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

 

I have bipolar disorder and it’s not my fault

I’ve been really open about my struggles with bipolar disorder.  Before I had a good handle on this illness it really rocked my world.  I’ve come to learn that bipolar disorder will destroy your life if you don’t get the proper treatment and learn how to manage the condition.  It can be life threatening during times of severe depression episodes and suicidal thoughts.  It can put us at risk during manic episodes which often lead to psychotic episodes.

After my initial diagnosis I felt terribly ashamed.  The other day I was thinking about an analogy people might be able to relate to.  If you’ve ever had a night of drinking way too much alcohol and you engaged in embarrassing behaviors, the next day you might wake up with not only a hangover but guilty feelings about your behavior.  The things you said and did while drunk didn’t take away the fact you said and did those things.

This is what happened to me during manic and psychotic episodes.  I’d say and do things and then when I was stable I’d have to deal with the guilt of what happened.  The guilt leads to shame and the terrible tapes rolled in my head about what a bad person I was for having been sick.

But after many years of learning about bipolar disorder, I don’t feel badly about what happened to me while sick.  I’ve come to learn that I have bipolar disorder and it’s not my fault.  What is my accountability is now that I’m stable I need to manage my condition so well I won’t ever end up in a compromising position again.

But if for some reason I have break through symptoms, I’m not going to be ashamed.  I’m going to be proactive and do everything I can to manage my condition.  And if I have moments where I feel a little paranoid, make up a story or two based on that paranoia, I’ll live with it too.

One day people are going to realize mental illness doesn’t make you crazy, it just makes us vulnerable.  I wouldn’t blame myself for having cancer.  I’m not going to blame myself for having a mental illness.  And neither should the general public.

 

 

 

 

A Letter To All The Bipolar Warriors

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Every so often I take a look at the blogs I have written over the past four years and see which ones people view the most.  Tonight I noticed one of the most popular was “Rebuilding a Bipolar Life.”  It was written almost four years ago.  It had to do with my quest to work on my spiritual self.

Another blog that has been very popular has been “Bipolar Disorder Destroys Life and then what’s next?”  It was written a little over three years ago.  If you’ve been following my blog or Facebook page you probably know I have found my “what’s next.”

After reading the blogs and comments I’m inspired to write a letter to my fellow bipolar warriors about some of the things I’ve learned from reflecting back in time.

Dear Bipolar Warriors,

I’m not sure where you are in the journey of living with bipolar disorder.  You may be newly diagnosed and confused as heck about this illness.  You might still be struggling trying to find the right combinations of medications.  Like me, you may have experienced a significant amount of loss because of bipolar disorder.  Maybe you’re kicking it and have mastered how to live well with bipolar.  Wherever you are on the journey here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Living with a chronic mental illness is challenging.  Okay.  That’s clearly an understatement.  There are challenges with people who are close to you understanding the illness, accepting that sometimes you’re not always going to feel well and giving you a chance to live to your potential when you are well.  There are complications with relationships.  It all gets better over time.

Some days it gets frustrating to have to fill pill boxes (I fill three weeks at a time).  But looking back I can tell you there was a time when I would sit on the edge of my bed, dump the pills in my hand and begrudge having to take them.  I would think, “I’m sick.  Why me?”  Then I would swallow them and go to bed feeling “less than.”  Fast forward over three years, it’s just part of my every day habit.  The pill boxes make it easy.  It’s a habit and I rarely ever forget to take the medications.  That’s what has been keeping me healthy.

But.  It doesn’t mean I have to like the whole process.  I don’t like having to call in the pharmacy for all my meds.  It’s a pain.  Some days I wish I didn’t have to do this, but it’s all part of managing the illness.  Without meds I have no idea where I’d be and I’m not ever going to take that chance to find out.  One could say, “Been there, done that.”  If you’re curious about that journey you can find my book  “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor” on Amazon.

I am a strong proponent of finding the right combination of medications.  Besides my own story, I have my mother and sister’s examples and almost all the people who I have met needed medications to deal with this very tricky illness.  But it’s a bear finding the right ones.  Don’t give up.  Keep trying.  If you don’t like the doctor you are seeing, find a new one.  Learn about the medications for bipolar disorder.  Click here to find information on medications.

I can also share with you that recovery is possible and very likely if you have the knowledge, determination and access to care necessary.  But it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.  For those who don’t know, I’m an Olympic athlete and that was pretty darn challenging.  Recovery makes training for the Olympics seem easy.  And let’s not forget recovery does not mean “cured.”  It means different things to different people.  For me, it means I can use my talents and skills and contribute to my community.  It means I live a peaceful existence.  And I mange my illness to the best of my ability.

But.  There are other warriors out there who are in pain.  They’re having a frustrating time with dealing with bipolar.  Medications are causing bad side effects.  I understand.  What I can tell you from experience is don’t give up.

I’m gonna sum it all up and say what has worked for me might not work for you.  But I can tell you that you must have a desire to get well, dedication to find a successful treatment plan, discipline to stick with the treatment plan and the determination to beat this very challenging competitor.

Good luck warriors.  You are not alone.

Amy

Brave souls change hearts and minds!

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Photo: “This is My Brave” cast in Wheeling, West Virginia 

There’s a special feeling when we can be a part of something far bigger than we could ever accomplish alone.  This is my overwhelming feeling of having participated in Youth Services System and NAMI Greater Wheeling’s “This is My Brave Show,” which was held last night at the historic Capitol Theatre in Wheeling.

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Photo:  The Experience Church Worship Team & Audience

If you aren’t familiar with “This is My Brave” let me shed some light on it for you.  It’s a national non-profit organization co-founded by the amazing Jennifer Marshall.  The purpose of the show is to allow those who live with mental health conditions (mental illness & substance use disorders) to share their stories through creative expression-poetry, original music, essay.  The intent is to impact the stigma of mental illness through story telling.

The sixteen cast members in our show inspired the audience and made a lasting impression on all those who attended.  Those who shared struggle with and persevere daily through challenges related to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, binge eating disorder, suicide attempts and alcoholism.  Our show had an added bonus with the Experience Church Worship Team (aka-the band), kicking off the show with their inspiring and impactful musical talents.

The audience feedback has been nothing but positive.

Many people have said the IQ on that stage was beyond impressive.  Translation – people with mental illness can be smart.  Multiple people said, “it was fascinating to see the broad range of socio-economic levels and diversity of those impacted by mental illness.  Translation – mental illness does not discriminate.   One gentleman said, “I’m not affected by mental illness and I never realized what people go through.  This show helped me understand what others deal with.  I’m so grateful to be here tonight.”

And…the overwhelming comment by numerous people, “This show is inspiring.”

This morning I received this amazing quote from one of our cast members, Mr. Bill Hogan.  Bill writes,

“I have been involved in a bunch of stuff in my almost 90 years but never have I been so “electrified” by a group or an event as I was last night.  I love the word mystery and last night the wonder of it all, that unidentifiable power that charged the people on the stage as a group and as individuals was wonderful and gave everyone in that theater, on stage and off , a sense of joyful peace.  Everything was lined up the way it is supposed to be.
I am thinking of a quote  by W.B. Yeats  “ Go forth teller of tales. And seize whatever prey your heart desires.  Have no fear. Everything exists.  And everything is
True. And the earth is but dust under our feet.”  I am truly blessed to have been fortunate enough to have been part of a great happening.”

And that my friends sums up my feelings of being a part of something greater than myself.  Being part of a movement to shed light on mental illness, one person and one story at a time.  As Jennifer Marshall says, “Storytelling saves lives!”  Indeed it does.

Jennifer Marshall and Cast Photo:  Jennifer Marshall speaking to the cast of “This is My Brave” Wheeling, West Virginia

Finding my vulnerability

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“I found it much easier to stand up for other people who may not be able to advocate for themselves than allowing others to help me.  When I finally reached rock bottom and I said those words to my sister, “Help me.  Please help me.”  It was the most vulnerable moment of my adult life.”   Montana Jail Journal- January 18, 2013

In my opinion mental wellness has a lot to do with personal growth.  I know it sounds trite to say, but I was on an expedited train of personal growth while I sat in a small jail cell in Montana because of an under-treated mental illness.  I just didn’t know it. Sometimes when the only thing one can do is think, read and write personal growth opportunities are abundant.

I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s most recent book, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”.  I’ve been fascinated with her work and all the many lessons I’m gaining as I read and digest each chapter. I was pleased with myself that I had actually been practicing some of what she suggested.  Having been in pure survival mode from bipolar disorder for many years to finally being well enough to embark upon self-reflection and personal growth is making me very happy.

She writes a great deal about belonging.  It seems like a paradox to talk about standing alone, braving a wilderness and belonging.  But this quote kind of sums it up–

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” 

This statement rang so loud to me.  All the people who live with a mental illness who are living in shame at this very moment came to my mind.  I’ve been there, I know what that’s like to not have self-acceptance, and therefore not belong.  I’ve felt like an outcast with the people who were closest to me.  When you blame yourself for having a mental illness it’s kind of hard to experience a deep level of self-acceptance.

As I’m blessed to experience a time of peaceful knowing, I keep thinking about all the people who need to hear, “you have a mental illness and it’s not your fault.”  When I sat in an Idaho psychiatric hospital and I let those words resonate inside of me, I could feel the shift in me emotionally.

Self-acceptance is something people pay a lot of money to get.  But it’s really not anything you can buy.  It comes from within.  It’s an internal, quiet voice of strength that tells you you’re okay.  It also means that we accept all of who we are–all our life experiences.

This is something very difficult to do when handed the additional challenge of having a mental health condition.  Think about it-if you’re fighting depression the last thing on your mind is accepting yourself.  But here’s the catch, when we accept our experience for what it is it can actually help us to heal faster.  And certainly if not to heal, than to have the energy to fight depression.

Funny thing is…I can read Brene Brown’s quote and smile.  I have experienced it and believe it is true.

Reading her book prompted me to watch her Ted Talk on Vulnerability.  I could probably watch it 100 times and still learn something.  But this whole idea of vulnerability peaked my interest.  Because as much I hated jail, it was a time in my life when I asked for help.  I was extremely vulnerable.

Yet, though I had a long journey ahead of me, those three weeks in jail changed my life.  I was learning to embrace vulnerability.

There is much of Brene Brown’s research that can really be applied to understanding why it’s so difficult to eliminate the self-stigma of mental illness.  I hope to take a deeper look at that and write about it on a future blog.  Until then, check out Brene Brown’s work.  It’s very enlightening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not sexy to be a mental health advocate

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October is breast cancer awareness month.  I didn’t know that until eight days into October.  My realization started when I went to the local grocery store and every other cashier light (you know the one that tells you when their open) was pink.  And they were asking for donations at the register for breast cancer research dollars.  Still didn’t realize it, because people ask for money for everything now.

Then, I went shopping.  Pink shirts for sale everywhere.  I was so impressed.  Everyone, unless of course you’ve been living under a rock, knows pink is the color for breast cancer.  It’s a highly successful awareness campaign that started in full force over twenty years ago.  Heck, even the NFL is “pinked out” in October.  As a mental health advocate I dream about the day when everyone knows mental health awareness is green and guys like Brandon Marshall (click here for Brandon’s mental health advocacy organization) don’t get fined $10,000 dollars by the NFL for wearing green cleats.

But when something is successful it warrants looking at their model and learning from all the good things breast cancer awareness advocacy organizations have done.  In fact, it all peaked my interest in finding out just how much money is spent annually on breast cancer research.

The answer-cloudy.  Mmmm….what do I mean by that?

Well, turns out that breast cancer awareness and research are lumped into one big estimated sum of $6 billion a year.  Of course there are critics who think all money should be research money.  But you don’t get research donations without awareness.

Why is this important to mental health advocacy?  Because the National Institute of Mental Health has an annual budget of only $1.5 billion.  The National Institute of Mental Health funds research for mental illness and neurological conditions (brain illnesses), like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, depression, etc.  All of these illnesses have a fraction of money spent on research.

I compared the annual budget of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a breast cancer advocacy organization based in Texas, (well known for the trademarked tagline “Race for the Cure”) to that of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the largest mental health advocacy organization in the country.  I found the Komen foundation listed as #54 on the Forbes list of U.S. most wealthy charities with $250 million in annual revenue in 2016.  That’s for one year folks.  On the other hand, NAMI based in Arlington, VA has a little over $10 million in revenue.

In all fairness, NAMI has affiliaties in all 50 states who also have revenue, but I doubt even including all of them would break a $50 million in total revenue.

What’s my point?

How are we going to make sizable contributions as mental health advocates when the largest organization of advocacy only nets $10 million a year?  So many diseases to lobby for research on-so few dollars.  So many issues to battle, so few people to do the work.

And then there’s this…

#1)  STIGMA. It’s not cool to be a mental health advocate.

#2)  STIGMA. It’s not sexy to go out and raise money for people who have a mental illness.

#3) STIGMA. These illnesses are misunderstood.  They are often not looked at as an illness.

#4) STIGMA.  People are ashamed to come out and say they are living with a mental illness.

#5)  STIGMA. Policy makers don’t understand it, unless it effects them.

#6) STIGMA.  Family members don’t want people to know their loved ones live with a mental illness.

And…

I could go on and on.  You get the point.  We have limited resources for a very complex problem that most people don’t understand and many fear and are afraid to talk about.

So..if you’re reading this please pick up an advocacy banner.  There’s an enormous amount of work that needs done.  The Susan G. Komen Foundation started with raising awareness for breast cancer.  Mental Health Adovocates have to do the same thing.  We have to help one another do this work.

If you’re local to the Wheeling area you can start your advocacy work by showing up at the NAMI Greater Wheeling Walk on October 21 @Wheeling Park.  Registration starts at 10am.

And…

We even have cool tee-shirts.

 

 

 

Remember – Mental Illness is The Enemy!

Several years ago I received a call from a friend of mine who wanted to tell me she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  It was a rather traumatic diagnosis for her to hear.  Certainly life threatening, but also treatable.  I was impressed with how she dealt with it.  She made cancer her enemy and did everything she could to fight against it.  And you know what?  She beat it.  She is now over 15 years cancer free.

What I’ve learned about mental illness is that it is also life threatening.  From the first time I experienced suicidal thoughts as a sophomore in college to the relentless dogging of “you should just kill yourself” tapes that played in my mind a few years ago.  I learned from the time I was twenty years old that depression was and will continue to be my number one enemy.  It threatens my life and makes me vulnerable at times to the hopeless thoughts that wander aimlessly into my brain.

The difference between cancer and mental illness is that there is a cure for many types of cancer.  There’s no such thing for mental illness of any kind.  Of course there are medications that make it more tolerable, but nothing that takes away all of the symptoms.  It’s a fight.  Sometimes a daily battle and other times an intermittent harsh reality of living with a chronic illness.

If you ask most people if they were afraid of cancer they would say, “yes.”  No one wants to get cancer.  But people are afraid of mental illness for all the wrong reasons.

Many people have no concept of what it’s like to suffer from so much anxiety a person can’t leave their house.  People still believe a person with depression just isn’t trying hard enough and he’s just plain lazy.  Those with bipolar disorder are labeled as trouble makers and moody.  People with schizophrenia – just plain crazy.

When my friend went to the doctor for her breast cancer consultation, I went with her.  As a matter of fact, I jumped on a 2 hour plane flight to go to her doctor appointments with her.  I wanted to show support.  I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone in the fight against her number one enemy.  The disease that was threatening to take her away from all of us much to soon.

This is how we all should rally around those who are struggling with mental illness.  The enemy is not the person who has the illness.  The enemy is the mental illness.  It’s the disease that causes an interference in thinking, emotions and behavior.  It affects the most important organ in our entire body – the brain.

Yet, those who have mental illness are often left to fend for themselves.  Especially when they aren’t fun anymore.  When the struggle is the most difficult and support is truly needed, many are left isolated and alone.  That isolation leads to a worsening of symptoms.  A more complex illness.

I want people to know that my bipolar disorder is a serious life threatening illness.  I manage it well.  But the moment I let my guard down, the minute I miss a day of taking medication, the days I don’t get enough sleep, is when the enemy threatens my life and everything I have worked hard for.  The enemy nearly destroyed me and I’m not going to let that happen again.

I just wish everyone knew mental illness is the enemy.  And if we are not diligent it will continue to steal our loved ones from us in one shape or form or the other.  Sometimes the difference is having a team to fight the illness with us.

The next time your loved one complains of depression symptoms or has a panic attack, offer compassion and a kind word.  Sometimes all it takes is saying, “Are you okay?  How can I help?”

 

“Is bipolar disorder contagious?”

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I’m driving home from the store with my 82 year old mother and we start talking about my book, “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor,”  In many ways the book has unleashed good ole’ Esther.  Since I wrote about some of her struggles with bipolar disorder, she has talked more about it in two weeks, than I believe I have heard in more than 30 years.

Tonight she says, “People need to understand when you’re psychotic you don’t know what you’re doing.  But people don’t understand.  They think there’s something wrong with you and that they’ll get it too if they hang around you.”  “Mmm…is bipolar disorder contagious?” I asked jokingly.  “Some people think it is.  Like you have some horrible disease and if they come around they’ll get it.”  I laughed and we continued our drive home.

Then it hit me, after 30 years my mother finally articulated how bad she felt when her relatives stopped coming around.  They literally stopped inviting her to their houses.  She became an outcast.  The “crazy” sister.  Shame on them.  It’s not like all their lives were perfect either.

So, as a family member of a loved one with mental illness, I’m quick to defend my mother and sister.  But when it comes to me living with a mental illness and becoming an outcast myself, I sort of just give everyone a pass.  I suppose it’s because for so long I felt like I caused my own suffering.  It was my fault I had those episodes.

I ask my mother, “Who was there when you went through your first tough time?”  “You were,” she answered.  “Your dad didn’t know what to think.  But he would come in the house and ask me if I was doing alright.  He didn’t understand it, but he tried.  I’ll give him that”  I smiled and said, “There were a few people who I could have thrown under the bus in my book.  They did some not so nice things.  But I wanted to take the high road.  And truthfully, I didn’t want to spend time having a pity party for myself.  My life is far too blessed to feel sorry for myself.  I am exactly where I am supposed to be.”

However, as we drove further down the road I realized Esther really did have a point.  Some people treat bipolar disorder like it’s contagious.  As if a brain disease can magically rub off.  Perhaps that’s why they stop answering calls, not returning text messages or give you all your pictures and press clippings back, as one uncle did with me.  He had become ashamed of who I was, and when I needed him most he turned his back on me.

At the end of the day I just move on and say, “I’m not crazy, just contagiously bipolar.”  Whatever that means.

 

 

I AM Depression…

I’m the fog clouding the pathway of your life journey. Sometimes I come even when the sun shines. I’m eerie and heavy. I make it hard for you to see. I cause deep emotional pain. But I’m invisible to others. Only you know I’m here.

My presence is haunting. I get inside your mind and shout ugly things. I scream, “You’re not worth anything. You’re a failure! You’re lazy.” Then, I sliver up to you when you least expect it and tell you the world would be better off without you. I tell you I’ll make the voices stop, if you’ll just make a deal with me.

Then, you cry. I like it when you cry. I like to see what effect I’m having on you. When you wipe your tears I’m still here. You can’t cry me away. I don’t like other people around you, because they tell you to fight me. I convince you—you’re better off alone.

Alone. I’m the only one who controls you. I love polluting your thoughts. It gives me pleasure to watch you fall deeper into my grasp. My ultimate goal is to fill you up with nothingness. You’ll only be a shell of yourself. People will leave you alone. You won’t be fun anymore. But I will be with you. I won’t let go. Please don’t try to fight me.

You start to whisper a prayer. I hate prayers. Prayers are hopeful. Prayers destroy my power.

You take yourself to the doctor and ask for help. I hate the doctor. The doctor will help you.

You get a pill box and start taking medication. I hate medication. It causes my power to fade.

You make yourself fight me, but I’m a tough opponent. I’m not going away easily.

You start reaching out and talking to others. They know my secrets.

You win the battle. But there will be more. I’m always lurking. Waiting to reappear.

I AM depression.

 

Football & Recovery

I am an athlete.  I might not be in Olympic caliber condition, but I will always be an athlete.  I am not the greatest fan in the world, but I did watch the superbowl.  I really could have cared less who won or lost, but I became fascinated with the way Tom Brady handled being behind by so many points.

Stressful.  Frustrating.  Emotional.  Yet he never quit.  You can dislike Tom Brady and the Patriots, but you cannot discount the fact that this guy never gave up.

In my world of recovery and mental health advocacy I cannot think of a better comparison for how I feel about my recovery journey.  I made it all the way back.  I looked back today and thought about how many years and I do mean years, where I struggled relentlessly.  It doesn’t mean that those years never had a good time or two, it just means they were long, hard, and draining.

As I sat in my new NAMI of Greater Wheeling office today I really just wanted to pinch myself.  I started on this mental health advocacy journey three years ago and since then I have worked my way to becoming an Executive Director of a non-profit organization.  One that focuses on advocacy for people with mental illness and their family members who support them.  I have found my passion and my cause.

If you knew where I was four years ago, you might not believe I could make a comeback.  If you want to find out what happened and how I did it…watch for the release of “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor.”  It will be released on August 22!

No matter what people say about me the one thing they can never discount is the fact that I never give up.