lot of people don’t believe an addict can change. Even Danny doesn’t believe it at the beginning. And admittedly, it usually takes a huge upheaval, usually a terrible loss, for an addict to take the chance of really trying to get clean. Sure, they make promises. There was a period when I made such promises every day, but I almost always broke them before the day was over.

But once in a while, something changes. Something gets in through the lies, and we hear hope.

Up jumps the cute girl who read Chapter Five.  She’s way too perky.  I listen to see if her name is Teresa or Shawna.

“I’m Jamie and I’m an alcoholic,” she says.  I wasn’t even close.  Anyway, she’s way to pretty to have anything good to say.  She probably sipped wine after class at the university, maybe got a DUI or something.  I don’t care what she has to say, I just like the way she looks so clean.  I bet she smells nice.

“Sixty-four days ago I was lying on the floor of a jail cell down the street here,” she says, gesturing.  “I was puking my guts out, dope-sick, and wishing I could die.  They arrested me for writing bad checks, but I don’t remember doing it,” she says.  “All I know is, I was driving down PCH, and I was driving too fast because I needed to get loaded.  This cop pulls me over and takes me in.  My car got impounded, I lost my job, and my family wouldn’t bail me out.

“At the time, I thought it was the worst day of my life.  But it wasn’t.  It got worse for a couple more days.  And I finally came to laying on the floor of that jail cell, covered in my own puke.  That was the worst day of my life.

“When the cop came to let me out, I was crying,” she says.  “I told him I didn’t know how I got that bad, and I asked him, ‘What can I do?’  He gave me some change and told me to call Alcoholics Anonymous.  He even looked up the number for me.  So I called.  They told me there was a meeting here.  I walked over from the jail.  I looked like sh*t, and I was still shaking pretty bad, and I know I must have stunk.  Clint was sitting in that chair right there,” she gestures toward the front row.  “When he saw me come in, he came over to me and shook my hand and welcomed me.  And he told me it was going to be alright.

“I didn’t believe him.  But he was telling me the truth.  Because, you know, my family doesn’t want to have anything to do with me now, and I still don’t have a job, and I can’t afford to get my car out of the impound yard yet, and that costs more every day.  But I haven’t had to drink or use since I got out of jail.  For someone like me, that’s a big deal.  I haven’t had to sleep with anyone for drugs or alcohol.  I haven’t woken up in a place I didn’t know, with a person whose name I couldn’t remember.  That used to happen a lot.  Not every day, but a lot of days.

“That cop saved my life.  I don’t know how this is going to work out, but I believe it’s going to work out.  Preston, you mentioned hope, and that’s become an important word to me.  I know some of you guys were a lot worse than me, and this worked for you.  So I know it can work for me, too.  But I have to be the one who does it.  No one is going to do it for me.

“Thank you,” she finishes.

The room applauds, as they always do.  I find that my mouth is hanging open.  I close it, and I clap too.

Somehow, I believe her.  I know she didn’t just say all that for my benefit.  She’s real.

But Danny doesn’t get struck sober. He struggles with his demons. Despite the mess he’s in, he’s terrified to give up the only thing that ever made him feel better. He knows he needs to get clean. But he hasn’t yet gotten to the point where he’s more afraid of using than he is of being clean.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees when it comes to drug addicts, except one: in the absence of some kind of spiritual intervention, they will continue to do what they’ve been doing, and it will get worse. The disease of addiction is deadly, and most addicts die from it.

But there is also hope. A lot of addicts do get clean. I’m one of them.

If you want to know whether Danny is one of them, too, read the book!

July 12

Two Masters

As I continue to seek my path to serve God, I am faced with this question: How do I balance the needs of the world with service to God?  Can I serve two masters?

So far as I can tell by my reading of the Gospels, Jesus had no worldly occupation.  Tradition suggests that he’d been trained as a carpenter by Joseph, his step-father.  But the Gospels don’t say he traveled across the Holy Land building houses.  It appears that he relied for sustenance on his followers and on friendly strangers.

I suspect that was easier in those days and in that culture.  There was no health insurance, no car payment, and no mortgage.  You had what you owned.  There was little debt.  Winters were mild.  People were more likely to feed a traveling stranger on the road.  (I remember my first mother-in-law, who was Jewish, frequently citing the maxim, “Feed a cold, feed a fever.”  The Jews were and are all about feeding people.)

I met an old woman in Sri Lanka who earned about $15 each month, and gave half of it away to those in need.  But her housing was free, her food was supplied, and free health insurance was provided to all residents by the government.  (Yes, even some third world nations have national health care.  Yet we’re told it’s not practical in the U.S.)

My culture taught me to believe that you grow up to get a good job, buy a house on credit, get some credit cards, and live the “good life” while working extra hours to try to pay down debts that rise more quickly than they can be paid. You pay for home insurance and car insurance to protect against any accidents or “acts of God.”  You pay for health insurance to cover any medical bills.  Although these days, you’re more likely to pay for health insurance that doesn’t cover most of your medical bills.

There’s a reason for this cultural teaching, just as there was a reason for the cultural teaching in the time of Jesus.  In those days, cultural survival depended on feeding each other.  Our cultural survival depends on an economy that requires us to spend more than we make.  Non-participation is not just discouraged, it’s been made nearly impossible.

It’s an insidious economic doctrine.  It makes the rich richer while keeping the poor at a minimum level and slowly draining the middle class.  It works to get us to think in terms of money and success, not betterment of society.  And for many people, it crowds out all other concerns.  We become empty, depressed, and angry.  Violence increases, yet we think only about controlling the weapons of violence and not its causes– if we think about it at all.  Drug addiction and suicide increase, and we think about controlling the means, if we think about it at all.  The people of our nation are suffering.  But we don’t think about it, because we’re suffering, too.  Our reason for existing is to pay the bills of an unfulfilling life, and that’s not much of a reason.

With so much suffering, if ever there was a time to serve God, it is now.  But how does a person serve God and not the economy?  To follow Jesus, must one give up everything and live on the streets, as He did?

There are people situated such that they can work a 30 or 40 hour week, earn enough money to pay their bills, and have time left over for both family and service to others.  But in today’s economy, these are a tiny minority.  More often, both one- and two-parent families have at least two jobs just to squeak by.

Of course, there are levels of “squeaking by.”  Do we really need a new(ish) car, cable TV, internet, a health club membership, new clothes, a microwave oven, and all the other trappings of American life we’re told we should have?  How many toys does my two-year-old need?  In my own case, I have jettisoned TV and the health club.  I drive a beat-up, 11-year-old Hyundai with over 170,000 miles on it.  I generally do not buy new clothes until I’m forced to.  And my internet costs $15 per month.  My recent move cut fuel expenses for my car from $500 a month to $80.  But rent is expensive, and at the moment I can’t afford health insurance.  I have a stack of medical bills totaling well over $20,000.

What is a God-seeking person to do?

If you were expecting an answer, I don’t have one.  But I do have the question, and it’s worth pondering.  In an environment of economic and cultural despair, how does one serve God?  Is it possible to serve two masters?

As I said, I don’t have the answer.  But I haven’t given up trying to find one.

November 24

Mental Health and Me, Part 1

Some 25% of Americans struggle with some variety of mental health issues.  Only a small handful are driven to pick up a gun and kill people. Yet the struggle remains, often misunderstood and stigmatized.  Too often, we struggle alone.

Here’s what I know about mental health: It’s better to have it than to not have it.  Ask me how I know.

Mental health and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship over the years.  As a child, I suffered from severe depression.  At 15, I thought of suicide and made practice cuts on my wrist.  I also snagged a quill pen from the art department and wrote a poem in blood.  Clearly, I was a well-balanced individual ready for adulthood.

Fortunately, I learned to manage my depression through medication.  Unfortunately, my meds were neither prescribed nor managed by a doctor.  I started with pot, speed, and LSD.  (The latter made things worse, but it was entertaining.)  I graduated to alcohol, then cocaine and heroin, supplemented with anything else I could get.  I figured I could live that way until I was about 20.  All my heroes were dead poets and dead musicians, and I didn’t mind the idea of joining them.

By 25, I’d exhausted my options and was afraid I wasn’t going to die.  Then I got sober, which is another story.

That’s where my struggles with mental health really began.  The initial exhilaration at getting off drugs faded.  Real life kicked in.  My depression returned with a vengeance.  Therapy didn’t seem to help.  I was 32 when a psychiatrist put me on Prozac.  The first week it didn’t do much.  Then came two weeks of ecstasy.  I realized that I hadn’t known how depressed I was because I had nothing to compare it to.  I’d never been not depressed.

Prozac seemed too good to be true.  And it was.  As my dose increased, I became more and more anxious.  One day I woke up paranoid, psychotic, and suicidal.  No one knew what to do with me.  The shrink wanted me to keep taking the Prozac.  My GP wanted me to take Valium.  My wife just wanted her husband back.

It took four months before someone decided I should be hospitalized.  During that time, I wore a winter parka in the summer, rarely went out without a teddy bear, and had a secret hand signal for my wife in case the anxiety of a social situation pushed me close to melt-down.  I don’t remember any of that; she told me about it years later.

I spent a month inpatient in a mental health facility.  But it took over a year for me to begin to really function again.  In the mean time, I lost my home, my marriage, and my business.

That’s how I learned that psych meds were not an option for me.  Instead, I had to manage my depression and anxiety by other means.  Meditation replaced medication.  Volunteer work gave me a sense of purpose I’d never had.

I continued to struggle from time to time, but that first experience of losing my mind to psychosis motivated me to try to live differently.

October 10

Let’s Start Talking

It’s time to start talking about the elephant in the living room.  I refer to our national mental health problem.  It’s not about mass shootings, though they are a symptom.  It’s not about the homeless, though they too are largely a symptom.  It’s about 1 in 4 Americans suffering from mental illness each year, and our inability to acknolwedge that there’s a problem.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson is a great place to begin the conversation.  In this series of essays and blog posts, Lawson explores her own mental illness, as well as society’s reaction to mental illness.  The book is hilarious, and also enlightening.  I’m listening to the audiobook, narrated by the author, and it is extremely listenable.  It’s also available on Kindle, although this is one of the few books in which the performance makes it hard to imagine “merely” reading it.

From the description:

Furiously Happy is about “taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they’re the same moments we take into battle with us when our brains declare war on our very existence. It’s the difference between “surviving life” and “living life”. It’s the difference between “taking a shower” and “teaching your monkey butler how to shampoo your hair.” It’s the difference between being “sane” and being “furiously happy.”

There’s plenty of mention that most of those who live with mental illness “suffer in darkness.”  There’s the note that cancer sufferers get recognized when they survive, but those with severe depression often get ostracized when they survive.

And there’s plenty of profanity, but get over it.  This book is worth a little discomfort, whether at the subject matter or her colorful language.

March 14

Vacation – Not Exactly What I Wanted

It’s been a long nine months, so long that I forgot my blog’s username and password, and returned to find 287 spam comments waiting for approval.  But it’s good to be back.

My vacation started, well,  with a vacation.  I took my family to New Hampshire to visit my family of origin.  And I got bronchitis.  (Ain’t nobody got time for that!)

After weeks of it not getting better, my doctor put me on Singulair.  But Singulair interacts with a triglyceride medication I was taking.  I didn’t know that.  Neither did my doctor or pharmacist.  The interaction is listed on the FDA website, but apparently not in any of the databases used by health care professionals.  Within two weeks, I had sunk into a suicidal depression and had to be hospitalized.

The hospital prescribed Zoloft, an anti-depressant.  I let them know I’d had a bad reaction to antidepressants once before, many years ago.  The shrink insisted that this one was different.

It wasn’t that different.  Soon, I was having a full-blown psychotic reaction to the Zoloft.  Eventually, I went back to a different hospital.  There, they gave me other medications that had me not only psychotic, but also aggressive.  Psych meds and I do not get along.

From there, I was able to spend 30 days medication-free in a rehab in Culver City, CA.  My brain finally started to heal.  I am forever grateful for that opportunity, because I think psychiatrists would have either killed me, or left me in a straight jacket in a dark room for the rest of my life.  For whatever reason, they don’t have an answer for me.

I am prone to depression, and I’ve learned that I have to manage it with lifestyle changes.  To be honest, I hadn’t been doing that.  So perhaps the medication interaction only accelerated changes that I would have had to make anyway.  In any case, it’s been a rough road, and I’m glad to be back.