Love Me Not

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Love Me Not:
A Conversation About Mental Health & Relationships

If you’ve read my previous work, you know that I’m often very personal and brutally honest about my experiences and my mistakes.  This essay will be no different.

I want to share with you some experiences I’ve had over the last couple decades and I want to be open and revealing about how mental illness can drastically impact our ability to create and sustain romantic and other types of intimate relationships and friendships.

It’s been a long time since I last wrote about the status of my romantic life or the relationships that I have been in.  I quit writing about it for a couple of reasons.  One being that I didn’t want to share information about that aspect of my life anymore and because there honestly wasn’t anything to write about.

The last time I had feelings for someone whom I was dating, was in December of 2013. The last time I attempted to have sex was in 2014.  I intended to make that statement exactly as I wrote it… “I attempted.”

The status of your mental health, or really your behavioral health as a whole, greatly impacts your romantic and intimate life.  The word romantic is used here in the sense of your love life, the feelings that you express for another person or receive from another person, and intimate life refers to the sexual aspects of expressing that love, or lust in certain cases.

Having a mental illness or as I prefer to say, a mental health condition, such as depression, bi-polar disorder, among others, can have a profound effect on how you approach and experience these types of relationships and even friendships.  Often times in a very negative way.

Such is the case for me.  Experiencing bi-polar disorder and having depression since at least my mid-teens has made love, lust, and even friendship an extremely complicated and quite often heartbreaking experience that has led me to my adult life of chosen-isolation from romance, deliberate avoidance of sexual encounters, and apprehension to appear in social environments.

People are complicated enough on their own.  Having a mental health condition and interacting with other people makes that process doubly complicated, and often times less rewarding.  Mix into that a willingness to explore emotional and sexual intimacy with others of the same gender and suddenly you have a maelstrom of complications.

For those unfamiliar with my past romantic experiences and bizarre friendships, I will revisit those before continuing with the direct subject of mental health and its effects on relationships.  As I go through this, you may find yourself making observations that mental health was clearly impacting these human-to-human relationships without me needing to directly point it out.

When I was in kindergarten, I wrestled with another boy for a photo of a girl that I thought was cute.  She hadn’t given me one of her school photos and I was very jealous of his newly acquired item.  So when I saw him on the bus and he just sat there looking at her photo, I decided to act and jumped into the seat with him and grabbed at the photo.

A tug-of-war ensued as both of us fought for this girl’s photo.  I had the element of surprise on my side though.

Looking back I really don’t remember why I wanted that photo so bad or how much I really liked that girl.  I have no memories of her and I interacting in kindergarten, only that I thought she was cute, but in that moment on the bus I was willing to fight to have that picture.  I did prevail in that battle, as I had a good grip on most of the photo.  It did end up tearing, but the only piece I lost to the other boy was an upper corner that included one of her purple hair-clips.  An acceptable sacrifice.

I remember the other boy’s disgust with me for my theft, he was red in the face and threw that corner piece with her hair-clip on the floor of the bus and sat in his seat pouting.  I considered retrieving that corner piece, but decided it unnecessary.  I never interacted with that boy before that fight and I’m not sure if I even knew his name at the time.

The girl who was in the photo was sitting in the next seat over, observing all of this unfold.  I remember her telling me to let him have the photo because she hadn’t given it to me, but I was selfish and only cared about what I wanted.  So I kept it, held on to it for years as though her photo was a trophy.  What I didn’t realize back then, was that a photo was not worth losing the chance at a friendship with the boy I fought with, or with the girl in the photo who consequently had no desire to talk to me for the rest of the school year.

Elementary school saw my bad behavior continue and my report cards often reflected this in my grades.  Often picking on boys younger, physically weaker than me, or out of shape (chubby).  My bad behavior included name-calling, pushing, throwing things, tripping, punching, kicking.  Sometimes my aggression was even directed at girls and I did not treat them more gently than the boys.

In terms of girls, there were only three in my grade during elementary school, the rest of us were boys.  While there was an ongoing joke that one of those girls and myself would one day get married, it certainly never came to pass as that sentiment was mostly one-sided.  She would, however, be the first girl to kiss me, despite my objection.  During a bus ride home, an older boy held me down in one of the seats so she could kiss me, he thought it was hilarious – I didn’t.

The first time I got to kiss a girl (by my own choosing) was with the one I had feelings towards for a long time during elementary school.  Her father worked with my father, her older siblings were close in age to my older brothers.  That kiss happened in the back of a bus during a field trip, where I presume many first kisses happen.  Years later, she would pass away in a motor vehicle accident at the age of eighteen, the first time I experienced a close personal loss, and one that had lasting effects.

In terms of my behavior in elementary school, I was sometimes the aggressor, but also sometimes the victim – which added to my desire to act out.  I was short, the shortest boy in my class, and while I was athletic and one of the best runners, I was also skinny and perceived to be weak.  Other kids, some older and some just more popular than me, looked to that as an opportunity or justification to exploit me.

You shouldn’t feel sorry for me though, anything negative I experienced was well deserved.  Between the ages of 10 to 12 is when my level of aggression began to reach its climax, not surprisingly the point at which I hit puberty.  There was one kid in my class, skinny, dark curly hair, prominent nose, who I saw as an easy target, bizarrely enough this kid was also often my best friend when I wasn’t being an asshole.

I frequently would trip this kid, push him, tackle him on the school bus, hit his head up against the window, sit on him, called him names based on his appearance.  The worst of these nicknames was “Dirty Jew,” even though I didn’t know what it really meant at that age, he looked stereo-typically Jewish to me.  The other kids laughed when I would call him that, so I kept using it.  Their laughter was a type of approval, they were being enablers and eventually they took to calling me “Little Adolf.”  None of us as Catholic fifth or sixth graders understood the gravity or offensiveness of what was unfolding.

While this kid I picked on was my primary target, he wouldn’t completely submit or go without trying to fight back.  One day he tried to trip me on the playground, so I chased after him in anger.  While he could easily run much farther than I could, I was faster and I caught up with him and tackled him.  I pinned him down underneath me, I spat in his face, pulled up clumps of dirt and grass and shoved it in his face, calling him by the nickname I had given him.

I specifically remember one of my teachers looking angrily in my face and asking, “What is wrong with you?!?!”  I told her I was raised that way.  But that wasn’t really true, my parents did not intentionally raise me to be aggressive.  There were plenty of fights between myself and the brother closest to me in age though, not sure how he and I survived some of those fights, but I certainly carried that mentality of repressed aggression to school with me – where it did not remain repressed.

All of this will likely make you ask the same question my teacher did, “What is wrong with you?”  To best answer that question we should look outside of school.  Francis Bacon perhaps put it best, “No man is angry that feels not himself hurt.”  It means that bullies are often times themselves victims of some sort of abuse, sometimes at school, but often times at home or within their community or neighborhood.  Nowadays that also extends to the internet.  Not able to handle the situation themselves, they begin acting out physically – sometimes towards other kids they see as non-threatening and easy targets – to vent their built up emotional anguish.

So, what was happening in my life that made me behave this way?  Certainly, some of it was mental health related, I was a very active kid and could not sit still.  I climbed all over things, ran around a lot, very rambunctious.  My grandmother can be heard in an old family movie shouting, “Don’t you ever sit still!?!?”  These days, kids get diagnosed with ADHD and are given pills for it.

My hyperactivity or any underlying mental health conditions I may have already had at that point, were still not justification enough for my aggressive behavior at school.  For the most part, I did not behave that way at home.  I believe a large part of my behavior had to do with my father and the lack of relationship I had with him.  While he lived in the home and was a part of our lives in that sense, I spent most of my childhood either afraid of him or hating him, and wanting my mom to divorce him.  I was not comfortable being around him, and especially being alone with him.

My father worked in construction for all the years that I can remember and while he didn’t hate that work he has always been the kind of person who gets easily stressed out and develops anxiety.  After being at work all day he would come home with his nerves already on edge and having kids screaming and running around the house would push him over the edge.  Sometimes my mom had to say to him, “That’s enough,” to bring him back from his own emotional outburst towards us.

I was the youngest of six kids, with nineteen years between me and the eldest sibling.  My mother did not work outside of the home as we were raised in a traditional and religious household.  She cooked, cleaned, and raised the kids, while my father financially supported us.  We lived in a trailer, three of us boys shared a room and had to sleep in the same bed for several years until the last of the three oldest siblings moved out.  The number then dropped to only two having to share a bedroom, while the third upgraded to having his own bedroom.

I grew up on a farm with about 200 acres, but as I mentioned we were not financially stable and lived below the poverty line.  My parents could not afford to have health insurance for us kids so we never went to a doctor unless it was an urgent issue like a broken bone, major wound, or what they perceived to be a serious illness.  One of the ear infections I had as a kid did not warrant a costly doctor visit, and that resulted in major damage to my eardrum due to the bacteria eating away at it, I am now mostly deaf in my left ear.  As kids we were only able to go to the dentist because the gentlemen we went to was kind enough to not charge my parents for seeing several of us kids at once, even though my parents had scheduled the appointment for only one kid.

While some of these things sound borderline neglectful, my parents did the best they could with what they had and made sure we never starved, had clothes to wear, and were in school.  My father dropped out of school at the age of 14, my mother at the age of 16.  This of course was during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, in the American Midwest, where a high school diploma wasn’t considered necessary to find a job and earn a living.  My father was already 45 years old by the time I was born, establishing yet another hurdle to our relationship.  At school, kids would ask if I lived with my grandparents, not realizing that they were actually my parents.

I can remember being jealous of the other boys in my class, as they talked about their dads and the things they did together.  Their father-son relationships seemed strange to me, I could not relate to them, but wanted to know what that felt like.  My two eldest brothers were both nearly old enough to be my dad, so I often looked to them as father figures instead of my actual dad.  While I can’t say that I was necessarily emotionally close to them, I certainly preferred their company over my father’s and so I spent a lot of time with both of them.

These two brothers have always been very different people.  My eldest brother would let me ride around with him while he did farm work.  That may not sound very interesting to some, but for others it’s a father-son activity and all these years later I still hold on to those memories.  The other brother was a little more wild and free, he enjoyed giving rides on his dirt-bikes and ATVs, and he owned a ’69 Chevelle which he would take us fishing in and to the local Dairy Queen afterwards.  Again, activities that fathers typically do with their sons.  I have more father-son memories with my older brothers than with my real dad.

My father has stated that he and my grandfather never had a close relationship either, and that he spent a lot of his time with his mom while growing up, which remained true up until his father passed away in 1981.

My aggressive years would fade away once I left elementary and junior high school behind and entered into high school, leaving behind the private Catholic school I had attended and nearly every one I knew.  This transition changed me and I became extremely introverted, not making any attempts to make friends for the first three years.  Unless people spoke to me directly, I rarely spoke to anyone else.  While girls asked to date me, I made no such attempts of my own to emotionally connect with anyone.  My grades improved dramatically during this transition, hiding the fact that all of my anguish was now entirely within me.

Instead of acting out in anger, I held everything in and it started to eat away at me slowly.  Other students saw me as a quiet kid who was smart, but I was filled with so much self-hatred.  At times I was taunted by older students, but nothing serious, I tried to disappear into the background as I did not want to be noticed.  Lingering questions about my sexuality exploded inside my head and haunted me 24/7, expounding my desire to fade into the crowd and not be seen or spoken to, terrified that other people would find out about these feelings growing inside.

Ages 16 to 22 were the worst years of my life, layers of depression and suicidal thoughts buried the moments of happiness I experienced.  The only bright moments from that period occurred at the age of 18, during my senior year of high school.  I had finally made friends.  I actually spent time with these two guys outside of school, and I became close to both of them.  Multiple factors prevented me from taking my own life, but these two people deserve a lot of the credit.

At the age of 22, I finally came to the realization that I would never be at peace until I stopped worrying about what other people thought of me.  I knew that I needed to stop pretending like other guys didn’t interest me, I had to face the fact that I was more than just a little curious and needed to let go of my self-hatred and my fear of the unknown.  I took small steps and I came out as bisexual, but soon after breaking up with my then girlfriend – I came out as gay on social media.  This single choice had wide sweeping consequences, from the literal loss of “friends” to opening up a door of judgement and criticism from people I didn’t even know, who felt it necessary to tell me how I was wrong or confused and was making a mistake.

Young and rebellious, in some sense, they weren’t necessarily incorrect about my actions.  Once I opened that door, there was no going back in the proverbial closet and closing the door behind me to hide.  That door was broken now and there would no longer be any refuge.  Looking back at that decision ten years later, I probably should not have been so open and outspoken about that aspect of my life.  It soon went from being my sexuality to being my identity and I got lost in it.  I went from being Kephen, to being “Kephen the Gay.”  My conversations became hinged on my sexuality, my posts on social media were usually LGBTQ related, people would befriend me solely because I was “gay.”

It’s a mistake I see a lot of young men make, they allow this one small aspect of who they are, to become the sole piece of them upon which every other part of their lives pivots and they confuse their sexuality with their identity.  It took me about eight years of going through different identities based on various sexualities before I got to a point where I was tired of it.  I stopped calling myself gay and referred to myself as pansexual, then I went back to calling myself bisexual, and then I stopped talking about it all together.  I was finally able to put that piece of me in its place and re-establish my identity along the spectrum of interests and characteristics I have as a person.

I stopped having conversations about LGBTQ issues, I stopped having conversations about men I was attracted to, I stopped posting or sharing posts from gay-themed websites, and I stopped writing articles about it.  In some sense, this act was another type of freedom – this time a freedom from the social pressures of the LGBTQ community to conform and assimilate into their ranks.  Finally, my sexuality returned to where it belonged, my private dating life and my bedroom.

Those eight years in between breaking down the proverbial closet door and realigning my identity in the wake of that decision, is what this article is mostly about.  And now that you know the back story, the heavy stuff involving mental health can be discussed.

When I ended my last relationship with a girl, I thought that dating a guy would somehow be easier.  I also thought that my uncomfortable feelings toward intimacy would no longer be an issue.  In my experiences, dating a guy and dating a girl are not very different, many aspects are exactly the same.  However, I’ve never had sex with a girl, so I cannot speak on similarities or differences between them and men in the bedroom.

My first six months of exploring my sexual attraction to men, was mostly through gay apps and websites.  Living in a rural community, most other guys interested in men were closeted, and those that weren’t closeted had already moved away.  I knew very little about what it meant to be “gay” and knew even less about how to be it with other men.  All I had to go one were my feelings of attraction, both emotional and sexual.

These apps included such gay classics as Grindr, Scruff, and Jack’d.  While some gay and bisexual men certainly use these apps for serious dating, they are also heavily used for meeting other men for sexual encounters.  I expanded my inventory by adding websites to find other men, these included typical dating sites like Plenty of Fish, OkCupid, and even the notorious personals section of Craigslist.

Those first few experiences were mostly messaging back and forth, exchanging photos (nudes included), and phone calls.  I was not yet comfortable meeting these people in person, most of them just wanted in my pants anyway.  When I was finally able to meet a guy in person for dating purposes, it turned sexual fairly quickly.  This would be the pattern for all future dating experiences, and generally by the second date – one or both of us were at least partially naked.

These sexual experiences started out as you would expect them to go, hands being placed on certain areas of the body, cuddling, spooning, but usually didn’t go very well once they progressed beyond that.  Most of these men liked kissing – something I found deplorable.  I really struggled with the idea of kissing men, I did not enjoy it and it made me uncomfortable and frequently turned me off during sexual situations.  This disdain for kissing men has continued throughout my dating experiences.

Other issues arose during these intimate situations that further hindered my experiences.  Frequently, I found that these other men were very easily aroused to the point of erection by a touch or even a conversation, but I on the other was not.  Even during sexual acts of foreplay, I would still not get an erection.  Obviously this began to concern me as I did not have issues when I was alone with myself, but every time I engaged in sexual acts with other men I either could not get aroused or if I did it would go away as soon as I got hard.

The fact that I did not enjoy kissing other men, the fact that I either could not get an erection or keep an erection when engaged in foreplay with other men led some of them to conclude that I was not gay or even bisexual.  This was not easy to accept as true.  I knew that I was emotionally and sexually attracted to men.  I had been crushing on or falling for men since I was eleven years old, I’d been sexually fantasizing about men and jerking off to those fantasies for just as long, and yet here I was in my twenties and things were not going well for me.

If my body was working fine while I was alone, why was it not working while in the company of someone else?  Why was I so uncomfortable in physically intimate situations with other men?

My mental health was affecting me in ways I hadn’t expected.  My issues were not arising due to some sort of physical impotency, but because of psychological issues – a form of performance anxiety.  Despite years of therapy and medication, my issues never went away and still remain with me today.  This lack in sexual gratification with male partners is what drove me to walk away from attempting one-night-stands and even eroded my interest in dating.  As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, 2013 was the last time I dated anyone, I was 27 years old.  2014 was the last time I attempted to have sex with a guy, and I say attempted because that experience did not go well.

In fact, none of my sexual experiences with men have ever really gone well for one reason or another since 2008, and I’ve never even tried to have a sexual experience with a woman.  I have never had an orgasm during sex with another man, though I have during foreplay.  The last time I attempted anything sexual with another guy was in 2015, and I never got an erection or even removed my underwear for that matter – it was all about him, not me.

I cannot speak for women, but as a man – being sexually dysfunctional does not feel good, it does not lead you to a positive state of mind.  It makes you feel embarrassed and as though you are less of a man.  It’s easier and less shameful to just avoid those situations all together by not allowing anyone to come into your life, to just prevent that awkward conversation of, “I’m sorry I can do me, I just can’t do you.”

To learn more about my thoughts on human sexuality:

“The Choice That Never Was”

To learn more about my journey with mental illness:

“Out of the Darkness”

Chasing the Westward Sun

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Chasing the Westward Sun: One Week and 3,500 Miles

In the summer of 2017 I went on a one-week 3,500 mile road trip through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. The road trip had spawned after the death of my mom the year before and my need to come to terms with that loss, it also formed from a growing dissatisfaction with my career and the sensation that I was trapped in a cycle. I felt as though I was living life on repeat and I desperately needed to get out of that loop and away to a place that could offer me some peace.

Growing up on a farm shaped not only my childhood, but also my character. My parents lived in poverty for most of their lives, my mom never worked outside of the home and never finished high school. She dropped out and married my father less than a month after turning 16 years old. My father had already dropped out of elementary school at the age of 14 to begin a life long career in the labor industry. Farming never provided the opportunity for more than subsistence living, therefore, being employed somewhere else was mandatory to support his wife and the six children the two of them would have over their 55 years of marriage.

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My childhood was spent roaming through woodlands that covered the mostly hilly farmland that had been passed down from my grandfather. My grandfather owned the staples of the idyllic American Midwestern farm, including horses, cattle, and chickens. When my father inherited the land he tried his hand at pig farming as well, but lost any hope of profit when the hog market collapsed in the mid 1990’s.

My memories of that time and place are peppered with hot summer days in hay fields, and damp but brisk summer nights with the stars spread across the sky overhead. There were bullfrogs and tree frogs croaking and chirping in the distance, coyotes howling in the hollers that surrounded the farm, as it lay within a valley. In the early evening you could hear whip-poor-wills making their iconic calls echoing through, or owls hooting from the treeline.

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A creek ran right through the middle of the farm, often flooding during heavy rains. As much time as I spent in the woods, I also spent a significant amount of time in and around that creek. As a kid, you don’t stop to think about all the pig and cattle manure that washes down into those waterways or all the dead animals that find themselves swept into its current, or when cattle are standing up stream urinating right into the water. You still walk barefoot through it, stick your hands in it, or even at times jump right into the deep pools that form from the carved out boulders that make up its bedrock.

I have more than a thousand memories of my time living on that land, so many that time has taken many of them away and yet my mind still feels full of them. While I’ve never been fond of the smell of hog manure, cattle manure does oddly trigger memories of my childhood. From throwing clumps of cow shit at other young relatives, pushing them into it, or sticking bottle rockets or firecrackers in them to watch them explode and splatter everywhere, these are defining experiences that color the childhoods of many Midwestern boys.

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For me, scent has always been a heavy trigger for memories and nature is full of them, beyond just the cow manure. Cedar and walnut trees, the creek, freshly cut hay, ponds, the organic decaying matter that makes up dirt, these are just a few of the things that have their own unique smell and they coalesce to create the experience of nature, an experience that feels like home. Perhaps Gary Snyder said it best, “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”

Other senses play a role in the things we remember, from prickly cocklebur that stick to your pants and shoes, tossing square bails and getting cuts and covered in itchy dust, to touching cedar limbs and needles and getting sticky hands, your feet slipping on the slimy algae that covers rocks in the creek, hearing the sound of the leaves rustling in the trees as the wind blows through them, crowing roosters, squealing pigs, the bellows of cows, the humming cicadas in summer, the chirping crickets in the evening, the many different bird songs throughout the seasons, the babbling water as it runs over and between the rocks in the creek and the many streams that form it.

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Nature is a full sensory experience and growing up on a farm provided me with that phenomenal opportunity, one that I would never trade for anything. So it is no wonder that as time passes and my opportunities to visit and experience that type of nature decreases, I yearn to return to it. At the time that I began contemplating my road trip west last year, I was working a job that required me to sit in front of a computer all day. A type of job that would make any man restless and yearn for something more.

Of the different landscapes that I find beauty in, wooded lands and hilltops are my most beloved. Hiking through woodlands can only be topped for me by hiking through a conifer forest in the mountains. With this in mind, I knew the land I needed to escape to, the place that would give me the most serenity or solace. Of the many different types of trees here in the Midwest, the tree commonly called the cedar or red cedar, is probably the tree that I gravitate to the most due to its aromatic smell and my childhood history growing up around it.

Ironically, the Eastern red cedar tree of the United States is actually not a cedar tree at all. It’s a species of Juniper (species: Juniperus virginiana) and is what’s known as a false cedar, belonging to the cypress tree family. True cedars are not native to America, but are naturally occurring in Africa and Asia. All are conifers, however, and this classification of trees are certainly my favorite. Some of the largest mountainous conifer forests in the United States are in the west and the north of the country, part of the Taiga biome or boreal forests of the world. Oddly enough, a large subtropical lowland conifer forest exists in the wetlands of southeast United States.

My love for conifer forests and the mountains established a pretty clear destination for my escape from the world of glowing computer screens and posture-destroying office chairs. While my desire to just get in the car and drive off after the westward sun was strong, I had enough self-control to realize that I needed to plan a budget and map out my route, and choose the places out west and in the north that I wanted to stop and spend some time in.

For anyone wanting to take a road trip, whether it’s across the country or just through a few states, knowing how much money you have to spend and how or where you’re going to spend it is critical. You need to take into account the supplies you will need, including food, clothing, hiking or camping gear, and the cost of gas for your vehicle – you need to know how many miles to the gallon your vehicle can get. Knowing this will help you plan out your fuel budget to cover the distance you will be driving.

You should also have a plan for when things go wrong, such as if your vehicle breaks down or you have a flat tire. The terrain you will be facing is another matter of consideration and whether or not your vehicle can traverse it. Will the roads your traveling always be paved, will some be dirt roads and rough? Will you need a lifted vehicle, what type of tires will be appropriate for the season and the climate that you will be driving in?

If you’re not driving a large van or RV across the country, where will you be sleeping? If you plan to camp outdoors, you will need to pack according to the climate in the region you’ll be staying in. If you plan to stay in hotels along various stops you should book in advance to get the best prices and the best rooms. Popular locations such as National or State Parks are difficult to find hotel rooms near because people often book them up to six months in advance of their trip. When booking hotel rooms, consider amenities such as free parking, free breakfast, to try and save on your costs. Also consider offers of free cancellation in case something happens and your trip gets cancelled or your planned route changes and you will no longer be traveling through that area.

Whether you plan to bring all of your food or plan to eat at local joints, you will need a budget for meals. This aspect of spending has been difficult for me as sometimes I eat more than expected, and sometimes less. What sounded appetizing when I packed it, has at times not been so appetizing when it came time to eat it. I chose to mostly eat locally while traveling and slept in hotels, which I booked weeks in advance. I set aside a lot of time to read reviews, compare prices, and picked hotels near my destinations. Generally speaking, plan to spend more than your initial estimate suggests on most of these budgetary costs, especially on gas.

It’s a good idea to round up by $50 to $200 on each of your cost estimates. By the time my trip ended and I was back home, I had spent more on food, gas, and sleeping arrangements than I had originally budgeted, in fact I over spent by $500. So, just realize things don’t always go as planned, and you may fork over more money than you budgeted. If you don’t have the financial safety net that I had, consider that you may have to cut your trip short if your spending has taken up too much of your budget early into your road trip.

As I did my research to figure out what National and State Parks would be best to see the kind of scenery I was yearning for, and any other opportunities along the way, I compiled a list of places to visit. My list consisted of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and Glacier National Park in Montana. To get there and back I also had to drive through Kansas, Colorado and North Dakota. This trip was planned for July due to it being a great time of the year in northern Montana, my main destination.

My road trip was planned to last a week, which meant that I would not have an extensive amount of time spent in each location. Though my budget wouldn’t allow for extended stays, I wanted to see all of those locations and so I accepted the scenario of not getting to spend a lot of time in any one location.

Colorado was the first stop on my trip, though I knew I wouldn’t be exploring any of the parks there as it was an overnight stay only. This was my second time in Colorado, I had visited there in 2002 with my family, and back then we stayed in the Vail region. This time around I stayed in Parachute, so I did have the opportunity to drive through parts of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and White River National Forest. As this was July and I was driving in from the east, most of eastern Colorado was dry and it wasn’t until I got closer to the Rocky Mountains did the land begin to appear more beautiful.

For the overnight stay, I had a room booked at the Grand Vista Hotel. My experience there was pleasant and they earned a 5-star rating from me. For dinner I went to the Mexican restaurant just up the block, called El Tapatio. I was hitting the road early the next morning, so I did not have time to explore too far from the hotel. I did take some time to walk around the town, spent some time in the hotel’s hot tub, and then just settled in for the night.

The next stop was Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming. While the scenery driving up from the south was similarly as dry and arid as Colorado, the closer I got to the park, the more things began to fill me with awe. Some of the photos I took there can be seen in the below slideshow. Jackson Lake was a major part of my exploration, and was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited in my life, I highly recommend visiting. During this phase of my road trip, I slept at the Baymont by Wyndham hotel in Pinedale, which I give a 5 out of 5 star rating to also.

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Aside from exploring the region around the lake I also enjoyed lunch at Leek’s Pizzeria located at the marina on the lake. I sat outside on the deck, the service was fast and the pizza was great, but the view was unbeatable. I really cannot stress how great Jackson Lake is (minus the hungry mosquitoes), even if you’re like me and have no desire to be on a boat out on the lake, the view from the shoreline alone is breathtaking. Certainly a highlight from my trip and ranks a close second behind Glacier. I had honestly never heard of Grand Teton National Park prior to this trip, so it was an extraordinary experience.

Grand Teton National Park is connected to Yellowstone and so exploring one park offers the opportunity to explore the other if you’re willing to keep driving north. If you plan to visit Yellowstone only to see Old Faithful, you’re wasting your time and money. Yes, it’s historical and iconic, but it’s crowded and there’s really nothing exciting about it. There are far more beautiful things to see and do. In the slideshow below are my photos of Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake in the park. Also you will see Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a massive hotel along the shoreline overlooking the lake, whose initial construction dates back to 1891.

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Yellowstone National Park was my third favorite place to visit and I regret that I did not spend enough time exploring the park. I only had one afternoon to spend there, which is why Yellowstone Lake was the focal point of my exploration. I also regret wasting my time at Old Faithful, it was either that or Mammoth Springs and I wish I had chosen the latter. Regardless, I had the opportunity to hike around a bit and explore. The aromatic conifer in the higher elevations was soul touching for me, there’s no better air to breath.

From Yellowstone to Montana was going to be an all-night drive. Along the way I passed through the city of Bozeman, with the town of Choteau (pronounced “show-toe”) being my destination for the night. The mountainous drive between these two points took three hours and I arrived in Choteau at 12:30 AM. It felt like the longest drive of my life as I was fighting off sleepiness and everything all around me was pitch black. Most of the time there was not even a single light in the distance from human civilization and very seldom did I ever come across another vehicle on the road. I don’t think there has been another time in my life that I felt so alone.

I’m certain that the drive during the daylight hours would have been spectacular and I kind of regret having not just spent the night in Bozeman, but I was on a schedule and I had to be in Choteau to arrive on time for my hotel reservation at the Stage Stop Inn. I spent two nights at the hotel and my experience there was very pleasant. Due to being so exhausted from the drive, my first morning in Choteau found me with no energy to drive up to Glacier, so I spent the day exploring the town and speaking to the local residents.

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One of my stops was at the Old Trail Museum Inc., where there is a wide array of things to see in a centralized location. The exhibits here are ideal for kids as it does not require a lot of walking to be able to see everything. I’ve included several of my pictures of what the museum has to offer in the slideshow above. There is also an ice cream parlor on the complex that offers a good selection of flavors and options for how it’s served, and there’s a diner across the street called the Outpost Deli, I included a photo of the front of the building at the end of the slideshow.

Service at the diner was top-notch and the food was excellent. I was so impressed at how hard everyone was working that I tipped the young gentleman that was my waiter an extra $20. I spent some more time afterwards walking around the town. I stopped at the visitor’s center and spoke to an older gentlemen, we had a good conversation about my trip, the things he’s down around the area, places he suggested, he gave me a map and some tips about the road north to Glacier National Park. It might seem odd to say, but it felt like I was having a conversation with my grandpa.

The people I met in that town were nothing but kind and welcoming people. According to the 2000 census, the average income for households was only slightly more than $25,000, with nearly 20% of the population living below the poverty line. While driving through Montana I noticed there was still a lot of poverty throughout the state, especially among Native American populations. The best land in Montana is in the western third of the state, whereas the central and especially the eastern part are prairie and badlands. This part of the state reminded me of eastern Colorado and southern Wyoming – mostly flat, arid and unpleasant.

The morning of my second day in Choteau greeted me before the sun rose. I wanted to be in Glacier National Park before 8:00 AM and before the crowds of other visitors arrived. On my way up to St. Mary at the east entrance of the park, I came upon a hitchhiker at about 5:30 AM walking in basketball shorts and a t-shirt. For those unaware, the climate in this region of Montana at that time of morning is pretty cold. I have seldom stopped for hitchhikers in my lifetime due to the risks of being robbed or worse. However, this young man was clearly not armed and was of a physical build I was not threatened by. I wasn’t too far outside the town of Browning, which was where I was planning on topping off my gas tank before Glacier, and was also the direction this young man was walking in.

I made the choice to pullover and give him a lift. He attempted to get into the back of the car, but I told him he was welcome to sit up front and so he did. He appeared to be in his early twenties at the oldest, and had a large dip in his mouth. It only took a couple minutes before the tobacco smell permeated my entire car. He thanked me for stopping and said that other vehicles had just kept driving.

He made a comment about how cold it was that morning, so I asked him where he was headed and he told me that he had just been visiting family on the reservation and was heading back to Browning. I told him that worked well for me as I was heading there anyway. The Blackfeet Reservation makes up some 3,000 square miles and borders Glacier National Park on the park’s eastern side. There population is more than 17,000 registered members.

The young man asked me if I was headed to the casino to do some gambling, I told him that I had not been aware there was a casino in the town, but that I was actually on my way to Glacier. I asked him if he had ever been to the park, he said that he hadn’t but wanted to go some day. I contemplated on that for a moment, it seemed wild to me to be living so close to one of the most gorgeous places in this country, but to have never visited. I dropped him off in town at the location he instructed and I made my way to the nearest gas station.

By the time I got to Glacier’s east entrance and the Going-to-the-Sun Road at the St. Mary Visitor’s Center near Saint Mary Lake it was around 7:00 AM and there was barely another vehicle in sight. The sun was rising in the east and the dramatic view of the sunlight hitting the landscape was astounding. No words can truly replicate or do justice for the beauty that is Glacier National Park at sunrise. Please enjoy some of my best photos of the park during my visit in the slideshow below.

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I hope to one day return to Glacier and spend more time in other parts of the park. If I had all the time I wanted, I would spend most of my time around Many Glacier, Logan Pass, Avalanche Lake, Lake McDonald, Bowman Lake, and Kintla Lake.

I also have hopes to visit other parks around the country, such as Yosemite in California. Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada are jaw-dropping. Incredibly these two Canadian parks are accessible from Glacier as all three lie just north of each other. Heading north from Whitefish, Montana on Highway 93 will lead you right through the other two parks. It will take you some nine hours to drive from Glacier to Banff to Jasper, but that drive cuts straight through some of the most beautiful terrain on the North American continent. Definitely on my bucket list of things to do.

Returning to the Midwest I drove east through Montana into North Dakota. Eastern Montana and western North Dakota are similar in their terrain. There’s not much to see as it’s mostly arid land. The closer you get to central and eastern North Dakota the land transforms into the plains grasslands and you begin to see more trees. My dinner that night was at the Texas Roadhouse in Fargo. Absolutely no complaints. I spent my final night on the road at the Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham. Hands-down one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. I had a good night’s rest which was well deserved and desperately needed after the long thirteen-hour drive from Glacier.

The morning after I headed home to Missouri. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explore Fargo, but the city looked as though it had a lot to offer. Anyone traveling through the area looking for something to do, will surely find it in Fargo.

After my 3,500 mile week-long road trip I returned home sunburned and short one pair of ASICS sneakers, and two-grand, but it was one hell of an experience and I would highly recommend anyone else to take on the same kind of adventure. Life is short and there’s so much to see and do out there. You learn so much about life beyond your front door, about people in other parts of the country, and you learn more about yourself.

Life After

Old Letters Library Handwriting Old Letter

Recovery for me is a multi-faceted term. It means acknowledging my behavioral condition, understanding it and understanding that I and it are not one in the same – that I am more than my condition. It means that I recognize the signs and symptoms of episodes or relapses, or the risk of those states.

It means that I understand and practice the steps I need to take to rise above my condition and live a life that not only benefits me, but those around me who depend upon me. Finally, recovery also means I accept that it doesn’t equate perfection or panacea – there will still be struggles, but with the tools I have learned to utilize I can and will live a better life experience than the one I once knew.

For more than a decade I have been sharing my personal experiences with mental health issues with others who are also struggling, through the platform of writing and through private communication. I have also stood in front of a group and told my story and I have allowed a newspaper article to be published about my very personal experiences.

All in the belief that by sharing what I have gone through and felt, it will assist those who are in a similar situation to relate to others and understand that they are not alone in how they feel or what they are facing.

Often times our thinking leads us in a very negative direction, hindering our ability to recover. A major part of recovery is shifting our focus and training our perspective on the process of rising above the past experiences that frequently hold us down and back. My recovery heavily centered on altering that perception of myself, establishing goals that were attainable, believing that change was possible, and finding the courage and inspiration to achieve recovery.

So, every recovery begins with perception, the perception of pain, the perception of self, and perception of life beyond the obstacles and setbacks we face throughout our lives. By having this self-awareness of my thoughts and behavior, this shift in my self-perception, I have been able to focus my attention on personal wellness, the well-being of others, and my future.

Awareness, both of myself and of others has been and continues to be a key factor in living life beyond the issues I have faced. A life of service aids in one’s own recovery because it adds value and meaning to our lives. Helping others recover, helps us recover as long as we understand and maintain a healthy balance between the two.

Awareness for me involves observing my own behavior, paying attention to my thoughts, practicing meditation as I’ve learned through the study and embrace of Mahayana Buddhism, and perhaps the most important key for me has been writing. Writing about my thoughts, feelings, experiences, aspirations, this has been a very therapeutic practice for me since I was fourteen years old.

Other key factors in recovering from mental turmoil includes patience. If I’ve learned anything over the past ten years of training high school and college students and adult employees, it’s that patience can mean the difference between success and failure. The same holds true in regards to mental health.

Finding solace, establishing a network of support, getting to a point of stability through medications or therapy, all of these things take time. We all wish that we could wake up tomorrow and everything will be good or at least fine, but neither life nor mental health work like that. It’s a process and that process takes time, energy, and commitment.

As I’ve mentioned, writing has been invaluable to me. I consider the skill of writing to be a strength. Without writing I’m not sure how my life would have turned out. When I was 14, an English & math teacher convinced me to never stop writing. I believe that her advice later saved me, as writing for me was an outlet during my most difficult experiences with depression and suicidality, and it continues to be.

This release valve enabled me to let go of some of the emotions that had been bottling up inside of me, reducing my angry outbursts, reducing the risks of self-harm, and allowing me the opportunity to navigate through myself via expressive journaling and creative writing.

While I had always been physically active, I took it much more seriously when I was in my late teens. I credit exercise and weightlifting as a critical component of my recovery. My willingness to commit to this type of activity is a strength in my opinion, because not everyone has that capability or willingness to commit to physical health.

Mental health and physical health are inseparable parts of living well, and maintaining physical well-being helped carry me through some of my roughest days because it provided a way to both release built up emotions and allowed me to focus on something that didn’t revolve around the emotional pain I was burdened with.

Another major piece of my recovery was being able to bond with someone else who was experiencing a similar hardship to my own. Having support of this kind requires a willingness to open up and spend time with another person and discuss things that are immensely personal. This does create a sense of vulnerability, but what many see as an exposure of weakness is really just a statement of strength. I’ve long said that exposing our pain to others, gives them a path to emotional connection and the hope for healing – our pain can literally be someone else’s balm.

My primary trigger into relapse is stress and anxiety, but I can also relapse due to feeling as though I or my life lacks importance (meaning / purpose). Having a grip on my perception and being able to gauge what is rational thinking and what is irrational has been very helpful for me. Preparation and planning has gone a long way in mitigating the consequences of stress and anxiety, and focusing more on the things I can control and focusing less on the things that I cannot control has really saved me a lot of unnecessary suffering.

I would say the final component is knowing myself, my abilities/talents, strengths, accomplishments, it builds me up when I’m facing adversity because I know I’ve been through hard times and difficult experiences before and still came out on top in the end.

I have been training teens and adults on the skills they need to succeed in specific jobs since January 2009, this task also required me to oversee their work performance, productivity, and cohesiveness. For me it never was so much about the work, but the people I encountered during the experience that established it as an enjoyable experience.

I lived a very sheltered life as a child, I was taught to fear things and people that were different. Despite this, I was always very curious of the things that I was unfamiliar with or didn’t understand. Becoming a somewhat rebellious teenager provided me the opportunity to grow and learn beyond the bubble a small-town community attempts to keep you in.

My career of engaging with others from all walks of life (ages, religions, races, politics) has granted me a continuation of that process of personal growth. You learn a lot about yourself and others when you become part of a group, especially when you are in a leadership role.

In addition, I’d like to state that teaching teens and adults grants the opportunity to help others improve their skills. This enhanced skill-set builds a foundation upon which they can create a brighter future for themselves if they’re willing to stick with it and not give up. As someone who teaches professional development classes to adults, I know that not everyone understands things the same way, or even has the same desire to learn something new. But when they do, you can see their confidence build – they become a stronger person because of it.

Teaching is a hard job, perhaps the hardest aspect of the career I’ve had, but it’s also been the most rewarding because of the people I’ve met and the change I’ve been able to witness as they’ve learned. Helping give people the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, what could be more rewarding than that?

I’ve worked in retail, construction, data entry, legal services, and professional development. I’ve volunteered in disaster relief in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, and I became an advocate for behavioral health awareness and suicide prevention. I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and I became an inter-faith minister. Out of all the things I’ve done or attempted to do, of all the choices I’ve made, and the experiences I’ve had, I think the common thread that runs through them all is my attempt to make a difference in other people’s lives, whether it be big or small.

It is fundamentally the most important thing we can ever hope to do with our own lives. A life of service is one of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose. I’m only 32 years old, but in my lifetime I have seen in other people a lot of suffering, a lot of loneliness, a lot of obstacles and setbacks, and a loss of hope. Understanding and compassion, these two things make the world a little less dark.

Since I was 19 years old, I learned that reaching out to people and opening up about my experiences in battling bi-polar disorder creates two responses. Either they become uncomfortable and don’t know what to say due to a lack of understanding, or they begin to tell you their own story of battling some form of a behavioral health condition. In either case, there is an opportunity for understanding and in understanding there can be compassion. Through compassion we can build emotional connections with others.

By telling others about my own experiences over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet and communicate with others who have shared in similar suffering. When I was younger, knowing that other people were hurting too and that I wasn’t alone changed everything for me. Every person that I’ve ever met and communicated with due to this process of sharing, those people are my support system and because there are so many people out there suffering, these opportunities do not end.

For about a decade, my closest friend was someone else who was battling a mental health condition. We became each other’s brace during the hard times. I fondly recall a time when she called me at 2:00 AM, waking me up and asking if we could go get breakfast from a 24-hour diner. It might seem crazy to others, but that small adventure and time talking was exactly what we both needed that night.

I want to help people who are in a similar situation to the one I’ve been in. I want to help them the same way that people once helped me. I wouldn’t be here today if someone hadn’t reached out to me and allowed me the opportunity to relate to them and their experience. Understanding and compassion, again these things make a world of difference.

My many years of sharing my own story of living with a mental health condition and my eagerness to create an opportunity to create an environment or platform where others can relate to one another, as well as my career training has all afforded me the experience and skills to lead, teach, and support others. But each of us can take or create the opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of others.

Every small gesture and every endearing question can open the door of understanding and compassion. These things make life after a mental health crisis or prolonged suffering, a surmountable possibility. Hope is born from acts of kindness and concern, and through hope we bear witness to a better life.

The Past That’s Not Forgotten

[Warning: this article discusses the sexual assault of men and boys and may not be appropriate for readers under the age of thirteen]

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The Past That’s Not Forgotten

According to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, 54% of reported sexual assault victims in the U.S. military are men.  Most people would find this surprising as the narrative in the news and media compels you to believe that women are the only victims of sexual assault.

When people learn that men are sexually assaulted, which is a term that also includes prolonged abuse and rape, the conclusion is drawn that the victim must be gay and that the perpetrator must also be gay.

Again, this is a perpetual and cultural narrative given by society that does not reflect the data in cases of reported sexual assault against men and boys.  In fact, while most cases of sexual abuse on boys and teens under the age of 16, is perpetrated by heterosexual men, about 15% of perpetrators are women.  If you include cases of boys and men over the age of 16 who were victims, that percentage of female perpetrators rises to nearly 40%.

In some cases the attack occurs where the victims are made to penetrate the attacker, this type of sexual assault against boys and men accounts for nearly 7% of assaults or abuse.  This type of sexual assault can be more easily reasoned when one better understands the male anatomy.  Being sexually aroused is not relative to the situation or environment in which a boy or man finds himself.  Even under duress or discomfort, erection and orgasm can occur against their will.

This may seem like a phenomenon or oddity, but unwanted or unexpected arousal and ejaculation is experienced by most teenage boys during puberty, and does happen to some male victims of sexual assault.  This is true, regardless of the gender of the attacker or the sexual orientation of the victim.  Erection and orgasm are automatic physiological responses and do not occur by conscious choice.  To learn more, I recommend this LivingWell article.

The main focus of my article is on the sexual assault (including abuse and rape) of boys and men by other boys or men.  From this point forward, when I use the term “male,” it refers widely to pre-teen boys through to adult men.

Male-on-male sexual assault almost always involves a heterosexual male or group of males attacking another male who may be gay or who may be straight.  According to data from various sources, anywhere from 94% to 98% of all male perpetrators of sexual assault and abuse against both genders, are identified as heterosexual (straight).  What sexual orientation the victim is, however, often depends on the environment and the circumstance surrounding the attack.

The terms “victim” and “survivor” are sometimes held in disdain by boys and men who experience sexual assault in childhood or adulthood due to the subjective connotations.  Therefore, the terms are used in this article solely for the purpose to differentiate between attacker and the attacked, and not in reference to the perpetuation of the state of victim-hood nor to gauge the severity of the incident by deeming one a survivor.

Other types of assault and abuse occur when males are congregated in large enough numbers where personalities clash and social order or hierarchy is challenged.  These types of attacks are about power, dominance, and sometimes revenge.

A single straight male, or a group of straight males in instances of gang rape, will attack the victim who is seen as a threat to social standing either because he’s another alpha male or due to his popularity.  It can also be over such issues as loyalty or the desire for subjugation.  This type of attack rarely has anything to do with sexual intimacy, but with asserting dominance and control over a perceived rival or dissident.

You may find it difficult to believe that a male or group of males who are straight could sodomize another.  However, you have to understand that this particular type of sexual assault has nothing to do with sexual attraction to a person, it is about sexual attraction to power, dominance, and sometimes even violence itself.

These males are not turned on by the physical appearance or attractiveness of the victim, or by the fact that he’s biologically male, but by their control and dehumanization of the victim who represents another male in a position of power or prestige.

It’s the forced removal of that power and control, the forced vulnerability and perceived weakness or inferiority and shame that they are inflicting on the victim and their perceived dominance over him that sexually arouses the perpetrators.

This type of male sexual assault frequently occurs in prisons for the same reasons as I have mentioned, with an estimated 70,000 men experiencing rape in U.S. prisons each year, perpetrated by both fellow in-mates and corrections staff.  Accounting for almost 22% of all rapes that occur in the United States annually.

The idea that you can break another male by taking his “manhood” through sodomy is not a new concept.  Tracing history back thousands of years reveals that ancient civilizations practiced this behavior regularly during conflicts.  It was not unusual for prevailing combatants to sodomize their captured opponents as a way to break their will to keep fighting.

This act wasn’t reserved just for the battlefield, the humiliation continued into cities and villages under siege.  Any man or boy old enough to swing a sword, was subjected to the same demoralizing assault to show dominance and strip away any sense of pride or will to resist.  These types of ancient sexual assaults are even discussed in the Bible and are mistakenly quoted as referring to homosexual (same-sex) relationships.

The most common instance in which male-on-male sexual assault is practiced includes sexual attraction, impulse, interest or curiosity to a resistant, unknowing, or confused victim.  This sexual experience can be brought on either through manipulation and coercion or by force.  When sexual advances are denied or rejected, a perpetrator may force his desires on another male, who may or may not even be interested in the same gender, or even be old enough to understand what is happening.  This type of forced experience may include sodomy, forced masturbation, or oral sex.

As the most common form of sexual assault or abuse experienced by boys and men, unwanted sexual experiences can occur against victims of all age ranges.  Every year some 60,000 American children are sexually abused and 90% of the abusers are family members, teachers, friends, or someone else the child knows.  Of those who are sexually abused, a third are abused by another juvenile under the age of 18.  One in every six men have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime, some reports list this ratio as high as one in every four.  One in every twenty boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center.

Children who are abused are nine times more likely to grow up and become involved in illegal activity:

  • 30% of abused children will later in life abuse their own children
  • 50% of inmates in American prisons were abused as children, according to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Human Rights Watch, nearly one in every twenty male inmates are sexually assaulted by other male inmates or corrections staff
  • 80% of 21-year-old Americans who were abused as children currently suffer from at least one mental illness

The resulting consequences of childhood and adulthood sexual abuse on males are staggering.  Those who report having experienced sexual abuse, report long term symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety / Fear / Helplessness
  • Depression
  • Dissociation / Loneliness
  • Guilt / Shame/  Self-blame
  • Hostility / Irritability / Anger
  • Homophobia
  • Impaired Relationships
  • Low Self-esteem / Self-doubt
  • Masculinity Issues
  • Questioning of Sexual Orientation
  • Sexual Dysfunction / Intimacy Issues
  • Sexual Promiscuity
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Substance Abuse
  • Suicidality

These symptoms can occur immediately following a male-on-male sexual assault and last decades or for a lifetime if the victim does not seek professional help.  Based on the research, it is generally accepted by the psychology industry that many victims never seek help or report the incident(s), hindering the data available on just how widespread sexual assault and abuse is on boys and men.  Based on reporting statistics, men who experience sexual abuse as children will refrain from telling anyone for 20 years on average.

There are three main causes that prevent reporting of the assault/abuse and reluctance to seek professional help, these are:

  • Perceived social shame or consequence of being both a male and a victim of sexual assault ( rape or abuse)
  • Manipulation by perpetrator that the victim became aroused or even experienced an orgasm and therefore must have liked it or is gay
  • Threats by perpetrator to retaliate (such as assault the victim again)
  • Experience of or expectation for denial

The denial mentioned here is multi-faceted.  A victim may feel so strongly about the incident that they compartmentalize the event and the emotions attached to it – pretending as though it never happened.  This type of denial is the result of a collection of responses, from fear of facing the incident to humiliation that it occurred in the first place.

Even when a victim reports the incident to their parents or other loved ones, there may be a denial by those he is confiding in.  A denial that the event “could” have or has happened, especially when the alleged perpetrator(s) are family members or family friends, which is often the case.

For male children and adults who have experienced sexual assault or prolonged sexual abuse, therapy is recommended and encouraged.  This treatment may include group therapy or support groups for adults, but the process of opening up for children or adults will not be easy and may take time.  In some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder or other forms of behavioral or mental health conditions may play a role and additional treatment such as medication may be required to work through the trauma.

This article came into being after a conversation with another man who had experienced sexual abuse during childhood.  Throughout my life I have met men who had similar stories of sexual assault and abuse at the hands of both men and women.  While we should not turn our attention away from women and girls who experience the same kinds of sexual assault and abuse, we should not allow men and boys to continue to be invisible, ashamed, and unheard.

 


For more information on the prevention of child sexual abuse, the Children’s Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services produced a short PDF with important tips for parents.

Resources for this article and the data it contains were collected from:

 

 

 

 

[Disclaimer: this article is not intended to treat any mental or behavioral condition, nor is it a replacement for the advice of medical or psychological professionals, this article has been provided for the sole purpose of bringing attention to a topic that is far too often invisible]

In the Twilight of Memory

In the Twilight of Memory

Calling to me in the distance, I can hear them all say my name. Reaching out from the past, from moments that used to be. I drift beyond the precipice of wakefulness, I let go of my consciousness and slip behind the veil.

There is a brisk coldness in here, the pitch black swallows the light that broke through behind me, and I am left to walk blindly through the dark. Events and people of yesteryear play out in the distance, auditory memories of joy and pain.

I can hear laughter, a voice that is young and vibrant, I think it’s me, the old me when I was still innocent. There are other voices, repeating themselves like a recording, replaying conversations I once heard and once had.

I remember them, I remember those walks, those car rides, those late-night heart-to-hearts. These memories have smells, scents of summer, autumn, winter, and spring.

They smell like apple crisp, of coffee and cigarettes. They smell like perfume and hairspray, like angel food cake. Like fresh cut hay, cattle and pigs, manure, damp clay, and feed sacks of grain. They taste like cream soda and trail mix, like hard candy, and fruit punch. They smell like fish and taste like DQ milkshakes, and feel like car rides home in a 69 Chevelle.

I follow them to remember, to feel them again, I reach out into the darkness, I want to feel them all again…

The pitch black is transcendent, taking me to places illuminated in memories, projected like film strips, holograms of what was once life, now lost to a time and a place I cannot return to, too faraway to go back to.

Other smells permeate, triggering flashes of days gone by, sensations of sun and heat, the touch of soil and grass, the humming of cicadas, the taste of french toast, of curly fries and homemade BBQ sauce, of dry spaghetti and parmesan cheese, and Lipton instant iced tea.

I can feel objects in my hands, things I once held that have now claimed meaning they never had before, things made of plastic, things with colorful buttons and cords, of plastic animals, trucks, and tractors. Action figures with swords and bows, cups and dishes, and a yellow brush with frazzled bristles.

Voices call out louder and I leave behind these memories in search of others, my senses invaded with triggers, I can smell burritos, chili and dinner rolls, I can taste chocolate milk, nasty carrots and old peanut butter, I can feel tiny pieces of gravel between my finger tips, I can hear the ping of an aluminum bat making contact with a softball, I can smell the leather of worn out baseball gloves, the smell of incense, the taste of wine, and the sight of flickering candles.

I can feel cold wood on my palms, the hexagonal shape of No.2 pencils, the smell of chalk, a used rubber eraser, of markers, I can hear the bell ring at recess, and I can smell the awful odors of the school bus.

I hear voices here too, young voices I once knew, from a girl on the school bus who once made me listen to a Faith Hill song while we kissed, I can taste our shared McFlurry with the tiny M&Ms, I can taste purple Skittles, and see Zero brand candy bars, I can hear her speak, and I can see into her blue eyes.

I can hear the swish of track pants, I can feel the cotton of the sweat pants I had on almost every day because I hated jeans, I can smell sweat and deodorant, I can see him, that guy I had a crush on before I even knew that sort of thing could happen, I can remember what it felt like when neither of us were watching where we were going and bumped into each other in the cafeteria, turning just in time to make face-to-face contact. I pretended like our lips touching was the nastiest thing ever, but actually I liked it.

In another direction I can hear the scuffling of dried leaves caught in autumn’s wind, I can smell them rotting, I can smell walnuts, acorns, and baking pecan pie. I feel the slimy insides of pumpkins on my hands and I can see flickering lights inside Jack-o-lanterns. I can smell pumpkin pie and hear high-pitched voices shout “Trick-or-treat” and the sound of candy being tossed into colorful plastic buckets.

I can smell doe pee and dirt, frying bacon, eggs, and deep fried fish. I can smell beer and cigarettes, I can see cards and orange hats and vests, camo and flannel, I can feel early morning walks in the cold, I can hear birds chirping while watching the sunrise. I can taste chili with saltine crackers, I can smell chicken nuggets, and taste birdthay cake.

Attracting my attention further in, is the sight of a table cloth with plates and silverware, the smell of baking turkey tempts me closer, I can hear the sounds of a parade on the television, the sounds of an electric carving knife. I can taste mashed sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top, my favorite, and I can see stuffing in a large dark green bowl. I can see white and dark orange bowls across the table with many other things like corn, mashed white potatoes and gravy in a pitcher, canned gelatin cranberry sauce cut into slices, I can smell dinner rolls baking, and can see red jello in a square container.

Wafting from elsewhere in the dark I can smell candles of spruce, fir, cedar, and pine. I can see twinkling lights of red, blue, green, and yellow. I can hear cassette tapes playing Christmas carols sang by the Chipmunks, I can taste green-dyed wreaths made of corn flakes and melted marshmallows, sugar cookies shaped like bells, stars, santas and snowmen. I can taste balls of peanut butter and crushed graham crackers covered in chocolate, squares of fudge with a walnut on top.

I can hear “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” in the echoing walls of a church, I can hear wrapping paper being torn asunder in the living room of my childhood home, I can see the flashes of cameras, I can taste egg nog, I can see outside the dining room window where snow is falling so heavily and piling up so deep that I could jump into it and disappear.

Glistening like stars twinkling far away, my eyes are seduced by tin foil covered chocolates in the distance, nestled inside colorful baskets with shredded slips of green plastic. I can see dyed hardboiled eggs, I can smell baked ham and pineapple, I can taste potato salad, candy coated malted balls in blue, yellow, pink, and white, and I can taste pineapple upside-down cake.

These are only but a few of the things hidden away here in the twilight of memory, they are mental photos and recordings of a place that still exists along the arrow of time, but is too far behind for me to return to. A version of me is still back there though, living in each of those moments, frozen along the filmstrip of my childhood, forever young and forever innocent.

Out of the Darkness

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My name is Kephen Merancis and there’s really no easy way to start the conversation that we need to have. It takes a lot of courage to break the wall of silence that stigma builds. It takes at least a little bit of hope to begin the process of walking out of the darkness. And it takes support to rise above the pain caused by mental or behavioral health conditions.

In the following three thousand words or so I will be painfully honest with you, I will be vulnerable about my own personal life experiences with a mental health condition.

From my willingness to be open about this, I hope that you will feel an emotional connection, perhaps even to your own story. If you are experiencing depression right now, I hope that by learning of my story that it plants that small seed of hope inside of you if you don’t currently have it, and I hope that by telling my story it encourages you to reach out for help.

To begin, I want to share with you a journal entry I wrote when I was 25 years old, it will help you begin to form an idea of what I experienced.

“For the last six months I’ve been everywhere and yet nowhere. Inside of me I’ve been throughout the wilderness of my own consciousness. Traversing the bad places that I had never wanted to go back to. It’s almost humorous to think that I was naive enough to believe that I would not return here. Such is the nature of the beast. To be done away with, only to be reborn again. I should have heeded my own advice, remembered that it is not a battle with one win or loss, but a war forever raging.

These hours are days and the days like weeks, these weeks passing like months and soon the leaves will fall again, the breath of life will wisp away into the cold wind of autumn. Normally the darkness settles upon me in the dead of winter, but this year I’ve been feeling it since last winter. It has not gone away with spring and summer.

I often ponder if it is noticeable to other people. That question was answered a few months ago when someone pointed out to me that I have not been myself. That I was different. I suppose it is true that we are what we feel.

I look in the mirror and into my own eyes and I wonder who is there staring back. Who am I? Is this me? If not, then where have I gone to? When am I coming back?

It’s like feeling sick, like you have the flu or something. You’re tired, forever tired. You don’t want to do anything, or go anywhere. Nothing interests you, nothing matters anymore. You don’t care about anything, sometimes not even other people. You become self-absorbed, like your drowning in yourself. You hear people, you see them, but their words pass through you and they look like characters in a film, a movie that you’re not a part of.

I could sit for hours staring at a wall. Just sitting there, blank faced. Not seeing what’s in front of me, but seeing everything that’s inside of me. Lost within my own self. Treading across the wasteland I feel within. Encountering bad things, bad memories and failed attempts, reliving things that I’d rather not. Completely and utterly disconnected from a social existence. My body is here, but I am not.

I’ve been doing what I have to do, but nothing more. Walking, talking, working, eating, sleeping and repeating. But I’m on autopilot. Most of the time I cannot remember what I did the day before. I am not here. I am not here.

I have grown quite good at pretending to be okay, faking my smiles and my laughs, it’s easy to do, especially when people want to believe that everything is right with the world. Sometimes optimism is it’s own blindfold. At times it seems as though I am trying to fool myself into thinking this is not really happening. Hoping that if I pretend long enough, that even I will believe it.

Some days are better than others. Some days I can walk outside and I can feel the sun. To feel is to know that I am alive. But these are just momentary glimpses of life, flashes of organic connections, a clear picture forever followed with more white noise.

These things used to scare me. I’ve been here enough times that this place is now familiar to me, these walls have imprisoned me many times before.

It is here, deep inside of me that the real understanding of depression can be made. What people see on the outside is a mere raindrop to the ocean that swallows me from within.

I’ve spent most of my time here distant, withdrawn, depressed, unmotivated, emotional, aggressive, irritable, uninterested, sleeping when I should be awake and awake when I should be sleeping.

All of these things and many more, make up the walls that keep me here. I do have brief grace periods, sometimes lasting days. Those feel like waking up from a nightmare, they make you wonder what is happening and how much of it was real.

On the worst days I am my most silent. So much is happening inside me that I cannot exist outside myself. These days are marked with the worst kind of thoughts. Thoughts of dying. Thoughts of sleeping and never waking. Thoughts of ropes and pills. Thoughts that make me glad I don’t own a pistol.

No one wants to die, but some people don’t want to hurt anymore.

Hurt is a complex concept. We grow up thinking that hurt is a physical feeling, that falling off a bike is the meaning of hurt. And then people hurt our feelings and we realize that hurt is more than the pain of flesh. So too is it a pain of the mind.

I wrote those words on September 18, 2011. It was one of many writings I did while I was experiencing the ups and downs of my mental health condition.

You see, I have bi-polar disorder, and the first time I became suicidal I was a teenager. When I was 14, I started venting troubled thoughts in a private journal. I started opening up about my feelings in this journal because a teacher encouraged me to keep writing after enjoying something poetic I wrote during a class project.

Little did she know that one day in the future, writing would help save my life. But not yet, because the first time it could have saved me, the words were overlooked.

My parents found that journal when I was 15 and asked me about it, but I pretended like it was nothing and so my parents never asked about it again. Those words in that journal were the first warning sign that something was wrong, a sign they chose to ignore because they wanted to believe that I was just being a moody teenager and that everything was fine.

Like most parents, mine were not well versed on the signs and symptoms of depression, let alone a more serious mental health condition like bi-polar disorder.

My first experience with attempting suicide happened three months before my 17th birthday. I waited until my parents left the house to go to the grocery store, and when they did I placed my letter of apology on their bed, it was a suicide note that I had written in advance.

I then walked out of my house for what I believed was the last time. I can remember how different everything felt. I felt lighter, like the burden of choosing to live and suffer, or to die and be free, had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt as though I was ready to let go of my struggle and my life, which to me were synonymous.

I was acutely aware of everything around me for the first time in a long time. The colors of things looked brighter and crisper, the sounds more sharp, the smells were stronger. Some seventeen years later I can still remember what the yellow grass at my feet and the humid air from the overcast sky smelled like that August evening.

I walked down the hill behind my fathers shed, far enough to be away from the house, but not so far that someone wouldn’t find my body.

In my hand I carried a small off-white colored cup the size of a pill bottle. Inside of it were a mix of ingredients that I had put together myself. In my poetic mind I felt like dying by poison seemed appropriate, and was inspired by the Greek philosopher Socrates who was forced by religious authorities to take his own life by hemlock.

I felt like I was being forced to take mine in order to be free of the mental pain I was experiencing.

I remember holding that small cream colored cup to my lips, just holding it there as the murky liquid touched my mouth. Many thoughts raced through my mind.

Thoughts of people, of events, of feelings. Of anger and pain, of regret and guilt, of shame and loneliness, feeling as though I didn’t belong anywhere nor deserved to belong anywhere, so many emotions that tears started streaming down my face. And in that moment the land around me fell silent, as though I and nature both held our breath together.

As that little cup slipped out of my hand and away from my face, I watched it in slow motion fall to the ground. I watched its contents spill out into the grass.

I didn’t drink it though. I never allowed it beyond my lips. No matter how much that voice in my head told me to do it, I couldn’t drink it.

I remember falling to my knees behind my father’s shed in defeat, while the overcast sky began to release a soft rain. I yelled out in tearful anger that I was too weak to end my own life. I blamed myself, I blamed god, for I was angry that I was stopped by my fear of death.

My fear… it was stronger than my pain in the beginning, but my fight had only just begun. When I was 18, I once again became suicidal and began having impulsive desires to take my life.

After realizing that suicide by poison would be too slow, too painful, and not likely to be successful, I began contemplating more efficient methods. I started thinking about more violent things like intentionally crashing my truck on my way to or from work. Other times I’d think about shooting myself.

The thoughts would even rush into my head sporadically without my control. I’d just be driving when all of a sudden I would feel this immense desire come over me to just swerve to the right and flip my truck into the ditch. Or while eating lunch, the thought of holding a gun to my head would just creep in. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t make these thoughts stop.

In January of 2005, two months after my 19th birthday, I reached my next breaking point. The feelings inside, the desire to end my life, were so strong that on the morning of the 28th I knew I would never see the sunrise again. After an argument at work, it became apparent that I needed help, my coworkers offered to take me somewhere, but I decided to go home to tell my parents they could either listen and save me or they could keep pretending everything was fine and let me go forever.

This time, they listened and I spent a few days in St. Mary’s hospital in their psychiatric ward on the 4th floor, while my father removed the firearms from our house.

I spent the next two years seeing counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, and taking a half dozen different kinds of pills. Some of those pills helped, some hurt, some caused hallucinations, some did nothing but make me sleep a lot.

Eventually I found one that worked well and I stabilized, and like many people do after feeling better, I was convinced I was fine and stopped taking my medications.

For six months I remained well, in fact I had not been that well for years. In 2007, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

After a few weeks at bootcamp, the shin splints I that I had been developing before I left home had begun affecting my training. As the rigors of training wore down my body, that new found resilience of my mind collapsed and awakened once more was the power of my disorder and it returned with all of its previous influence.

I became suicidal while in San Diego, California as the belief that I was weak, a failure, a burden, became embedded in my every waking thought. The scissors they gave us to keep our uniforms free of loose threads suddenly found their way into my thoughts with a different purpose.

One night, I cut myself on the thumb to see how much it would hurt, but it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. There was more blood than I expected so I wrapped it up and when one of my Drill Instructors saw it during inspection, I told him that I had just cut myself with a shaving razor by accident. Little did he know, I was having impulsive thoughts of where else I could stab or cut myself.

In my letters home, I tried to not mention these things, but I was being swallowed by the darkness of my own mind. I knew I needed help, but I was caught between feeling ashamed and embarrassed of my mental health condition and feeling like a failure and a weakling.

While I was at boot camp, I met other young men like me, who didn’t respond the way we were supposed to. Instead of our DI’s being able to break us down to be rebuilt stronger than before, we were broken in so small of pieces that we could not be rebuilt without serious professional help.

While posted in the barracks of another platoon, I was ordered to watch over a recruit who was deemed a flight risk, meaning they thought he’d try to runaway.

When I walked in, I saw him curled up in a fetal position in the corner sobbing uncontrollably, his arms wrapped around his knees. After the DI left, I tried to console the recruit from the door where I was ordered to stand guard. The kid could not have been older than 17, and at this time I was 22. I knew he heard me speak to him, but he never turned around and never responded to my attempts to reach out.

When I saw him in his state of mental crisis, I saw myself, not literally curled up in a corner like him, but as equally mentally unstable. I was stationed there with another recruit from my platoon who told me to stop talking to the kid because he wasn’t one of ours and wasn’t our problem. But I didn’t see him as a problem, I saw him as someone who needed more help than a Drill Instructor was trained to offer.

I still often think of that recruit and wonder what events had led to him being in that condition before I got there, and what became of him after I left.

On a different occasion during a visit to medical, a recruit from another company than mine was sitting next to me, he asked me why I was there. I decided to be honest and told him I was bi-polar. He then began to describe to me what he was experiencing, which were clearly symptoms of a serious mental health condition.

After that conversation I found the willpower to seek help for myself and I confessed to my DI’s and to a Naval psychologist that I had bi-polar disorder, something that I had not reported when I first enlisted. I had seen various different doctors before enlisting and so my medical information was scattered all over the place.

During enlistment I didn’t report nor give them the contact information for the physician who diagnosed me with bi-polar disorder because I knew it was a disqualifying condition. I deeply believed in joining the military, and there was nothing I wouldn’t do to make it happen, even if that meant illegally withholding important medical information.

My commanding officer recommended I receive an uncharacterized discharge due to my condition, rather than see me receive a dishonorable discharge for withholding that medical information.

While waiting to be discharged I spoke to a recruit who had asked me why I was leaving. Most of the other young men there never cared to ask why I was leaving and those who did ask didn’t know what being bi-polar meant. But this young man was different, he told me his sister had bi-polar disorder and that he loved her no matter what.

Those words felt very heavy to me. It was the first time that I understood that having a mental health condition didn’t mean that I was less than or not good enough. That being broken didn’t mean that I was worthless. On day 47 of boot camp, I left that place, but that place has never truly left me.

It’s been more than ten years since that event. To assume that everything has been great since then would be a false assumption.

Having bi-polar disorder or any other mental or behavioral health condition means that there is not a cure, a magical pill or therapy that will take it all away. It’s a process that begins with therapy or medication, or both, it’s a learning process where you and professionals figure out what the best treatment is for your personal circumstance.

It takes self-awareness, it takes compassion, it takes education, it takes action, it takes time, it takes faith in something, and most of all it takes hope. The hope that tomorrow will be different, and maybe even better than today.

People used to ask me why I wanted to end my life. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, it was that I didn’t want to hurt anymore and I didn’t see any other way to end that suffering. Not enough people noticed that I was suffering, not enough people knew what the signs and symptoms were in order to recognize that I needed help.

Those reasons are why awareness matters, people need to understand how to identify someone who is suffering from some form of mental or behavioral illness, whether it’s some variance of depression, an anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other serious condition.

Part of awareness also means we become aware of the language we use to discuss mental or behavioral health. There is a reason why mental health advocates and organizations are trying to end the usage of the word “commit” when we refer to those who die by suicide. Criminals commit crimes like theft and assault, people who die by suicide are victims and not criminals. They complete suicide, they die by it, they are victims of suicide.

While suicide itself can be an impulsive act, the process that gets a person to that point, for the majority of victims over the age of 15, can be a long drawn out process, ranging from weeks, to months, to years, or even decades, and often includes several suicide attempts before they are successful. The culmination of that process is suicide, that’s why we now say someone “completes” suicide.

It is the endpoint of a process where there are signs and symptoms that something is wrong, and so we must begin to learn what to look for, what to listen for, how to ask directly if someone feels suicidal and how to act when faced with someone who is. Awareness and prevention, those are my goals with this advocacy project, and together with others who share the information and resources collected here, we can achieve those goals.

In the words of Margaret Wheatley, “Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”


This writing is available as an audio track on SoundCloud:


U.S. Behavioral Health and the Workplace

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According to the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, employees with depression miss on average 31.4 days per year and an additional 27.9 days of unproductivity when they report for work, but are unable to focus due to the symptoms of depression.

Various studies show that 30% – 50% of all adults in the U.S. will experience mental health issues at some point in their lifetime. It’s estimated that 20 million Americans currently have a substance use disorder and that 7.9 million have mental health issues and a substance use disorder such as alcohol and drug addiction.

According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety alone, globally costs one trillion per year in lost productivity. This number is expected to reach six trillion by 2036. Globally, more than 300 million people (18% of which are in the U.S.) suffer from depression, many of which have some form of anxiety.

Negative work environments can lead to physical and mental health issues, substance abuse, absenteeism, and financial losses due to lost productivity.

The World Economic Forum proposed five responses to these issues:

  • Implementation and enforcement of health and safety policies and practices, including identification of distress, harmful use of psychoactive substances, and physical and mental illness. These policies should include resources to manage such issues.
  • The dissemination of information to employees regarding available support.
  • Involve employees in decision-making to convey a feeling of control and participation, and involving them in organizational practices that support a healthy work-life balance.
  • Programs for career development of employees.
  • Recognizing and rewarding the contributions of employees.

Cost-benefit analysis research on strategies to address mental health, concludes net benefits. Every dollar put into enhanced treatment for common mental disorders such as anxiety, results in a return of four dollars.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that only 36.9% of those who suffer from anxiety ever seek treatment.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducted a national U.S. survey that was published in 2014, revealing that anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders are the most common mental health issues.

In an August 2013 article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and 125 other contributors, titled The State of U.S. Health, 1990-2010: Burden of Disease, Injuries, and Risk Factors, neuropsychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States.

The World Health Organization has declared depression the leading single cause of disability globally, and the National Institute of Mental Health has declared this single disorder the leading cause of disability in Americans aged 15 – 44 years.

According to a study published in February 2015 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, employees with major depressive disorder costs the U.S. economy more than $200 billion each year, and 50% of those costs are incurred on the employer. That exceeds the total economic costs of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and obesity.

The Depression and Anxiety Journal of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (DAJ/ADAA) reported in 2010 that 1/3 of the costs incurred by employers from employees with these types of mental health issues are a direct result of lost productivity. In 2010, the DAJ of the ADAA published another study showing that reduced productivity of depressed employees had capital costs of $2 billion per month in the U.S.

More than 50% of those suffering from moderate depression and 40% of those suffering from severe depression, never seek treatment.

According to three separate studies, there is a direct connection between suffering from physical illness and mental illness, in that one often leads to the other, what is known as comorbidity or multi-morbidity (British Medical Journal BMJ Sept. 2012; Journal of American Medical Association – Psychiatry Oct. 2007; The King’s Fund Think Tank 2012).

This comorbidity doubles or even triples the costs of treatment according to a 2014 report by the American Psychiatric Association in conjunction with Milliman Inc.

A study published in the Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience (2007), those suffering from depression were twice as likely to develop coronary artery disease or experience a stroke, and were four times more likely to die within six months after a heart attack.

Former U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy M.D., M.Sc., wrote in the Harvard Business Review (Sept. 2017), “Our understanding of Biology, psychology, and the workplace calls for companies to make fostering social connections a strategic priority.”

Dr. Murthy laid out the case for addressing workplace loneliness, an often overlooked but equally important factor in workplace mental health, by making these three points:

  1. Lonely workers are unhealthy – greater risk of cardiovascular disease, compromised immunity, increased risk of depression, shortened lifespan.
  2. Isolation in the workplace is costly – mental sluggishness from a lack of social supports leads to impaired productivity, loss of creativity, and interferes with decision-making. This impacts an organization’s revenue, spending, and performance through increased “sick leave” and health insurance claims.
  3. Modern workplace contributes to the challenge – with a focus on productivity and task completion, little time is spent on building social connections (team building).

Dr. Murthy recommends the following strategies to create workplace social connections:

  • Evaluate the organization’s current state of social connection by asking employees whether they feel valued and whether the corporate culture supports connectedness.
  • Build understanding at all levels about high-quality relationships at work.
  • Make strengthening social connections an organization-wide strategic priority.
  • Encourage employees to seek help when needed and to help each other.
  • Create opportunities for employees to learn more about each other, including personal experiences and interest outside of work.

A Missouri edition of this report in PDF format is available for download for free:

U.S. Behavioral Health and the Workplace

Prajñāpāramitā Part II: The Heart of Insight

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Prajñāpāramitā

Part II: The Heart Sutra

The second sutra that I will be explaining from the Prajñāpāramitā is the Heart Sutra.  If you have not already read Prajñāpāramitā Part I: The Diamond Sutra, I encourage you to start there before continuing with this article on the Heart Sutra.

The Heart Sutra is one of the shortest sutras known to exist, but in its lines it holds the entirety of Siddhartha’s teachings.  Think of it as a bud on a flowering plant, within it exists a bloom far larger than the tiny bud would lead you to believe.

Much like the Diamond Sutra, the Heart Sutra is all about breaking through our veiled perceptions of ourselves and the world in which we exist.  This sutra is sometimes known as the “Insight Sutra” that can bring the student to the other shore of understanding.

Therefore, if the Diamond Sutra is the diamond-bladed sword that cuts through the illusions of our perceptions, the Heart Sutra is the opening of our eyes or the awakening of our minds so that we may know the truth.  In less analogous terms, it gives us the insight we need to better understand life in a way that will liberate us from our narrow mindedness of what is and what is not.

The emptiness that is described in the Heart Sutra is more an explanation of the inter-being of both being and non-being, than it is some kind of suggestion that all is nothingness.

Everything we perceive with our senses is exactly that, a perception of something.  But our perceptions of what is, attempts to define these things as solely those perceptions.  When in reality, they are far more than even our senses can define.  Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh describes this perfectly when he explains that a tangerine is more than the tangerine we see with our eyes, smell with our noses, taste with our tongues, feel within our hands, or hear with our ears when we tear them open to eat.

A tangerine is the sun, the rain, and soil that went into its formation.  When you eat a tangerine, you are eating the sun, the rain, the Earth.  A tangerine is what the sun, the rain, the Earth looks like, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds like.  This same understanding should be applied to all other things as well.

The Heart Sutra is the teaching that awakens us to the understanding that everything is a part of everything else, and in that interconnectedness there is a loss of individuality.  Not one that we should fear or anguish in, but one that we should celebrate.

There is no life without death, no death without life, and there is no joy without sadness, and no sadness without joy.  Everything is interconnected and there is no separateness.

The Heart Sutra as a mantra in Sanskrit: Om gate gate pāragate pārasamgate bodhi svāhā

In English: Om, gone, gone, gone to the other shore, gone altogether to the other shore, enlightenment, hail!

Moments in Time

Moments in Time

A moment is more than a measurement and more than a memory, it is a place in time. A static point in the timeline of the Universe, never lost and never changing. Every moment that has ever come to be and has passed, still exists – just in a different place in time.

Think of life as a movie, each moment is represented by a frame in that movie reel. Each frame marks a different moment in the film, just as events mark different moments in our lives. Just because a frame in a film has passed while you watch it, doesn’t mean that the frame has ceased to exist. It still exists, just in a different place in time.

It is equally true that every person we have ever loved and lost still lives, just in a different place in time.

When we turn our eyes towards the sky at night, we see all of those little twinkling lights, each a planet reflecting light or a star producing that light.

These objects are light-years away from us. The closest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4 light-years away. Meaning it would take four years while traveling at the speed of light to get there.

As incredibly far away as that may seem, the next largest galaxy nearest to our own Milky Way is the Andromeda Galaxy, some 2.5 million light-years away. The Universe is massive, near unfathomable.

When we look through our telescopes at these objects in space, we are looking into the past. Some of the stars out there no longer exist, we only still see them from here because it takes so long for their last light to travel here.

Our own star, the Sun, is so far away that it takes sunlight about 8 minutes to get here. If our sun suddenly vanished, we wouldn’t notice for about 8 minutes.

The distance between us and these objects in space is more than just the space in between, it’s time too. To travel through space, is to travel through time, that’s why it’s called space-time.

Think of someone you have lost, think of a moment you shared with them that you cherished. If you got into a spaceship and traveled away from the Earth through space-time at the speed of light for as many months or years ago the moment occurred, and you turned that ship around to face Earth and if you had a telescope powerful enough that you could see people on the Earth, that person you lost would be there still living in that moment in time you experienced together.

They are still there, right now, in those moments, still alive right now. Just in a different place in time. They will always be there in those moments. For as long as the Universe exists so too will they.

If your loved one ever looked up at the moon, at the planet Venus, or at any one of the stars overhead during their lifetime, then look up at them tonight because the two of you will be looking at them together, just from different places in time.

This profound understanding is the most beautiful thing that astronomy has ever taught me. It has given me a great sense of peace and comfort. I hope it brings you that same feeling.

To Be Acknowledged As Existing

To be Acknowledged as Existing

7,432 Americans will wake up today to what will be their last day alive, most of whom will not know this ahead of time.

According to the American mortality rate published in 2016 by the National Center for Health Statistics, that many Americans die each day due to various causes. There will come a day, perhaps even today, where you or I will be one of these Americans.

Ask yourself, are you living the best possible life that you could live? Are you making the best possible choices? Are the actions you are taking the best possible? If today was your last, would you be at ease with the legacy you’d be leaving behind?

We live out our lives in the false belief that we are each rowing our little boats alone, lost in this sea of life, paddling this direction and that, just hoping to one day reach the shore. In our frantic paddling we lose sight of what is closest to us, and that’s the people around us, each in their own little boat, fighting against the waves of joy and pain, the kind that we often cannot know about without acknowledging the person.

Behind even the brightest of smiles there can be the greatest of pain, and every interaction with another person can be the difference between them holding onto hope and letting it go.

We don’t always get to know where people come from, we don’t always get to know what kind of darkness they have to return to when they leave our presence, but what we can be certain of is that we have the power to control their experience while in our company.

Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “To be loved is to be acknowledged as existing.” If people know that we care about them, they will feel like they matter, and when they feel like they matter they can leave their worries and hardships behind for at least some small amount of time.

Over the years I have met people who have experienced abuse at home, who were suicidal, depressed, bullied at school, who hated themselves, and those who hated the world because they didn’t think anyone cared about them. In our presence these people are more than a story, more than a tragedy, even more than just some person we know. They are a part of our lives and therefore part of who we are.

Every day and in every moment we get to choose what we say and to whom we say it. We have countless opportunities to reach out and acknowledge the people in our lives, to let them know how much they mean to us, how positively they have impacted our lives.

I challenge you to do exactly that right after reading this. Shout it out so that everyone hears it, call them on the phone, send it to them privately in a long message, send them a card with a hand written note, pen them a letter and mail it to their home as a surprise.

For as connected as we are through our phones and the internet, it seems to me that we are further apart than we have ever been to other human beings.

I think that we are so used to people always being there, that we become blind to the fact that they are there, their presence begins to lose its perceived value and only when they are gone forever do we realize the opportunity and value of their presence.

Learn to express gratitude to the living – tell them that they matter, say good things about them, commit acts of kindness for and in the name of the living, go and visit them, learn to acknowledge and appreciate those who yet live and who make your own life worth living.

Choose To Live

Following an extended period of depression, a friend of mine carved this into a park bench after contemplating suicide. He sent me the photo and I’ve kept it because I think it holds a powerful message.

Choose To Live

Do something that scares you. Go places you’ve never been before. Become the person you wish other people would be.

Ever since my mom died almost two years ago, I have constantly faced the mortality of my own existence. Too many people fail to see the fragility of life, the shortness of life. There are many dangers out there, but sometimes your greatest danger is becoming complacent and indolent.

By that I mean, too many of us fall into the trap of trying to make a living and failing to ever actually live. After her death, I felt like I needed to live. To get out beyond the familiar. To make up for lost time and missed experiences.

To not just be alive, but to feel alive. To see, to smell, to taste, to hear, to feel new things. To make choices that scared the hell out of me, to consider anything a possibility. To jump at opportunities, to get out of my comfort zone and try new things.

The most tragic thing about becoming an adult is losing that sense of wonder we have as kids. I’ve been trying to get back to that, trying to learn, trying to challenge myself, trying to explore, trying to feel alive.

I encourage you to do the same before it’s too late. Death, while tragic and finite, can be a powerful tool in changing your life. Death is a gift. I don’t mean just the act of dying, but the awareness of our own mortality. When weighed against death, so many things we give attention to are stripped of their falsely perceived importance.

In that moment our awareness transcends the veil of meaninglessness and for some small amount of time we see how lucky we truly are to be alive.

It’s a truth easily lost to the mundane comings and goings of daily life, which is why we must constantly remind ourselves that death is real and that it may be just around the corner.

For more on the value of existence, I suggest my article, The Inexplicable.

The Power of Belief

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The Power of Belief

I was born into and raised within a Christian community, more specifically a Catholic parish. This article will discuss how I went from attending a private Catholic school and Catholic Mass every weekend, to feeling a lot of doubt in faith during high school, to becoming a born-again Christian in my early twenties, and then finally becoming a non-believer. Seeing as today is Easter, one of the most important Christian days of observation, it couldn’t be a more suitable time to reflect on the power of belief and all that it entails.

Growing up, my family was fairly religious. We were not the Evangelist type that tends to go about proselytizing to non-believers in an attempt to get them to convert, but we were certainly a part of the Christian conservative ranks of Midwestern Americans. From attending a private Catholic school, to observing Catholic holidays and participating in parish community events and various religious sacraments throughout different stages of life, much of our lives pivoted around religion.

Throughout my childhood, the idea of questioning anything that I was being taught never once entered my mind. My family, my school, my community, everything all around me was immersed in Catholicism. It wasn’t just one small aspect of our lives, it was an integral part of everyday life. From the words we used, to the way in which we conducted ourselves and how we saw the world, faith was the lens through which we experienced life.

Belief, the tenants of faith, this wasn’t just ideas in our heads, it was action. How we interacted with those around us, whether they were family or stranger, belief was something that was always with you and in the things that you did. Of course in being a kid, however, religion was still something that I was not fully capable of grasping. It is not unlike learning to ride a bike. You can watch others do it, attempt to mimic them, but for the most part you still need a guiding hand when starting out. In time and through practice you gain a much deeper understanding of what you’re doing, the mechanics of the bike, how to control and navigate your way while keeping yourself upright.

Faith is very similar in that it requires due diligence, constant reflection, sometimes a guiding hand, and continued practice in order to understand all that a religion encompasses. As kids, we’re all easily distracted or led astray, adult things typically do not engross us the same way that humor or entertainment does.

The things that were likely to catch my attention as a kid were the lives and actions of the various saints, more than the salvation of my own soul, a concept I could not actually contemplate at such a young age. Transubstantiation was certainly not a concept I fully grasped. Even though the Catholic church teaches that during the sacrament of the Eucharist, the wine and the unleavened bread offered are literally turned into the blood and body of Jesus Christ, inexperienced children and even those who have already undergone the sacrament of First Communion, still have no understanding of what the priest or the adult congregation is uttering about. They look at the wafers of pressed bread and the wine for what they are and not what they are allegedly transformed into.

As an adult, I look back at such a ritual and realize how cult-like many of the sacraments of Catholicism truly are. Eating flesh and drinking blood are very pagan in origin, no doubt a concept adapted from old world belief systems when Christianity was subjugating non-Christians while it swept across Europe, absorbing many of the beliefs and figures of religions in other civilizations.

I continued to attend a private Catholic school, spending eight years of my life as a student there. Once I entered into high school, I found myself no longer surround by other Catholics. There were various types of Christians and some who had no religion at all. Public school was a very different place than what I was used to and most of the students I had grown up with all went to a different high school. Only one other student came with me to this public school and so I went through a bit of culture shock. I attended mass at church less frequently during these years, but I did fulfill my last sacrament, that of Confirmation, when a young person who was previously baptized becomes a full member of the Catholic Church.

It was during high school that I spent a lot of time thinking about what I believed in. Witnessing others who were not Catholic and hearing them talk about what they did or did not believe in, set in motion my own self-reflection. Things that I was once told to stay away from and that were considered a sin or the workings of Satan seemed less scary to me. I was less afraid of other religions and belief systems and slowly started to grow less interested in my own childhood religion. The world, in my tiny corner of it anyway, seemed to be expanding beyond what I once knew.

Throughout high school and two years afterwards I spent a substantial amount of time reading articles about other religions, watching documentaries about their history and belief systems, buying books about them, and looking for information online. I was immensely curious about the things that other people believed, especially people on the other side of the world, with their cultures and customs so different from my own. I acquired a thirst that could not be quenched by the religion that I had spent the entirety of my life, up to that point, steeped in and devoted to. I was tired of Catholicism, bored with it, uninterested in it, and above all else beginning to doubt what I had been taught was absolute truth.

When I learned that millions of other people believed in religions that were not my own, that they had their own views of a creator or in some instances creators, I was mind blown. I had been living under a rock of Catholicism and had no idea there were so many other belief systems out there, all with their own stories and figures, laws and codes of conduct. It fascinated me that my own religion was supposed to be the one true religion and yet here were all of these others, with millions to hundreds of millions of followers, all convinced that their religion was the one true religion. I wondered to myself how so many people could all think their religion was the right one while everyone else was wrong.

After spending some years learning about other world religions, I eventually made my way back to Catholicism. But the religion of my childhood was not the religion of my young adulthood. I no longer saw my childhood religion the same way, not necessarily because I was then in my early twenties, but because I had learned so much about the world, about cultures, about faith in a much more general sense, grasped more of an understanding of what it meant to believe and the power such a thing can have. In essence I both physically grew up and spiritually grew up.

I rejected the old way that I was taught to view various elements of my religion. I tossed aside outdated and irrational ideas and teachings, such as those about sacrificing animals, killing non-believers, beating women who had sex outside of marriage, and the list goes on and on. These things to me were not the Word of God, but were instead the trappings of impure minds who had attempted to use my religion to push their own beliefs. They were heresy in my mind and not what my perception of God would have wanted his followers to engage themselves in. Therefore, when I read the Bible, I skipped over the verses that I believed were penned from minds of weak men and not the true Word of God.

Other elements of my religion that were once distant or unknown to me became very close, exposed and available in a way that removed the obscure nature that once blinded me to what it meant to believe. It was in my early twenties that I became a born-again Christian, or to be more accurate a born-again Catholic. I returned to attending Mass on a weekly basis. I became much more vocal about my beliefs than I had ever been before, suddenly it became not just something that I believed, but it also became part of who I was, my identity. I didn’t just want people to know that I was Catholic, I wanted them to see me and the joy I found and then consider their own beliefs, to nonchalantly encourage others to convert.

I would even wear Catholic themed t-shirts in the hopes that people would point it out to me and start up a conversation. And this worked, people did often comment on my shirts, asking about it. Whether I was at work, at the movie theater, or that one time in a hospital elevator, men and women, young and old, would either comment on my shirt or ask me about its message. During this time I also wore a Cross around my neck, and in an act of penance branded a cross on my forearm, to act as a constant symbol of my faith in Jesus Christ. I did this believing that I should in some way make my own physical sacrifice for the ultimate sacrifice He made for me, a constant reminder to never again wander astray from following my Lord and Savior.

All of these outward things came into existence because of what I felt inside. A lot of people who come from backgrounds that are not religious, have a hard time understanding the power of belief. Without the experience of feeling it for themselves they cannot fathom why people hold so tightly to it. Rediscovering my faith changed not only the way I saw everything outside of me, but everything that I saw inside of me. I was literally born-anew, I believed that I had been touched by the Holy Spirit. I felt this swelling of love inside of me, a love for life and for others, a sincere belief that my soul had been saved and that I must live my life in such a way that reflected the teachings of Jesus Christ, for I was a living vessel of God, my Father.

In addition to the other things I’ve mentioned, I also started listening to Christian Rock. I favored bands such as Casting Crowns, Jars of Clay, Third Day, Jonah33, Red, Fighting Instinct, Decyfer Down, among others. Listening to songs of worship filled me with a sensation that I would assume many others feel when they listen to songs of worship. A sense of joy, like I was somehow in-tune with God, that His Holy Spirit was entering into me, and I felt strong, I felt safe and that any sadness I had went away, I felt healed, empowered, fearless, somehow invincible, like I could do anything. These are the types of feelings other people claim to have at certain religious gatherings, it is the power of belief.

Through these experiences I began to believe that I needed to reach out to other people through more legitimate ways. Naturally, I turned to ministry. When I was much younger, I had contemplated the priesthood, but it was not something that I ever pursued seriously. I had a cousin who had chosen that path and so I spoke with my mom about the idea. I didn’t want to take the time to go to seminary school, which all Catholic priests must do. Because I rejected some of the views of Catholicism, I did not feel as though I belonged in such a place, despite having the desire to change the Catholic church and bring it into a more modern ideology. Instead I decided to look for a Christian ministry that was seeking a younger generation of leaders.

I found this ministry with the Interfaith Church, which sought to bring people of various religions together. At this point I had gained very unitarian views of world religions, believing that the world would be a far better place if these systems of belief unified with common goals. I applied for ordination through this church and was asked to take a test and write an essay about my beliefs and why I was seeking ordination. I passed the test and was celebrated for my essay, and so the church offered to ordain me as a young leader of their ministry.

I graciously accepted and in 2010 I officially became a minister of the Interfaith Church, receiving a certificate of ordination and an identification badge. Soon after, I traveled to the local court house to make sure that my paperwork was legal and that I could legally perform marriages within the community. The county clerk took my paperwork to the attending judge who was not in session at the time and brought it back stating I was good to go. The judge came out to meet me and shook my hand, welcoming me to the community as a minister.

Not long after this took place, the doubt that had once been vanquished from my mind came back to haunt me. Just as my faith had returned with a certain vigor, my doubt equally came back with a virulent power that changed everything for me. Not only did I eventually stop believing in Catholicism or even Christianity, but in time I would stop believing in the existence of a creator god. During this process I stepped down from the church and informed them that I no longer wished to be a minister, realizing that I was no longer fit to act as such. They seemed baffled and did not know what to think, since I had previously discussed with them about establishing a new church in my local community. And now there I was surrendering my ordination and walking away from it all.

I stopped wearing anything that reflected Christianity, I stopped attending Mass, the world seemed to come crashing down as though it had all been a dream, a fantasy, a constructed set on a stage. For the next several years I plunged back into my own soul to search for answers, to ask questions I had never before dared to ask, particularly on the existence of any sentient god at all. In time I became an atheist, someone who does not believe in the existence of a creator god, realizing that I did not believe any type of omnipotent being existed, no such being could exist in this part of the Universe with the types of things that take place here. No being must exist unless he or she be evil. The process of course was not this simple, the questions and answers not so easy, it took years to go from being a believer to being a non-believer.

Science soon replaced the metaphysical way in which I saw the Universe and humankind. From physics to neuroscience, my understanding shifted from believing in the supernatural to looking toward the natural for answers about the questions I had on birth and death and everything in between. I looked towards people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for guidance and information. While they certainly helped on the subjects of science and psychology, they could not assist me in life after faith, as neither of them were particularly religious in their youth. Instead, I had to find my own way through and writing down my thoughts became for me a torchlight showing me the way through that darkness.

Being a spiritual person, however, means that the road cannot just simply end there, and it has not ended there. In more recent years I have spent my time going back to the old belief systems that once interested me in my late teens, particularly Buddhism as there is no creator god in this way of life. I have spent quite a bit of time studying the various Buddhist scriptures including the Tripitaka and the Prajna Paramita. For the most part, I do now identify as a Buddhist student of the Mahayana tradition, but certain aspects of the Theravada monastic tradition do interest me and I find it rather commendable to give up one’s personal life to pursue a life of study, service, and practice. I do practice meditation, but I am not interested in the esoteric beliefs of Vajrayana Buddhism, such as deities and the more mystical ideologies.

Apart from a structured belief system, or way of life to put it more correctly, I do also hold a high reverence for nature and the greater Universe, a very spiritual perspective of it and physics. I incorporate these views into my practice and carry on with my life without feeling as though anything is missing. One would think that the huge jump from ordination to atheism would leave someone wanting, but I have not found anything missing from my spiritual life. In fact, I look back now and stand in amazement at how I ever believed the things I used to believe. It’s as if I am looking back at a completely different person, as if the memories are not mine, but someone else’s. Perhaps in some sense I am, for the lenses I once wore have been removed from my eyes and I can now see the world more clearly, without prejudice, ill-judgement or preconceived notions.

The power of belief can do great things for you, but it can also do great harm. One must always be aware of what they believe and how it impacts not only their own life, but the lives of those around them. Anyone can believe in anything, the world religions are truly no different than the fictional tales we often cherish. Stories such as those on Middle Earth by John R.R. Tolkien, where the lore and tales are so well-thought-out that one could easily mistaken it for a real world religion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that his lore is certainly far more interesting and enjoyable than anything the writers of modern or ancient religions offer. Even though such lore is known to be fictional, many people enthrall themselves with it in a way that is almost spiritual, making it a very important part of their childhood and adulthood.

Beyond J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, other fictional works inspire the same kind of love and loyalty. The Star Wars Universe, the Marvel Universe, the Elder Scrolls series, all of these offer a rich history of fascinating belief systems and stories of legendary figures that often out perform world religions in what they teach. The difference again being that people know these collections to be fictional and most people don’t even pretend to believe in them. Yet, in religions we have people believing equally outlandish tales of astounding feats and omnipotent beings and legendary figures, but all of these things written in scrolls, pamphlets, and books are considered true stories and are believed by followers as real. Except that followers of one religion will declare the religion of another to be false, while failing to see that his own is equally unbelievable.

Imagine a world where people believed J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters and stories were true, that his books and the films were considered sacred, and that other people believed that George Lucas’ Star Wars Universe was real and the films and books considered sacred. Each side believed the other was wrong and not only did they argue over who was right and condemn one another in the error of their ways, but that they went so far as to kill each other over it. Well guess what, that is the world we live in, it just doesn’t involve modern systems of lore that people are dying over, it’s ancient systems of lore people are dying over. This too is the power and the danger of belief.

How startling it is to realize that there is absolutely no more credence to believing in any one of the world’s religions than there is in believing in Tolkien’s legendarium. Neither can be proven to exist, but neither can be proven to not exist. You would be just as well off worshiping Tolkien’s created god Eru Ilúvatar as you would any of the other thousands of created gods among the world’s religions.