The Flower of Purpose

Five years ago I began a friendship with my friend H.Dale who was incarcerated because of a psychotic episode. We began exchanging letters. Since that time I have come to know him as a brilliant young man who like many of us got blind sided by a serious mental illness. Unless you’re the one who gets blind sided, you may not understand the difficulties and complexities we face. One day “normal” the next diagnosed with a stigmatized lifelong illness. 

I ask H.D. if he’d want to share his story that I could publish on my blog. He was very excited about being able to do this. He opted to use a pen name because one day he will be released from treatment and hopes to resume a regular life. His story is touching and dramatic. I hope you’ll take the time to read and leave an encouraging comment for my friend…who by the way will be getting released soon.

The Flower of Purpose

The most challenging and painful idea I struggled with as I moved through adulthood was that my story would remain untold. My life has been one of extremes, extreme pain, extreme pleasures, fortune as well as misfortune. As I write my tale of triumph and defeat, my story could still largely be considered one of failure. But I choose not to see it this way. I guess one thing that always kept me going was the anticipation that I would reach my goals. At times when my faith seemed to falter, the story of my own survival and proof of my personal strength would serve as a beacon of hope. The depth of my struggles, pain and suffering would only serve to galvanize and sharpen my own potential and capacities for compassion and loving kindness. My life always had a way of preparing me for the next challenge life had in store. I learned to accept and appreciate the fact that, in life, no matter the hand you’re dealt, it is never wise to fold your cards. I have goals that continue to inspire strength within myself and that I hope will inspire others. I have found that in the face of extreme adversity, you must nurture the seed of hope, which gives dreams the room they need to grow, and from this come the flower of purpose. Without purpose we struggle to find meaning in our lives. Like everything else in life, our purpose is temporal and is subject to change. When life’s conditions change, we too may be called upon to adapt our purpose to coincide with our values and conditions. If our purpose does not reflect our values, we will struggle to find true happiness.

As I write the first draft of my dream speech, I’m currently housed in a maximum-security Mental Hospital for the criminally insane. The last 5 years of my life I have live incarcerated in one of the most violent justice systems in the nation. I may be soon transferred to a residential outpatient treatment program within the year where I may serve another year before being restored to sanity. It’s hard to imagine that 5 years ago I was falling towards the ground at 150mph while gliding my body unassisted, over half a mile, over the desolate landscape of the Mojave Desert while completing my 20th skydive. This would mark the end of my very short lived skydive career. A personal quest to obtain my skydive license and salvage a sliver of satisfaction from a life that had already been ravaged by extreme physical trauma, mental illness, substance abuse and other significant life stressors. My skydiving serving as a metaphorical overture for the mental state I was experiencing; I was falling fast with no hope of a safe landing, or was there?

My adolescence was one of extreme privilege. My parents always supported any activity in which I showed any interest or natural talent. I believe I started snowboarding around the age of 9 and was given my first skateboard around the same time. I was introduced to lacrosse at an early age and rode dirt bikes as well. I seemed to show much interest and natural talent for high intensity sports. Personal injuries were commonplace as I grew up; I was always striving for excellence in whatever I did. Given the fact that most of my passions involved a level of risk, hurting myself seemed inevitable. The list of sports related injuries grew along with my age. By the age of 18 I had broken several bones, including 2 compressed vertebrae, separation of both shoulders, my jaw wired shut twice, broken wrists and cracked ribs. In school I was fairly popular but academically unsuccessful. I partied hard when given the chance and smoked put heavily, both socially and in isolation. After my parents divorced around the age of twelve, my brother’s addictive behavior seemed to worsen; eventually he was expelled form school for dealing cocaine and as terms of release he was sent to a boarding school. Dealing with the family turmoil, I sought refuge in my passions and seemed to handle things pretty well.

I chose to make a big change in my like and turn my act around. I discovered a few snowboard academies online where students have a unique opportunity of having daily access to mountain resorts whole working on their education and high school diplomas. I settled on an academy in California nest to North Lake Tahoe that had daily access to the world class Olympic resort of Squaw Valley. As long as I maintained a B average and stayed away from drugs and alcohol, I could ride every single day. I couldn’t have thought of a better incentive to stay out of trouble and it worked. I was able to turn a 1.6 GPA into a 4.0. After one very successful year, 4 of my fellow students and I made the bold choice to go across the pond to another boarding school instead of attending another year at Squaw. I enrolled in The American School in Switzerland. I had the time of my life. Life was lavish as we rode in Mercedes Benz taxis, ate authentic Italian food, wore three-piece suites and enjoyed weekend trips all throughout Europe.

I had large feelings of inadequacies surrounding my scholastic capabilities and my preoccupation with getting into a legitimate university took precedence over my weekend trips, my social life, and my efforts to run cross country. I still had a once in a lifetime experience that was full of great memories. During a Spring break vacation to the island of Malta in the Mediterranean my father called me with great news that I had gotten into my number one pick for college, the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The stage was set for success as I entered the first semester of university with a 4/0 GPA and the second with a 3.8. My initial expectation of Boulder was that I would continue my pursuits of snowboarding as I sought out my degree in business. However, after becoming a witness to the vast potential for rock climing in the region I was swiftly pulled in by the gravitational forces of mountaineering. I was gripped by the “connectedness” that climbing gave me to nature; I felt grounded and was overcome by a sense of clarity that life had yet to reveal up until that point. As I pushed myself to achieve greater physical endurance and strength, my mind became more conditioned to control fear and manage stress. However successful I was in living a life on the edge in some literal sense, I was about to be pushed to the edge of a whole other array of trials and tribulations.

My second year of college was not nearly as successful. In the beginning of the year I started experiencing subtle signs of depression, anxiety, and mental fatigue from having to constantly preform academically. Unfortunately, I was introduced to amphetamines by a member of my fraternity; I was quickly self-medicating for school and found myself in a state of dependence that verged at times of addiction. The downward spiral continued as I was soon smoking marijuana again after 3 years of nearly complete abstinence. I didn’t know it yet, but I was gradually and steadily developing two mental health disorders disregarding my ADHD. I continued to climb which seemed to be a refuge as I struggled increasingly to manage academics, my personal life, and substance abuse. (While I am of firm resolve that my substance abuse did not cause the onset and development of my mental health disorders, I strongly profess that it had a very serious negative impact on my long-term ability to identify, address and cope with my mental issues. From my personal experience I have found that most mental health disorders perpetuate additional problems rather than being caused by them. This isn’t to minimize the fact that drug abstinence and medication should serve as the basis for any successful mental health recovery plan.)

As my anxieties and mental health were deteriorating, I found it no longer appropriate that I should stay at the fraternity and quickly called my mom for help to move my stuff to a single bedroom apartment, on the other side of campus. Living away from the frat seemed like the right thing to do, but my depression fed voraciously off my isolated living situation. I found myself spiraling further down in a pattern of severe depression and cannabis dependency. I had graduated to getting my own medical marijuana card and because I was located in the epicenter of the medical marijuana movement, the culture of smoking pot was highly accepted. After acquiring a large prescription of Adderall from a friend I went on an amphetamine binge that lasted up to 3-4 days and resulted in a come down that was so extreme I resorted to calling mt mother for help. Furthermore, this severe drug induced depression was undoubtedly amplified by my persisting mood disorder that was steadily and progressively getting worse. I was so depressed that I ended up withdrawing from the entire academic semester a week or two before finals.

I managed to clean myself up enough to still make a 30 day vacation to Brazil where I went to Rio de Janerio by myself for 4-5 days before going to meet a good friend that I stayed with for around 30 days. She lived in the South of Brazil and the whole experience felt very authentic as it was sort of off the beaten track in terms of mainstream tourism. I had the experience of a lifetime due to the beautiful authentic Brazilian culture and social interactions I got to have with her and her family. Brazilian culture fascinated me ever since my international experience in Switzerland, there was a high number of Brazilian students at TASIS and they were by far the most socially compelling and outgoing nationality I had been exposed to. I enrolled in Portuguese classes at the University of Colorado and it was very successful as I was speaking within the first semester or two and by the third I was very affluent with the language. This without a doubt helped enrich my travels to the country, and their rich, extravagant culture continues to fascinate me to this day. Although I had every reason to be on top of the world, I still was suffering internally. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it but I just felt off the whole trip. Uneducated to mental health as I was, I automatically scapegoated my recent slipups with Adderall and my Cannabis dependency. I was convicted I had turned into an addict like my brother and because of this I abstained from drinking for almost the whole trip where was a strong level of shame and guilt that came with this notion of addiction. Little did I know, I had a whole other challenge rapidly bearing down on me that was going to open the door to a new brand of suffering.

When I returned from my trip it was time to start my spring semester and I did so without use of Adderall although my dependence with cannabis started right back up where it had left off. My anxieties increased as did my smoking and me grades became increasingly compromised as a resorted to self-medicating more and more. At night my sleeping schedule became disrupted over time and I remember having sporadic dreams that were highly vivid and graphic in nature. I think during this time I still loved climbing so much that I was still finding time to do it regularly enough but looking back it seems nothing else was really coming naturally. I made it through the semester somewhat intact as far as my grades go, by that I mean to say I was still passing. I stayed up pulling an all-night study session for a Calculus final that I somehow managed to do quite well on. I walked back to my apartment and prepared to smoke a large joint to calm my nerves and relax. As I did, I began to allow myself to be taken in by the extreme fatigue the sleepless nights and stress from finals had caused. As I nodded off into a rapid state of unconsciousness, I was instantly kicked awake, screaming as if in duress or in a state of terror, this was coupled by a natural shot of adrenaline. These fits of terror, quick shots of adrenaline, and screaming continued to occur at increasingly shorter intervals as sleep remained unachievable and my fatigue over time increased.

Unaware of why these fits of seemingly unprovoked anxiety, terror and sleeplessness where taking place, I managed to make it through the night with some help from a random girl I met on Facebook that very night. We linked up via Skype and she stayed online until I was able to obtain an hour or two of sleep before catching a flight to Seattle that following morning. The same girl picked me up from the SeaTac airport and we had a quick date before she dropped me off at my father’s house. This night proved even more difficult than the previous one in Boulder, as I attempted to fall asleep. I was running on a few hours of sleep in the last 3-4 days and as I smoked a cigar loaded with marijuana to try to ease the process of slipping into unconsciousness all attempts at relaxing my tense body and exhausted mind proved futile. As I sat up on the floor pressed against the corner of the downstairs living room each incredibly brief moment of unconsciousness was paired with a fir of uncontrollable screaming; it was as If I was waking up screaming before I was even asleep. As I was new to this level of sleep deprivation, my body yearned for sleep, yet rest seemed impossible save for the brief moments of unconsciousness that lasted for fractions of a second. The whole situation was extremely confounding and in desperation I got on the internet seeking answers. Using Google, I searched key words like “insomnia”, “anxiety”, and “night terrors.” Several hits for PTSD appeared, although I had only heard about this acronym in passing. As I read the symptoms for diagnosable PTSD, I seemed to have every base covered yet the first criteria seemed to be a new concept to me that I had not yet considered. “Subject has experienced a serious, life threatening evet.” Suddenly I gradually glanced down and began to consider my scars and childhood injuries, serious in a way I never had.

The truth was I had been involved in an extremely traumatic lawn mower accident at the age of 2.5 that I had repressed from my earliest memories. The accident was an extensive multi-trauma case that required immediate medevac. I don’t deem it necessary to go into the details of my injuries, treatment, or recovery for this presentation. The most important part is the concept that my trauma was so severe and occurred at such a young age that I was mentally incapable to deal with it on any level at that time. This memory would remain dormant in my psyche for nearly 18 years before surfacing as a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder condition.

Not long after my revelation about my new potential diagnosis of PTSD, I decided I needed medical attention. I called my mom who lived just over aa half-hour to the south. I informed her that I was in a bad way with my sleep, needed to go to the hospital and that I believed I was not mentally or physically fit to drive myself. This would mark the first time I was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric reasons, but it would certainly not be the last. We drove to her house initially and she encouraged me to just relax and go lay down. However, my state became more unstable and irritable until given a few hours we were both convinced I needed to go get checked out. I was admitted for a quick observation and it seemed the doctor also needed a bit of convincing to the unique mental state I was in regarding my curious and unsettling sleep disturbances. The doctor told my mom that this type of behavior is typically exhibited by patients coming down off of long meth binges; he ordered a urine drug screen and issued a prescription of 50mg tablets of Seroquel and sent me home. After allowing the medication to kick in, I was eventually able to achieve a sleep state. The drug screen would days later come back negative, aside from the copious amounts of THC in my system.

The period of time in which I experienced this onset of PTSD was also coupled with my first episode of significant and prolonged mania. I quickly found myself dating the girl I met through Facebook/Skype during the night of my first attack. Falling asleep every night continued to be a huge challenge as I fought to adjust to taking medication to counteract my new sleep condition, or rather the lack thereof. As I fought to ride the sedation train to sleep every night, my mood during the day seemed to progressively become more elevated as the days, weeks, and months went on. It was as if my insomnia kick started me into overdrive; I was rick climbing like crazy. I impulsively bought an expensive Subaru sports car. My motto that summer was “live fast, die young” as I raced quite recklessly all throughout Washington state with my new girlfriend. The symptoms of mania were undoubtedly present although I was completely aloof to the notion that anything was wrong. My current mania was an invigorating alleviation from the cloud of depression and anxiety I had been under preceding the recent developments of my sleep disorder. In some ways I held the notion that my PTSD had somehow unlocked new talents or emotional capabilities. My confidence was indefatigable, and I felt euphorically liberated from the epilogue of the melancholic shackles of my distant past.

I found myself living with my girlfriend in Boulder after the end of the summer and I was back enrolled in school that fall. A couple months into our domestic relationship the trap door opened as my mood rapidly deflated and I was quickly consumed by depression once again. This semester proved even more challenging then the last as I now had a sleep disorder, girlfriend, and undiagnosed bipolar disorder to handle. Needless to say, things fell apart in ways I was not prepared. The fury of my PTSD raged every night. My girlfriend and I had a tumultuous break up. I had developed a severe dependency on cannabis, and I was using several times a day. After the end of the semester, I decided to drop out of college until I could try to get a handle on things. I returned to Washington state for the summer to try to climb and find myself.

My good friend Aaron and I had driven up to the pass near North-bend Washington to do some local crag climbing. After a solid afternoon of climbing we decided on squeezing one more ascent on a 3-pitch sport climb on the other side of the interstate. I had done the climb a couple times before so I felt fairly confident we could get it done without complications. I was still pretty shaken after a rope fall that occurred a couple months prior in Eldorado canyon, Colorado that was probably over 90 feet. I didn’t feel comfortable on lead yet and thought this would be a great opportunity for Aaron to expand his climbing experience and take responsibility for leading the climb. After a quick rehearsal of rope logistics, he assured me he understood his responsibilities and I felt confident he would do just fine. About halfway up the wall Aaron was belaying me from above; I was around 75 feet off the ground. We lost audible contact with each other due to our voice reverberating off the unique shape of the rock and the roaring interstate below. Due to an undetermined accident of miscommunication I ended up falling, unprotected the full 75 feet to the ground. During my rapid decent my knee was caught in a crevasse 15 feet from the base of the climb; I watched my leg twist as my femur broke in two. With an audible “snap” I bounced off the ledge and fell the remaining distance. My pancreas was also damaged as my abdomen hit the deck with a tremendous amount of force. Miraculously I was still conscious and was able to prop myself up with my hands and crawl backwards far enough to reach my friends pack. Using a knife and a phone I was able to free myself from the rope and call out for 911.

I would spend the next 10 days in the intensive care unit after being Medevac’d to Seattle’s Harbor View medical center for the second time in my life. The pain during recovery was at many times demoralizing, if not unbearable. It would take 10 months for me to eventually achieve full weight bearing capabilities without pain. During my 10-month recovery my extreme physical struggle was accompanied by emotional pain. The depression ran deep in its course as I fought to re-learn how to walk.

Meanwhile my brother managed to manipulate my parents into sending me to a residential rehab, where I was admitted for severe cannabis dependence, but was also regrettably taken off the Seroquel which I so desperately needed for PTSD. My brother took up my life as his own, selling heroin out of my apartment, wearing my clothes and had full access to my car which sustained thousands of dollars in damage. Once I was discharged from rehab I was able to eventually reclaim my life, including my physical health and my climbing. After such a fall, it is almost inconceivable to imagine I wouldn’t have sustained more serious injury, moreover that I would make a full recovery and would return to active climbing within the year. As the pain of my injuries lessened my mood began to decompensate, the alleviation of my severe physical pain seemed to trigger my Bipolar. Before I had time to appreciate the newfound freedoms of mobility I was thrown into hypomania once again. I was spending increasingly more amounts of time outdoors rope climbing and making “slack-lines” to practice agility and improve my balance. As my mania increased so did my apparent cognition and I was able to build rope systems for my climbing and line-walking that were of an ever-growing complexity.

On April 14th, 2012 I set out to his in Chautauqua State Park which overlooks the city of Boulder. It was very common for me to hike this area and I have been there countless times before to enjoy the pristine trails and rock-climbing the park has to offer. This hike produced some very interesting weather and I happened to witness something truly remarkable. I came very close to being struck by a very rare atmospheric phenomenon known as “Ball Lightening.” The whole experience was very surreal and so rare that it is almost carried with it a mythological connotation and served to only enhance my manic state. My current life stressors, recent phenomenon experience, and unknown psychotic tendencies from undiagnosed and untreated bipolar seemed to create an amalgam of physiological and psychological stress, spiritual transformation, and delusionary ideation. I felt as if I was being carried on a journey. During my weeklong journey I felt as if on autopilot, as if something was drawing me closer to an unknown cause or higher purpose. Aimless, yet at the same time I felt guided with purpose, I started practicing forms of tai chi, and meditation to the best of my ability. In the days following the phenomenon it is unclear to me how much I slept, I was extremely manic. On the seventh day I was silently meditating in my apartment as the sun rose. Holding a rock, I had gathered from the site of the incident, I entered into an altered state of consciousness that I can only describe as other worldly. It was as if I wasn’t just pulled beside myself but pulled beside reality as well gazing from the outside in, looking at some ancient, hidden, truth. Free from the many lenses of mediocrity that cloud our ordinary day to day perception. Everything that was “out” became “in” and everything that was “in” became “out.” I was at one with the cosmos and yet I was separate from all things at the same time. At once, the rock and I seemed to embody the mythological connotation that surrounded the encounter I had with the strange phenomenon. I bolted out of my apartment, in way too much of a hurry for shoes. With rock in pocket, I was overcome with a manic intensity that I have never experienced. This intensity enthused delusions as fantastic and grandiose as the phenomenon and bipolar illness they were built around. I ran through the streets of Boulder, yet it felt more like I was running through time. Again, the situation oozed with mythological connotations. Symbolism and archetypes took precedence over logic and reason. My rock was not just a rock; it had become a talisman with powers and significances unknown. I was no longer encumbered by the broken body of Hunter Rolfe but had become an unbeatable interstellar being named “Goku” with a Destiny and Purpose of untold proportions.

In actuality the “Goku identity” I had temporarily assumed was the remnant of a heroic figure from an anime cartoon I used to idolize as a kid. Somehow my ego had latched onto this legendary savior once it had become untethered from the ordinary reality. What resulted next I can only summarize as “tragic.” My psychotic state began to dramatically worsen as my delusions became more chaotic and fragmented in nature. Soon I found myself blocks away from my apartment, confused, barefoot, disoriented, and amongst the growing congestion of cars making their morning commute. The raw power and purity of my spiritual awakening was replaced by the unsure feelings of paranoid hysteria I was now experiencing. I was no longer almighty Goku, I was vulnerable and exposed. The majestic purity of the sandstone formations glowing in the early morning light contrasted violently with man’s hideous creation that chaotically raced about in the foreground. My attention shifted to the rock talisman in had in my pocket, still a believer of its power I wasn’t so cure of my ability to yield it so brazenly. Just at that moment I was hit with an over whelming sensation, a feeling, an epiphany or premonition that I was at the very midpoint of my life. Every cell in my body sensed this balancing of scales, a transfer of power and existence. The weight of my own mortality has never felt so real. I was over the hump, descending slowly into my own demise and powerless to change my own destiny with death. I looked up at the blue sky and started to scream will all my might, cursing directly at my creator over the futility of life as I was armed with this new realization of life and death. I crossed the large intersection of Colorado and Broadway, when I got to the other side, I saw a figure calmly approaching my frantic state. Appearing to be a gypsy he was tall with dark weathered skin and clothes with long dreads, he was adorned beads and was also barefoot. Yet his body, his entire figure was translucent. He whispered a cryptic message to me, “You look like you’re doing the largest balancing act on earth.” This message was so similar to the epiphany of being caught between life and death I had seconds earlier that I was overcome with fear and confusion. Before I could see where my messenger went, I bolted back across Colorado ignoring the “do not cross” sign, vigilantly looking and hoping there was no oncoming traffic.

I ran back towards my apartment hoping to seek shelter from the onslaught of mysterious events that had unfolded. I felt like I was running from my own shadow. As I struggled to perceive my surroundings, colors were vibrantly enhanced as my peripheral vision narrowed and my feet seemed to race autonomously under my body. As my body circulated and surged with adrenaline, I came to a gravel lot situated between a motel and my apartment building. The lot was held up by retaining wall that ran alongside my apartment complex and was protected by a chain-link fence.

Before I could think, the pressing urgency of my paranoid hysteria caused me to leap off the retaining wall instead of taking the long way around the fence. This proved to be a horrific mistake. My altered depth perception caused me to drastically underestimate the size of the ledge, I lost my stomach as I dropped 10 to 12 feet and landed with my left foot taking the entire force of the concrete impact. I felt bone shatter. I felt my life shatter. I knew instantly that my dreams of El Captain were destroyed, and I would never climb the same again. The pain I experienced as my heel bone exploded against the cement was astonishing. The physical trauma jolted me out of my psychosis immediately and although I was still manic and delusional, my overall frame of mind was much more rooted in reality.

Moving my story along, I ended up spending the next 3 weeks in a psychiatric unit where I gradually recovered from my psychosis. Surgery was never done on my calcaneus as the overseeing surgeon determined my unstable mental state could complicate post-op recovery. My foot has never been the same. My heel cup is misshapen and has a prominent protrusion of bone protected by a very thin layer of scar tissue. My sub-taylor joint was damaged significantly to the point that I lost 60-70 percent of the lateral motion of my foot. I now suffer from chronic pain. Finding suitable footwear is an ongoing challenge.

After my first psychosis I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1- with psychotic features. Bipolar has changed my life in such a dramatic way that it almost leaves me at a loss for words. After my first episode I developed a pattern of severe cannabis abuse and avoidance from my traumas and mental illnesses that would last for the next 2.5 years. I suffered from sever identity loss as I was no longer able to follow my athletic passions like climbing or perform academically. I gained considerable weight due to side effects of psychotropic medication and lack of physical activity. I have suffered disconnects of countless relationships because of stigma, changed in perception and my own isolating behavior. I was ignorant and uneducated to the seriousness of my diagnosis and as a result I would always quit taking my medications soon after I was stabilized and discharged from the hospitals. I would suffer 4 severe manic episodes through the course of my untreated mental illness, the last of which would result in my incarceration here in California.

After recovering from my foot trauma, I bought a 2004 Blur Ford Econoline Van. I had some vague aspirations to still follow through on my dream to travel the United States and be a climber and videographer despite my physical and mental setbacks. This dream was spearheaded by professional climbers who had made successes out of hitting the road in their vehicles and living on a small budget. I had these aspirations before the onset of my disorders. The problem was I spent most of my time as a failure to launch, emotionally crippled by the untreated depression of my disorder. I lived mostly as a hermit at my father’s place smoking cannabis and nursing a growing alcohol problem. My depressions were long, between 6-9 months and would be intermittently relieved by periods of normal mood that would develop into mania. “The bird would fly the nest” as I tried to enjoy my newfound lease on life and make up for lost time via the relief from my unrelenting depression. Three of my four episodes would be spent in this fashion living in my van and aspiring to live a nomadic existence. The first two times I didn’t make it out of Washington before I was picked up by the authorities and admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Both times I was taken to Western State Hospital in Washington where I spent 4-5 months before I was stabilized and released.

The 4th and final episode I had I made it as far as southern California. I ended up at the Perris Valley skydive school where I would receive a certification for skydiving in 1 week and would accumulate my 20 jumps over the course of the next month. I started to become very manic in the same pattern as my prior episodes. In very much the same way my first psychosis unfolded I experienced the paranoid hysteria characteristic of personal disorder. Only this time I was behind the wheel of my van. This time I will omit the lengthy perceptions of my personal experience and will only summarize what took place.

After attempting to break a window of a McDonald’s establishment I found myself in the drive through. I then collided with two vehicles which contained a total of 6 occupants and fled the scene. Luckily no one was injured despite the fact that I hit the second vehicle with enough force to break out the back windshield I would then be apprehended minutes later after my van was hit with a spike strip and caught fire. Stunned by my delusions I remained in the burning car for over 4 minutes during which time I was struck in the back of the head by a “less-lethal-munition” that pierced my back window. I narrowly escaped the inferno suffering smoke inhalation and burns localized to the back of my neck and hands. I was then violently taken down by a police K9 which bit my shoulder and elbow region. The bleeding was profuse, and I would require stiches and staples to close up my bite wounds.

As stated in the beginning of my writing I have been incarcerated for the last 5 years. I spent 2 years in County Jail before being ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity. I was transferred to Patton State Hospital where I have served out the first 3 years of my 11.5-year sentence. It is easy to get discouraged by the harsh conditions of my situation. Yet I continue to maintain because my creams demand it. I want to finish my education. I want to climb. I want to skydive. I want to be stable and successful. I want to help others who had similar struggles. These are my dreams; this is my purpose. I continue moving forward because I have a family who has supported me through indescribable struggles. I have learned the absolute vital importance of taking medication to treat my illness. While it is easy to feel the injustice of the hard hands I have been dealt, I must take on the challenge seeking redemption through responsibility. While it is unfortunate that I am being held for a crime I did not willingly commit, I am placed I the very unique and hard position of being responsible for it. I do see the justifications for my detainment, because I must prove through legal process that I possess the skills and tools necessary from preventing anything like this from happening in the future. But unfortunately, once you get caught in the legal system, it is not what you know, it’s what you can prove. Till then I will continue to have faith. This gives me the hope I need to hold onto my dreams. And my dreams will continue to give me the flower purpose and aroma of happiness. I will continue to be content in this one very moment.

 

-H. Dale

 

Grassroots advocacy vs. Hollywood

I’m a fairly curious person and I like to form my own opinions, so I took myself to the very controversial movie “Joker.” On a weekend I drove six hours to teach 15 people Mental Health First Aid in rural West Virginia the movie “Joker” was opening around the country to millions of movie goers.

~sigh~

I had heard about people in the mental health advocacy community being upset about the movie tying mental illness and violence. I’ve heard others say the movie would incite violence. Here’s my perspective:

I recognized it is a fictional story based on a comic book character. I loved watching Batman growing up and always thought the Joker was a creepy villain. But this movie was much deeper. The character’s mental illness is at the forefront of the story, but so is the failure of the mental health system, his provider and ultimately his access to medications.

Those are serious and real issues. Those stories need to be told.

Do they need to be brought to light with a character who snaps and violently murders people? I suppose there are stories out there like that…but more stories are that people with mental illness are beat up, murdered, left for dead or jailed for long lengths of time for small infractions. Who is telling those stories? Who would go to the movies to see those stories?

I suppose if Hollywood can help us get the conversation about mental illness going we will take what we can get. But I doubt the general public walks away and feels inspired to care about people with mental illness. But I can guarantee anyone who walks out of a Mental Health First Aid Class is more empowered, less fearful and more understanding of someone with a mental illness.

At the end of the day Hollywood is entertainment that can bring issues to light. It takes grassroots advocacy to really make lasting impact and sometimes that means you have to drive six hours to get it done.

The bias of mental illness

When I ask a group of participants to think of all the words associated with someone who has mental illness here’s what I get: crazy, looney, nuts, attention seeking, dangerous, violent, etc. Then I ask the question what are words you hear about a cancer survivor. Those words are: hero, warrior, brave, strong, etc.

Then I pose different questions depending on the audience. So think of this scenario…do you believe a person who survives cancer probably experiences a great deal of pain and suffering? Everyone answers “yes.” Followed by, a woman who has post-partum depression (depression after pregnancy), who can’t care for her newly born baby, who carries a tremendous amount of guilt for not being happy during what’s supposed to be a happy time, who has difficulty doing even simple activities like taking a shower…do you think she struggles with a great deal of pain and suffering?

The obvious answer is yes.

You see changing minds about mental illness is really not that difficult when people are presented with facts and information. It’s even more powerful when people hear stories of those who have survived and recovered. It may be a little more difficult to understand because of so much bias and stigma that exists, but we all have the ability to learn when given the opportunity.

My point today is to inspire everyone who can advocate and educate others about mental health to do so. Encourage people to take a workshop, read an article or a book, watch a movie like “A Beautiful Mind.” Embrace what we don’t understand until we finally do understand.

People who I know who live with mental illness are brave warriors. They are strong because they have to be.

If almost every story or character you’ve heard about is a psycho murderer, you’d probably deduce people with mental illness are well…horrible human beings. Really quite the contrary. But most of those stories have not been told.

When your touched by mental illness-perspective changes

Twenty years ago I was admitted involuntarily to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I remember the devastation I felt emotionally. I was embarrassed and worried I’d lose the intellectual credibility I had worked hard to gain. I was concerned people would treat me differently and look at me strangely. I felt helpless when relationship dynamics changed.

My concerns came true. People did treat me differently, at least for a period of time. For awhile I was able to regain ground and my social standing only to lose it all again with the next hospitalization and manic/psychotic episode.

My phone stopped ringing. I was no longer sought after. Life as I knew it would never be the same.

Much of what I experienced is familiar to many people who live with mental illness. It’s common to live in social isolation, be unemployed, struggle to complete daily activities and deal with managing the symptoms of an illness.

In short, those of us who live with mental illness have suffered to varying degrees, but nonetheless have suffered.

In my case, I’ve also been the family member helping loved ones deal with their mental illness. At this point in my life I simply accept these challenges as a part of my life. I’ve learned to adapt to the cards I’ve been dealt.

I chose to rebuild my life with a passionate purpose on educating others about mental illness. I do this because I love to teach and speak. But most of all I love to help others.

This past week when President Trump so boldly proclaimed mental illness is the cause of mass shootings. While also suggesting we should reopen mental institutions. His comments frustrated, disgusted and hurt. So I wrote a Facebook posts about it.

There is so much ignorance, fear and lack of knowledge when it comes to mental illness. And yet when I read the comments on my Facebook posts and saw the number of people who reacted, I realized the statistics about mental illness don’t lie. Millions of people are impacted by it. Family members struggle to help their loved ones. They “get” it is not helpful to blame people with mental illness for all the horrible things people do.

When my brain got sick I didn’t instantly turn into a dangerous, violent person. Neither did my family members. And neither did the many millions of people who live with mental illness.

I don’t know why some people buy guns and plan mass shootings. Some say they are loners and isolated. Some say they are mentally ill or temporarily insane.

What I do know is we have a public health crisis with mental illness and suicides. I do know people are very reluctant to seek help because of the very same stigma people perpetuated this past week. “Mental Illness is the problem not the guns.”

Believe me when I tell you it’s bad enough having a chronic illness, but the pain of the stigma can be worse than the illness itself.

I have this perspective because of my experiences. And I’m going to continue to share it every chance I get.

Being silent is not an option.

What if we thought of mental illness as neurological conditions?

I was recently giving a couple talks on mental illness. I was searching for images to use in my slide presentation. My first search was for a kid who had cancer. The most common image was a smiling young person without any hair. The photos elicited compassion and understanding. We all know cancer sucks and those who survive beat it.

My next search was for a woman with mental illness. Most common images were a distraught, emotional woman with her head in her hands, unkempt hair flailing and often tears. The man with mental illness returned raging men and James Holmes the Colorado theatre shooter. Those images weren’t exactly ones that sparked compassion. More so fear. Fear of possibly being the distressed woman. Fear of being a victim at the hands of an unstable mass shooter.

Why is this important?

In a country with over sixty million people living with mental illness we are still perpetuating the idea that people are completely unstable, distraught and aren’t fighters of their illness. We bring it on ourselves. We all should just be able to tell ourselves to feel better, act better, look better and be normal. Some people think we can pray mental illness away. Prayer helps, but often doesn’t cure. It’s helpful in healing, but not in preventing.

But what if we started thinking of mental illness as a neurological condition? An illness that effects the brain? Would that matter?

I would argue it would make a significant difference. Think for a moment about epilepsy. It was not long ago epilepsy was considered a demonically possessed condition. Yes unfortunately you read that right. Imagine someone having a seizure in church or in a crowded restaurant. How would people react?

I was in a business meeting several years ago in a room with hundreds of people. One of my colleagues had a seizure. They immediately cleared the room and gave her space and privacy. We all knew she had epilepsy, a neurological condition. She continued working without any repercussions or penalties.

On the other hand, I suffered a severe bipolar depressive episode while working in the same industry as the person with epilepsy. I was questioned as if I was faking to get time off from work. Eventually I was fired.

If I had a “medical condition” would it have been socially acceptable to be fired?

Would there be outrage in a community if a child who had a seizure in school and while siezing he kicked a resource officer. Without intent to harm. Would we expect him to be charged with a crime?

The same thing happened to a young boy who had a psychotic episode. He was charged with felony assault and sentenced to probation. He is nine years old.

The way we categorize and label is inherently important in the world we live in. Language and words matter.

One day there will be more brain research. We will better understand mental illness. One day we will have more compassion and understanding and images will represent a more diverse group of people fighting for their lives.

My name is Amy Gamble, I have bipolar disorder, a brain disorder and it’s not my fault. I am a warrior.

My Daughter is not anxiety

Today it is my pleasure to welcome guest blogger Elizabeth Gramby. She’s a West Virginia native, cooking/food enthusiast and mental health advocate. Elizabeth began her journey writing early on as a way to find hope in dark places. Her writing took off when her daughter experienced a major depressive episode which almost took her life and landed her at an inpatient facility. This was a catalyst for Libbi to increase her passion for helping others, especially moms, through writing. Her goal is to fill gaps so her readers are able to find light, breath and hope while supporting their loved ones through their mental health journey.

 It’s funny, as I look back, I never really thought about stigma until my daughter was diagnosed with a mental illness. Probably just like you I had heard of mental illnesses, often not in a kind way. Usually in a sarcastic or adjective way. I had an aunt that had a mental illness but it wasn’t really talked about much.
You may have the same story in your family. Now, I realize that stigma is the reason families don’t talk about it and it’s the reason that people diagnosed with a mental illness often isolate themselves and feel shame. Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” And it’s real, but the mark isn’t on us, its in them.
I read an article that said “The stigmatized individual is “reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (Goffman E. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon & Schuster; New York: 1963). It’s so true.
Many may see people suffering from a mental illness that way, they may see my daughter that way. They couldn’t be more wrong. Stigma is why families keep it under wraps, it’s why some blogs are written anonymously. But it’s also why I have decided to come forward, to speak out and to tell you that my name is Elizabeth Gramby and my daughter has a mental illness. We have decided to be open and honest, to take a step towards advocacy, to let you know that we are not ashamed and you shouldn’t be either.
Just like a pancreas can malfunction, a brain can too, yet the resulting disease is perceived differently, therefore the person is as well.
My daughter has Generalized Anxiety and Panic Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder but those are her diagnoses, not her identity. She does not bear a mark of disgrace, she is not tainted or to be discounted. Quite the opposite.
My daughter IS smart, witty, kind, creative and beautiful. My daughter is NOT anxiety.
Her anxiety makes her FEEL petrified, weak, depressed, embarrassed and angry but those things do not define her. I think that so often we talk about our feelings in a way that describes who we are. That we inadvertently label ourselves and determine our course, often in the wrong direction. Im #sad #weak #worthless, we are not how we feel, we are so much more.
I am no expert on Anxiety and Panic Disorder, I am not an expert on different kinds of eating disorders. I am, however, a mother helping my daughter overcome these things and let me tell ya, it’s no walk in the park.
I won’t go into a drawn out, detailed account of her struggles here as not to bore you, but for background I will say that she is 23 years old and the very first signs of this storm happened her freshman year of college. We didn’t realize at the time what was looming, we attributed it to stress and adjusting to college life. Christmas break of her sophomore year we realized that this wasn’t something that she could just manage until it passed, it wasn’t passing, it was getting worse. So off to the doctor we went and 3 medical withdraws from classes, 9 medications, 2 psychiatrists, 4 therapists and 2 hospital stays later, here we are.
 As a mom, I feel helpless, but I’m not. I’m doing what I can, providing some guidance, support and all the understanding I can muster, I’m trying to be her rational voice when she can’t find hers. If I’m really honest, I feel angry. My girl has so much to offer, so much life, humor, talent and compassion yet at times she feels afraid to come out of her bedroom, afraid to eat, just…afraid.
What if we told anxiety to take a flying leap and gave it the middle finger on the way down?
What if we felt all the feels, but were defined by God? Looked through our state of mind and pressed into our knowledge, stopped being overwhelmed by our emotions and started focusing on God’s overwhelming love and peace.
What if we felt sad, but were joyful in the knowledge of Psalm 126:6? Hopeful in knowing that though we may be weeping, our tears will water the most valuable of seeds that will harvest laughter, excitement and love if we don’t give up.
What if we felt weak and took pleasure in it, boasted in it as in 2 Corinthians so that we may then feel the power of Christ rest in us and revel in HIS strength.
What if we felt worthless but prevailed as valuable, fruitful and worthy children of God?
Let’s try it shall we?
Let’s stand side by side, be open and honest about what’s happening and how we feel. Let’s work together to remind our loved ones of who they are while working through how they feel. Let’s keep the truth alive in their lives while they battle with the lies that their disorders tell them. We are not helpless or alone and they are not defined by their diagnosis.
I don’t know your situation, your diagnosis or your name, but I do know your fear. I believe that if we work together, through advocacy, honesty and education, we can fight against the stigmatic way that people see us and against the negative way we talk to and label ourselves. Remember that the stigma isn’t on us or our loved ones, it’s in those who don’t understand. We don’t carry it or wear it, they perceive it blindly.
I’m proud of my daughter and the fighter that she has become.
Let’s fight this fight together.
Elizabeth Gramby

Getting to H.O.P.E. through recovery

When I started this blog over five years ago I was in the beginning stages of my recovery journey. Well, not really the beginning, as I had gotten ill many times and resumed a relatively normal life. But the last time I had a major set-back it was a doozy. Filled with life changing experiences including a brush with almost dying in the wilderness.

A lot has changed in five years. I’ve successfully learned how to manage bipolar disorder, helped coach many family members whose loved ones live with mental illness, spoken and/or trained over 12,000 people. Honed my skills as a mental health advocate and learned how to manage a nonprofit organization.

None of this would have been possible without a focus on my mental health. Here are three things that were game changers for me.

1) Embracing grief.

It may seem strange to think about having a diagnosis of mental illness causing grief. But it’s not just getting passed the self-stigma and learning to accept I was going to have to deal with a chronic health problem. It was also grieving for the hopes and dreams that were lost or had to change because I now had limitations I never had to consider before.

Grief was also about dealing with the loss of relationships and friendships that were no longer viable for one reason or another, but very often as a result of having a mental illness. Loss is loss. Sometimes even more painful when those we love leave our lives and grow distant because we are no longer the person we once were.

Grief fuels depression and depression makes grief more painful. Living with frequently long episodes of bipolar depression I managed to have a double whammy of emotional pain.

When I didn’t know I was grieving I sort of just trudged along. After I realized it was grief, I became empowered to allow myself to process the many stages of grief. There’s something interesting which happens when we acknowledge reality. It’s very freeing and empowering to look truth in the eye and give in to the flowing stream. I learned you can fight many things but you cannot deny griefs purpose.

2) Paying attention to thoughts.

My mind is my best friend and my worst enemy. When not stable I can’t keep up with the many grand ideas given to me during mania. I learned medications that slowed me down actually helped me to harness the power of my creativity without it being a run away train.

In this process of healing and understanding how bipolar symptoms manifested in myself I began to pay very close attention to my thoughts. I ask the question what am I telling myself? This simple question continues to allow me to understand where my energy is going. If my thoughts are not positive about myself or they are constantly negative it’s my cue depression may be lurking in the shadows. I fight my thoughts when I’m depressed because I know depression tells us lies.

With my illness at times a symptom can be paranoia. I learned to question this line of thinking. I search for facts to disprove my paranoia and I acknowledge when that paranoia is based in reality and serves me well as a warning system.

Learning to differentiate between healthy thoughts and those not serving me well helps me approach my days in a positive manner and gives me hope.

3) Having a sense of purpose.

For years I was searching for my sense of purpose. Something which really inspired me, made me want to get out of bed in the morning. Making a difference in people’s life in a positive way was my simple answer to how I could have a sense of purpose.

In the short term my sense of purpose was less prophetic and more practical. Having a job served my short term sense of purpose. A place to go where I was expected to show up on time and contribute something. Feeling needed, wanted, and accepted was an important step on my journey.

Eventually I found work and passion aligned. There’s a saying about how we can make our mess our message. I’ve done that with teaching other people about mental health and mental illness. I’ve done that by sharing my story in many different formats, including my memoir “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.” (Available on Amazon)

Mixing passion and purpose motivates me even on my worst days. I’ve never once missed a commitment in over four years. And honestly I’ve had plenty of bad days struggling with depression, but I managed to get myself out of bed and see through what I said I would do.

This is why finding a sense of purpose is important to everyone. We all need a reason to get up in the morning and put our feet on the floor, whether you have a mental illness or not. But from experience, having an illness makes this even more important.

This life journey I’ve had I would not wish on anyone, though I’ve had a remarkable ride in many ways. But the hard lessons were tough to get through. And of course the mental illness – biggest and most difficult challenge. However, if your journey is similar to mine or something I say rings true to you-know you are not alone. And I assure you if you don’t give up you will have happiness, opportunity, prosperity and empowerment to live the life you desire. That’s what hope means to me.

Here’s to five more years of blogging…

Amy Gamble

People are finally talking about mental health. Now what?

I’m a huge fan of all those who have been willing to talk about their challenges with their mental health. It’s wonderful to know that we are not alone. I love it when celebrities use their platforms for great causes.

But…we also have to start asking the question what’s next? It’s one thing to be aware of mental health and it’s another to face the harsh reality of waiting for two months before one can see a psychiatrist. Not to mention the enormous challenges for emergency rooms across the country who are often the first stop for those experiencing a mental health crisis.

I’m not worried about celebrities having access to care. They can afford to pay for private care if they have to. But I am concerned about the quality of care for everyone. The fact that medications don’t work immediately and the side effects can make the treatment impossible to stick with.

Talking about mental health is important. I do it often. But figuring out ways to help others get the care they need when they need it may just be the most important problem that needs solved in a generation.

Almost everyone is talking about mental health. Yay!!! Now let’s do something about the care people need.

Overcoming the pain from disappointment

Sometimes the worst part of mental illness are the dreams left behind. The shattered and tattered remnants of a life once filled with promise and opportunity. There is no greater healing than acknowledging the pain, feeling it and then moving forward with what can be.

Things can really be difficult. It’s hard to always stay positive and optimistic. It’s actually impossible too. It’s hard not to have moments of frustration and despair.

I’ve asked myself the question, why do things always have to be so hard?

And then I answer myself.

Because I’m striving to live my best life despite my challenges. Of course I haven’t completely forgotten about the pain. It keeps me humble and honest. It motivates me to help others. My pain is the fire that keeps me going.

Last week I had a chance to teach a group of kids about mental health. The younger group I read the old book, “The Little Engine that Could.” I was encouraging them to think positively and believe they could accomplish things.

As I sat there looking into those kids bright shiny eyes, I felt so touched. If I had stayed stuck on my past I would never had the chance to see all those kids eyes light up with joy because in that moment I brought my best self to share with them.

I’m still in the process of telling myself “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” But when my book ends I know I’m going to say ,

“I thought I could. I thought I could.”

Shifting to a positive attitude can be the difference between doing the near impossible and giving up without trying.

No matter what circumstance you may find yourself in…don’t give up. Things always get better and might just surpass the old dreams you once had.

Amy Gamble

An Olympic training approach to managing bipolar disorder

I was talking with a friend at the National Council on Behavioral Health’s annual conference in Nashville. We had just watched a movie about Andy Irons a world class surfer who had bipolar disorder and died at 37.

It was an emotional documentary. I felt sad. But the emotion that got my attention was anger. Angry at a terribly cruel and devastating illness.

I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty for my ability to successfully manage a serious mental illness that often robs people of life and disrupts any sense of normalcy.

Though I too have succumbed to many tragic experiences because of bipolar disorder, once I set my mind to figuring out how I could manage the symptoms with as little disruption to my life as possible, I successfully am living a healthy life.

But it dawned on me as I said to my friend Carol that not everyone may think to take an Olympic training mentality to conquering a mental illness.

It’s no easy task to become an Olympian. In my view managing bipolar disorder is far more difficult. But applying the same driven mentality can be a game changer for managing bipolar.

For me it comes down to four main components.

1. Desire. The desire to want a life that is manageable and purposeful despite a disability.

The desire to learn how to manage with often much needed medications, which generally have terrible side effects-especially when first initiated.

The desire to fight for a healthy peaceful life.

2. Dedication. Relentless vigilance monitoring symptoms. Advocating for yourself with the doctor. Keeping appointments as if your life depends on it. Because my life does depend on it.

3. Discipline. Finding a treatment plan and sticking to it. Meticulously taking medications every day, without missing a dose. Getting the proper sleep. Exercising even when it’s hard to motivate.

4. Determination. Maybe the most important aspect is never giving up the hope for recovery. Never quitting even when the game seems out of reach. Taking the setbacks in stride and keep on pushing.

I realize not everyone has had the experience of becoming an Olympian. But I also know people can apply these same principles to their own individual situation.

My goal is to share my knowledge with others. Every life matters.

In a sports analogy bipolar disorder can be defeated. But it is an opponent that is always relentlessly trying to take us down.

Fight it as if your life depends on it. Because it does.